Soundtrack to a Life

Singer and songwriter Sharon Van Etten makes progress on her third disc, the amped-up ‘Tramp’

February 8, 2012
Sharon Van Etten’s third record, “Tramp,” finds her experimenting with a more expansive musical style.

Sharon Van Etten spent her first two albums getting over a guy.

Her college boyfriend, who played in a touring emo band, felt Van Etten was wasting time making her sparse, country-infused folk. When he wasn’t paying attention, Van Etten wrote songs about him, essentially turning their tumultuous relationship into her 2009 debut, “Because I Was in Love.”

By the time the album came out, Van Etten had already left the boyfriend and Tennessee, where she went to school, and moved to New York to pursue a career in music. She interned at a record label there, Ba Da Bing, which put out her follow-up disc, “Epic,” in 2010.

With her third album, “Tramp,” out this week on Jagjaguwar, Van Etten is finally shaking off that relationship.

“This one is looking back but moving on,” Van Etten says. “Even when it’s darker and even when it sounds angry, it’s really me trying to find peace. … It’s [my] first record that’s not all about that bad egg.”

It’s also her most expansive album. Beyond similar lyrical threads, the first two records share a stark, twangy acoustic sound. For “Tramp,” she linked up with Aaron Dessner of indie sensations the National, who produced the record and encouraged Van Etten to step outside her comfort zone.

“He’s very encouraging of the drone,” says Van Etten, who experimented heavily with electric guitar and effects pedals on “Tramp.” The result bears a hint of the National’s trademark guitar sound, with Van Etten’s sultry-but-sweet voice layered over deeper textures.

You wouldn’t know from listening to “Tramp,” but Van Etten is in a relationship now, and things are going well. Maybe the next record will have more uplifting songs.

“That’s what my mom keeps saying,” Van Etten says. “‘For the love of God, Sharon, give me something happy!’”

Inside Tracks

“In Line”: “I knew that I wanted [Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasser] to sing on it; I just didn’t really know what. She said, ‘I’m hearing this grunting and groaning’ [in her head], and every person in that room was, like, ‘What is she doing?’ And I totally trusted her. … She took her mic, went into the room, and she sat on the floor and did a few takes of these really, really beautiful, kind of painful groans and moans. It really adds a lot of tension to the song. For me, intuitively, that’s not something I would do.”

“Kevin’s”: “‘Kevin’s’ was a [basement apartment] I was subletting in December 2010. I was really productive in that time. It was after months and months of traveling and crashing at friends’ houses to the point where I was, like, ‘I need my own space.’ I ended up writing four songs then, so I called them ‘Kevin’s 1,’ ‘Kevin’s 2,’ ‘Kevin’s 3,’ ‘Kevin’s 4.’ So when I go back and reference them later, I can remember where I wrote it.”

Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW; with Shearwater; Sat., 9 p.m., $15; 202-667-7960. (U Street)
Rudi Greenberg is Express' Weekend Pass editor and comedy columnist.
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Marc Silver · February 8, 2012

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