A Life Transformed
Sharon Van Etten’s latest offering is a radical departure from the “broken hearted” archetype that first won her a dedicated fanbase.
On her fifth album Remind Me Tomorrow, she’s taking things in a comparatively optimistic direction, and it’s not just the advent of motherhood that's catapulted the singer-songwriter into territories new. “You know, my Mom would always make a joke - ‘when are you going to write a happy song!'” she tells me. “And I always used writing as therapy for whenever I was going through a hard time. And so I would tell her: ‘Well, I'm happy because I'm able to write’”.
But after fifteen years of what she describes as “working my ass off” Van Etten took a break: “I just had a moment when I had time to just sit and think and reflect what I had experienced and where I am in life,” she says. Out of this hiatus accidentally tumbled the ten songs that signal a striking new sound...
Much has been made of Van Etten’s shift away from the guitar on the album - favouring the synthetic keyboard sounds of the Jupiter 4 (so much so that she titled the fifth track in its honour). But the new album signals more than just a sonic shift, with producer John Congleton at the helm - an experience she describes as “really liberating”.
On first listen, the three lonely piano hits on “I Told You Everything” so strongly recall those of previous album opener “Afraid of Nothing” that you wonder if you’ve put the wrong album on accidentally...and then, that second chord - no longer the minor triad of Are We There’s melancholic meditation - but now a major refrain. We know that Sharon Van Etten is taking the listener on a very different journey - one deeply enmeshed with her own experiences of a happier, more balanced life - now a mother of a two year old and settled with her partner; all factors she sees as still fuelling the intensity of her need to write songs. “There's still an intensity to devoting your life to somebody that you're in love with and how scary it is to know that they'll die one day,” she tells me.
The raw chaos of new motherhood is writ large across the album cover of Remind Me Tomorrow: a photograph by friend Katherine Dieckmann which sees Van Etten hidden Where’s Wally style amidst the clutter of a children’s bedroom - the room strewn with toys and mess. Choosing this image to front the new record, it’s hard not to talk about the impact of having a child on her creative life while at the same time being so aware that male musicians almost never get asked this question…
BEST FIT: Do you get frustrated about being asked about how motherhood has changed your creative life and impulses?
SHARON VAN ETTEN: No, I'm actually glad people ask! I don't think it's something people talk about enough - being a mother and trying to figure out how to make it work. It’s not necessarily about how it changes my creative process but how it affects my whole entire life and career. I have a lot of friends that are musicians that have kids but they are mostly male and they can leave. It’s a different kind of connection that a father has with a kid than a mother has. So I'm still learning how to talk about it. But the more mothers that I meet, they help me. Everybody has a different style and I love hearing how it works for different people. I'm still figuring out how it's going to work for me.
Do you think that's culturally imposed - the notion that a guy can go off on tour and leave the kids? Or is it something more deeper for you?
I do think that it is just [the difference] between a male bond and a female bond. When my kid cries, I feel differently from my partner. I can't handle it and he's not that bothered!
So you feel it has a biological basis?
Absolutely. I think that just comes from that connection that you have and carrying them around for nine months and having that initial bubble of caring. You’re the only thing that they need: It’s beautiful and it's intense. Nothing can prepare you for it but it's the most beautiful and raw thing.
How did that alter your relationship with your creativity in terms of, as you say, the fact that they need you first and foremost?
I think it's healthy to have your priorities straight and I think it’s healthy to change what’s important. I'm glad that I've come to a point in my life where I don't come first. I've been selfish for a long time.
"I knew that the whole record was a journey...a roller coaster all the way through - I wanted to ease people inside and didn’t want to scare people away"
This record explores transformations on many levels - emotionally and sonically. But the opening piano chords to ("I Told You Everything") are hugely resonant of the opening chords of Are We There ('Afraid of Nothing") Was that a deliberate sonic echo?
