The Top 50 Albums Of 2012: #1 Sharon Van Etten
“Someone pointed this out to me recently,” says Sharon Van Etten, a note of satisfaction creeping into her voice. “They said if you put all my album covers together in a row, my face is finally starting to appear. Like I’m becoming more and more myself. That’s kind of how I feel… It’s like I’m still in the process of becoming, but I’m much more myself than I’ve ever been.”
For those who fell for the wonderful ‘Tramp’ earlier this year, Van Etten’s is a face that’s only just begun swimming into view. Since her debut in 2009, the 31-year-old songwriter has won admirers in The National, Bon Iver and The Antlers. Her introspected, folk-leaning rock has called to mind such jewels of the new-indie canon as Cat Power, Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens, while retaining a poise and gift for melody that’s completely its own. Her current boss, Jagjaguwar boss Darius Van Arman, told Billboard that “Sharon has this once-in-a-generation voice”. But learning to trust her instincts as a musician has been a long and painful battle.
Born in Belleville, New Jersey, Van Etten moved to Tennessee for college only to drop out a year into her studies. Finding work at a local music venue, she lived for five years with an abusive boyfriend, who sneered that her songs were too earnest, pawned her musical equipment and broke one of her guitars. It’s a relationship whose shadow Sharon’s music is only just beginning to emerge from.
After the pair split, a distraught Van Etten moved back into a basement flat in her parents’ house, which they set up to look like an apartment “so it wouldn’t look like I was in my old room again”. It was a rough period: “I was trying to get my life back in order and reassess who I was. [Coming home] was a real blow to my ego, but my parents are amazing people and they helped me go back to school part time, and get a therapist again to figure out my head.”
While back at home, Van Etten went to New York to see shows from time to time, and it was here that a chance meeting with TV On The Radio’s Kyp Malone helped her pluck up the courage to share her music after the pair became friends.
“He encouraged me to hang out in New York regularly,” says Van Etten. “I was really intimidated by the place at the time. Then he asked me to play a few shows with him. I started getting more confident and trying to get on other shows and meet people — it was slow, but he definitely encouraged me a lot.”
Moving to the city in 2005, Van Etten began interning for a record label, Ba Da Bing, while playing music on the side. Early shows, she remembers, were usually an ordeal: “I wasn’t used to crowds, so performing was really hard at the beginning. I had like a mop top and looked down all the time, or closed my eyes. So even being able to look out now is kind of a big deal.”
‘Because I Was In Love’, her 2009 debut produced by Espers guiatrist Greg Weeks, met with a murmur of applause, but Van Etten didn’t hang about. She began writing for a follow-up — 2010’s bolder, more instrumentally-varied ‘Epic’— and word of her talent spread. One track on the record, a harrowing, beautiful cut called‘Love More’, was covered by Aaron Dessner of The National and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who described her as the kind of writer who “helps you get through your life”.
Van Etten became friends with Dessner after reaching out to him online. Around this time, she was couch surfing at friends’ places in between live dates, a period of willed vagrancy that helped give her third record, ‘Tramp’, its title (“I was lucky, I only had to sleep in my car once,” she remembers with a giggle). Dessner suggested she send demos for him to listen to. Before long, they’d decided he would produce her new record.
Sessions for ‘Tramp’ took place in Dessner’s backyard studio in Brooklyn. From the off, says Van Etten, the relationship was an easy one: “We have such a natural rhythm together. Neither of us are technical. When he and his brother [Bryce, National guitarist] get together to make music his brother’s like the head and he’s the heart, you know, and that’s my style too. I don’t know keys, or how to do arrangements in written form. But I can do a syncopated rhythm without knowing it, and I can layer harmonies like nobody’s business, just because I’m *feeling it*, and he’s very much the same way.
“We did most of the work with guitar, bass, piano and vocals, just me and him. But when it came time that we needed someone to do a better job than us, we’d call in friends.”
Those ‘friends’ read a bit like an indie anorak’s dream dinner party guestlist, including Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, Julianna Barwick, Beirut’s Zach Condon and The Walkmen’s Matt Barrick — not bad for a shy figure who suffers from crippling social anxiety, and indeed, she even sings of her affliction on the record with fellow person dodger Condon, on ‘We Are Fine’.
Another track the rousing ‘I’m Wrong’, had a troublesome two-year gestation period. But if Van Etten took her time getting this one right, it was with good reason: the song is intended in part as a kiss-off to *that* ex. Early versions, she says, centred on her mournful guitar strumming, before Dessner hit upon a different approach: “He said, ‘Why don’t you just try not strumming? Play anything on it other than strumming!’ Because he realised this was actually a celebratory song, it’s not a sad song at all. It’s someone being defiant and being themselves above it all. So we let it feel that way, even though it start kinda slow and sad, it explodes into something bigger.”
That eureka moment helps define ‘Tramp’’s steelier outlook, taking bad experiences and learning from them to make something that’s life-affirming. Despite its moments of exquisite sorrow (She’ll always excel at those), it’s also what makes it special. Lemons, say hello to lemonade:
“I think the lesson I’ve learned is to do what comes naturally and just write, just write. And if people have a problem with that they don’t have to listen to it, there’s lots of other music out there. You have to think of what works for you right now. I might not always write love songs. But I don’t think it’s a crutch writing about what I’ve been through. It’s a strength I think I have, and I need to hone it.”
Sharon Van Etten ‘Tramp’ was listed at #1 in The Fly’s Top 50 Albums of 2012. Read the list here.