Sharon Van Etten makes me feel like I don’t do anything.
In the five years since her 2014 opus Are We There alone, it would be hard to find something she hasn’t done. In addition to touring behind that album, she performed and collaborated with countless other artists. She started scoring films. She branched out into acting and appeared on some of the buzziest cult television shows of the era. She even started pursuing her degree in Psychology. On top of all of that, she settled into a long-term relationship and became a parent. Oh yeah, and she wrote and recorded her latest masterpiece, the soaring, sobering Remind Me Tomorrow. Just typing all of that out makes me want to go back to bed, but Van Etten sounds as energized and dynamic as ever. While this album’s songs aren’t about these life events and achievements, specifically, they do accurately convey the emotions and perspective shifts that came with them. It’s a meditation on what it’s like to be happy during unhappy times, and how important and challenging it is to stay happy.
Ahead of next week’s performance at Union Transfer, Sharon was gracious enough to have a long chat with me about everything that’s been going on in the years leading up to Tomorrow, the work and influences that went into it, and how she stays grounded and positive through everything going on around us.
The Key: So, you have been really busy in the years between this album and Are We There. You’ve been acting. You’ve been writing film scores. You’re in school. You’re a parent. As someone who often struggles to multitask, the first thing I wanted to know if you have any tips for juggling multiple projects?
Sharon Van Etten: Honestly, there were days where I felt like I was just a “B” at everything. I don’t want it to be like “I’m doing all of these things and I’m just perfect!”. I will say that I have amazing support around me to help me figure it out and encourage me when things felt really hard. Also Google Calendar has really been a lifesaver for me, just prioritizing time and saying “this is when I’m doing this” or “this is when I’m doing that” and sticking to a schedule.
With school, especially, it’s really easy to say “this is when I’m going”, because if you don’t study you don’t do well. So I would just go to school, come back, pick up my son from daycare, do our nighttime ritual and put him to bed. Then I’d have dinner with partner and just do work until I fell asleep.
TK: That sounds intense.
SVE: Yes, and that was just one semester!
TK: With that in mind, you did a lot of your work on Remind Me Tomorrow during what you called “stolen time”, in between other priorities and obligations. How did writing your songs this way, in a sort of “get in where they fit in” manner, compare with how you’ve written and recorded in the past?
SVE: Well, they all started in a similar place. Whenever I start a song, I’ll come up with a chord progression and a melody. If I have a verse and a chorus idea, I’ll just hit record and let myself go for a while. Then I’ll hit stop, file it away, and wait to revisit it until I have a clear head.
Usually, that came from a place of heartbreak. But this time around, it came from falling in love, and they’re all songs for my partner. In the past they were about heartbreak and I was getting over it and finding myself and had this drive. This time, it was coming from “I found it” when I started. Then in the second stage of the writing process, I was pregnant, so my mindset changed even more. By the third stage, I had my child and would finish the songs with headphones on, staring at him while he napping. So I feel like there are more perspectives in these songs. It’s not just about one person or one experience. It’s about an overall feeling and life change.
TK: Was it harder or easier writing songs from these new perspectives?
SVE: I guess I wasn’t really conscious of it. It was just something that was a secondary thing. It was the creative side of me going while I was taking this time for life and reminding myself that I still had it in me, but without thinking it would be for a record. I never stress or feel pressure about making a record, but this time I wasn’t even sure I would make another one. I was just writing to write.
TK: In addition to what you say about new perspectives, you mention in your press release an effort to stay positive as a parent. How do you do that?
SVE: Honestly, I feel like my son guides me a little bit. He kind of checks me and reminds me that it’s a lot of the simple things. He gets so excited about music. He loves basketball. It’s just these really simple, tangible things in our own little universe.
Yeah, in the back of my mind, there are all these voices in my head about things going on in the world, things I need to achieve personally. But at the end of the day, it’s my son and my family that matters and grounds me to be present. I think that’s what keeps me positive.
TK: You actually gravitated away from the guitar a bit on this record. I read that you used a lot of guitar in your film score work and started from a more piano based template for these songs to get away from that.
SVE: Yes, at the time I was writing the score for Katherine Dieckmann’s film Strange Weather. She referenced the score to Paris, Texas by Ry Cooder, which is a very tall order. I don’t play guitar like that very naturally but I was up to the challenge. So I would be working in my studio, playing guitar, and I would get to a place where I felt like I was hitting a bit of a wall. To clear my head, I would put down the guitar and reach for anything else that was in arm’s length.
I was sharing a space with (the actor) Michael Cera at the time and he had a handful of keyboards lying around. We also had a piano and a drum kit so I just gravitated toward those. I would play those just to clear my head, cleanse my palette, and then I would return to my guitar with a fresh perspective. I found that really helpful and I ended up inadvertently writing a lot of these songs that way.
TK: Then from there you brought the songs to John Congleton, who pushed them in a more propulsive direction. What drew you to John as a collaborator?
SVE: We actually talked a little bit before I made Are We There. We have mutual friend in Jonathan Meiburg from Shearwater. I remember being nervous to work with him because I wasn’t ready to relinquish my songs to a producer. I wanted to be very hands on for that record, bring in the musicians, tell them my ideas, etc. It was my goal to produce it myself, with the help of someone else who ended up being Stewart Lerman.
This time around, I was ready to let go. If I hadn’t produced the last record, known what the responsibilities were and how time consuming that would be, I would have had the confidence to let go like I did. I think John has such a wide range of taste. He doesn’t have a particular sound so you can’t really pin him down. He’s so direct, decisive, and he listens to you and what your influences are. When I mentioned the more left of center influences that I wanted to magnify in my songs for the record, he got really excited. I mentioned Suicide, Portishead, and Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree and his eyes got really wide. Honestly it was a load off to work with someone so decisive and excited and positive.
