Super 'Tramp': Van Etten laughs a lot more than you'd think

"I’m not trying to fancy things up too much," says Sharon Van Etten with a laugh. “I’m just a girl in a sweater and jeans playing songs with my friends."

It’s a humble understatement for a woman who recently deflected attention away from the mighty return of Fiona Apple and the dexterous Andrew Bird at a recent SXSW NPR showcase. Since her bare bones debut Because I Was In Love surfaced in 2009, listeners have cheered on the nice girl who in spite of being told she wasn’t good enough by an ex, soldiered on and made beautiful, broken songs.

Sans a label-generated aesthetic, the Brooklyn artist has relied on little more than authenticity to gain an audience. Her songs are carefully constructed with close attention paid to melody and honest emotion that trumps songwriters who spew hyperbolic words. Van Etten admits to being “a total goofball,” but the critical consensus is that her third album Tramp showcases a mature and confident front woman

The Hook: You write intimate songs in first-person. Have you ever considered channeling those same feelings through characters to protect yourself?
Sharon Van Etten: It’s definitely something that I need to work on. I actually do writing exercises now to get out of the habit of saying “I” and “you.” I’m also listening to a lot more storytellers, like Nick Cave. He is really good at creating that distance. I have a lot of work to do to get out of this confessional habit of mine. (laughter) I try to at least generalize enough so that people don’t feel alienated by how personal they can be. It’s nice to connect with people on that emotional level and provide a reminder that they’re not alone.

Hook: You mentioned the word “confessional.” That seems to be a word that critics often apply to female singer-songwriters in particular. Does that generalization bother you?
Van Etten: It’s an odd word in general when you’re talking about songwriting because to me, it sounds like you are doing something wrong. Like you are trying to get something terrible off your chest or religious connotations. I guess if it helps people understand your music a little more at least it’s ok.

Hook: Your songs and voice evoke a lot of sadness. Do you have good days?
Van Etten: I’m having a great day today actually. (laughter) I actually feel like with the new songs, I got out of sad a little bit to explore a range of emotions on this record. Don’t you think?

Hook: It’s still pretty somber, honestly.
Van Etten: I tried. (laughter)

Hook: Tramp is sonically more fleshed out than your previous albums. Was that producer Aaron Dessner’s doing?
Van Etten: I brought the songs fully-written to the studio, but Aaron and I collaborated on all them for the record. He encouraged me to try things that I wouldn’t normally try and acted as a translator between me to the more professionally trained musicians on the album. He genuinely just wanted to make what I did better and was the spark for most of the instrumentation ideas.

Hook: What do you think is the most important aspect of a song?
Van Etten: The melody. That’s what really builds and develops. It’s the spine of the song. I’m proud of the melodies on this record because they’re the most complicated I’ve ever written.

Hook: You’ve been very open about your struggle with social anxiety. Does your stomach sink a little bit when you see a singer like Lana Del Rey get publicly skewered because of what was possibly paralyzing stage fright on SNL?
Van Etten: I don’t like negativity in the press in general. That kind of thing bums me out. I don’t really know her, but I don’t think that amount of negativity was worth while or fair.

Hook: Speaking of negativity, do you ever hear from that lousy ex that said you couldn’t play?
Van Etten: No, I do not; and I don’t even know what he’s doing now. There’s a lot of angry friends of mine on guard if he ever comes back around. (laughter)
Van Etten plays the Jefferson Theater on Friday, April 20. Flock of Dimes and The Cinnamon Band open. Doors at 8pm and show at 9pm. $12-14.

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