In an ornate hotel lobby just outside of downtown Amsterdam, Sharon Van Etten holds up her hands, which are no longer hidden beneath her sleeves. She compares the level of chipping on her nail polish with my own as if showing off old war scars. “It’s that whole ‘I’ve got shit to do, I don’t have time to maintain’ look,” she smirks, narrowing her almond-shaped eyes mischievously.
When in conversation, Van Etten’s wry wit tends to rub off on you. Over the past four years, she has unshackled herself from what I jokingly call ‘The Touring & Recording Cycle of Death’. As a result, her innate passion for myriad disciplines was able to materialize in fresh, unexpected ways. She wrote her first film scores and landed the role of Rachel in the Netflix drama series The OA. On top of that, she started studying psychology, in a bid to become a therapist by the age of fifty. “It has me asking more questions,” she tells me, sipping from her tea. “About, for instance, how important your past is. How important different perspectives are.”
One way to explore different perspectives is to try different art forms, and Van Etten is trying more than ever, on top of the responsibilities of motherhood no less. In a phase where society often tells you to ‘settle down’ and ‘stay in your lane’, the 37-year old New Jersey-native is fruitfully doing the opposite. “One of my babysitters out there is a writer and comedian, and early on she asked me to just perform a variety show she was putting on,” she enthuses.
“And since I’ve been working on my new songs, I felt like that would be kind of boring. I wanted to challenge myself differently. I don’t think standup is where I’ll hang my hat, but I enjoy the challenge of writing and drawing from personal experiences. Becoming a mom has been hilarious in many ways. Especially trying to find friends as a mom! It’s hard to make friends as an adult anyway, but as a mom with a family… that’s a whole different universe! How am I going to find a sitter? What’s the best playground? How do you trust a babysitter? You leave a complete stranger with your kid. When you think about it, all those things are pretty bizarre!”
Van Etten believes that trusting others more was crucial for her personal growth these past four and a half years. “It’s just the initial letting go that’s so scary. But that happened when I learned to co-write with people. When I learned how to let go of the songs I’ve written to other people, and the family relationship with my partner. For the first time, I let someone produce my record entirely. Even something as simple as finding the right babysitter, someone who can open up my son in a different way than I can. Those things are a constant in life.”
As a recording artist who dealt with acclaim from critics and peers alike, Van Etten is no stranger to developing her craft and taking that leap of faith. But after each chapter, something elemental always permeates. Van Etten’s work wields the power to crystallize the most devastating mortal experiences with resplendency and celebration. One song that always stuck with me is Are We There-deep cut ‘Tarifa’. It was written in the most southern point of Spain during the final repose of a crumbling relationship, briefly untethered from a particularly heavy touring cycle. Nevertheless, its exotic setting plays a heart-wrenching part in a scenario of ‘not quite there’. Being able to peer towards new continental pastures from across the ocean, a sad, stirring realization simmers beneath: the desired destination is still too far to straddle.
For all that, Van Etten’s innate kindness remains etched in her words: the bliss of witnessing those majestic sunsets (‘I wish it was seven all night’), naively embraces the fallacy of it all. For good measure, ‘Tarifa’ adds an impassioned sax flourish that would be considered maudlin if not for Van Etten’s tendency to scatter candid – often quirky – revelations like a trail of breadcrumbs. As it turns out, Van Etten hasn’t kicked the habit of writing songs in exotic places. Her new album Remind Me Tomorrow has a song called ‘Malibu’, though sonically speaking, this one doesn’t exactly scream ‘exotic’ the way ‘Tarifa’ does. First of all, there is no beautiful destination at play. Van Etten instead opens with this:
“We held hands as we passed the truck / Just a couple of dudes who don’t give a fuck / Tap the brakes and we slow down / Just a couple of jokers on the edge of town”
Unless we’re talking Springsteen, the tale of two runaways astray in some dust bowl doesn’t evoke the same immaculate romance as, maybe, the hued beach sunsets of Gibraltar. But ultimately, it’s a better analogy for what you’d call a healthy, pragmatic and long-lasting relationship. This sentiment is the gist of Remind Me Tomorrow: there is no smooth, panoramic glide over these treacherous emotional landscapes. Van Etten instead takes a king-sized four-wheel drive, grinding and seething her way through. It’s as much a textural record as it is a melodic one: organs and synths cut like serrated knives, drums sound crunchy and colossal in bonkers Dave Fridmann-like fashion, and Van Etten’s voice incisively penetrates where it would otherwise swerve across different registers.
Indeed, Remind Me Tomorrow is appropriately messy, and congruently, day-to-day life is a pretty messy ongoing process. The key to tomorrow often means recognizing the ephemeral beauty within that mess. Befittingly, the lustrous West Coast balladry of ‘Malibu’ is enveloped by cavernous synth textures. “The first half of the song was written when my (current) partner took me to Malibu for the first time,” Van Etten reminisces. “I finished the second half in New York. When I came home from the studio, I walked in the door and I saw him cleaning his bathroom in his pajama’s playing The Black Crowes. That was a special moment, because it became an actual story, a little vignette, and I don’t tend to write like that. It represented where I was at in my heart.”
