As Hurricane Sandy battered her home state of New Jersey as well as her current home in Brooklyn earlier this week, singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten, currently on tour promoting her third record, Tramps, could do little but watch from a hotel room in Florida.
"I've been in touch with my family and friends to make sure they're all right, but there's lots of damage," says Van Etten, who knows the deck of her Ditmas Park home was smashed by a fallen tree and fears her family's home on Long Beach Island, which took the brunt of the storm, may be lost entirely. "I hate being away during tough times like this."
Van Etten, who performs Sunday at the Hi-Tone Café, may feel the anxiousness of losing a home a bit more acutely than some because not too long ago she was herself without a home. Following the release of her breakthrough second album, 2010's Epic, Van Etten, unable to afford New York rents and pay a touring band, put her belongings in storage and lived out of her car for almost a year, crashing with friends when she wasn't on the road.
"It was hard, but I was never on the street," she says, downplaying the ordeal.
Nevertheless, the sense of rootlessness engendered during that period directly influenced her new record, the appropriately titled Tramps. The record abounds with loneliness and insecurity, reflected as much in Van Etten's nakedly confessional songwriting as in the stark soundscapes crafted with producer Aaron Dessner of the Brooklyn band The National.
"I felt there was sense of urgency in my songs that I hadn't had before," Van Etten says of the February release. "I feel like it helped the album be more versatile because every song I wrote, I was in such a different headspace and literally in a different place when I wrote every song. It helped make it really diverse and a lot of different moods and a lot of different situations."
Tramps was recorded piecemeal over several months in Dessner's home garage studio, using a rotating cast of friends and acquaintances from Brooklyn's fertile indie rock scene, including Zach Condon of Beirut, Jenn Wasner from Wye Oak, The Walkmen's Matt Barrick, and Dessner's twin brother and bandmate Bryce Dessner. The fractured work process added to the diversity of sounds on Tramps, especially compared to Epic, which was knocked out in two weeks with a set cast of players.
"It got frustrating because we'd work on something for like a week, and it would take you a couple days to get into it, and when we'd get into it, we'd be on cruise control, and then we'd have to put everything down, lock the studio door, and go on tour for a month or two," Van Etten recalls. "On the other hand, you could take those demos, those versions of songs, and then you'd have some time to sit and think about them and write notes and have an e-mail exchange back and forth and sit with a song you might have gotten tired of working on for 24 hours a day."
Later this month, Van Etten's label Jagjaguwar will re-release Tramps in a deluxe edition that includes song demos and an unreleased track, "Tell Me." While some artists might object to showing how the sausage is made, as it were, Van Etten is excited about baring her entire creative process for the world to hear.
"I'm fine with being vulnerable," she says. "I write really vulnerable songs. I don't care if you see them as a skeleton or clothed or what. It's all raw, whether they're produced or not."
Sharon Van Etten with Damien Jurado
Doors open at 8 p.m. Sunday. Hi-Tone Café, 1913 Poplar. $12 cover; advance tickets available at hitonememphis.com. For more information, call 901-278-8663.