Although the credits on Sharon Van Etten’s new album read like the roster of an indie rock all-star game, at its heart, “Tramp” sounds exactly the way a Sharon Van Etten album should sound. Aaron Dressner of The National produced it; Matt Barrick of The Walkmen does most of the drumming; Zach Conden of Beirut, Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak and Julianna Barwick all provide integral vocal parts. While these contributors add their distinct imprints, they decorate rather than overshadow Van Etten’s trademark combo of wistful words and hopeful melodies.
“Nobody wants to work on a record to hear themselves,” says the singer. “I called on my friends because of their strengths, and we were very conscientious of not wanting to feature people that had a name. It was very much like, ‘This is one of my favorite singers’ and ‘This is one of the best drummers.’”
Against this background Van Etten flourishes. Where previous recordings have felt like bedroom diaries, the songs on “Tramp” feel more like conversations. In fact, her collaboration with Zach Conden on the song, “We Are Fine,” came about because of an important moment they shared.
“That song was funny because it was done, basically. We had it all recorded, but something didn’t sit right with me,” she says. “And I realized it was because it was meant to be a conversation. I wanted it to be with someone who knew what I was singing about, and the song is about talking somebody through having a panic attack. And that was one of the first bonding sessions I ever had with Zach. We both suffer from social anxiety.”
Van Etten says the key to working with friends is balancing her own vision with her friends’ input. In one instance Wasner envisioned her singing part as “grunts and growls.”
“I was like, ‘Hmmm,’ because in my mind that was not what I was hearing,” Van Etten laughs. “But I trusted her so much, and it made so much sense when she was doing it. When you’re working with friends that get you, and they’re really paying attention, all worry and insecurity subsides.”
“I was looking for a title that was short, to the point, and strong,” says Van Etten of her new album’s name.
While working on the album, the singer was touring and between extended stays in Philadelphia, Brooklyn and New Jersey. Some of the song titles on “Tramp” that use people’s names were dubbed as such because that’s whose place she was subletting at the time she wrote them.
“I wanted it to have the feeling of transience, because I was moving around so much. But I also didn’t want it to be a soft, sensitive word,” she says. “There’s the double-standard of when you call a man a tramp and it’s kind of seen as endearing, and when you call a woman a tramp, there’s a negative connotation to it, for some reason. And it’s more of drawing attention to the word, and kind of owning it.”