Sharon Van Etten’s new album, “Tramp,” begins with drums and rough-edged electric guitar. Several phrases later, the track unfolds with all the crashes and movement of a city. “You’re something,” Van Etten sings. “Genuinely showing me / Genuinely open to you.”
The record, her first on the Jagjaguwar label, sounds darker than her previous albums, with vocal deliveries that range from devastated to peaceful to outraged. On the first single, “Serpents,” Van Etten raises her voice like an alarm and spits out lines like, “You enjoy sucking on dreams / So I will fall asleep with someone other than you.”
Van Etten has never considered herself good at expressing her thoughts, but her music is searing in its emotion. She approaches song-writing like a diarist. “Whenever I’m going through a hard time I’ll hit record and just play and sing,” she says. “I’ll go back and I’ll listen to what I was saying and then I’ll edit it down from there. It’s kind of like I’m being a therapist to myself.”
On “Give Out,” phrases mutate in defensive meditation. “It’s not because I always look down,” she sings. “It might be always look out… It’s not because I always hold on / It might be I always hold out.”
While Van Etten has always aimed for earnestness in her lyrics, her approach to writing them is changing. “I’m learning that if it’s too personal and I can’t generalize it in a way where people can connect with it, and then I don’t reach anybody.”
Reaching people is paramount to her. She recalls responding to music as a teenager in New Jersey, when Nirvana and Liz Phair provided reassurance during an alienating time.
“I think the feeling of wanting to be in love and the angst of ‘nobody understands me’ is really common ground for how people start listening to music,” she says.
Van Etten left New Jersey for college in Tennessee but dropped out to do sound for a club and learn about recording outside of a classroom. She began a long relationship with a man who discouraged her music so strongly that she wrote in secret before she finally left. It was the beginning of a nomadic period. She eventually returned to her parents’ home after years of estrangement, where she played her guitar in the basement. She moved to Brooklyn and took an internship at “Ba Da Bing!”:http://www.badabingrecords.com/ records, playing gigs around New York before recording her debut album “Because I Was in Love.” Her boss learned how she’d been spending her evenings and signed her for the second album, “epic.” Soon, performers like The National and Bon Iver were covering her songs when they toured.
The new record was produced with the assistance of The National’s Aaron Dessner, who recorded it in his garage. “It would just be like a musical playground,” Van Etten says. “When it came to the part where we had to figure out what it was we needed we would do different combinations of the tracks that we’d added, taking everything away and putting the weirdest instruments in, [or] just having half of the tracks.”
Van Etten, who began performing unaccompanied, relies heavily on guitar strumming when she writes music, a tendency that influenced the texture of her earlier work. When Dessner jokingly challenged her to identify the openings of three different demos she’d recorded, she couldn’t do it and realized the arrangements needed adjustment. “I started them all the same,” she says.
As the two recorded “I’m Wrong,” he asked her to experiment with the opening. She picked a D, but rather than moving the chord, she lingered there, forming a drone. “It ended up feeling kind of like a chant or a mantra,” she says. “That ended up becoming a theme through the record: drones and sustains and dark sounds.”
The four- or five-part harmonies of her earlier music — evidence of her childhood experiences in her church choir — are gone, exposing focused vocals. Van Etten wanted to showcase the songwriting, calling the melodies “the strongest I’ve ever written.”
“As a person and as a performer, the older I get the more confident I am,” she says. “I feel like that’s happening more with my shows too.”
Van Etten is touring with a new band — none of its members recorded “Tramp” with her — and adapting the music to fit the group has been an epilogue to songwriting and production. In recent months they’ve played clubs up and down the East Coast and performed at South by Southwest, on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and “Conan”. Their itinerary extends through September.
“Traveling a lot…can work for you or against you,” she says. “You have new experiences. You reflect a lot on where you were and where you are now.”
Van Etten is changing onstage as well. Performing makes her nervous, but she’s adopting new practices for her shows. “I used to only wear T-shirts and jeans,” she says, worrying that her clothes sent a disrespectful signal to the audience. “I’m trying to just look nicer when I play,” she says. “To show, ‘I’m happy to be here, I try to make some effort.'”
At the Black Cat in Washington, D.C., in February, Van Etten and her band acted as their own roadies before launching into the new material. Van Etten is an expressive singer; she shuts her eyes and tips back her head, rarely off-pitch. Though the show took place only days after the album was released, many members of the audience were familiar with the songs. During “Leonard,” one woman at the foot of the stage danced enthusiastically, her hands twisting back and forth on the beat.
Van Etten thanked her after the song concluded. It would never happen again, she said, and there we were.
Listen to “Tramp” with the below Spotify playlist. If you don’t have Spotify you can sign up for free on their site.