By Lauren Harris; photos by Marc Lemoine on May 17, 2012
The name of Sharon Van Etten’s latest album was hard to find. She searched high and low for it, spent months and months trying to christen it; she dug deep into the roots of words and came up with nothing but empty meanings in her hands for a long time. If Van Etten’s 2009 debut Because I Was In Love was a heartbroken explanation, the following year’s Epic was a brutal examination, an almost clinical documentation of the self and relationship that wrought that album and its precursor. Van Etten’s latest, however, required a moniker that contained all the depths and expanses—emotional, sonic and geographical—that Van Etten had experienced in the two years since she’d had to name anything.
“I wanted to find a title that was strong and short and direct, while being transient,” explains Van Etten, tucked into the wooden booth of a Brooklyn coffee shop on an early winter afternoon. “But I didn’t want it to be a weak-sounding word. I saw ‘tramp,’ it was on Dictionary.com, and I was like, ‘Holy shit!’” she says, her brown eyes blooming wide as she turns triumphant with the memory of how her third album would come to be named. She was struck by the way the word changed when refracted through the lens of gender. “When applied to a woman, it’s derogatory. But every other meaning isn’t.” The word’s initial definition, however, was the object Van Etten had been seeking for all those months. “The original meaning is to be homeless.”
The transience Van Etten wanted to evoke with her title had much to do with the success of her sophomore album; Epic had landed her atop many a top 10 list, garnered all manner of attention and sent her spinning out like a wheel across the world, playing the story of her past through the gilded tones of her voice. It was the gorgeous ache of Epic that brought her to the attention of The National’s Aaron Dessner, who would go on to produce Tramp just blocks from where she is sitting now. While touring for Epic, Van Etten awoke one morning to find that Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Dessner had covered “Love More,” a song like a throb with Van Etten’s glass-like moan keening over it. The tune—a portrait of an early and abusive relationship in Van Etten’s wake—tells one of the many formative tales by which the modern-day Van Etten was burnished.
Much has been made of Van Etten’s origin story, but it bears repeating, as portions of it seem indelible in her voice, and it is woven throughout all three of the albums she has made. For years, Van Etten orbited musicianship before venturing into it. As a kid, the New Jersey–born Van Etten set her sights on Broadway, doing musical theater throughout high school until her parents convinced her to hedge her bets, and she attended Middle Tennessee State University for their recording program. It was there that she became entangled in the relationship that led to “Love More,” and countless other songs. In the years they were together, Van Etten’s partner forbade her from playing music, until eventually she started to sneak out to play open mic nights. When Van Etten finally left Tennessee, she returned to the basement of her parents’ home nursing some serious emotional wounds, but with an entire catalog of songs that would go on to comprise aspects of her three albums. Slowly, through the catharsis of playing to rooms full of strangers, Van Etten began to chart the emotional coordinates she had been to, and work out the songs that would become Because I Was In Love. “I would get whiskey-drunk and play these angsty country songs,” says Van Etten, laughing at the memory of her younger self. “I wanted to make music to make people cry to,” she says. When asked as to whether she still wants to soundtrack people’s tears, Van Etten is able to distill down what she was attempting then and what she succeeds at, with less of a cost to herself now: “I really just wanted people to connect to. I didn’t have that at the time.” Slowly, Van Etten built up her confidence, moving to New York and working at Ba Da Bing Records as a publicist until ultimately the scales of her life tipped, and Van Etten submersed herself in making her own music. Shortly after, Ba Da Bing released Epic.
For an album conjured out of transience, there is a placefulness to Tramp.
If Because I Was In Love and Epic charted the emotional longitude and latitude of the past several years of Van Etten’s life, Tramp marks an expansion, as it maps the physical geography of the period following Epic’s release. “One of the hardest things about traveling is that time stands still for you, and everyone else has moved a few steps further. Psychologically, it’s really tiring.”
Van Etten’s latest course is all over Tramp: she is in the back of the room, at a window, in Warsaw, living in a city or fleeing one. Above all, Van Etten is fine—a quality worriedly absent in moments of Epic and Because I Was In Love. “I had a broken [album], then I had a healing one,” says Van Etten of her trajectory. This is my most confident record. There are some angry songs, and I'm allowing myself to be angry, but without blaming.”
In a sense, Van Etten’s first two albums filed down the many dimensions she evinces in conversation and during her live show. Van Etten emanates a warm lightness, present when she grades her own stage banter or talks about her family, the effect of which is a fierce loyalty in her audience, be it one person or many. One cannot help but root for the singer, though Tramp will undoubtedly secure her legions of fans. “I’m not removed enough from it to say what it means to me,” says Van Etten when asked to describe the album. “I’m really proud of it. It’s a real mile marker for me, and it’s going to represent this moment in time forever. The last year or two has been about finding myself, and I think that’s what this record is.” F
This article is from FILTER Issue 47