Clash catches Sharon Van Etten for a chat on a sofa one sunny afternoon as she’s passing through London. After three weeks in the US, she’s now halfway through the European leg of her latest tour and has just played the iconic Roundhouse: “It was pretty magical,” the 38-year-old tells me in the same gently husky tone that breathes edge into her songs. “There’s such a great energy there. You can feel the history.”
Now, the singer-songwriter from New Jersey is getting prepped to head to Amsterdam to play Paradiso, “my biggest show in Amsterdam to date. All these shows actually are my biggest shows to date in every city. This is mind-blowing for me,” she says, breaking out into the first of many broad smiles.
After taking a four-year break since 2014 album ‘Are We There’, Van Etten confesses feeling a sense of trepidation about bringing a new record to audiences: “You have the control in a studio to try different things, to throw your ideas at a wall and see if it sticks. Live, you’re just kind of flying by the seat of your pants and hoping it works.”
Not least because she was reinstating herself live with a new five-piece band and a completely different approach: “We only had five days of rehearsal before we started the tour. My singer Heather Woods Broderick was the only person I really knew. It’s really testing the fates of the universe to bring five strangers together and hope that you have chemistry!”
However, taking the plunge into the unknown has paid off: “The shows are so much more fun,” she explains excitedly. “Before, even though I loved performing, I didn’t set the show with intention as much – it was more like: song, song, song; banter, banter, banter – now it’s different.”
There’s also a fresh spontaneity to each gig, as she eagerly points out. “Night after night it’s different depending on mood and energy and what the audience is like, what you’re feeding off of, where my voice is at. Are we being goofy? Are we being serious? Are we are rocking out? Every day is a different mix of things.”
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After Amsterdam she has Brussels, Paris, Germany then Scandinavia, taking in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo, and soon she’ll be heading down under to play Syndey Opera House before a summer of festivals including Glastonbury, Mad Cool, Roskilde and Greenman. Van Etten has found it fascinating to discover her audiences, “like who I’m reaching. You don’t know who’s connecting until you go there sometimes. And it’s always really diverse: multi-generational, it’s men and women. It’s couples, people alone, groups of friends. It’s amazing to see my music means different things to different people.”
Crucially, ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’, arguably her best and most self-assured, if ambitious, album to date has clearly resonated. Van Etten shares thats fact with a sense of relief as the record, and the stretch of time in which it was created, were marked by the musician stepping firmly out of her comfort zone.
After fourth record ‘Are We There’, Van Etten took the bold decision to break from touring, return to New York and study for a qualification in psychology, with the long term goal of becoming a therapist: “I only got two years in school because I took the music path instead of the college path. So I have some time to make up.”
She then fell pregnant, was offered a role acting in smash-hit Netflix series The OA, performed in David Lynch’s revival of Twin Peaks, was brought on board to create the soundtrack for Katherine Dieckmann’s Strange Weather and scored the closing title song for Tig Notaro’s Tig. It was amidst these events, each of them independently life-altering and demanding in their own right, she snatched moments of time to write her new material. “Yeah, it’s been a wild ride!” she reflects with a laugh.
But while intense, she felt she’d needed to change up her conditions in order to create again: “I think it just took me making time to have a break and to live my life for a minute. Because I felt like I kept rewriting the same song of a broken heart and being in an unhealthy relationship and being on tour and coming back to something I wasn’t happy with. It was like Groundhog Day. I needed to be home to nurture the relationship I was in so that I could break that cycle, so I could spend time in New York and create more of a life for myself instead of constantly run away from it. And so that just opened the door to all these other opportunities.”
