Collaborating with members of the
National, the Walkmen and others, the gifted Brooklyn-based songstress finds
herself in good company.
BY MAX BLAU
In many ways,
Sharon Van Etten’s third full length Tramp – issued this week by Jagjaguwar – is a huge step forward. Not that her
first two albums Because I Was In Love and epic were anything less than
impressive, but they were introspective records that fit the Brooklyn
musician’s mindset. For Tramp, she
crafted a beautifully-produced and outward record that was born on the road and
resulted in her best work to date.
album, Van Etten collaborated with many of indie rock’s usual suspects,
including Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner and Bryan Devendorf (The National); Matt
Barrick (The Walkmen); Zach Condon (Beirut); Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak); Rob Moose
(Antony and the Johnsons); Julianna Barwick and Thomas Bartlett (Doveman).
inordinate amount of talent spread throughout these songs, but it’s always
Sharon Van Etten at the front and center on her Jagjaguwar debut – making us
forget about her supporting cast by showing off her growth as a singer and
writer. We spoke to the Brooklyn songwriter
about her new album, working with The
National’s Aaron Dessner, Leonard Cohen’s influence and how some of the
collaborations on Tramp occurred.
BLURT: You’ve toured a lot to say the
least since epic came out as well as
during the making of your upcoming record Tramp. How has the experience of constantly being on the road and in transit changed
yourself and yourself?
ETTEN: [It] definitely shaped the album for sure… in between tours and writing
on tour and stuff like that. I was writing on the road and recording on all the
time off, so there weren’t really any days off in between. I started writing on
MIDI, which is where the first song came from, I actually wrote it Poland when I
was with The National in February. I wrote “Kevin’s” at someone named Kevin’s
house that I was subletting from for a little while.
of the songs are older songs I went back and reedited, because I could listen
to songs on the road without bothering other people and fixing lyrics and
things like that I didn’t feel worked before.
When you’re on the road, are you demoing
while you travel, or do you wait until you’re back in the studio to lay
I usually write
when I’m in New York
when I’m at home, but I wrote a lot more this past year when I was on tour.
It’s really hard when you have all these people around you and you don’t want
to bug them because space is very precious [laughs]. I started writing keys, MIDI stuff because it’s pretty quiet and you don’t bother
people around you. You’re in your own space – it’s just something you can do in
the van. I started writing more electronic stuff in the van. Every now and then
I wrote a couple of guitar songs, but for the most part I wrote them when I had
some nights off after recording, and then I would edit them while I was tour
and work on lyrics.
You’ve made a fair amount of
contributions to other people’s albums, including The National, Beirut, The Antlers, and
the list goes on. What’s that experience been like for you on both sides of
collaborating? Do you think it’s helped make you a better musician?
I was lucky
enough to sing with people that just wanted me to do what I do naturally. I
wasn’t really told what to sing, and I would start off singing what I felt was
supposed to be there, and then I would be directed accordingly. There’s a lot
of freedom in it, you know, and realizing that people are asking you to sing
because it was something very specific that you did. Not just a friend asking
you to sing because you have a female voice.
Making a plan is sometimes not a good
idea when it comes to collaborating. That was something I learned for [Tramp]. I had very vague ideas in mind
and very specific people in mind. I wanted them involved because of what I
learned from recording with other people. I wanted their intuition, you know,
because people are very unique musically in that way where they are themselves
– you hear it.
Looking at some of the people who
contributed to Tramp, Aaron Dessner
seems to have played the most prominent role here. How did you first meet Aaron
and why did you want him to be heavily involved in the making of the record as
a producer and musician?
It started when
I was on tour with Megafaun, and Brad Cook from Megafaun woke me up to show a
video of Justin Vernon, Aaron and Bryce Dessner covering my song “Love More” at
this music festival in Cincinnati that they
curate. After that tour with Megafaun, I was getting ready to record the album epic. I had done the song “Love More”
just as a single before I even did the record. That’s how I decided to the
record in Philly with Brian McTear, because I had such an amazing time.
But I just set out at this time to do
the album when I got back on tour. All my friends encouraged me to reach out to
Justin, Aaron and Bryce to see if they would want to be involved, you know, because isn’t that
what normal people would want to do? I don’t know. I did write to see if it was
something they would want to do, but they were all really, really busy – they were interested in doing something in
the future. They said to keep us in mind the next time you worked on stuff.
