This interview was first published in the Wears The Trousers 2011 yearbook, available from our online shop.
The result is a reflection of a more assertive and confident artist, far removed from the girl who, when Wears The Trousers first saw her play three years ago, stared at the floor for her entire set and barely said a word. We caught up with her again in a chi-chi café in West London to talk through her amazing transformation.
I feel like one of the things everyone’s going to be talking about with Tramp is “Sharon’s confidence”. I know there was a jump between the last two records but this one’s an even bigger jump. It’s got your actual face on the cover, for a start.
I definitely feel more confident in myself as a person. I feel more at peace and pretty lucky to be living in New York with a great group of friends and doing what I want to be doing. I’m so much more removed from all the pain I used to write about. This album may not necessarily be happy-go-lucky or whatever, but I’m much more optimistic these days so I hope that comes across in the songs. I feel much more comfortable with expressing myself, and though I feel like I’m still honing in on my writing skills I think this album has some of the best vocals I’ve done. So I’m really proud of it, and I wanted to express that in all forms.
You’ve said that the album cover is an homage to John Cale’s The Fear. I don’t know that album; should I listen to it? Sell it to me, Sharon.
[laughs] I feel like when you listen to a John Cale record every song sounds so individual but the sequence always makes sense, so I definitely held that as an example of how I wanted to do this record. He’s made some very bold production choices in every album he’s made, and I felt like this is the first time I really made bold decisions for my own record so that was another reason. Also, I’ve just been listening to it a lot over the past year or two. The other record was Patti Smith’s Horses. Those two were the ones where I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to conjure them’.
Tramp was two years in the making. How many songs did you end up writing in the end?
I brought in twenty songs to the studio and we recorded sixteen. We have other takes of songs that just weren’t working but they’re never to be heard. Because you know, even though the song is written it doesn’t mean that it necessarily makes sense when you record it. There’s a song that I play solo at shows, ‘Tell Me’, but every time I’ve tried to record it it just turns into, like, the cheesiest Fleetwood Mac song ever. But I think it’ll get there.
Has working with a band changed the way you cope with being in the studio and on tour?
Definitely. My band has helped me learn how to communicate. I’m not a very technical person; I don’t know music theory at all and I can’t really play that many instruments, at least very well. So I’m not very good at being a leader, let alone telling people how to do things. It’s really nice to be working with friends because there’s no ego involved and everyone is very patient with me as I’m learning to express what I want. And at times when I do get stressed out because I’m afraid that I don’t know what I’m doing, they’re really encouraging. Eventually I’d like to write songs with them but this last year has been about learning how to collaborate on the playing side.
What has challenged you most on that front?
Just opening up, for me, is a challenge. But I’m realising now that when you share ideas with others, people you trust, it helps you to be more distinctive as an artist because you don’t keep doing what you would normally do on your own. Like with this record I had the problem that most of the songs started out with strumming, and Aaron made me see that if you scan through a record like that you can’t tell which song is which. So he encouraged me to figure out new ways to start the songs so that you could pick each one out.
Do you feel like the length of time you spent recording the album gave the songs more time to grow, or did it make things harder?
It definitely gave us lots of time to over-analyse things. If I were to add up the emails that went back and forth between us, just on one tour, about one song, it could easily be a hundred messages in the conversation. Then when we’d go back to the studio we’d compare our notes and actually it was pretty helpful to allow us to start changing things. But it was a funny process.
Which song was the hardest to finish?
I think ‘All I Can’ was a tough one. Because it was one of the first ones we started with, we kept wanting to take it really far and we had to stop ourselves. We’d actually have to drag each other out and say ’No, we’re done, we’re done.’ We didn’t want to over-produce the songs just because we could. I feel like that song really wanted to rock out and keep building but there always comes a point where you take it too far. This song, we did it so huge at first that it was like Van Halen or something. Too much.
I heard that this was the first time you’d worked with a backwards approach in the studio; that is, starting with all the tracks and then paring them back. Sounds difficult! Did you have to make some tough sacrifices?
Part of the allure of working with a different producer is that everyone has a different method so you learn what works for you and what doesn’t. So for the last album I knew I just wanted basic drums, guitar, bass, and that was it. I was like, what isn’t missing from there? For this record it got hard for me to tell what was going on sometimes and then I would have to go back to the mindset I was used to. It’s always a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. There was a version of ‘Kevins’ with a bombastic drum track at the end that I liked but Aaron and I discussed it at length and decided it wasn’t necessary. The vocal is what drives that song.
Are you tempted to make the songs sound bigger live?