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Returning home and reconnecting with reality broke her out of the bubble she felt trapped in: “It took me making the time and the space to live a life beyond touring, to learn how to be creative while being home and being present. To remind myself there’s so much more to life than the road. To throw myself into a more diverse crowd than just the music scene. Plus if I wasn’t at home, I wouldn’t have received the call to audition for The OA, I wouldn’t have been able to make the score for Katherine Dieckmann’s film, Strange Weather. And I wouldn’t have gotten pregnant, since it’s hard to get pregnant from afar…”
The mechanics of writing and recording also shifted a gear. Van Etten moved away from the guitar, which she was using heavily for the film soundtrack, and started writing on the piano, as well as experimenting with different sounds and a more prominent electronic thread: “I gravitated mostly toward the drone sounds and the key sounds with syncopated drumbeats, which allowed me to explore different styles melodic ideas,” she explains. “I mean, there are still very Sharon Van Etten melodies that are slow builds. And most parts don’t ever really repeat themselves in the same way. But it was really fun to play more with rhythms and darker sounds. And a lot more base.”
Another key difference was also bringing producer John Congleton on board: “When I met with John, he asked me what my reference was for this record. And I told him Portishead, Suicide, and Nick Cave’s ‘Skeleton Tree’. And I think anyone who knew my earlier work would have been freaked out by me saying that. But his eyes lit up.” While she at first had trouble letting go of complete control, the collaboration turned out to be an electric one: “We did ‘Memorial Day’ and ‘Jupiter 4’ in one day. He understood what I wanted to do and he took it beyond the point I thought I’d ever be able to get to.”
Lyrically, the tracks can be seen through the prism of the renewed optimism and vibrancy Van Etten feels for the world around her: “A lot are perspective-centred songs: looking at the past, present, and future. How important is the past is, are you still that same person, will you always be the same person? One of the things people say is looking too far ahead gives you anxiety, looking too far in the past makes you depressed, and to really be at peace with the past, you have to live in the present and just move on. A lot of the songs are just about being in a really good place, while there still being the element of the unknown.”
The excellent ‘Seventeen’ written with Kate Davis captures that sense of looking back but also being present, ruminating on the gentrification she saw happening in her area of New York, how different generations connect with a place, and nostalgia for lost pasts, singing “I used to feel free/Was it just a dream?”
The video, directed by Maureen Towey, explores those corners of the city Van Etten called home these last 15 years. ‘Jupiter 4’ uncynically celebrates finally finding love: “I’ve been waiting, waiting, waiting/My whole life for someone like you,” accompanied by an ethereal dreamscape of a video filmed with Dieckmann, who had become an inspirational force in Van Etten’s life as a fellow mother and creator, working on the theme of “apocalyptic mum.”
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Another standout track is the driving, anthemic ‘Comeback Kid’, whose creation set the tone for the album as a whole: “I was still figuring out my language and putting into words what I wanted to pursue. But in the midst of 40 demos, I had these two songs: one was called ‘Come Back’ and another ‘Runaway’. My friend Sam Cohen and I loved both but they sounded too similar. He was like, ‘Well, why don’t we put one in as the bridge.’ And it just changed the feel of the song all together. At first I was like, ‘Whoa, this might be too much for me’ and I had to take a breather and give it distance. But as I was working on other demos and hearing that sonic palette amidst the other synth songs that I had, it started making more and more sense.”
Van Etten reflect that the myriad experiences life threw at her during the writing phase presented new challenges but equally allowed her to explore other areas of herself and her musical expertise, which in turn fed into the album: “I challenged myself as a writer and a collaborator by working with other people from other projects, other songwriters. In the midst of all that, I still found the time to write for me, without the intention of making a record. I found that really comforting.”
In particular, working on a film soundtrack at first felt counterintuitive: “It’s definitely like the opposite of writing a song. With a song, I write a melody, I have a chord progression, there’s lyrics involved, there’s form. Trying to enhance a 15-second scene, walking through it with a director and their play by play telling you what the character is feeling and what they want to convey then reflecting that whole emotional palette, is something that’s an art. I’m still learning how to play with all that, that was my first score.”
Meanwhile landing a role in The OA was a completely left-field opportunity that arose from the casting director remembering her perform with Nick Cave back in 2013 and asking her to audition two years on, “I’m curious what they were looking for. Like, he recalled my mood or something in that show?! It came out of nowhere but I’m glad I said yes.”