It’s funny because that was the last song I wrote in the context of the chronological order of the songs on the record. It wasn't until we finished recording that I knew that I wanted it be first because I didn't know what kind of sonic changes were going to happen. When I realized the intensity of the shift in production, I wanted to make sure that I didn't scare away my fans and that I could show them that behind it all, it’s still me. I wanted to ease them into the record saying, “I'm here. Yep, things are going to shift, but I just want to hold your hand as you dip your toes with me.”
That self-referentiality seems very literary - that knowing nod to your previous work is comforting and familiar. But that shift to the major key is so much what I feel the new record signals, a shift into a happier more hopeful gear?
Yes, that was my hope. I knew that the whole record was a journey and it's not an easy listen. I knew that it was going to be an intense but exciting… it is a roller coaster all the way through. I wanted to ease people inside and didn’t want to scare people away.
Can you tell me about the symbolism of the cover art? Katherine Dieckmann, she's a friend of yours that you’d previously worked on a soundtrack for ?
Yeah, so we met when she asked me to score for the film Strange Weather and we became really close. This is before I was pregnant and she gave me a lot of advice about living in New York, becoming a mother, being multifaceted as a creative person. She took me under her wing and helped me to write my first score and was very patient with me because I had no idea what I was doing. By the time we finished the film and it was premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival (in the fall of 2016), I’d just found out I was pregnant. Right before she goes on stage to announce the film, I told her and she started crying, and I started crying, and I was like, “I don't know how I'm gonna do this... how to be a Mom and student.. I was living in New York and I cannot afford it. What am I doing?”
She just started laughing hysterically and her tears just dried-up and she took out her phone and - she always had the best references at just the right time - she pulled out this photograph on her phone of her kid and their room and at that moment it was the most comforting thing I could have imagined because they just looked so peace in the midst of all that chaos. That made me feel like I could do it.
It's another creative woman saying to another creative woman, you know, I'm doing it. Yes: chaos…?
And she was just like “you’ll figure it out”. We're all amidst the chaos. We're all still trying to figure it out and we all will be okay .
And no one tells you about that secret when you get pregnant. It's just like nobody knows we're doing!
Yeah, and no one can prepare you. You can get as much advice as you want but it's your own journey. It’s weird because this photograph has been flagged on my Facebook and Instagram and I've had fans write to me saying that they got it taken down because it's “inappropriate”. Who are these pervs flagging this? Who is made uncomfortable by this really innocent beautiful photo, approved by the children that are now adults, you know, because they're in college now? It’s so beautiful and liberating...
I guess we've just become so hypersensitive to abuse somehow in this climate of distrust?
Yeah, and nothing is actually revealed…
You talked about your evolving understanding of the song "Stay" - you thought it was about love but then you realised it was also about your son. In terms of these evolving meanings, what have you learnt about the record since you've been playing it live? Does its relationship with fans and how well they react to it make you reassess?
Connecting with fans has been amazing because I feel like a lot more parents are “coming out” as parents to me. Maybe before they wouldn't have said anything because I was the “broken hearted person healing” or maybe we're just growing together as adults. I think that's very comforting too that we’re all in the same spot, but as I'm performing the songs live it's also emotional because, for these European dates, it's the longest I've been away from my son. He came on for part of the US tour and it was amazing and difficult and a whole other set of challenges. Honestly it was mostly a selfish choice to bring him because he's not going to see that much. He's in a bus or in a venue. His favourite word right now is “outside”, you know, and you just expose him to a lot more illness and susceptibilities and throwing him off his schedule and he’s sleeping at much and it's not fair. He doesn't need to be around smokers and drinkers and all that stuff at age two.
Every time he comes back from a trip, it takes a week to get back on track. So it was a tough choice. But as I'm playing these songs now that are about my partner and about my son about our life. And now I'm alone. I’m with my band, who's also my family - who are amazing and supportive - but now I'm singing these songs that I wrote while we were together, away. And I get choked up sometimes.
"I always used writing as therapy for whenever I was going through a hard time"
What do you think about the adage of great art coming from heartbreak? It seems as if the tone of the new album refuses that coupling? Did you ever have any concerns about “getting happy” and losing your muse? What new muscles did you have to flex to write differently on this new album?