Within these type of silly, banal moments – moments most people tend to bury and forget – Van Etten has a special knack for finding universal meaning. That trait goes beyond just her songs. Before pursuing music full-time in her early twenties, Van Etten was momentarily immersed in photography. “When I was learning (photography), as soon as I took classes, I started framing things regularly,” she reveals. “I took a photo class in high school, and also one in my twenties, which is why Are We There has a photograph of my friend Rebecca. I’m always thinking: ‘That’s a beautiful moment. I wish I had gotten my camera out two-minutes earlier.’”
During my last encounter with Van Etten, back in the spring of 2014, she was restlessly teetering at an impasse. Life on the road wasn’t always as blissful as, say, driving down an open road with a loved one. Time wasn’t a luxury, but a prison. Her best friend eventually moved to Indiana, married with two children, while Van Etten was left wondering whether it was too late to embrace domestic life within the frantic clockwork of touring and recording. Meanwhile, time kept ticking away.
To make things more confusing, Van Etten came off a long-term relationship with someone who begged her to choose between her career or her relationship. While recording Are We There, she gave her then-boyfriend two pictures: the one of her best friend that made the album cover, and another she made of a pile of trash resting next to a brick wall with the word ‘Profound’ sprayed on it. “It sums me up,” she concluded at the time. “I’m heavy, but also a total joker.”
That being said, there has to be a workable balance. Van Etten realized she needed to hit the breaks and regain control. “Generally, I feel lucky to work with people that ‘hear’ the artist. My label Jagjaguwar has been amazing: when I told them I needed a break, they were very understanding. Even though it was hard for my band to hear, they wanted me to be okay first and foremost. They knew I wasn’t in a good place. I knew when to stop before I would self-destruct. I knew that I needed a sense of stability. I needed to live my life a little bit if I wanted to have anything interesting left to write about.”
On Remind Me Tomorrow choosing between heaviness and playfulness no longer feels like an ultimatum. And truth be told, the album doesn’t unfold as a radical departure either: like ‘Afraid Of Nothing’ – the opening track of Are We There – ‘I Told You Everything’ is a piano-ballad that starts in C. Despite those sonic parallels, this isn’t a rousing torch song. A louring synth swell and fractured beat give the impression of slow pacing in darkness with a candle, keeping its quivering flame alit within the palms of your hand. Attempting to peer through still feels invasive; nevertheless, Van Etten lets the listener eavesdrop in on a candid conversation. The opening lyric: “Sitting at the bar, I told you everything / You said: ‘Holy shit, you almost died’”. In all its ambiguity, you can picture a heavy mutual revelation of sorts taking place. But at the same time, the ability to joke about something heavy signals new wisdom and perspective, because you’re no longer living it, you’re ready to move on.
When Are We There was released, Van Etten was still ‘living’ the songs, which attributed to some of her most brutally intimate lyrics. Remind Me Tomorrow embraces the beauty of perspective. Hindsight. Writing the album on “borrowed time” – between her many other projects, endeavors, and responsibilities – serendipitously forced her to reassess song ideas within radically different places, situations, and mental states. “I would return to these songs at different intervals in my life. Most of the songs I started writing before I was pregnant, and I would return to them during my pregnancy, and I finished them after I had my kid.”
Sometimes, the pronoun of a song would change several times, Van Etten reveals, giving her music a more elemental quality. Closer ‘Stay’ for instance was written with both her partner and her son in mind. “I started writing this song before I had a kid. It’s one of the few songs I wrote on guitar. I found myself staring at my kid, who was napping. The only word I had written in the chorus was ‘stay’. I found myself crying because I was looking at him. I just kept thinking: ‘I just want you to be okay, I want you to know I’m not going to leave you.’ So when I started writing for my partner it was like …[in affectionate tone] ‘I’m never going to leave you, baby!’, and now it’s: [earnestly] ‘I’m never going to leave you’.”
Despite its more bizarro sonic makeup, Remind Me Tomorrow oozes more levity than any of Van Etten’s previous records, further proof that noise and discord can be agents of joy, not just signifiers of nihilism or dread. ‘Stay’ is no exception: Van Etten’s voice is drenched in strangely sangfroid overdubs and effects, further inducing a sense of containment. Raising a child is an exchange, not a sacrifice: its life and growth are just as much a source of nourishment and clarity. And within very tenuous political times, that’s a precious certainty. “Letting go to let you lead / I don’t know how it ends”, Van Etten sings in a whispered inflection. The most significant catalyst of this understanding, according to her, was letting go of the stray life that elicited all those fatalist impulses, a slow burn towards self-acceptance. That also meant leaving the city that has shaped her art for the better part of her career.
“I lived in New York for fifteen years, and I feel like it’s a very different place now, from when I first moved there. Some of my friends who were artists in the community that I came up in either don’t live there anymore or are working so much that we don’t see each other. I tried working there to make a new record, but it just wasn’t flowing and I didn’t feel it.“ The naivéte of building a fertile creative life in a heavily gentrified, expensive neighborhood shrieks most urgently in ‘Seventeen’. This sobering eighties new wave stomp captures Van Etten at her most primal: “I know what you’re gonna be / I know that you’re gonna be!”, she yelps with Pat Benatar-like austerity. You can almost picture her turning the hourglass with an emphatic slam.
