Singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten Emerges From Purgatory With Her Enigmatic New Album, 'Tramp'

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You can learn a lot about an album from its cover art. It’s impossible to separate the sleazy, decadent rock of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers from the up-close crotch shot that graces its cover. The sleeve for Beck’s intimate, soul-baring Sea Change signaled an artistic about-face, the music’s tear-streaked psychedelia perfectly matched by the accompanying image of Beck’s dejected, heartbroken face hovering in a swirl of color.

For her breakout album, the mesmerizing and highly personal Tramp, Brooklyn singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten had a clear vision for the image that would properly reintroduce her music to the world.

“I wanted it to represent me coming into my own,” Van Etten says, reflecting on the album’s stark, black-and-white cover photograph, which features her face in a striking chiaroscuro, in homage to John Cale’s 1974 album Fear. “It’s about being direct and making eye contact, and that also meant not making it a gender-specific cover—not making it pretty or sexy, just making it an androgynous kind of confident photograph.”

In the tradition of great album covers before it, this image raises as many questions as it answers: Van Etten’s eyes are soft and kind, but they’re equally distant—the gaze of a troubled soul full of secrets.

Van Etten’s musical journey hasn’t been easy. On her debut album, 2009’s minimal and folky Because I Was in Love, she wowed critics with her smoky, sensuous voice, but the disc was inspired by an emotionally and physically abusive relationship—a six-year purgatory that began after Van Etten, a New Jersey native, moved south to attend college at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. She dropped out after a couple of semesters and started dating the wrong type of guy. Her boyfriend, a touring musician in an emo band, discouraged her from making and performing her own music, which—of course—only fueled her to do more of both. Finally fed up after years of personal anguish, she quietly packed anything she could fit in her car late one night and moved back home.

Epic, her 2010 follow-up, found Van Etten toughening up her fragile sound with more layers of instrumentation. The album’s popularity exploded after bands like Bon Iver and the National started covering songs from it in concert. But even though most who heard her voice immediately fell in love, it wasn’t enough to call a career. After the conclusion of her Epic tour, Van Etten encountered that classic struggling rock-star dilemma: She could either get a day job and pay the bills or go the homeless songwriter route, sleeping on friends’ couches and recording songs where and how she could. Van Etten, of course, chose the latter, eventually hooking up with the National’s Aaron Dessner, who enthusiastically agreed to produce Tramp in his garage studio.

The result is her most immediate and devastating collection of songs. Deceptively dark acoustic lullabies are augmented with raw, buzzing electric guitars (“Warsaw”), droning keyboards (“Magic Chords”), and beautiful vocal harmonies from some notable friends, including Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner and Beirut’s Zach Condon. Lead single “Serpents” is her most amplified moment to date, Van Etten’s normally soothing voice pushed to its breaking point over crashing drums and churning guitars.

“I was listening to a lot of PJ Harvey when I wrote that song, and I had just started playing electric guitar,” she says. “I was basically mad at myself for still dwelling on the past, and the song is about that—being angry at myself and also wanting to learn from it and also allow myself to be angry without it being condemning.”

In 2012, Van Etten’s forecast is looking considerably sunnier. She’s in a healthy relationship with a new man, and she finally landed her own apartment in Brooklyn. Today, she and her newly formed band are in the thick of a daunting, globe-spanning tour—without a doubt her biggest yet—and she’s currently trying to relax, reflecting on the unpredictable praise and fan worship directed at Tramp. Though she’s clearly earned her moment, she’s nervous, almost uncomfortable in the spotlight. After years of financial struggle, borderline homelessness, and being constantly told she’s not good enough, she now faces a completely new set of challenges.

“It’s a weird thing to do, man,” she laughs, in an ashy whisper not unlike her powerful singing voice. “It’s such a weird thing. It’s still very surreal to me. I look up and see all these people that are there to see us, singing along, and it’s blowing my mind. I’m trying not to analyze it too much and just enjoy it, but when I get down to analyzing it, what we’re actually doing, it kind of freaks me out. I’m trying to enjoy it and have fun and stay level-headed and not overthink it.” m

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