You know, my Mom would always make a joke: “when are you going to write a happy song”. And I always used writing as therapy for whenever I was going through a hard time. I would tell her well, “I'm happy because I'm able to write”. And I was nervous about it. When I was like the broken hearted kid just touring and not having life. But I wasn't concerned about writing a record. I stopped touring in 2015 because I wanted to be home and I wanted to nurture my relationship... I wanted to experience New York. I worked my ass off there for like fifteen years and that I was gone nine months out of the year and like didn't really get to enjoy it as much. I felt lucky that I wasn't thinking about making a record. I wasn't sure if I would make another one and I just wasn’t concerned [but] I've never been pressured by my label to make things. They always say “when you're ready”. So I feel lucky there.
There’s quite an unhealthy association that we have in terms of this idea that great art comes from bad experiences. Do you think that can put pressure on musicians to sustain unhealthy situations in fear of losing them?
Like self-fulfilling prophecies? I think everyone has a different process. I still use writing as a therapy. Most of the things I don’t share. Even when I'm in a good place, I think there's still an intensity to devoting your life to somebody that you're in love with and how scary it is to know that they'll die one day. Or that you're bringing life into the world and how scared you are for the future. And I think no matter where you're at is a creative person there's so much to think about...
...new things to be fucked up about?!
[laughs] You know, I'm happy! But I get worried. The touring lifestyle is really hard no matter where you're at in your life. There are cliches in the music world. I see them on the road and I know how hard it is… the drinking and the schedule and not sleeping and it’s harder to exercise. Everybody's prone to being bipolar on the road when you're away from everyone you know and you're in a strange place .
It’s such an artificial environment, isn't it? And your body chemicals are pushed in extreme directions - you’re running on adrenaline. That means you don’t sleep, And no one ever talks about this...
Yeah, between the sleep and the diet and exercise… and you're either in the van or on the bus.. It's my first bus ever. I feel very lucky to have it but you know... I have a rule where everyone has to get along because we are a family and we're all on equal footing and there's no hierarchy. I think that's really important to keep everybody happy and to make sure everybody knows that no one is more important than the other. Everybody that I work with looks out for everybody else and helps everybody else.
"I feel like people open up to me and I want to hone it in a way where I feel like I actually know what i am doing"
Is there anything that you’ve learnt about touring strategies since you've been studying psychology? Tell me more about going back to school?
I'm 38, but I didn't go to school for ten years. I'm still getting my undergrad. I went to school in 1999 to go to school for recording in Middle Tennessee State, but I had this idealistic view of what college was and that I’d get to take all the classes I wanted to take towards my goal. And so I got frustrated and I stopped going and I got a job at a music venue, and then that was kind of my education - in a DIY venue and I learned how to book shows and promote shows that way.
Then I went to school part-time six years later. I was living with my parents and I got a job at the local liquor store and then because of my wine knowledge I got a job in New York at Astor Wines - which is an amazing wine shop. I moved to New York, got a job at the wine store and a job at a label. That was my education until I went back to school in 2016 and decided to major in mental health counseling.
You’ve talked about how this sprung from feeling inadequate in terms of communicating with your fans and how to speak back to them or help them?
I love meeting people and hearing how they connect with my music but sometimes I felt the fans thought I knew something; that I could give them advice on some level...
That often happens. People project such a huge amount of responsibility onto their idols or people they look up to you and think you must have the answers because you seem to be living this “great life”...
And when you write personal songs, of course people feel like they know you and that's that's our job. I want people to feel like I'm speaking to them, you know, and I'm so glad that people connect on that level but also there are fans that I met that I wanted to hang out with and follow up with and see how they were doing that I still worry about. And there’s some fans I'll have a back and forth with on Instagram and they seem like really good people and I know it's a grey area that have to be careful about ...revealing too much but I just connect so deeply with some people that I know that it's also a skill.
