Before Sharon Van Etten became your favorite band's favorite singer, before she recorded three deeply personal, haunting albums and definitely before she played "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," her best reason for playing music was just getting out of her parents' New Jersey house.
"I would travel 30 miles just to take a nice drive, smoke a cigarette and play open-mic nights," Van Etten says. But her first fan, discovered after playing at an Easton, Pa., dive, changed all that. "Someone came up to me crying after my set. She said, 'You must keep playing.' It was the first time I realized I could affect somebody. I realized why I was doing what I was doing."
Today, Van Etten has more than just one fan awaiting her third album, "Tramp," due Feb. 7 on Jagjaguwar. In fact, since releasing "Because I Was in Love" in 2009 and "Epic" in 2010, her fan base has kept swelling, as names like Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone and the National's Aaron Dessner (who produced "Tramp") join the fold.
While her lyrics are as heartbreaking as ever (Good luck holding it together when she cries, "Who is my man? The memory or you?" on "All I Can"), her music has never sounded as fierce. Recorded mostly in Dessner's Brooklyn garage studio, "Tramp" is more worthy of its predecessor's title-tense, full-band tracks loud enough to qualify as rock instead of folk, all densely layered with waves of harmony.
Track Above: Single "Serpents"
Language of Stone released "Because I Was in Love" while Van Etten was handling PR at indie label Ba Da Bing (which later released "Epic"). After road-testing songs that ended up on her sophomore set, she heard Dessner and Vernon covering her "Love More" together. Intrigued, she emailed Dessner about collaborating.
He was interested, but the timing was off since he was working on the National's "High Violet." The two kept in touch, and when Van Etten was ready to record "Tramp," she took Dessner up on his offer. "I played him some demos, and he was laughing," Van Etten says. "He said, 'The demos are done. We might as well just record your whole album.' I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me.'"
During the following 14 months, between tours, Dessner and Van Etten cut "Tramp." First, the two set a few ground rules. "Aaron and I were very conscious of it not sounding like a National record, and I didn't want it to sound like 'Epic'," she says. "I wanted to try new things. I just didn't know what that would translate to."
No longer working alone, Van Etten didn't stop with Dessner. Beirut's Zach Condon was invited to add vocals; Matt Barrick of the Walkmen, Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner, Julianna Barwick, Doveman's Thomas Bartlett and Dessner's brother and National bandmate Bryce all "did what they had to do" as well, Van Etten says. "It was like a musical playground, instruments laying everywhere, trying out different things."
To Jagjaguwar co-owner Darius Van Arman, "Tramp"'s rough, varied sound may help achieve his goal for Van Etten. "We don't want her in the Joni Mitchell light or the Patti Smith light. She has her own identity," he says. "[Jagjaguwar] works with great songwriters: Justin Vernon, Will Sheff [of Okkervil River], Spencer Krug [of Sunset Rubdown]. She's not just a female singer/songwriter. She's one of them."
Van Etten made her TV debut last month on "Fallon," and "Tramp"'s vicious first single, "Serpents," tore through music blogs in late 2011. But professional pressure seems to slide off Van Etten. She knows she's already pleased those who really count. "My parents are happy that the record sounds more hopeful," she says. "They worry that I'm depressed all the time. But I write these sad songs so that I'm not."