TK: I’m glad you mentioned those influences because when I read about them, I was struck by how so much of this record was about love and presence and positivity, yet sonically is inspired by artists who, while amazing, aren’t typically associated with those things. What motivated that juxtaposition?
SVE: Well, I think it’s a double edged sword when you let go and fall in love and decide “this is my person.” There’s a certain weight to that, to being completely vulnerable and wanting to be together forever and bringing a life into the world. And again going back to what’s going on in the world, I wanted to acknowledge the darkness that is around us while still being in a really good place in my life.
Also what I love about those artists is that there’s a duality in their music. Nick Cave writes love songs. He experimented with drones and the meditative synths and drum beats and almost spoken word on that record in particular. There’s something really beautiful about the mourning. Similarly, but maybe opposite, Portishead has amazing beats with vocals that are almost sinister, almost joking. I like that it’s not straight forward. If it’s a happy song, it’s juxtaposed with darkness. If it’s sad, it’s juxtaposed with a really upbeat tempo. I find those things really interesting.
TK: Especially with Portishead. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen them live, but that juxtaposition plays out on stage as well. Beth Gibbons is such an effervescent presence live.
SVE: I’ve only ever seen videos from their Roseland Live performance, but they’re so amazing.
TK: Speaking of live performances, how will your live show evolve with these new songs?
SVE: Honestly I’m still figuring it out, because I don’t really play guitar on this record. I’ll just be performing as a singer on these new songs.
TK: Is that a first for you?
SVE: Yes! I performed once just singing when I sang for BBC Proms with an orchestra, but that was my first time. This is very different. It’s fronting my own band. I’m going to have to own it. I’ve been YouTubing a lot of performers from the ‘70s and ‘80s.
SVE: Yeah I’m trying to conjure my inner Joan Jett, Pat Benetar, Suzi Quatro, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith…
TK: Those are very good reference points.
SVE: (laughs) Yeah a lot of practice. No dancing though! You don’t want to see me dance.
TK: Speaking of dancing! I loved your collaborations with Hercules & Love Affair, both their remix of “Not Myself”, which your recorded in the aftermath of the Pulse shootings, and your vocal contribution to the title track off their last album, Omnion. How did recording dance music compare to how you’ve made music in the past?
SVE: I’ve had a lot of fun exploring how to sing for other people and write with other people. It puts you in a different headspace and comfort level. Number one, it’s just a relief that it’s not your project and you can just follow directions. Also, Andy from Hercules is such a sweetheart. He’s been really supportive over the years. I had a lot of fun doing it. He had a fake voice in there for me to follow. The phrasing was so specific in syncopation with the beats. It almost felt like I was rapping. That song was about finding yourself, and it was a nice match for “Not Myself”, which was a song about being yourself.
TK: Going back to your score work, how did writing music for Strange Weather compare to your songwriting?
SVE: Well, I’m still learning, but score writing is the opposite of writing a song. You’re writing a moment. You’re writing to something to support a scene, and sometimes that scene might only last fifteen seconds. I remember my initial instincts were to start writing a song and I’d want to sing something. Katherine would say “Every time you want to sing, just hum!” So I did, and that’s why there’s a lot of humming on the score. But these were more about very specific emotions leading into very specific moments, which was challenging as opposed to coming up with chord progressions, singing stream of consciously, etc.
TK: Of course in addition to that, you’ve also been acting. You were in The OA as well as the new Twin Peaks. What drew you to acting?
SVE: Well I feel very lucky in that I wasn’t really looking to act. It just kind of fell in my lap. A casting director had seen me open for Nick Cave back in 2013. Then in 2015, my manager got a call from Netflix asking me to audition for this show (The OA). This was two weeks into school, after I had decided to leave music for a bit.
At first I was like “I don’t know. It was already a hard decision to come off the road to start with school.” But I had a partner who was very encouraging and we both just laughed about what an adventure it would be. So I took the audition and I got it! That was just a fluke. I think if I continue to pursue acting, it will continue to happen in that way. It’s definitely something that I need more practice in. I want to do more studies. I want to do more improv. I want to be in more writing rooms. It’s interesting to me but it’s not at the forefront of my life right now.
TK: And like you said, you’re in school studying Psychology.
SVE: Yes, when I can. I never got my undergrad so I’m a sophomore right now. I’m giving myself until the age of 50 to become a therapist.
TK: Nice! What draws you to that field?
SVE: Well, I’ve always written from a place of therapy. Every time I’m having a hard time, I just hit record and get it out. Most of the time, I don’t share that with people. As my career has progressed over the years, I have met fans who have told me their stories, either seeking advice or just letting me know. I love that and appreciate it, but there are times where I wish could follow up with them or have advice for them. It just flipped a switch in me to become a therapist, help people one on one and just grow with them.
TK: You’re playing Union Transfer next week. You obviously have a lot of history in Philly. What do you love about it?
SVE: I just have a great crew of friends there who have been supportive over the years. I was nurtured by Greg Weeks and Meg Baird and Brian McTear at Weathervane. Greg Weeks recorded my first record. I toured with Meg who is in Espers. I’ve gotten to tour with The War on Drugs who are all from around there and who have taken me under their wing many a times. I have a friend, Allison, who has done artwork for me who also grew up close by in Jersey. I have a soft spot for Philly because people work really really hard and are very driven.
TK: Philly knows how to multitask!
SVE: (laughs) That’s right!
Sharon Van Etten headlines Union Transfer on Thursday, February 7th. Tickets and more information about the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.interview, Sharon Van Etten, Union Transfer