Music review: ‘Tramp’ by Sharon Van Etten
By Marc Masters,
You don’t have to read between the lines of “Tramp,” the new album by indie-folk singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten, to hear the dislocation she felt when recording it. “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city,” she sings in “Give Out,” “Or why I’ll need to leave.”
Moving is practically all Van Etten (who plays the Black Cat on Saturday) did during the two years it took to create “Tramp.” She toured so much that she didn’t even have a permanent address. Whenever she returned to New York City to continue studio sessions with Aaron Dessner, co-founder of the band the National, she slept on friends’ couches and floors.
“It was an intense time,” she recalls, talking on the phone from her home in Brooklyn. “I lost my voice and I was exhausted. [Aaron and I] were both running around like chickens with our heads cut off, and I was nervous that the album would come across as spazzy.”
Though it is her most varied effort so far, “Tramp” actually feels coherent and assured — the work of an artist who trusts her ability to try new things and still sound like Sharon Van Etten. Maybe that trust is why “Give Out” fits the album so well, even though she penned it when she had no doubts about where to live.
“I remember exactly where I was when I wrote it,” she says. “It was when I decided to move to New York [from Tennessee in 2008] and pursue music seriously. This was me coming out of a seriously dark period and deciding to actually do something with my life instead of wallowing in it.”
Soon after that move, Van Etten interned at indie label Ba Da Bing and began performing around New York. Her first album, 2009’s “Because I Was in Love,” was a set of quiet solo songs tracing a relationship she had left behind in Tennessee.
Her career began quietly as well. Her boss at Ba Da Bing, Ben Goldberg, didn’t even know Van Etten was a musician until a former employee pointed it out. Once he heard her music, he was entranced enough to release her second full-length album, 2010’s “Epic.” Working with a band for the first time, she expanded her singing and writing, stepping up from shy folk to the lived-in feel of classic country.
“Tramp” widens Van Etten’s palette further, as Dessner pushed her to add new sounds and instruments. “I’d never collaborated with someone so closely,” she explains. “Aaron’s process is, ‘Let’s put as much down on a track as possible and then weed it out,’ instead of putting in the bare necessities and adding what you need.”
When the pair had an idea they couldn’t execute together, they called friends in New York for help. Guests included Zach Condon of Beirut, Matt Barrick of the Walkmen, and singer Julianna Barwick, whose voice settles like summer grass under the blanket of Van Etten’s melody on “Kevin’s.”
Those many contributions could have made “Tramp” schizophrenic, but Van Etten insists she “tried to focus on it not sounding like this star-studded cast where every song is ‘featuring somebody.’ ”
In fact, it is hard to tell which tracks include extra participants. While the arrangements sound grand at times, most start with the basic core of Van Etten and her guitar.
“Aaron was really careful about that,” she remembers. “We talked about it all the time. ‘This part may sound moving, but does it make the song better?’ Half the time it didn’t, and we took a lot away.”
This emphasis on musical simplicity is matched by short, often blunt lyrics that rely heavily on first and second person. “I think it’s important to be direct,” Van Etten contends. “I don’t want to bury anything in poetry.”
That approach crests on “We Are Fine,” a song about “talking somebody through panic attacks.” The way she and Condon (who both battle social anxiety) sing “Say I’m all right / I’m all right” makes those small words feel universal.
“I think saying things simple is the most understandable and the most relatable,” Van Etten explains. “When it’s something as simple as letting someone know that they’re going to be okay, how many different ways can you say that?”
The boldness of being direct is something she felt even more strongly about after recording “Tramp.” “As we put everything together, I realized the progression of these songs was just more confident,” she admits. “The first record is about one person, and the second is about getting over that. So this one is about moving on, which I didn’t really realize as I wrote the songs.”
Van Etten is already moving on to new ideas; she’s currently working on songs focused more on synthesizer than guitar. Does she worry that her growing audience might not follow her down this path?
“I drive myself crazy just hoping people like it!” she laughs. “I know I’m ‘that girl who writes love songs.’ But that’s okay, because that’s what I do. That’s what I know right now.”