Guitarist for The National/Cincinnati native Aaron Dessner was one of those admirers, thus it comes as no surprise that he agreed to help Van Etten put together her most ambitious statement to date, Tramp, a collection of songs that not only expands the 31-year-old singer’s sonic palette but also shows off her evolving skills as a songwriter. Recorded over 14 months in Dessner’s Brooklyn garage, Tramp also features multiple Indie stalwarts (like Walkmen drummer Matt Barrick, Beirut frontdude Zach Condon, and, of course, Dessner himself) who add texture and depth to an album that moves from a dynamic rocker like “Serpents” to an atmospheric slow burn like “I’m Wrong” with equal deftness.
CityBeat recently phoned Van Etten to discuss her collaboration with Dessner, her evolution as a songwriter and the merits of wearing lipstick.
CityBeat: How did you hook up with Aaron for this record?
Sharon Van Etten: Two years prior to making the record I was on tour and I saw a video of The National and Bon Iver covering one of my songs. I reached out to Aaron to see if he’d ever want to work together, and we became close after a while. At the time I was working on Epic and I was only just starting to learn how to collaborate with other people. I was trying to open myself up to people that were into my music … I was only just realizing that a lot of the people I respect in the music world were actually listening to my music and my friends’ music. I didn’t realize I was at the point where people whose records I bought were listening to my music. I’m trying to learn how to collaborate more and he was excited about the idea.
CB: What did he bring to the process?
SVE: What I really liked about Aaron was that he understood my music and he was a really great interpreter.
He helped me learn how to communicate ideas better and he’s been in a band a lot longer, so he speaks the language in a way that I can’t. But we also have the same style of playing — he’s self-taught and he has a lot of heart. He’s not too mathematical about it; he’s really intuitive.
CB: What was it like to have someone like Matt (Barrick) and Aaron help give life to your songs?
SVE: Ha. It was like a teenage dream come true. I’ve been listening to them for a really long time.
CB: You can tell almost immediately that Matt is playing drums on “Serpents.” He has such a distinctive sound and style.
SVE: I started laughing because when I was writing that song I was like, “Oh, no, that sounds like a National drumbeat. Aaron’s rubbing off on me too much; he’s going to think I’m ripping him off.” I gave him the song and prefaced it by saying, “I think I’m ripping you guys off here, but I think that’s the beat that needs to be on this song.” He started laughing, because he was like, “Yeah, that’s really funny, because when we use that beat we’re ripping off The Walkmen.”
And he was like, “We should call Matt.” That was his segue. Like, “We should call Matt and just have him do it.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, of course, just call my old buddy Matt around the corner.”
CB: How has your songwriting evolved over your three records?
SVE: My first record was coming from a really, really broken place. It’s very bleak, it’s very sad, it’s very reflective and it was coming from an overall dark place. I was living in my parents’ basement after a terrible breakup. Writing that record was a very healing experience for me. It gave me the strength to move to New York. I started playing shows and I started really moving away from that time and feeling a little more confident in who I was and becoming more of an adult and healing.
That’s where the second record came from, when I just started thinking about having a band and writing for a band, so I grew in that way. The songs are still like love songs but they’re a little more confident, stronger, and it’s not only sad songs. After that record I toured for a while with the band for the first time and I learned how to do that and I started playing electric guitar a lot more often and I started writing a little more aggressively. I keep getting more and more secure with who I am and in my writing.
With this record I feel like it’s more reflective, learning from past experiences without having too many negative feelings about it but allowing myself to feel. Just looking back on the experiences and forward from them, (whereas) before I was just so inside the moment I was writing about (how) it was hard to look back on.
CB: The other change or evolution I noticed was your appearance, which in the past was a pretty low-key, jeans-and-T-shirt approach. You were relatively dolled up for you appearance on Conan.
SVE: I’m making more of an effort, you know? (laughs) A friend of mine once said, “When I’m not feeling very confident I put on lipstick” and she just feels better. I kind of like that idea — make an effort and show people that you want to be there and that you’re trying. I’m trying to look more like an adult. I’m 31 years old. (laughs) I wouldn’t say I’m trying to have a look that’s more different now in connection to the evolution of my music, but I think I’m growing up a little bit. ©
Sharon Van Etten performs at Northside’s Mayday Friday