Getting deep with Sharon Van Etten, pop's great polymath

Getting deep with Sharon Van Etten, pop's great polymath

Switching gears — After pressing pause on her blossoming music career, Sharon Van Etten took some time out to recalibrate. Now that she's back with her biggest album yet, the singer talks therapy, comedy and finding a different kind of love.

Sharon Van Etten can get more accomplished during a break than most of us would in our entire lives. When the musician went on hiatus in 2015, she began studying to become a therapist. Then she acted in Netflix series The OA, had a child, scored a film, recorded an album and tried stand-up comedy.

“Well, y’know, why waste any time?” she says with a laugh. “I guess by slowing down, things just started coming to me, falling my way.”

The 37-year-old is sitting in a restaurant at an East London hotel, dressed in a black leather jacket, pearl blouse, dark blue jeans and boots; pouring a cup of tea while opening up with a comforting warmth.

Our paths have crossed with every release Sharon’s put out, dating all the way back to a CD-R of home recordings in 2008, but she’s so easy to talk to that it feels like that sense of casual intimacy has always been there.

Originally from the suburbs of New Jersey, Sharon moved to Tennessee for college at the age of 17 and ended up in an abusive relationship. One day, five years later, she stuffed her clothes in a bag and pretended to go the laundromat. Instead she fled to her family, who agreed to take her back in on the condition that she go to school, get a job and see a counsellor.

That plan gave Sharon the strength to move to Brooklyn, in 2005, where connections sprouted and her music found people who recognised its power: sparse and vulnerable yet totally magnetic. Since then, every step along the way has marked a breakthrough.

Fifth album Remind Me Tomorrow is a pulsating, synth-driven overhaul that builds on the strengths of 2014’s acclaimed Are We There. Producing that album involved an insane amount of work, Sharon explains – not just in terms of bringing her ideas to life, but in being a mediator who can get the best out of people.

This time, she didn’t have the emotional energy for all-day shifts in the studio. Instead she craved a regimen that could be stuck to.

So once Sharon found the right producer in John Congleton, trusting him with the material created more freedom for her as a singer while still leaving room for a grounded personal life. “And I needed that balance in my life,” she says softly, “because I never really had it before.”

You said after the last record that if things kept growing the way they were, it would be hard for you to stay grounded and write the way you naturally do. How does it feel now that you’re releasing music again?
I’m so glad I took the time to live and reflect. I love my band – everyone’s been super supportive and encouraging of all the goals that I’ve had since I’ve been off the road. But there’s only so much you can write about when you’re in a van with the same people all the time. It’s like Groundhog Day.

I was also in a really good place and yet singing these super heavy songs that affected me every night. Sometimes that can be cathartic. Sometimes I can separate myself from it. At other times it’s harder because I could relive it all. I realised that I was performing these songs about my heart being broken but I wasn’t home long enough to nurse it or have any perspective.

But I kept connecting with fans after shows and I would be hearing stories about what they were going through – really intense, personal stories that I would connect so deeply with – and I would want to follow up with them. I’d worry… and I started asking myself serious questions about why that was and how I could help. It made me want to pursue psychology.

So in 2015 I decided to pause and go to school, focus on my relationship and just be open to other possibilities. Like, “How can I be creative when I’m still?” And if I’d have kept on the same path, I would never have received those opportunities.

Having gone through all that, what kind of perspective did you gain on yourself as an artist?
It’s complicated. I’m so proud of that last record. It felt very natural. It was a time in my life when I really needed that group of people around me. I learned how to communicate my ideas and what I wanted them to sound like. But moving forward I realised that, beyond band dynamic and instrumentation, I’m limited in my abilities to talk about sonic worlds and palettes. So if I were to bring in my crew to record these songs, I would have called the same people; I would have recreated the demos and it would have sounded a lot like my last record.

I knew I didn’t want to do that. So what I learned about myself is that… I am a control freak but not in unhealthy way… because I do have enough perspective to let go. Just relinquishing my demos to a producer turned out to be really liberating. I also wasn’t ready to do that until now. It took me being able to say, “You know what? I already made the record I want to produce… and that took a lot.”

So if you take all your work in chronological order, how do you think your sound has grown and evolved over that time?
It feels like a process of opening up. I know it sounds super cheesy, but I think of it like a budding flower [gestures with hands], growing and expanding. I think my songs are still melodically driven, still very centred on love… even though it’s different kinds of love. But no matter what the production is, I feel like it always sounds like me.

Was there a point in the last 10 years where you thought, “This is really taking off for me”?
I think whenever my parents hear me on the radio or if I’m in a newspaper that they read, it kind of legitimises things a little bit. They’re like, [sounding impressed] “Ohhhhhh, this is kind of a big deal.” Or when I’m at a restaurant where I normally hang out and my song comes on. It’s little things along the way where I’m like, “Shit, really?”

But throughout my life I’m always gonna have series of doubts, like: “Am I doing the right thing?” Ideally as human beings we should all be asking ourselves, “Is this really what I should be doing? Am I making a difference? Am I improving? Am I challenging myself enough?”

And how do you best navigate that?
Just by talking to people about it, I think. Life’s too short to not be doing things that you want to do and sometimes it’s your own self-doubt [that gets in the way]; other times you just you need a break. When I took time off in 2015, honestly, I wasn’t sure about music anymore. I knew it was something I needed to do for me, but I was unsure about sharing it with the world.

So what else am I going to share with people that’s different than what’s already out there? Like, is it selfish of me to keep singing these songs about being broken-hearted? I mean you guys got that already, you know? Like, the world has it. So why am I standing on stage and demanding the attention of these people? [laughs]

I started feeling really insecure about that. It’s a weird thing to do anyway, but after a while I realised that just as a passion, music is something that’s still very therapeutic for me. I was writing a record and didn’t even realise it. I accumulated like 40 demos over the course of two-and-a-half years and I was like, “Okay, so I do still have it in me…” It was a good reminder that it’s not because I had to do it. It was because it was comforting to me.

I meet a lot of musicians and when we talk about the drive for ‘success’, it’s not always clear what that really is or whether there will ever be a finish line. What have you learned about the impact that kind of pursuit can have on your personal life?
I’ve had a drive to make music and then share it with people but I’ve never wanted that ‘thing’. And I think that’s what made it easier to stop because it made me uncomfortable when I started getting attention and my audience grew. I had to tell myself, “Well, you chose the wrong profession if you are going to get uncomfortable with people coming to your shows.” [laughs]

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting that kind of success and I don’t want to act like I’m better than that. For me, it just makes me anxious. Connecting with people is what is important for me. There’s nothing else I’m trying to achieve with my music. I’m not yearning to be a pop star or to sell out arenas, you know? I can just stay where I am. [laughs] This is about it. I like where I’m at.

I guess we don’t always have control over these things, though…
Yeah, I mean it could go in any direction. Sometimes I feel like an old person because I don’t know where music is with people anymore in terms of how it’s consumed and how attention spans work. I don’t know how that translates to where I am now and how much time has passed since my last record. I’ve no idea. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed.

I think you might be pleasantly surprised at how many have found your music since the last album. There was even that ‘When is Sharon Van Etten’s next album?’ t-shirt. You must know that people want to hear from you.
[laughs] Yeah, the fans are so amazing. They reach out and I try to write everybody back. I know people are right there with me. That means everything to me but also… I’m nervous. I’m just nervous about getting back into it because I don’t I don’t know how it’s gonna feel. But I’m excited about it.

There’s a line in ‘I Told You Everything’ that goes “Sitting at the bar, I told you everything/ You said, ‘Holy shit, you almost died.’” Can I ask what that’s about?
Oooh. Well… that’s a story I’m just learning how to tell my friends. I hope one day that I have the courage to talk about it in public, but I’m still learning how to talk about it with my friends. It’s what made me go back home to my parents and definitely changed the course of my life and made me feel like I have had many lives by the time I was 24.

Fair enough. Say no more… You’ve tried stand-up comedy since the last album. What kind of style did you go for?
Definitely real life, situational. I’ve always been a fan of comedy. Even in my darkest of hours, I’ll put on Seinfeld or something. Just laughing has been so therapeutic. But the one stand-up I’ve done made me question whether I’m meant for that.

