Sharon Van Etten, Getting Personal
Before the ear-splitting pleas of the full room coax them back out for an encore, Sharon Van Etten and her band spend the final seconds of their set at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., slumped over their instruments, seemingly knocked out by their own crescendos. Over the enveloping swell of "I'm Wrong," Van Etten goes from tenderly gazing at the rapt audience to mercilessly bearing down on the strings of her Jazzmaster. As the guitarist beside her faces his amp and falls to his knees with a looping, soaring soprano flying into the ether behind her, Van Etten stands, daring the room to turn away from a chorus as earnest as she is: "It's pain to believe in any song you sing/Tell me this even though you can't believe it/Tell me I'm wrong."
This is the closing scene of the first night of Van Etten's last tour of 2012, a year bookended by the February arrival of her universally adored third album, Tramp, and the autumnal release of its revamped edition, which drops on Jagjaguwar on November 13. Since Tramp's debut, Van Etten has spent all but two months of the past year touring behind it, lapping the country, trekking through Europe and playing every major music festival from South by Southwest to Newport Folk to the British edition of All Tomorrow's Parties next month. With its re-release, Jagjaguwar is sharing the Tramp demos, along with never-before-seen artwork and journal entries of Van Etten's that were written throughout the creation of the record. Now that the bare bones of her songs are on display and the creative process behind them is outlined for all to see, Van Etten's growth as a songwriter and a performer is not only proved on paper but also flawlessly demonstrated every time she takes the stage—and especially on the nights that "I'm Wrong" wraps up her set.
"With 'I'm Wrong,' I was afraid that song would be too personal lyrically, because it's basically about someone that didn't really support what I was doing," says Van Etten, taking a breather in between sound check and show time at the 9:30 Club. "I wrote it for me, you know? It's such a relative, universal idea: feeling no support but believing in yourself anyway. The song is based on a basic chord progression on an acoustic guitar, and Aaron [Dessner, of the National and Tramp's producer] asked me to just play something that wasn't strumming. I'd pick it, and then we created a drum sound, and then we'd build on it, and we'd build and build and build. Now, we've taken that a step further live, and the song just turns into this huge ball of noise by the end. We take it to a different place. It's just fun to make noise and let loose."
Van Etten's live set in its entirety reflects this process, as many of Tramp's strongest moments—"Magic Chords," "Leonard," "Warsaw"—are exponentially more dense and dramatic than their modest demoed versions, lush explorations in sound anchored in straightforward lyrics and approachable melodies that work as full productions and sparse recordings alike. "It took me a while to understand the differentiation between the album and the live show," she says. "When I was solo, I just wanted to keep things the same—I didn't want people to buy the record and be disappointed when the live show was different. And then I just did things totally differently. [Tramp] is rock for me—we have fun playing stripped down and straight up. I don't use many effects; I have distortion and reverb, and on one song, I use a delay pedal, but it's so basic and so raw, and I love it. It makes me feel a lot more confident in songs because I'm not hiding behind too much there."
Before closing out a banner year with a string of European dates, Van Etten will be headlining an evening at Town Hall on November 15. Thurston Moore, Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, and other friends are set to join her onstage over the course of the evening. Conceived as more or less a "night with Sharon Van Etten," the homecoming show strays from her typical set in that it will include Tramp songs and older material in equal measure. As such, the evening won't necessarily be an ode to Tramp, but that doesn't mean that the album—or the superlative live show she has honed while touring behind its two releases—isn't worth celebrating.
"My melodies are really the strongest they've ever been," she says. "Hearing them again, stripped down, versus the fully produced album or live show, I can still hear the strength through it all, even though they're shitty recordings. I go back, and I hear those demos and how intense they were. I think it's the most interesting thing, for people to hear the demos and hear where the songs came from. Tramp is now framed in a new context, but it's very different—an unabridged Sharon Van Etten."
Sharon Van Etten plays Town Hall November 15.
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