“I have anger-management issues,” Sharon Van Etten confesses. If you’re unfamiliar with the young New Jersey singer-songwriter’s pretty, doleful music, you might get the wrong impression. It has taken until her third album, Tramp, for Van Etten to begin tapping into some of her baser instincts.
“There are things I don’t allow myself to feel, because they’re negative and putting negative energy out there is never a good thing,” Van Etten says. “But if you don’t direct it at somebody, I’m realizing, it can be positive and productive.”
Van Etten possesses a mesmerizing voice, freighted with as much emotion as Old Yeller. It’s the kind of voice with a resonance that shakes walls and shatters hearts. A little New Jersey girl who sang in choir and studied music at Middle Tennessee State University, she returned to the New York metropolitan area eight years ago and ran into one of her high school friend’s brother, Kyp Malone. The TV on the Radio star offered lots of early advice and encouragement.
When she first started writing songs, they were a therapeutic releases of sadness, but now she was feeling confined. So she picked up an electric guitar, a decision that drives Tramp and takes her in exciting new directions.
“I wanted to rock out. I was being pegged as folk, and I didn’t want to only write sad songs,” Van Etten says. “It’s fun to get a little aggressive, and I realized I felt better after. I want to be loud in front of other people.”
Van Etten received ample support from producer Aaron Dessner, singer/guitarist for The National. She’d seen him cover one of her songs and reached out to him prior to her second album, Epic, but the timing wasn’t right. Indeed, part of the delay in releasing Tramp was due to the difficulty coordinating their schedules. Meanwhile, she kept sending him demos to check out.
“After he got 30 demos, at one point, he just started laughing [and said], ‘You already have a record. We don’t need any more demos. Let’s record,’” Van Etten recalls. “I had no idea what I was going to do instrumentation-wise, and that’s why I wanted to work with Aaron. I needed his insight.”
It’s a darker album than anything she’s done, infused with shadowy presences, spooky noises and haunted glances.
“[There are a lot] of dynamics—which I had never done before, and messing around with ambience and strings. Strings are inherently a little spooky, especially when you use a bow on an electric guitar. It’s a darker record, for sure, and the drums have a lot to do with it,” Van Etten says.
Dessner prompted the album’s most striking track, “Serpents,” when he asked if she had any rock songs.
“We had all these songs that just built and built and built and built, and then that was the song. None of them are really rocking. None were short and to the point,” she says. “So I gave [Dessner] a bunch of the early demos when I first started playing electric guitar. He picked out ‘Serpents’ and was like, ‘Why did you hide this from me?’”
Listen to the song, and you’ll understand Dessner’s puzzlement. Sizzling like a slow-burn fuse sputtering into the depths of a dynamited mineshaft, it’s a smoldering paean to bitterness and lust. It recalls PJ Harvey—whom Van Etten was listening to a lot at the time—exploring a simmering indie-rock torch blues where half-charred passion runs into natural gas.
Clamorous guitars crash over a martial rat-a-tat-tat as Van Etten’s smoky croon delivers its stinging venom: “You enjoy sucking on dreams, so I will fall asleep with someone other than you,” she sings. “Garaging girls, controlling minds/ Serpents in my mind, trying to forgive your crimes.”
The song appears to refer to a dark time in Tennessee when Van Etten found herself in a particularly destructive relationship with a rocker who diminished her talent. In a way, the song epitomizes her newfound empowerment by expressing what she never would. Happily, it’s little more than an echo of another time.
“I’m glad I went through everything I’ve ever gone through, but I have no desire to go back. I’m really happy where I am now,” Van Etten says. “I’m still pinching myself.”