"We all try to free, the sighs of the past, we don't want to last." The melancholic indie singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten is not as gloomy as her music, and she doesn't walk under her personal rain cloud. She arrives in Canada for a pair of concerts, touring in support of an album generally considered to be her best yet. She's on the rise, looking back less and less at the restless days that now seem to be behind her.
The new album is called Tramp, but she's done sleeping around
"I'm finally starting to feel at home," Van Etten explains, speaking about the suburban Brooklyn area she now happily calls home. "The touring can be a little displacing, but now I finally have a place to return to." The title Tramp refers to the singer-songwriter's previous boho-hobo lifestyle. "New York is an intimidating city, and I'd only really kept my foot in the door there," explains Van Etten, 30, who flopped and snoozed on the couches of friends and fellow musicians when she wasn't touring. "But I finally found a neighbourhood that's more my vibe, where I'm reminded of the place I grew up, with the houses, the families, the tree-lined streets and the quiet." All that said, the native of bucolic New Jersey is speaking from the road, the cellphone connection scratchy from Chicago as she makes her way to shows in Toronto (Feb. 21) and Montreal (Feb. 22).
She's with the band
Van Etten's first two albums – 2009's Because I Was in Love and 2010's Epic – were fairly stripped down, of confessional singer-songwriter aesthetic. Tramp, produced by Aaron Dessner (a fellow Brooklynite and the guitarist for alt-rock indie kings, The National), is still mostly downbeat, but it's a more textured record, with fuller arrangements and hazy harmonies. Lead track, Warsaw, is psychedelic folk, Kevin's is an affecting, languid waltz and Serpents rocks like an opiated Fleetwood Mac. "It's an evolution," says Van Etten, comfortable now with her new '65 Fender Jaguar and with "Rudy," her big, red hollow-body electric. "I'm learning to write for a band – there's a different language, and it's a different sort of collaboration than working with just one other person." Her touring band now counts a female harmony singer, making it a four-piece. "In some ways, being on the road is like summer camp. There's a camaraderie, but I'm also learning how to be more of a leader."
And she's on the guest lists
Van Etten has forged friendships with a who-who's on young indie-rockers, adding her morose brand of sultry on songs by The National and The Antlers. Bon Iver covered her Love More. Those bands, and the artists listed on the liner notes to Tramp (under "Recommended Listening"), share a earnest passion and a comforting sort of gentleness. "I'm attracted to music made by people who let themselves be emotional. They really care about what they do, and we believe in what they say." That kind of openness – a big part of the 1970s California folk-rock movement – went out of style for a while, but it seems to be back. "Being sad, being in love," says Van Etten, "these things are starting to be accepted again."
Don't worry, she's fine – but thanks for asking
Her songs are sad. And on Serpents, she allows herself to be angry – "serpents in my mind, looking for your crime." Yet, on stage, between songs, Van Etten is quite the, um – well, how would you put it? "I'm a total goofball," says the indie chick herself. As for Serpents, Van Etten says she doesn't feel sorry for herself, and that the song doesn't necessarily point the finger at anyone. We Are Fine, about a friend helping someone through a panic attack, is one of the more optimistic songs she's ever written. "I'm not the sad sack that people might think I am," she says. "But I think that if I didn't write and perform, I probably would be."
Sharon Van Etten plays Toronto's Lee's Palace on Feb. 21 and Montreal's Il Motore on Feb. 22.