But Aaron wrote me back and [was] very
specific. He just said, “Anytime you just want to demo songs out later after
you’re done with this record and you’re ready to demo more stuff, let me know.
I have a garage studio in my backyard. Or if you ever just want opinions on
what you’re working on, I would really love to hear what you’re working on
because I enjoy your music.”
I didn’t really think anything of it,
but I recorded [epic], toured for a
little bit and then I had new songs. I followed up with him and I wrote him
again… We met up, had lunch, talked and I played him some of the new songs I
was working on. We met up a couple times like that on my time off. He said, “You
know, I already think you have a record. You should just record your record – don’t think you need to demo songs anymore.”
It would be safe to say then, that he’s
there more than just your average collaborating musician – hat he played a
He only played
what he felt needed to be there. The core was always me and him. There’s
certain things we can’t do – we’re not drummers, we don’t play very well… we
know that’s where our weakness lies. But he can play bass and guitar really,
really well. I can sing better than him [laughs].
It was more a matter of, “What are the things that we can do best ourselves?”
and then for everything else, “Let’s find people who can do it better than us.”
Going from there, how did Matt Barrick
enter the picture?
It was kind of
funny. I know a few drummers that weren’t available, and Aaron knows a lot of
people. We had put his name out there, but I didn’t really see it as a
possibility or a reality. He lived in Philly and was still touring and stuff.
It was hard enough for me and Aaron to find time together. Then, we decided to
book time in that studio in Philly, Miner Street,
where I recorded epic at for a few
days where I could record live, you know, bigger sounding drums. Aaron’s studio
is great, but it’s really small – it’s a garage. You can get really tighter
guitar amp sounds, but as far as a band setting up and playing live… it’s not
We decided to go to Philly for a few
days, and had just recorded this demo version of “Serpents,” but I did MIDI drums on it. I played it for Aaron and said “I think
I’m kind of ripping off The National on this one.” He said, “Oh that’s funny,
because we were ripping off The Walkmen. We should definitely call Matt.” [laughs]. We called Matt and laughed
because it was an accidental joke there, but he was actually free and
interested – so he came for a couple days to do drums. He only had two songs in
mind, but we ended up having him try other things because he liked the sound of
“Serpents” is the first single off of Tramp. Is that a song about the past
relationship that you’ve previously written about in the past for several of
your songs? If not, what’s it about?
really about a lot of things. It’s about more than one person that I’ve dated,
it’s about another friend who dated somebody, and just learning about how to
deal with those demons and letting them be…but it’s about a lot of different
people and dealing with the past in general.
Two of the songs on the record mention
specific names for the first time: Kevin, which you already mentioned, and
Leonard. Would you mind telling me a bit about the latter?
It’s for Leonard
Cohen, who I was listening to a lot over this time. Even though I don’t think I
sound like him… I look back and I think “yeah, I kind of sing in his style”
then in some of the other songs.
Who else were you really listening to
while making Tramp?
A lot of John
Cale, Patti Smith and early OMD. Magazine, Nick Lowe.
Tramp was recorded over a 10-month period from October 2010-July 2011. During that
time how often were you and Aaron getting together to work on the album?
It was different
every time. At the least, it was monthly, sometimes twice a month. Sometimes it
would be for a week, other times… we had a couple three-week stretches. But it
was really hard between his touring and my touring to find the same kind of
time. It was really hard to get into it sometimes, picking up where you left
off. I think neither of us really ever toured three weeks in a row, and then
things started to slow down a little bit, so every two weeks we’d reconnect
I had never worked in that way – I’m
used to working in one solid block of time in doing it. I was worried that it
wasn’t going to feel cohesive because of that. It ended up working out in the
Not pertaining to your record, but I feel
like sometimes people will see a long list of guest appearances on a particular
album and as a result lose sight of the overall work. So I’m curious, what do
you want to people to hear or get out of Tramp?
There’s a lot of
people on there that are my friends, or that are Aaron’s friends, that people
may think, “Oh, they got this star-studded cast.” But what it boils down to is
that they’re our friends that wanted to participate on this record. We didn’t
try to have it be starring so and so, or do this whole campaign about who’s on
the record. “This is my record and this is Aaron’s record. We worked on it
together and our friends supported us. I think we did a really good job of doing