I feel like people open up to me and I want to hone it in a way where I feel like I actually know what i am doing. Because there's a lot that I don't understand. I just don't want to steer somebody the wrong way just because of my own personal experience. I want to be more well-read. I want to learn more about certain mood disorders or more about PTSD. There are a lot of people that have come forward that have been in abusive relationships, have had addictions or suicidal tendencies. And I’m just not qualified.
You’ve about spoken previously about having been in an abusive relationship when you were younger and the PTSD that you suffered as a result of that - but not really recognizing it the time. I wonder how much studying has given you insight into your old experiences?
I feel very lucky in that I was able to get out of it. I did have to run away but I left - I had support and my family and friends helped me to find therapy. I was in therapy for years figuring out how to learn how to talk about it and learning how to have an outlet because I didn't know how to talk about my emotions. Then you get in other relationships and you don't realize how that one abusive relationship changes your connection with people, your trust of people, intimacy and all those things. Between therapy and having amazing friends that have helped me learn how to talk about it has been key for me.
One of the things that I want to learn in my studies is to help somebody learn how to communicate their emotions. Introvert behavior is what causes people that go through something like that to get really depressed because they don't know how to talk about it.
And being isolated from your family and friends is what enables the situations to flourish because you are unable to communicate what’s happening in your life...
And one of the things that I learned from seeing a therapist was that that's actually considered a “one-on-one cult” and you actually have to learn how to de-programme yourself from relying on that one person because they become the center of your universe and you're programmed to only think about that one person. And especially at an age where I was like 18, 19. I thought I knew what love was and it was this huge grandiose thing that was that this is “but you don't understand”, you know, it's like “this is the person that I need to be with and nothing else matters”.
I think often we are conditioned for whatever reasons in our early years to think of love as something that feels really extreme...
It’s on a pedestal. Yeah, It drives me crazy because I had amazing role models - my parents are still together. I'm one of five kids and we're all really close. I grew up watching Disney films. I don't know... maybe it was Prince Charming or something. I don't know how that was ingrained in me that no matter what, you fall in love and you deal.
Well maybe the tendency is to look to blame ourselves for being in the situation where actually really it is whatever's wrong with the person that’s perpetrating that abuse?
There's a part of it is that is that they prey on really nice people that tend to be introverts. It’s something I'm still understanding in my life, but I'm still empathic, but I've met a lot more people in my life so I feel like I can read people better now. Experience is everything.
"I feel like as a young woman I was really afraid to speak up for myself... as soon as I felt like I couldn't be myself or say what I felt I would feel paralyzed"
What advice would you have for your seventeen-year-old self?
I feel like as a young woman I was really afraid to speak up for myself. As soon as I felt like I couldn't be myself or say what I felt I would feel paralyzed. There's a lot of women who feel alone at a younger age, especially when they first leave home and they're trying to define who they are and they're trying to carve their own path, but you're not alone. And I think sometimes women are afraid - especially just young girls - to reach out and ask for help and they feel like they're weak or they need to figure something out out on our own but I think there’s strength in numbers and just don't be afraid to ask for help. Don't be afraid to reach out to friends or family or even therapists or whomever and have respect for yourself and know that it's okay to be figuring it out and that if you ever feel like you're not being yourself or you're being taken advantage of, talk to somebody because there are people that want to help.
The history of literature and the pop song is littered with people exploring adolescence and that moment of being on the cusp of adulthood. What do you think it is about that time in your life that drew you to writing “Seventeen” and that transformative moment in life?
That's funny because that's also the age that I would want to focus on when I become a therapist. It’s that that age when you first leave home. You think you know who you are. You think you know what you want. You end up leaving home to pursue something. But how could you possibly know what you want to do you're 17? But you're at your most self-righteous and stubborn and isolated ever.
That moment in life where you think you know who you are and just don't. There's no fucking way you know who you are - and most kids move away from home to a town they’ve never been to. If you're in a small town you go to a big city. If you're in a big city you probably go to a small town and if you leave and you don't know anybody so you're completely recreating yourself. I think it's just such a vulnerable time and people don't have support. They don't have anyone to talk to and they do things that they normally wouldn't.
