Sharon Van Etten's Tramp is a study in directness.
Beyond Van Etten's voice -- a clear, present, hum -- there are the sounds, sparse and focused, produced by of Aaron Dessner of The National. The record is centered on the idea of clarity, illustrated by song titles like "I'm Wrong," "We Are Fine," and "Give Out," and the record's cover: a stark a black-and-white portrait of Van Etten herself.
"The artwork is just me trying to be simple and make eye contact," Van Etten explains. "It's trying to be myself."
It's a brave cover, and a brave record. Van Etten took some time with Up on the Sun before embarking on the European leg of her tour to discuss Tramp, the direction her next record might take (and what Nick Cave has to do with it), and her creative process.
Up on the Sun: I wanted to ask you about this visual quilt project you have going on. Sharon Van Etten: It's just something that has developed over time. [I wanted] to have visuals that are constantly changing, but people can connect with an feel a part of. It's about sharing with the world what other people think is beautiful. I think it helps people feel involved, which is important to me.
Have you been surprised by any of the submissions? People are submitting these things, so you don't have to feel weird of voyeuristic, but have you been surprised by some of the submissions? I want to see more of them -- but the problem with it I'm performing usually when they're playing [laughs.] But everything I've seen so far has been really really beautiful, from somebody staring at the sky to somebody on a carousel, things that like. I should just play a show where the whole time I'm facing the screen.
That might be good for you, not so good for the audience.
[Laughs] I don't think I could do that. But they've all been really great so far.
There is some darkness to the lyrics of Tramp. Is there something appealing about the juxtaposition about darker material -- at least material based around your insecurities -- against scenes of beauty? Was that part of the idea at all?
I think what's really important to me is to express how important it is to learn how to communicate with other people, and learn how to have an outlet and not be afraid of whatever you're going through, [not be afraid] that it's too ugly or too dark. Learn how to communicate your emotions, learn how to express what you're going through, and learn how to connect to other people through that. So the juxtapositions of something beautiful being played is an encouragement to people, because it's cathartic.
I've read interviews where you describe your music as "diary entries." Tramp came out in February and I know that some of the songs are even much older than that. Have you been writing recently, and are you drawing from your personal experiences the same way? Will the next record be as personal?
The way that I naturally write is to sing stream of conscious over a melody I've thought of. Usually a melody will come first, and I'll play guitar and just sing over it stream of consciousness-wise. It usually takes me awhile to listen back to it and try and understand what I was going through. Most of the time I don't share that with people. But when I feel like [I've hit on a] universal idea and I can share it with people and it can grow with me hopefully, then that's when I try and turn it into a song: When I've learned the lesson myself, or I felt like I expressed myself really well without it being too personal.
That's how I naturally write, but I want to get more into a storytelling-style of lyrics, because I've been listening to a lot of Nick Cave, and his stories really draw you in. I want to learn how to draw people in without them knowing that it was me going through it, while still creating some kind of distance. [I want people] to connect on the idea of a universal story, to be able to connect without it being too personal.
Any particular Nick Cave records? Is the next record going to be your Murder Ballads?
Murder Ballads is incredible, and the duet that he does with PJ Harvey, "Henry Lee," is incredible, but for the last year I've been listening to The Boatman's Calls a lot. I've been writing on piano a little bit and learning how to sing and play piano again. I haven't done it a really long time.
"I'm not trying to make a huge statement politically, but all of those songs are love songs about different people, so I was trying to own up to that word on whatever side of things, while being honest and sincere, while being silly."
-- Sharon Van Etten
Tramp was the first record you recorded in New York. Do you feel like this is a "New York record"? I wrote a lot of the songs all over the country and all over the world, because I didn't have a home. To me if doesn't feel like a "New York record," the only time I was in New York was when I was working on the record, because I was touring so much. So in that way, I don't feel like it's my "New York record." Every song is so different from the other. There's not a lot of continuity between the songs, but I feel like that's a strength of the record.
Tramp is very evocative title: the word has a lot of connotations. What about the word appealed to you?
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I like double meanings a lot. I like having a joke while also being serious. I'm a big fan of puns as well. The word "tramp" originally just meant to be homeless and a wanderer, and I wanted the title to be strong, concise, and short. At the time of writing the record I was touring, I didn't really have a home base and I thought that summed that up well.
But also I like Charlie Chaplin, and he's considered the "king of the tramp." It got me thinking, why with women the word tramp is seen as negative, but with men it's seen as endearing. I'm not trying to make a huge statement politically, but all of those songs are love songs about different people, so I was trying to own up to that word on whatever side of things, while being honest and sincere, while being silly. I think that "tramp" kind of sums that up.
Sharon Van Etten is scheduled to perform Wednesday, August 15, at Crescent Ballroom.