Sharon Van Etten on sorrowful songs, the Tramp life, and nerds

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Sharon Van Etten knows all about the vagabond lifestyle. Van Etten’s roamed from New Jersey to Nashville, back north to Jersey and on to Brooklyn, all while honing her craft and working at a venue and music PR company. Her travels and collection of oddly appropriate jobs have served the singer-songwriter well, enriching Van Etten's songwriting in surprising ways.

While Van Etten’s known for her gritty vocals, sparse melodies, and sad — like, really sad — lately her voice has grown from a saddened murmur to a spirited cry. We recently spoke with Van Etten about how she wrote and recorded the material on her latest, Tramp, why she’s finally put down roots, and how she’s reluctant, but willing, to become a role model.

The Pitch: When did you first start to write songs?

Sharon Van Etten: Ever since I was a kid my parents encouraged me to take on instruments. And my elementary school program just provided instruments anyway. And the house that I grew up in came with a piano when we first moved in, so, I was just kind of around it. But I didn't really start writing songs until high school.

Did you first start writing on the piano or have you always written on the guitar?

I came to writing on guitar, but I just like playing everything, though.

When you come across new instruments, are you really excited to play them?

Yeah, totally. You know, because it makes you look at writing in a whole different way. It helps keep my melodies original and I get to try new things, for sure. And it is fun. It's interesting to see which instruments actually are similar to guitar and which ones are totally oddball.

Do you find there are certain instruments that compliment your style and voice best?

Yeah, I mean, obviously, I like singing with other people. I think that is my favorite thing to do. Because we can do harmonies like that, and we're really in tune together. You can actually feel the vibrations of being together. But the harmonium is similar, and it's actually the way that it projects air — it's kind of how a voice works. So, when you play it and sing you actually feel your whole entire body, which is pretty amazing.

I believe I read that you worked as a sound engineer at a venue for some time. Did you learn a lot about performance and presentation there?

Yeah, I learned a lot about it. I watched how people set up, how they performed, how to promote, how a show is organized, but also just the different stage types people had. Some full-on professional bands, touring bands — we had all kinds of different musicians.

How did the writing process for Tramp differ from your previous work? All your work is really personal, and experience-driven, but I think you're kind of coming away from that. So, does that make the process different?

When I write, I mean, I still write the same, but I actually am, I was able to show more emotion on this record rather than just being sad or brokenhearted. I allowed myself to be angry and I allowed myself to be frustrated, but I also opened myself up to collaborating with another person on ideas. Because when I write a song it's just me alone in a room, you know? But usually playing guitar and singing, and I record a demo and I already know what I want, and what I have in mind, and I just work with somebody who helps me make that happen. But with these songs, I had no idea what I wanted. And, so, working with Aaron Dessner [of the National] on the record, I basically presented him with these very skeletal songs and just said, 'Help me figure out how to do this because I have nothing in mind, and I would really like your input.' So, that's how the whole record came about.

Was it easier to write the words or the melodies and music this time around, or did both present unique challenges?

You know, I think the hardest part of this record was just the stop and go, and getting back into it, you know? And deciding when we were going overboard with production, and really letting ourselves hold back. And also a challenge to me was letting this album become something bigger than I thought it would be. Just letting it be. Letting it grow.

Do you think you'll use the experience from making this record on new material, or is that so far down the line because you're touring? Or do you write on the road?

I write when I'm on the road, but it is a little bit harder. I'll just take albums a step further, and collaborate with my band. I've always written all the parts before now. [I’ll} take that one-on-one collaboration and push it further to, like, having the whole band, now that I have a comfortable lineup that I can trust people.

Tramp refers to roaming around, which I believe is what you did for a while (moving from couch to couch, etc). I believe you finally have put down some roots. Where, and how do you like it? Are you missing it while on tour?

Yeah, I like having that sense of home. And, you know, my boyfriend lives in New York. My time has been split between Manhattan and Brooklyn, but you know, we’re really excited for me to have some time off so that we can have, like, a home life. Have that comfortable life when I get back. That's what I'm really looking forward to. Sometimes I feel like I'm leading a double life — touring all the time and playing all the time and just — it is every day. And sometimes I feel like life moves on without me when I'm not home, and then I come back in a time machine. I do like being home and I'm looking forward to it again.

I bet that would be so hard to wrap your mind around. It seems exhausting, but exhilarating, but still.

Yeah, totally.

And the last question — you are a self-described nerd. Why so nerdy? Is that just what people have described you as, or do you partake in nerdy things?

I know that I'm not cool. I know what I write about isn't cool. I don't try to be cool. I know that my taste in comedy and books isn't cool. But I like Woody Allen, and I like Mike Birbiglia, and read self-help books. I just think I want to embrace not being cool. I feel like I'm in a position that [I have] especially young women looking up to me. And I've become kind of a role model, which freaks me out a little bit. But I want to have a part of the message to girls who feel like they don't fit in that it doesn't matter.

True. And a little nerdy-ness breeds creativity and individuality.

Yeah, and it's good to be comfortable with yourself, then you always know who you are.

Catch Sharon Van Etten tonight at the Riot Room with Hospital Ships and Ruddy Swain. Doors at 7 p.m. Tickets are $12.

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