It’s that collision of arrogance and vulnerability at the same time. That heady cocktail is explosive...
Yes, I look back and I wouldn't change anything. The mistakes that I made made me the person I am. Even the terrible things that happened in my life. I'm stronger for it. I am the person I am and I wouldn't change a thing. But there are moments in time I just I wish I could just hold it in my hand or give myself a hug.
I love that you brought back the Epic fade-in on ‘Seventeen”...
Thanks for the recognition [laughs] Yeah, I mean that was a John Congleton choice, but I had a good giggle at it. The ‘90s wink...
Were there particular songs that you were thinking about when writing about adolescence ?
Honestly it started when I was walking around a neighborhood in Brooklyn. If you live somewhere long enough, you walk by and you're “like damn it. That was a coffee shop I used to love and now it's a Starbucks!”. I was in a neighborhood that I used to live in but I couldn't afford any more. And I was having this moment of serendipity where I realized that 15 years earlier, when I first moved to New York, and I moved to Williamsburg, a friend of mine was telling me how everything was about to change and don't resent it because “civilizations throughout time rise and fall”. And I remember as we're walking around and I kind of did the same thing like “damn. I LOVE that spot” BUT civilizations throughout time rise and fall. It's become a mantra of mine as I now have finally lived somewhere long enough to see those types of changes.
The only certainty in life is change, I think. I guess that's sort of echoed in sonic changes on the record too in a way? I don't know if this is stretching an analogy too far but it feels like this is the next record after your musical adolescence in a way in that sense you evolving into a “grown-up”?
Definitely. And I've definitely put fans off by the marked change in the record. But it's still my songs. Melodically I still take a lot of the same changes and the same ethos and it's just the life path that I'm on. I'm writing about this chapter of my life. If you hear my first record and that's what you love, and then you hear this record...I get that maybe it's not your thing.
How different was the dynamic in the studio with somebody else helming the production of the record? As an artist you've always been so deeply entwined in the production process. What was the catalyst with changing this up with John Congleton?
Up until this record arrived I was pretty hands-on in the production. But this is where I'm at in my life. I just didn't have the emotional space to start managing all these personalities, and time to be in it 24 hours a day... I was finally ready to let go and just write all the songs. I was finally ready to give them to someone that I trust and just be a singer. It was really nerve-wracking but it was also really liberating. When I sat down with John Congleton and I referenced Suicide, Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree and Portishead. I think other people may have been nervous about those references. He got excited. And his eyes got really wide and I knew. I just loved the look on his face, and he wanted to make this record so badly. We did one day as a trial run and we did "Memorial Day" and "Jupiter 4" and I just I was floored. I hadn't felt that understood in a really long time.
My publisher and my manager heard demos early on and I heard the sonic changes and they encouraged them. No one was trying to squash this change. They were excited but they were nervous. I worked with a couple of people before John to just try to find the language of what it was that I wanted to do next because I had all these songs, but I didn't know what world I wanted to live in. So it took me a second to articulate it but when I finally sat down with John and I said those three references and we did that one day together. Then I knew that he understood.
There were fans who were definitely were put off by this record because they liked my last record so much and I'm just like, "well, I'm glad you have that record because I didn't want to make it again!"
To make the same record again. How utterly frustrating for you...
Yeah, there are various bands that do stick to a sound and I respect that too. You know, there's just honing and honing… I want to challenge myself all the time and I don't have a set band - it's just me writing the songs and then I bring the musicians into the studio. So it's not like I have a band that are constantly honing. It's just me as a writer, honing
Did you feel, because you've been so deeply embedded in the production on the previous records, that you had the “free pass” to step aside this time? I don't know how much you feel as a woman making music that you have some obligation to produce but because you've done that now you can kind of go “now I'm going to bring in a team around me”. It’s interesting how we give ourselves, as women, that kind of responsibility in a way to do everything because otherwise we might be “just a singer”?