‘Wild and free’ has an expiration date, and fortunately, that coveted tabula rasa-moment presented itself. “I got an opportunity to spend six months in Los Angeles, rent-free. I was just on call for a job for six months, I only ended up working for eight days, I ended up meeting a lot of other musicians and people took me under their wing. And I kind of fell into a community there; I finally met (producer) John Congleton. We had a coffee and we got along really well. It felt very natural actually. I was nervous to move to LA, because I never connected to the city before. I also never spent more than 24 hours there because of the way touring works, so it was a lot of new experiences. By taking a chance and trying something new, I made something better than I thought I would have.”
The slower pace of Los Angeles granted Van Etten a foot in the door to compartmentalize her interests. Not to devolve to ageism, but when you hit your mid-thirties, compartmentalizing activities becomes pretty much essential to stay sane. In your teens and twenties, making a simple dinner fraught of three deadlines circling your brain can be quite a challenge. I for one, have botched far too many meals while mired within the frantic energy of my other work. But in my thirties, I learned to treat cooking as this separate mission, and I got better at it because of that shift in mentality. Still, I can only imagine how much careful time management is required in Sharon Van Etten’s life. She tentatively laughs at this loopy assumption: “I also like cooking and experimenting with food, I love entertaining, I love having guests over, I love exposing people to records… I love… I think, normal stuff?”
One of her favorite books happens to be Ray Bradbury’s bundle Zen In The Art Of Writing, which has been helpful in guiding all these impulses rushing from within. “I remembered (Bradbury’s) mindset well: to sit down and write without thinking what it is or will become, or whether or not you share it with people. It’s simply about making that time to create. You have the choice to share it or not. Just the act of writing itself, you notice yourself relax and let your mind wander. Whether it’s the fact that you caught yourself singing, writing your journal – even just the art of letting your mind wander. I feel like everyone is so driven all the time: to work, to ‘get it’. There are so many things to do in life: especially as you get older, as you get more responsibilities and tackle more extremes.”
The dilemma of owning any good book is whether you keep the knowledge as a reminder for later, or pass it onto someone who might need it. The sheer dopamine rush after turning that final page – that cascading feeling of acquiring all these fresh impulses, ready to be processed and (re)defined within your frame of reference – is often intimidating. Good luck storing all the information in your head, knowing full well you’ll forget most of it down the line. Van Etten perfectly sums it up herself: “I need to let my mind wander more often… I need to re-read that book, actually!”
As mentioned before, Sharon Van Etten enjoys framing things. And the truism of ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’ never rings truer than at this stage of her life. “The album cover is a photograph of my friend’s kid’s playroom. My friend, (film director) Katherine Dieckmann, for whom I wrote the score for Strange Weather,” Van Etten says. “She became a friend and a mentor for me, because I up to that point, I had never done a score before. I was in this transition of time, trying to take a break from the road, learn how to be creative while being home. So she held my hand throughout the process, really took me under her wing, instilled all this confidence in me in a world that I wasn’t all that familiar with.”
During Strange Weather’s premiere at Toronto International Film Festival two years ago, Van Etten finally told Dieckmann she was pregnant. “I was crying and she was crying. We were celebrating, but I was also scared: ‘I don’t know what I’m doing; I don’t know how I’m going to be an artist, a mother, and an actress.’ But Kathy is an old school New Yorker, she has been there since the 70s. She was a long-form writer for Rolling Stone, she directed early music videos for people like REM and Kristin Hersh. She was friends with a lot of Athens-based bands in the 90s. But then she moved on more into the film world, she did The Adventures of Pete & Pete, she became a professor at Columbia University, teaching screenwriting, she married a photographer. They own apartments across the hall from each other that they don’t want to let go of, because of the NYC rent control. They had two kids and lived in two separate apartments.”
Somehow, despite all these disparate trajectories, Dieckmann has made it work. “So when I told her I was scared, she just laughed at me. She then pulled her phone out of her pocket and showed me that photograph, and she just said: you’ll figure it out. And ever since, I’ve used that photograph as a source of comfort.” Amidst the vibrant image of two children going off on a tangent amidst an assembly of stuffed animals, blankets and toys, there’s an elegant picture of Van Etten buried on the floor: sleek dark bangs, grey shirt, pale face.
Perhaps another tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment that beneath all the messiness, that deserter’s spirit is ever present, full of yearning. This time, though, she figured out which direction to funnel it. On ‘You Shadow’, Van Etten intones, with unflinching hubris: “Open your mind / And it’s easy to find where I am.”
Remind Me Tomorrow is out January 18 via Jagjaguwar. For more information about Sharon Van Etten, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit her official website. Read Katherine Dieckmann’s beautiful essay for The Talkhouse, about making the video for Van Etten’s single ‘Jupiter 4’.
Photo Credit: Ryan Pfluger