Sharon Van Etten was a struggling, uncertain artist trying to find an audience on tour in 2010 when she was awakened one morning with some life-changing news. The night before, the National’s Aaron Dessner had joined Bon Iver on stage at the MusicNow festival in Cincinnati to perform Van Etten’s song “Love More” in front of thousands of fans.
“It still blows my mind,” she says. “I had met Aaron’s sister randomly because she worked at a venue in Brooklyn, and it was because of her that he found out about my music. I remember waking up in tears when I heard the news, to realize that two artists I listen to all the time were covering one of my songs.”
It set the course for what would be a transformative year for Van Etten: She kicked off the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park, and then released her breakthrough album, “epic,” which included her version of “Love More” and made numerous year-end best-of lists (including mine).
How to follow up that success? Van Etten says she reached out to Dessner soon after the MusicNow appearance to see if a collaboration might be possible. Dessner was enthused but his schedule was too busy with the National to allow him to have any input on “epic.” But he and Van Etten met several times to map the groundwork for what would be the singer-songwriter’s third album, “Tramp,” her debut for the high respected Indiana-based label Jagjaguwar.
“We met and talked about a philosophy of recording and writing, and I gave him demos,” she says. “It was like talking to my brother. He knew me, he liked my records, he just got it. At one point he laughed and said, ‘You have 30 songs! You don’t need to do any more demos. We need to record you a record.’ I kept pinching myself every time we got together, realizing that this was happening.”
Van Etten began hanging out at Dessner’s home-recording studio in Brooklyn on breaks between tours, laying down songs in short bursts. Collaborators from bands such as Beirut, Wye Oak and the Walkmen came and went, adding a drum part here, a harmony vocal there.
“My first album was about learning how to record, the second was about learning how to work with a band, the bare necessities of recording with other people,” she says. “This one was about being open to collaboration, letting go of the idea of it being ‘my song’ and letting other people have at it.”
Van Etten acknowledges that “I get a little protective” when it comes to her songs, which is understandable given the subject matter: Most are highly personal accounts of relationships in turmoil. But just as many of the lyrics on “Tramp” address the notion of healing and allowing herself to be vulnerable again in a new relationship, Van Etten opened up to outside input with Dessner’s encouragement.
“Most of my demos are just guitar and vocals, and then going into the studio Aaron always had suggestions on different directions that would take it someplace else,” she says. “It allowed for the unexpected to happen – bringing in people we already respect and letting them hear the song and see what they wanted to add. A song like ‘All I Can’ has this natural build melodically, and then we brought in Bryan (Devendorf of the National) to play drums. He doesn’t come in until about a third of the way through the song, and the drums turned it into this epic that I never thought it would be. It blew my mind that adding just one thing could change a song so much.”
The result is an album that sounds more fully realized than anything Van Etten has recorded before. From the anthemic “All I Can” to the smoky ambiance of “Joke or a Lie,” each song has its own distinct atmosphere. The singer mingles tart observations and rueful backward glances in a voice that couches its bluntness in dreamy beauty.
Van Etten says the album has opened up her songwriting. “I have a lot of songs that I haven’t released, a lot of crap building up on my hard drive,” she says with a laugh. “Those songs are for me, but when I put out a song, I want people to be able to relate and not hear it as just me ripping off my journal. I won’t put it out if it’s too emotional, too personal, too whiny – all those things that have been used to describe my music, not necessarily criticize it. I think of being personal and emotional in my songwriting as a positive, but I also want to acknowledge that I’m aware of it, and move on from there to a different level.”
Sharon Van Etten: 9 p.m. Feb. 16-17 at Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Av., $15 and $18; lincolnhallchicago.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun