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

Cultural Critic
01.17.19

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.

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