Sharon Van Etten isn’t the first girl to grab a guitar and sing about relationships gone sour. But when she does, people take notice—as well as bands like The National, Bon Iver, The Walkmen, Beirut and The Antlers. The liner notes of her new album, Tramp, read like a hipster’s Spotify playlist, and music blogs eagerly counted down the days to its February release. So what sets Van Etten apart and grants this musical misfit a seat at the cool table?
“It’s kind of a hard thing to pin down. I’m just like the middle child of alternative music,” Van Etten jokes. “I feel lucky enough to know such talented people and lucky enough that they wanted to spend their time at home helping me with the record. Lucky because they do things that I’m not able to do.”
What Van Etten can do is evoke a mood. Listening to her discography is a cloudy journey through heavy remorse and timid hope. She sings of love and loss with biting introspection rather than cliché. Take the opening line of “Ask,” a piano-driven “Dear John” ballad: Let’s find something that can last / Like cigarette ash, the world is collapsing around me.
“I never intend for the songs to see the light of day. It’s more so that I can deal with my own anxieties and demons,” Van Etten admits. “That’s one of the things I’ve been coming to terms with, is calling myself out a little bit. It helps me not blame other people, because I was the one that was deluding myself.”
With her unabashed lyrics at the core and the help of producer Aaron Dessner of The National, Van Etten took a minimalistic approach to crafting the gritty melodies of Tramp.
“I took out all of the expected instrumentation and let the center be strings and guitar and voice, which I’ve never done before,” Van Etten says. The resulting track list is slight but searing, with Van Etten’s voice gliding effortlessly from haunting and husky to whimpering soprano.
Though Van Etten has carved out a decidedly melancholy niche for herself, she claims she is still hopeful and feels a responsibility to share that with her ever-growing number of listeners.