Completing an album can be like a life passage, closing one chapter and opening another. The third chapter in Sharon Van Etten’s recorded history, Tramp’s a haunting record that pushes out beyond the minimalist, emotionally raw folk of Van Etten’s first two albums. Led by the striking P.J. Harvey-ish lead single, “Serpent,” it pushes her beyond the hothouse of blog buzz to the edges of broader appeal.
“I wanted to rock out. I was being pegged as folk, and I didn’t want to only write sad songs,” she says.
Of course, part of the reason could also be that she’s turned the page on the person who wrote those first two albums. She describes herself as “broken” on her sparse, harrowing 2009 debut Because I Was In Love. She had just left an emotionally abusive relationship with a controlling partner who discouraged her from playing music. But with the help and encouragement of friends like TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone, Van Etten discovered her voice. Her 2010 release Epic fleshed things out with a full band, while retaining the dark, hypnotic longing.
Epic drew even more attention to Van Etten, and she spent much of the next two years touring continuously. She connected up with The National’s Aaron Dessner to record Tramp, but because of their busy road schedules it took more than a year to put the whole album together, working in short bursts.
“It was definitely a long process, but I think it helped to step away from it and listen to what we worked on,” she says. “Though we didn’t have anything very specific in mind going into it, it was constantly growing and changing. We just let it come when it was going without stopping ourselves or thinking about it too much.”
The album is, in a word, moody. It’s suffused with languorous ache, lingering like survivor’s guilt casting fleeting shadows across the corners of the room. Dessner encouraged her to try different guitar pedals and explore tonalities. They worked on songs’ texture and atmosphere even ahead of their structure.
“I didn’t really know what I was going to do. I knew I wanted to take it a step further than Epic, but I didn’t know what kind of instrumentation. I just knew I wanted the record to be about this as the vibe — P.J. Harvey, Patti Smith and John Eale,” she says.
The album’s driven by a sense of acceptance and a desire to move on. During the Brill Building paean “All I Can,” Van Etten sings, “We all make mistakes. … I want my scars to help and heal.” Even on the pretty elegant ode to a dying relationship, “I’m Wrong,” she already knows the truth, begging him to contradict her.
Tramp was written during an anxious period in Van Etten’s life. She was functionally homeless, rotating through friends’ couches, dealing with mounting acclaim and an off-and-on again sevenyear relationship. Yet as fate would have it, that was the dark before the dawn. These days, Van Etten’s embracing the sunrise.
“I’m not at a crossroads. I’ve got a place to live. I’m feeling a lot more at peace where I’m living with who I am. Every aspect of my life isn’t really up in the air as it was when I was recording that record. And I’m in a stable relationship,” Van Etten says.
You could see the recording of Tramp as a turning point. She’s actually settled in the same neighborhood where she recorded the album, describing it as the first place she really felt “at home.” But while her life’s improved, the sadness never fully dissipates.
“I constantly reflect on where I’ve been, what I’ve learned and how I’m moving on,” she says. “It will come up even when I’m in a very good space. You can’t help what’s happened in your life. Your experiences are with you forever.”
There are good days and bad ones. Making it easier is the solid band she’s built the last couple years. She’s expecting that they’ll play an important role on the next album.
“I’ve never felt this comfortable around people, especially musically, so I’m really excited,” she says. “I want to be going into the studio more prepared next time and also have a set band come in to flesh out the songs with me — that’s something I haven’t had either.”
Meanwhile, Van Etten stays focused on the positive: “My mom always says, ‘We do the best we can, make the best decisions we can, and then live with the results of those decisions the rest of our lives.’” Her suggestion? Choose wisely.