Sharon Van Etten, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based songwriter who plays Salt Lake City's Urban Lounge on Friday, Aug. 17, had definite ideas in mind when she set out to make her 2012 release "Tramp."
The trickier thing was finding time to get it recorded with the help of new friend and collaborator Aaron Dessner, of The National.
"All this started when I befriended Aaron, because I heard he'd covered a song of mine ("Love More") with Justin Vernon (Bon Iver)," said Van Etten, calling from a beach break on the Jersey shore. "So over the course of six months, I sent him my demos and we would get together and talk about our philosophies and recording and collaboration. By the time the demos hit about 15, he's like, 'Why don't we just record a record? We don't need to do demos. We already have the songs.' "
Due to time constraints, that turned out to be easier said than done -- although the end product has proved to be satisfying for both Van Etten and fans.
"We started recording the record in his studio in his backyard," Van Etten said. "Since we were both touring, we'd have to grab time between tours. We had to hit the ground running when we could."
Van Etten said they left the studio door figuratively open for the year-and-a-half recording project, so musical friends could come by and lend their talents to the sessions. Folks like Zach Condon of Beirut, Jenn Wassner of Wye Oak and Matt Barrick of The Walkmen are among those who came to lend a hand at Dessner's Brooklyn studio.
"We had friends we'd always wanted to work with, and liked hanging out with, and that is how we ended up having them for the record," Van Etten said. "They wanted to be invited and were around. I was really lucky."
Van Etten knew she wanted something a bit different for this album, but she wasn't quite sure how to go about it until she got Dessner and producer Brian McTear of Miner Street/Cycle Sounds Recording involved.
"I had these bare-bones songs and no idea what was going to happen or what I wanted -- that was the difference between this and the other records. Aaron and Brian helped me communicate what I wanted. I am not a technical person -- time signatures, I don't know how to talk in that language. (Aaron) helped me communicate that to other musicians. The great thing about Aaron is, he wants to help you make your songs better, but he doesn't want to put his signature on there. He wants to help you make them your own."
A song develops
Van Etten wrote one of the new songs, "All I Can," while jet-lagged in Japan. It was a trip she took alone, knowing not a soul there -- and very little Japanese, to boot.
"On that kind of trip, it takes two or three days for your body to get what time it is," she said.
It was 5 a.m., and Van Etten, delirious with jet lag and wide awake, found herself becoming emotional and introspective.
"I had this overwhelming sense that ... every single moment has led to this moment. I felt compelled to start writing. But I am in Japan, at 5 in the morning -- the most polite, quiet place in the world."
So she wrote the song as a whisper -- keeping her strumming low and her voice soft so as not to disturb other guests.
Later on, she played the laptop recording of it to Dessner to ask if he thought she had something.
"He said, 'Yes, but it needs work.' So we tracked basic guitar and vocals."
Dessner invited a drummer in, and to Van Etten's surprise, her quiet little tune turned into something of a mid-tempo rocker.
"One thing added, and it changed the entire thing," she said.
Van Etten said her songs come to her in different ways, but she does tend to need a moment alone for writing to happen, like she had in the wee hours in Japan.
"Those moments are rare, though, when you're touring," she said. "But sometimes you find a little room in a bigger venue, and a little time before the sound check. You have to grab that time when it comes."