After Sharon Van Etten released her 2010 album, "Epic," she moved out of her apartment, put her belongings in storage and went on a nonstop tour. During that time, she began writing with the intention of having a new album out relatively quickly a daunting task without a homebase.
"I had no time off, but it really helped me to focus and stay driven," Van Etten said by phone from New York. "If I wanted to finish the record with good timing, having ‘Epic' out, I needed to be really productive."
She wrote whenever she could find the time, including at night when her tour mates were sleeping. The result "Tramp" (Jagjaguar) has been hailed by many as one of the best new releases so far this year, an intense shot of intensely personal, moving songs thick with vivid imagery and dark, moody production courtesy of the National's Aaron Dessner. The two connected after Dessner, a fan, covered one of Van Etten's songs with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver.
The album is a departure for Van Etten, whose previous recordings were more stark and minimal.
"I wanted to keep pushing myself to try new things," she said. "I was afraid that working with Aaron at first that it was going to turn into a huge over-produced record — we didn't want to do National record, we didn't want it to be this huge, dark thing, but we wanted to set more mood with instrumentation than I had before."
Instrumentation was a challenge, as Van Etten didn't have much experience writing arrangements of her music for a band.
"I play guitar minimally and I can sing, that's my strength," she said. "He (Aaron) encouraged me to think of other parts. He ended up being more of an interpreter for me, because I can sound things out, and he was able to communicate that to other people for me, and help me learn how to play it."
Some of the "other people" involved turned out to be a roster of high-profile musicians, including Matt Barrick of the Walkmen, Thomas Bartlett of Doveman, Beirut's Zach Condon, Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, Julianna Barwick and Dessner.
Aside from the production, "Tramp" is different from her other work in how much the style varies from one song to the next — big, building moments next to more intimate, stark songs. Van Etten said that it's a result of the necessity of finding time to write whenever she could.
"I thought at first it would be a weakness that the songs were all over the place, because at the time I felt kind of scattered, but I think it ended up being a strength, making it a more versatile record," she said.
Though the whirlwind touring/writing/record approach may have worked for Van Etten on "Tramp," she's taking a more measured approach for SXSW, with only two showcases planned this week.
"Two shows in two days and that's it," she said. "I'm trying to be minimal so I don't lose my mind."
Official showcases: 9 p.m. today at Stubb's and 12:35 a.m. Thursday on the Mohawk Patio.
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