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Sharon Van Etten's Songs of Heartbreak and Transience

Aug. 1, 2012
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"The thing about revisiting cities: People ask what your favorite city is and what you're looking forward to the most, but it's really just the people there and connecting with people and reconnecting with people, you know?" Sharon Van Etten muses, en route to Hudson, N.Y., for her next tour stop. "You're not there very long, but you get to see people you care about. That's the best."

Van Etten's strong sensibility on relationships shows when one scans the roster of collaborators from her most recent album, Tramp, released on Jagjaguwar this winter. Van Etten and Aaron Dessner (producer and guitarist of indie rock outfit The National) worked on pulling Tramp together piece by piece, unfurling their work over a year and then some. Van Etten's tramp-like existence had her floating from couch to couch with no true home base—the inspiration for the album's title. She wrote the songs on the road while touring behind her second release, Epic. Van Etten took advantage of that transience as an opportunity to make good use of her connections from tours and otherwise.

"I put an open invite out there to all my friends, and Aaron did, too, so you never knew who was going to be free, but because it was over the course of such a long time, people would just stop by," she says of the open-door quality of her recording process. Among those who stopped by were Julianna Barwick, Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak and Peter Silberman of The Antlers. Along with Van Etten's band mates Ben Lord, Doug Keith, Heather Woods Broderick and Zeke Hutchins, these players helped Van Etten flesh out songs she had composed in solitude.

"When I started writing songs, I did it to help myself through problems, and it developed into songwriting to generalize my own experiences," she says of her earliest sad songs, stark and unadorned takes on heartbreak told through simple guitar and her expressive, pretty voice, with tones and shades as deep as an ocean.

"Music helps people to connect to their own emotions or somebody else's when they don't know how to describe them," she explains. "I am trying to learn to write in a way where it's not so specific, not so obvious, and maybe improve on my storytelling ability. But I will always want to connect with the listener. It means a lot that they can relate to it."

And although Van Etten's guitar helps those stories along, it's her voice that truly holds everything together. Van Etten's sense of vocal melody and layering of harmonies is complexly alluring. "Personally, in singing and how my voice has developed over the last few years, I feel like I've been pushing myself to sing lower, sing higher, let different aspects of my voice shine a little bit more through," she says. "Let it be rough, let it be darker, let it be really high and pretty, but also show that I can go low and dark and gritty as well."

And though touring with vocal cords as one's main instrument can be tricky, Van Etten seems to have it figured out. "When I have my time off now, I really let my voice rest. I also cut down on drinking and smoking. It's hard to do when you're traveling so much, but the older you get, the more I realize that I'm not immortal," she says with a laugh. "Before this tour, Heather and I were taking voice lessons to learn how to sing more properly and project in a way where it didn't affect your vocal cords as much. Sleeping and drinking a lot of water and cutting back on coffee—little things like that really go a long way.

"I'd be screwed without it [my voice]. It's the only thing I can do!" she adds, laughing again.

And while Van Etten should realize that statement doesn't hold up, that modesty has probably helped her to realize how much she's benefited from the support of her new band. "It's interesting going solo, then having a band and having a singer you can rely on to sing with and match each other," she says. "Performing with the band, it takes a lot of pressure off. You have people there up on stage, helping you get through harder moments or backing you on the more rock songs—it gives me just that much more confidence when I'm performing."

Sharon Van Etten plays Turner Hall Ballroom on Thursday, Aug. 2, with Tennis and Yellow Ostrich. Doors open at 7 p.m.


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