Yeah, but I don’t want to go over the top. But then I also don’t want to make it sound too much like the record because the interesting part is reinterpreting the songs. We’re going to have fun figuring out how we can do them best, but there’s so many ways we can do them. It’s going to be a huge project.
Sounds like those were long days in the studio. Was it really intense?
Mostly long days, yes. We’d work until one of us got ‘hangry’ – you know, when you get angry because you’re hungry – and then we’d stop for lunch. So it was usually a twelve-hour day, but it was fun and things rarely got stressful. Of course disagreements are going to happen because you’re tired or whatever, but generally it was really easy, really fun, like going to a playground every day.
And you had some of your good friends come by like Jenn and Julianna. How did they get involved?
I’ve known Jenn for a few years now; Wye Oak toured with Shearwater when I was their tour manager, and we’ve played shows together. Jenn and Andy live in Baltimore so they hang out in New York a lot, and when I heard she was going to be in town I was like, ‘Hell yes I want you to sing on my record’. I mean, I didn’t pressure her into doing anything but she ended up on ‘Serpents’ and ‘In Line’. For ‘In Line’ I told her to just sing whatever she felt was right, instinctually, because that’s why I love her music, so she went into the studio, sat on the floor and started doing these really deep, cathartic grunts that we completely reverbed out. Listen out for the low moan, that’s her. She also sang with me on a song that didn’t make the record called ‘This Is Too Right’, which will probably be a B-side at some point. And she played a really amazing guitar part on ‘Serpents’ but I think we just decided it was too huge for what the song needed in the end.
As for Julianna, we toured together this year and she’s so awesome. She’s a hoot. You can hear her doing a lot of the backing vocals on ‘Kevins’, and at the very end of ‘I’m Wrong’ you can hear her sing really high. It’s a really cool dynamic with the glocks.
I know that in your songs you try to generalise your personal experiences so that other people can relate to them. Were any of these songs difficult to do that with?
I feel like I’m still learning how to write in a way where it’s general enough and people can relate to it but it’s a challenge because I still want it to be personal and I want people to know that it’s not just a story. ‘We Are Fine’ is about a friend talking me through a panic attack, and that’s something that I don’t want to distance myself from too much because we’re trying to tell people, like, ‘It’s okay, we’ll be okay’. ‘Give Out’ is another one that’s about a very specific time. I remember the exact scene in my head, sitting at a bar on a stool next to a guy, super nervous. It was the first time I let my guard down again [after being hurt], very reluctantly; my fist was clenched so tight but I completely loosened it.
I know you’ve said before that you’ve had to abandon conversations with friends because you suddenly hear a melody and you have to run off and get it down. Have you ever done that on a date?
Like, ‘You’re cool and everything, but…’? [laughs] No, I try to contain myself. For a while I was carrying around a little recorder so I wouldn’t forget but after I had filled it I discovered that it’s not actually compatible with my computer. So, yeah, I try not to do that. I try not to be that annoying person.
Do you still keep a journal?
Yes. It definitely helps with writing songs or even just organising my thoughts. Just the practise of writing, I think, is good. I try not to force it but even if it’s just for me or just for remembering the day, you know, it’s a good exercise.
That reminds me to ask about ‘Magic Words’. What a great, weird song. How did you come up with it?
Actually, that was a total happy accident. Aaron has this really old church organ from the ‘60s or something, with a triple deck of keys, so it goes super low and super high, and you can turn these two drumbeats on at the same time and it comes out sounding like ‘Rainy Day Women’-era Dylan. I think it was after Aaron and I had talked about not adding a certain song to the record so I just started stream-of-conscious singing about how it’s okay to let yourself lose sometimes. I was just messing around and then Aaron popped his head in and was like, ‘We’re recording that.’ I didn’t think the song was going to end up on the record at all because it was like an accident, but then it’s funny because that’s what the song is about.
Last question: how did you decide to move to the Jagjaguwar label?
They’re so good to their bands. I just feel like it’s like a camp, and like I’m a kid; whenever I see them I feel like I’m at home. I was working with Ben [Goldberg at Ba Da Bing] on the last release, and he knows me better than anyone so when I was looking to separate management and label, it made more sense to me to have him as a manager because he’s going to look out for me; we’ve done so much together. He and Darius at Jagjaguwar have a great history of working together so there was no question – that was the only label I approached.
I think it’s important to only work with people you respect.
Yeah, because we’re all doing it because we love it. Trusting who you work with is everything.
Tramp is released today through Jagjaguwar Records. Go get it!
Tagged sharon van etten