Today I spoke with Sharon Van Etten. We had a really interesting chat about the personal nature of her songs, her newfound confidence and whether or not it’s okay for an artist to air their dirty laundry for an audience.
It got me thinking. As journalists, we’re taught to believe in our work. It is, after all, supposed to be The Truth—whatever that may be. But from day one of J-school, there’s a certain level of detachment that gets instilled in us for objectivity’s sake. Our stories are The Truth, but they’re someone else’s truth.
But then again, that’s not really the case, is it? Empathy is natural, and while the specific details may differ, we’ve all been sad, angry, confused, overjoyed, scared, whatever at one point or another, and that moment when we can look at the experiences of someone we’ve never met before and say, “Yep, been there” seems to kind of be what this whole shared human existence is all about.
So here’s Sharon Van Etten’s truth. Maybe it’s others’ too.
“It’s bad, it’s bad, it’s bad to believe in any song you sing,” Sharon Van Etten sings on “I’m Wrong,” “Tell me this even though you can’t believe it.”
The song, off of her third LP, Tramp (out today via Jagjaguwar), like most of her work, is rooted in personal experience. It speaks to one of her greatest artistic conflicts. But that idea that in order to create meaningful work one needs to completely remove herself from the equation—she can’t really, well, believe that, can she?
“‘It’s bad to believe in any song you sing’ is kind of a phrase that someone told me a long time ago about the way I write, kind of being discouraging with being too honest in your music and being too personal,” she explains. “It’s kind of a struggle that I have as a writer. I think as a writer, my style of writing is about being more direct and kind of autobiographical, and I was trying to be personal and relate to people on that level, and it’s basically what my ex-boyfriend used to tell me, saying that my music was too personal and he felt uncomfortable with his friends hearing the songs.
“He felt that they wouldn’t think highly of him because of what I was singing about,” she laughs. “But he said, ‘You need to be a lot more detached in your writing, and you need to be a lot more creative in your writing, and it’s kind of a cop-out to be personal,’ and then that’s another struggle with me of wanting to relate to other people and not just be really selfish and how I write naturally. So this song’s kind of about living with that past, of overcoming that fear of being too autobiographical and too personal. I think it’s kind of tongue-in-cheek.”
There was a time when Van Etten didn’t think her music was worth sharing with anyone. Truth be told, she’s still constantly writing songs that’ll never see the light of day—tracks that are more like little sonic journal entries, meant for her ears only. But nowadays she’s willing to put the more personal stuff out there if it means helping someone else.
“I think in general I find writing to be very therapeutic and singing in itself to be really therapeutic,” she says. “I just write stream-of-conscious if I’m going through something that I don’t understand yet. That helps me. I write stream-of-conscious for as long as I can if I find a melody and I’m going through something, I’ll grab my guitar and record it and just let it roll for like 10-20 minutes. Then I’ll play it back and try to understand what it was I was going through.
“Now, most of the time, it doesn’t see the light of day. Like, I will never play that for anyone,” she laughs. “It’s just a way for me to understand what it is I’m going through. It’s when I feel like I can sum that up in a way where someone else can relate to it and take something positive away from it and not feel so alone, then that’s when I try to turn it into a song. When I lyrically feel like it’s helpful.”
Fear of being unrelatable is something that’s held Van Etten back in the past, but as she’s evolved—both artistically and personally—she’s found a happy medium, a way to simultaneously heed her ex-boyfriend’s advice and reject it.
“I didn’t think I was helping other people,” she says. “But I think that comes hand in hand with trying to be able to connect with people, and if you make things too personal, then it’s harder for people to relate to you. Otherwise it’s just them listening to you read your diary. But I feel like the more confident I’ve become, the more general I’ve been able to become as a writer because I’ve realized that that’s how people connect with us.”
Tramp is a fitting title for this latest effort—“tramp” meaning “vagabond” here and not “loose woman”—as Van Etten recorded it while she was without a permanent residence, instead alternating between touring and crashing with friends. Once a month, she’d meet with The National’s Aaron Dessner (who produced the album and played on all but one of its tracks) for about a week or so to record in his garage studio.
“It was very stop-and-go,” Van Etten says. “I feel like it helped it be a lot more diverse in a lot of ways, because every song has a very different vibe I think. I think collectively they fit together, but being kind of come and go as we were making it made it a record that kept changing, I felt. And it represented that time for me I think pretty well.”
Much of that time was spent exploring and experimenting with a fuller sound, and as a result, Tramp is more lush and sweeping than anything else in Van Etten’s catalog—a musical development that she partially credits to Dessner.
“I wanted it to be a bigger record for sure, instrumentation-wise,” she says. “It’s not something that comes naturally to me, and it’s one of the many reasons why I thought Aaron would be awesome to work with. He was really fun to work with. The two of us would just get into the studio, and we started with guitar and vocals and then he’s got almost every instrument you can imagine just lying around—there’s piano, drums, pedals, keys—so we would just try as many tracks as we could, just playing off each other. And when we got to a point where—because we can’t play every instrument, we can’t play drums really, very minimally—so when we got to a point where we felt like it needed more, we would call some friends and see where it would go.”
Those friends include a few names you might recognize: Dessner’s brother and National bandmate Bryce, The Walkmen’s Matt Berrick, Julianna Barwick, Beirut’s Zach Condon and Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner. According to Van Etten, each guest star helped shape the track they worked on (“before you really work on it in the studio, there’s no real vibe to it. It’s just a skeleton,” she says), often leading her in directions she never imagined.
“Jenn Wasner came in while I was working on ‘In Line,’ and we have very similar ranges vocally, and I think she can go deeper than I can, and she has like a beautiful rasp to her voice,” she says. “So I love her melodies, and I trust her to use her instincts, and I just told her to improv, like with a little direction here and there, but I remember on that song, she was just like, ‘You know, I’m hearing snarls and like low groans.’”