I think in general I like to try to do something and figure out if I'm good at it and if not, I can admit that it's not my forte. Like, I'm not a drummer. When I make a demo I'll try my damnedest to write a beat so that when I do work with the drummer, they can hear my sketch of it and they can make it better. My partner used to play drums with me and when we started dating I literally had a piano and a drum kit and a twin bed in my bedroom and I wrote "Malibu" and "You Shadow" in my bedroom and it just sounded kind of like Mazzy Star. Like Low-style Mimi Parker drums. Her harmonies and her drumming are a huge influence on me.
You were also saying that your voice has changed since you had the baby?
Being an ex-smoker on top of having a C-section… The effects are in my rasp forever and the new songs are just more intense to sing anyway - a lot more screaming, a lot more rocking. I'm constantly working the mic and practicing my projection from my choir days and learning how to be relaxing this [diaphragm] area. I think as a singer we have so much tension in the throat and diaphragm that these are the biggest things. It's like your jaw, your tongue, and your throat in the act of relaxing gives you so much more of a range.
After having a C-section after 34 hours of induced labor... It was fucking brutal. Things that people just don't tell you that happens to you body..you know, separation - I was a pilates girl and I lost my core... The thing was diastasis. About two inches of separation all the way. So I had to work on strengthening that back up from exercising to singing again. I think it's just going to take me a minute. I don’t have as much support but I’m running to build my lung capacity again and just exercising to strengthen this area because being able to sustain notes is so important!
Especially now that when you're performing you aren’t stuck behind playing the guitar?
But yeah, I'm not good at the choreography stuff. But I'm trying to be present and engaging and interact with the crowd more. I try to make eye contact with as many people in the audience as I can before the show is over and it's a lot. I have to be very present and you have to be thinking about so many things at one time - between the lyrics and your body and the mic and the cable.
"I have more of a positive message so that when I do go to the 'old Sharon' songs it still has a positive message and that helps me mentally prepare"
What do you think about the toll of performing heartbreak professionally.?Your first four albums seemed generated from a place of darkness. That must take a toll doing that every night. Have you had to separate yourself or can you fully immerse yourself in that memory or moment?
When I first started playing, singing those songs was really cathartic for me and even though it was emotional because I was still in it and getting out of it, it was helpful. But then when I was in a better place singing about it, I felt like I started reverting and thank goodness I had the wherewithal to be cognizant with that. And I've talked about it with my bandmates and I acknowledged that I was going to dark places on tour. I'm singing these songs night after night about a love that didn't exist, about a person that it didn't work out with. Because I was battling all these contradictions and also connecting to the fans on top of that, and realizing that they're asking for advice, but I have no idea what the hell I'm talking about.
I'm battling similar demons that I have all my life. You know, I'm still getting through it. I felt it catching up with me at a certain point and that's one of the reasons why I took a break. I'm in a good place but singing them made me feel like I was really living it. So I started writing from a different place. And then now that I've made this record, part of the intention with the set is to only play my positive songs. I have more of a positive message so that when I do go to the “old Sharon” songs it still has a positive message and that helps me mentally prepare.
We're having a lot of conversations in this country about touring and mental health conversations...
I took a break from drinking for the first week just to see what it felt like and make sure that I set myself up for the tour, knowing that I would have a clear head while playing these songs for the first time to know how I felt for real. I think having really good shows to start a tour, knowing that I was in control set the tone for me and the people that I was around. I think also not just not having alcohol around as much helps everybody.
So what do the next 17 years hold for Sharon Van Etten?
I'm hoping to be in practice by the time I'm 50, so I feel like that's a realistic goal to set for myself: to get my certification while still pursuing all these other things that I have interests in.
And hopefully still making records I hope?
You know, I was pleasantly surprised that during my “break” I wrote all those songs because, like I said before, I didn't have a plan. I was happy to take a break and live my life. But when I turned around and realized I had 40 demos just from hanging out and living my life. That was really comforting.
Maybe this is the new method? Take a break, write an album accidentally?
[laughs] Yeah, don't force it.