February 7, 2012

Artist of the Week: Sharon Van Etten

While February is notorious for still-unopened Rosetta Stones and already neglected gym memberships, it turns out that some people’s journeys toward self-improvement are actually going very well. “I’ve just come back from jogging, so sorry if I’m out of breath,” says 30-year-old singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten, on the phone from her new Brooklyn apartment. “I quit smoking three months ago and I’m just trying to remind myself why I shouldn’t start again.”

This remade Sharon Van Etten stands in stark contrast to the one from two years ago. After the success of her breakout album (2010’s Epic), she was on the road so much that she was basically homeless for two years, sleeping on friends’ sofas whenever she returned to New York to record her follow-up album—the cheekily titled Tramp—which is out today. “I was only home for a week out of every month,” she explains. “So it didn’t really make sense to have a place full-time. Especially with New York prices.”

Now, Van Etten, who is known for her raw lyrics and nuanced Americana sound, says she is done with the heart-on-the-sleeve ballads that launched her career and hopes that a more grounded lifestyle—which includes a bevy of domestic pursuits like knitting, crocheting, and even a concerted effort to learn how to cook—will send her songwriting in a new, less confessional direction. “I still write personal songs,” she says. “But I’m trying to steer away from it a bit now and make them more of a story.” No small feat when you consider that, after a life battling social anxiety, the New Jersey native still calls her music “a form of self-therapy.” 

It’s easy to hear the beginnings of an emotional and artistic shift on Tramp. The vulnerability we remember from Epic is still there, (the heartwarming track “We Are Fine,” for instance, is about bypassing an oncoming panic attack, and also features vocals from Beirut front man and fellow introvert Zach Condon) but it isn’t long before it morphs into a kind of fervent defiance. “Ask” is particularly gutsy—almost falling into ABBA torch-song territory. 

“I definitely feel that towards the end of the record I have some closure,” continues Van Etten, as she settles in for an afternoon in the makeshift rec area she uses for writing as well as arts and crafts. “It has piles of records and my mini keyboard,” she says. “I’m learning how to write electronic music.” 

Now that would be a transformation.

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