Music

How Sharon Van Etten Found Her Way Through Motherhood And ‘The OA’ To Her Brilliant New Album

Ryan Pfluger

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For as long as there have been journalists interested in speaking to her, Sharon Van Etten has dealt with the most intimate details of her life being discussed and dissected in the media. She invites it, with courageous candor, by writing stunning songs about her trauma. Back in 2010 — which my calendar says occurred only nine years ago but my body and brain insists must be 50 at least — I talked with Van Etten about breaking off the abusive relationship that inspired her first proper album, 2009’s Because I Was In Love. Van Etten was not yet a star; our interview was pegged to a small club show she had booked in Milwaukee that ultimately drew about two dozen people. She was a bit quieter and less sure of herself then, but that trademark fearlessness about confronting her demons publicly was already essential to her art. When a reporter on the other end of the phone asked her to recount one of the darkest periods of her life for an article, she didn’t flinch.

Van Etten is still fearless in her songs, as evidenced by her great new album, Remind Me Tomorrow, in which she writes for the first time about unconditional, as opposed to romantic, love. The record didn’t start out that way — when she began writing this recent batch of songs after the tour cycle ended for 2014’s acclaimed Are We There, Van Etten envisioned her next release as a song cycle about falling in love with her partner and manager Zeke Hutchins. She wrote prose pieces that eventually became the lyrics to songs like “Stay,” in which she sings, “You won’t let me go astray / you will let me find my way.”

Then, as is her custom, she put the songs away for a while. A lot changed in the interim — she was cast in the Netflix series The OA, she enrolled in Brooklyn College to pursue a degree in psychology, and, most important, she became pregnant with a baby boy. Now, when Van Etten revisited “Stay,” it spoke to her as a mother entering a relationship with a child she knew she could never walk away from. A connection so powerful it overwhelms your sense of self and everything else you used to care about. A beautiful, and terrifying, kind of love.

It’s understandable then that Van Etten is more cautious these days. When we met up last month, she was as unfiltered and engaging as ever, a trait that has long endeared her to music writers as well as the hard-core fans who spill their guts out to her after shows. (Part of the motivation to study psychology is Van Etten’s legitimate belief that she could help these people beyond just writing songs for them.) We talked a lot about parenthood — her son turns 2 in March, about five months after my daughter’s second birthday — reminiscing about the unique mix of emotions inspired by welcoming new babies in the shadow of the 2016 presidential election.

“I started to tear up as I saw the results coming in,” she said. “And I turned off the TV. I had to psych myself out, like ‘Stop crying, because he’s gonna absorb all this sh*t. It’s my job to be positive and make him feel safe.'”

Off-handedly, I asked what her son’s name is. At that point Van Etten, suddenly, felt another strong impulse to bear down and go into protection mode. “I’ve decided that’s something I won’t say in periodical stuff,” she said. “I’m trying to learn how to draw lines. Because it is personal, but it’s also where I’m at in my life. [But] having my own name out there and his name out there, it’s just… people are weird.”

This balance of personal joy and fear of potentially menacing forces lurking outside the domestic bubble very much informs Remind Me Tomorrow, the most musically dynamic and overall best album that Van Etten has ever made. In songs like “I Told You Everything” and “Malibu,” she writes guilelessly emotive confessionals about the comfort of finding those who finally make you feel like you have a home. (From “Malibu,” a lyrical snapshot that feels like a real life vignette: “I walked in the door / the Black Crowes playin’ as he cleaned the floor / I thought I couldn’t love him any more.”) But these songs are set to music that pulsates with goth-y synths, buzzing basslines, and dreamy drum machines — basically nothing like the austere piano and guitar-based arrangements that distinguish Van Etten’s previous work.

“I like a lot of post-punk music, electronic music, no wave, new wave,” she said, singling out Nick Cave and Suicide as especially essential inspirations. “We wanted to shine a light on this section of my record collection that most of my fans probably don’t know that I have.”

It’s a welcome change. While Van Etten has always been a captivating singer – she manages to sound both conversational and operatic, like Edith Piaf covering Joni Mitchell — her albums have sometimes unfolded in predictable fashion, leaning heavily on mid-tempo ballads that build from whispers to cathartic climaxes. Remind Me Tomorrow shakes up that formula dramatically, pitting dark sonic textures against the warmth of Van Etten’s voice and lyrics, creating a tension that’s familiar for any parent — now that you’ve built a home, will the world conspire to take it all away?

“I feel like people were expecting me to be like, ‘oh, she’s a new mom, she’s in love, this is gonna be such a happy record.’ [But] I can’t pretend that everything’s great. I needed to acknowledge that — with all the good things going on in my personal life, there’s all this other darkness and weight.”

While it’s been five years since Are We There, the longest gap between Van Etten’s albums, it’s not as though she put Remind Me Tomorrow off to the side, even as other commitments, both professional and personal, interceded. (Along with everything else, she was also enlisted by David Lynch to perform at the Roadhouse on Twin Peaks: The Return.) Songwriting began in 2015, with Van Etten working on a piano. Then she moved to a new rehearsal space after agreeing to compose the score for Katherine Dieckmann’s 2017 film Strange Weather. Only she couldn’t stop writing new songs. She started fiddling with a Roland Jupiter 4 synthesizer owned by Michael Cera, who shared the space with Van Etten, as a distraction from her new career as a film composer.

“I’d hit these bumps in the road, where I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere creatively while working on the score,” Van Etten recalled. “So, in order to clear my head, I would put the guitar down and I would play anything else, just to cleanse my palette.” In her solitude, she felt emboldened to just futz around on the synthesizer and come up with cool, weird-sounding chord progressions. Over time, she accumulated 40 demos.

At first, she didn’t expect to show them to anybody. But eventually Van Etten passed them along to respected indie rock producer John Congleton, who has worked with St. Vincent, Angel Olsen, and The Walkmen, among many others. Together, they turned Remind Me Tomorrow into the biggest sounding music of Van Etten’s career, both on slower, more thoughtful songs like “I Told You Everything” as well as the up-tempo singles “Comeback Kid” and “Seventeen,” which veer surprisingly close to full-on arena rock in the mode of ’80s Bruce Springsteen and ’70s Patti Smith. (“I am from Jersey so I can’t fight those influences, they’re in my blood,” she said with a laugh.)

Having your own child makes you reassess what it means to be a son or daughter yourself; accepting a new role in your life as a caregiver doesn’t necessarily mean giving up your old role as one who needs to be cared after. That’s essentially what “Comeback Kid” is about. It originally started out as two separate songs, one of which was called “Runaway.” Van Etten’s friend Sam Cohen suggested using part of “Runaway” as the bridge of “Comeback Kid,” which instantly transformed the song.

“It made me explore more of that feeling of when you go back home and you’re visiting your family,” Van Etten explains. “No matter how much older you are or where you’re at in your career, in your life, you go back home and you’re that little kid. You’re always gonna be your parent’s kid.”

Next month, Van Etten will head out on the road, a change of life she naturally feels some trepidation about. She’s still figuring out how to balance her roles as mother and rocker — her son recently started daycare, so she’s reluctant to take him away from his new friends. But she also dreads being away from him at a time when children are still whizzing rapidly through various stages of development.

At some point, she may no longer tour at all. While Van Etten is only 37, she’s already questioned whether she wants to “be in a tour van when I’m 50.” By then, she might finally complete that psychology degree. But for now, Van Etten remains committed to sharing her life with the world, only this time with her family at her side.

“I want him to grow up seeing both of his parents working and thriving, and figuring it out in their own way.”

Remind Me Tomorrow is out 1/18 via Jagjaguwar. Get it here.

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