The otherwordly and mysterious drama was a baptism of fire for someone with no acting experience: “It was intense. Like, I was sitting in a cell in a place that feels like a basement after a scientist had abducted us to conduct experiments on us from our near-death experiences. So, you know, rom-com romp, hilarious…” Sadly she couldn’t reveal any of the show’s secrets, “I don’t even know what happens yet. They didn’t tell me anything!”
Does she think she’ll do any more acting?
“If the right thing comes along I’ll try it again but I know that it’s not my strength yet. I’ve never had to conjure those kinds of emotions before. I’ve never really acted, not since high school musicals. But I’m curious, I want to get better.”
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She also reflects that motherhood certainly had a transformative effect on her world outlook and given her a determination to be hopeful in spite of the current political climate and threat of environmental degradation. “You gotta cut off the news sometimes. You have to think about what you can control. A moment of anxiety is when you feel out of control. There are things about the world are things that I cannot change: it’s not my vote that fucked things up, it’s not my belief system that is making it harder for other people. I feel like I can change the world in small ways with my work, I can instill belief, some positivity and non-judgment to my son.”
“I believe you have to think more locally to make more of a difference and those ideas will ripple out. It’s hard to know what’s actually going on in the world and try to be a positive person. But I don’t like the alternative. There’s no room in my life for negativity.”
She also feels keenly that keeping your career and parenting in balance isn’t always easy, especially for women: “Every time I’m working I don’t know how I’m going to be away from him. It’s hard to be selfish when you have another person in the world that you’re taking care of, that’s looking up to you, that relies on you. You learn how to prioritise your time a lot easier. And there’s no question if he was sick, you drop your job, I would leave everything to make sure he was okay.”
Certainly bringing her son on tour can be tough and amazing at the same time: “I reckon he’s going to be a real road dog one day. But two is a hard age to be in a van. His favourite word right now is outside if that’s any indication….”
But she also believes it’s both possible and crucial that women strive to follow their passions as well as be mothers: “I want to be more of a positive role model than ever. I want him to grow up seeing me do what I love. Even when it’s hard, I want him to see that. To watch me and his dad just like figuring it out together.”
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We discuss how now seems like a golden era of sorts for female artists, with Van Etten reflecting on those she admired in her youth who helped inspire and shape her as a musician – “The Murmurs, Frente, Portishead, Liz Phair, Sonic Youth, Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams” – but also the plethora of original and talented musicians of her own generation.
“I grew up in the 90s so there was a lot of amazing music growing up but it felt out of my reach,” she comments. “It’s taken me into my 30s to gain the confidence to reach out to other female musicians. The more I let go and stop caring about what they think, the more I feel part of a group, and feel the support. You realise we are comrades.”
In particular she’d love to work with, “Slowdive, Courtney Barnett, Anna Calvi – I’d love to get guitar lessons from Courtney Barnett or Anna Calvi. They rock so hard and it looks so effortless” and recently toured with, “Nilüfer Yanya. She was awesome. Her band is fantastic. They put on a great show every single night. And it was super light hearted and spirited. I’m touring with The Golden Filter right now and the singer Penelope is amazing. My singer Heather Woods Broderick has a new record coming out later this year that is so beautiful, it’s going to floor people. Julien Baker’s an amazing singer that comes from a town in Tennessee that I lived in for a while. I’m so happy to see her thrive and collaborate with other women as well. I could go on. There’s a lot of great music right now.”
As for what the future holds, it seems the many spinning plates will continue: “I’m going to be touring through the top of next year. I want to go back to school. I have other collaborations in the works and I’ll be working on a new score coming up. So between making the score and settling into my new place in Los Angeles, I’ll be building a studio so I can write more – I just haven’t had that space since we started touring the record in February. So yeah let’s see what happens. I’m into winging it right now.”
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‘Remind Me Tomorrow’ is out now on Jagjaguwar.
Words: Sarah Bradbury