[This post is part of our week-long preview coverage of Outside Lands 2012. Check out more of All Shook Down's Outside Lands coverage, and catch Sharon Van Etten's set this Friday at 1:15 p.m. on Outside Lands' Sutro stage.]
In music today, there's no other instrument quite like it: Sharon Van Etten's voice. It's the centerpiece to her three albums. On the most recent release, this year's Tramp, her heavy-hearted insomniac's yawn of an alto strayed from the modest arrangements found on her first two long-players and entered into a vast, slightly dilapidated cathedral of sound engineered by her co-producer, Aaron Dessner of The National.
"Aaron helped me open myself more to let something happen and he pushed me to use more distortion and ambience and drone," Van Etten says. "There's one song, 'Magic Chords,' that I didn't even want to be on the record. It's a little poppier that what I tend to write. I said to him, 'This doesn't really sound like me.' It was kind of an accident, writing it. And he said, 'You wrote the song, you recorded the song -- it's you.'"
The Sharon Van Etten both she and her listeners first grew accustomed to emerged on her 2009 debut album, Because I Was in Love. But by the next year and the appropriately named Epic, there were already signs showing of sonic restlessness. From that album, "Dsharpg" was Van Etten's first departure into the more dirge-like arrangements that underpin several songs on Tramp.
And what about the voice? It has remained the constant throughout Van Etten's work.Though she maintains incredible control of her melodic lilts and surges, she also rides her throat's past wear and tear, whether it be from cigarettes or some blotted out punk-rock past or -- given the number of songs she's written about ragged relationships -- late night shouting matches that went nowhere but into the strained tissue of her vocal chords (all three of these scenarios are our conjecture).
Van Etten tends to sing in a low register, often double-tracking herself with a subtle counter melody for harmonic brightening. She also plays guitar and piano. But listen to her records and an image begins to vivify around her intonations: one imagines an unassuming-though-headstrong sprite, a pair of studio headphones, and an old-timey mic framing her almond-shaped eyes (which appear to be permanently squinted and fixed to the songs as they leave her lips to find the listener), and lots and lots of empty honey-tea cups stacked within her reach -- all tools put into service of her first and most precious instrument.
When I speak with Van Etten, her voice is still sleepy from a long night spent cocooned in her bunk while her tour bus drove from Chicago, where she played a well-received set at Lollapalooza, to Minneapolis. Within her bunk, she's kept her summer reading in reach: a biography of The Rolling Stones' first manager Andrew Loog Oldham (she later confesses this is her attempt to bond with her boyfriend, who is a big Stones fan), and a stack of books by contemporary American writers of short stories. If you're looking for clues as to where Van Etten's songwriting is headed, you might be better off leafing through the stack of fiction.