She laughs and continues: “And if anyone else had said that, I would have been like, ‘You’re out of your mind,’ but I trusted her and I said, ‘Alright man, whatever,’ and she’s just sitting there on the floor with a mic running through a super ’verbed-out amp, and she’s just moaning throughout the whole song. And it adds this really incredible darkness to it that I couldn’t have been able to do because I was so inside of that song, but she came in and just heard that, and I feel like it really pulls the darkness out of it really well.”
One of the album’s most affecting tracks, “We Are Fine,” is also rooted in darkness. But unlike “In Line,” it’s also about that little light that flickers on when we discover a shared experience with someone and use it to help cope. As Van Etten’s voice weaves in and out with Condon’s, the two friends lyrically reassure each other (“It’s okay to fear,” “Take my hand and help me not to shake”).
“We had a version of that song where I was the only one singing initially, and after having some time with that song I realized that it was meant to be more of a conversation with somebody,” Van Etten says. “It wasn’t meant to be like this story that I was telling. It’s my first ukulele song I ever wrote, and on top of that, one of the things I’ve had in common with Zach in the past is that we both suffer from social anxiety, and this song is like a friend talking a friend through having a panic attack. And so I thought it made the most sense to have Zach sing on it, and it was a conversation between us, because that kind of represents our friendship. There was no one else I think that would have sung it better.”
Each song on Tramp stands on its own and carries its own “vibe” that Van Etten alludes to, but what ties them all together is a quiet strength previously unheard in her work. There are certainly sad songs here that would fit in nicely on 2010’s Epic or 2009’s Because I Was In Love, but there’s also a sense that musically, she’s coming into her own.
“I think this is a much more confident record as a whole,” she explains. “I talk about and express more than one emotion. Before, I feel like my songs were just sad, but with this one I feel like I’m a lot more open. I can be angry, or I can be more direct—it’s a more direct record. It’s more honest in a way where I feel like I’m a lot more myself. Just like, the way I’m talking is how I would talk to somebody, if that makes sense.”
You can hear the pride Sharon Van Etten has in this record when she speaks about it. That new confidence is palpable, but she insists that she’s not done growing.
“I feel like I’m getting better at being a writer,” she says, before quickly adding, “I’m not exactly where I want to be, but I feel like I’m just kind of honing in on what my natural style is. I don’t think I’m there yet, but I think I’m constantly just improving what I’m doing.”
But Van Etten doesn’t have some clear, grand vision of where she’d like to be. For now, she’s content to wander, opening herself up to new directions and feeling things out as they come.
“I think I’m more exploring and not trying to be something, just letting myself do my thing I guess, but having different ideas and changing,” she muses. “I think this record is a different direction than my last one was, and I don’t know if it’s necessarily a progression or just a change. You know, maybe I’ll revert back to classical guitar, I don’t know. But the fun part is just letting it be what it is.”
Musically she’s content to let it be and see what unfolds, but Van Etten does have a specific plan for one aspect of her work: studio time. So far, she’s had a concise, structured experience (while working on Epic) and a stop-and-go, open affair (Tramp), and while each has had its benefits, Van Etten’s already got something different in mind for whenever she starts to record her fourth LP.
“I think next time I’ll just say, ‘I will take three months completely off to work’ and not have a schedule, just have a place to go when I feel like writing or recording and have that be the space that I go to without it being scheduled and without having to travel, without having any other things going on, and just going to that space to be there. That’s what I want to try next,” she says.
Sharon Van Etten’s no doubt got her sights set on the future; she’ll tour extensively behind Tramp, she’s constantly writing and she’s already tossing around ideas for her next record. But amidst all this, she’s still got one foot planted firmly in the past. Those so-called “terrible” songs that you’ll never hear? She’s still got them, and every now and then, she’ll revisit them, though not for the reason you’d think: rather than completely reworking them, she uses them as mini time capsules, aides for an exercise in self-analysis.
“I go back to things all the time,” she says. “It’s really nice too, like when I’m going through some kind of a writer’s block and I’m feeling uninspired, I go to some of my oldest songs from over the years and sift through them, and one thing that’s very nice is to see how I’ve grown up a little bit. A little bit.”
She lets out a laugh, one that’s just wry enough to hint that maybe she really does think she’s still got a lot of growing up to do, and then continues.
“And then I like to sometimes re-edit them and save them, just do ‘Save As’ so I can do side-by-side comparisons at a later date. I try to edit it to a point where I feel like I can understand it better, because I feel like the ramblings in my head from the past, they’re so confused, so it’s like making sense of myself in hindsight or something.”
There’s been a lot of debate about authenticity and female artists lately. Thanks to a surgically enhanced singer-songwriter who changed her name, kind of half-moaned her way through a high-profile SNL performance and then became the subject of thinkpiece after thinkpiece, it seems like we’re slipping dangerously close to a musical era that’ll be marked by otherwise-intelligent male critics—several of whom I’d go so far as to call professional idols of mine—using pop starlets as an excuse to bemoan The State of The Female Singer as one where women need to fake it to make it.
I really want these guys to hear Sharon Van Etten. Her stuff is achingly personal, and it’s real, and I’m pretty sure she hasn’t had any collagen injections—not that it should matter if she has. She makes music as a means of coping; for her, it’s not a way to make a living, it’s her very life, bottled up into little three-minute intervals.
Her music is the kind of stuff that makes me want to grab a few stacks of her CDs and a megaphone, park myself in front of those scribes complaining about a lack of legitimate female voices and yell, “DUDES. SHE’S RIGHT HERE.”
And that’s the truth.