[sighs] I think it’s the hardest job in show business. It’s less open to interpretation, so you have harsher critics. It’s different when you’re a musician; people connect to an album on their own level and buy tickets to your show. When you’re starting out as a comedian, most of the time you’re playing clubs where people are not there to see you. They’re there to see comedy – and it’s either funny or it’s not. I just don’t think I have what it takes. I don’t think I’d be able to handle it.

Dying on stage is part of the learning curve, though…
Yeah… but it would also have to be something I just care so passionately about in order to develop a style and hone my craft. I had about 10 pages typed out and instead of having it like a flash card that I could just glance at and think, “Oh yeah, that joke,” it was like [mimes nervously reading from a page].

But what I got most excited about in that process was writing things out and expanding ideas. Beyond that experience, I’ve kept writing down funny ideas for skits and stuff like that for something down the road. I’m still figuring out what that is, but it’s exciting. Not that I need another hobby! [laughs]

You mentioned the fans on the road and how they inspired you to explore therapy. Way back at the beginning, it was a therapist who told you, ’Don’t have any regrets. Do it now while you’re young.’ Do you feel like you’re coming full-circle in terms of possibly being that guiding voice for others?
Reflecting on my time with a therapist – and there have been a couple – as well as the fans that I’ve connected with did make me rethink my long-term path. The hardest times that I’ve seen people go through were when they didn’t know how to talk about what they were experiencing. I eventually learned how to express myself through music, but it started with talking to somebody about what I had been through, somebody who helped me set goals for what I wanted to accomplish.

I wouldn’t have talked about that with my boyfriend or my parents at the time. I had no one to talk to who I felt wouldn’t judge me; I just cut myself off from people and felt like I wasn’t understood when really I just wasn’t communicating very well. As soon as I found a person who had no preconceived notion about who I was, that helped me find what I needed.

What advice would you have now for the 27-year-old Sharon just starting out?
Just… don’t doubt who you are. As soon as you feel like you’re not being yourself around somebody, if you’re censoring yourself or feeling uncomfortable, explore why that is. It’s probably someone who doesn’t understand you, someone who’s making you feel insecure for a reason. I wish I’d had that advice at the time.

Is there anything that another artist had said to you that sticks out?
Well, in 2013 I got to support Nick Cave on tour and at the time I was in a relationship with someone who was having a hard time with me being on the road. This was someone I cared about very deeply but it was the biggest sticking point in our relationship. It made me really insecure; it made him doubt everything about me. He felt like I paid more attention to my career than to our relationship and I think it took him a minute to realise that he just couldn’t handle me travelling. But it came out in other ways where he was resentful of me. That just pushed me away more, so it was a chain reaction.

When I was on that tour, Nick took us out for lunch one day. He asked, “What’s going on? How are you doing?” I was like, “I’m okay, it’s just… my boyfriend’s mad at me right now. But you and Susie must fight too, right? It must be hard when you’re on the road.” He was like, “Well, we fight… But not about my work.” And that really stuck with me because when I thought about all the things that we usually fought about, it was to do with my career – and I knew that wasn’t anything I was going to compromise on because it’s my livelihood; it’s my outlet.

I am who I am because I have this. I’m able to live in New York and do all these things because of this outlet. So I took that to heart and it definitely changed my perspective. It made me realise that if I was going to keep doing this, then it wasn’t fair to be with this person who couldn’t handle it. That made us talk about what his real issues were and I think he just craved stability and companionship, which he didn’t feel was compatible with my lifestyle. But I wouldn’t have had the courage to have that conversation until Nick had said something. It became very real and very understandable.

I wanted to ask you about becoming a parent. It feels like to bring a child into the world requires being optimistic about where the world is headed – and there’s so much turmoil and uncertainty at the moment.
For sure, but it’s also being optimistic about where you’re at in your life and in your relationship. It could be just feeling that you and the person you’re with are going to make an amazing human being: someone that’s going to make the world feel like a better place; someone you can’t wait to know.

And that’s overwhelming, too. I mean I’ll just watch my son playing and spontaneously start crying at how beautiful and innocent he is. I look at him and I’m like, “You’re the sum of our love!” But it’s also thinking about all the things that he’s going to go through, like making his first friend; not making the team; getting his first bad grade; getting hurt.

The state of the world is this whole other thing. A friend of mine who lives across the street in Brooklyn has two kids who are pre-teen. It’s a progressive area full of proactive parents who talk very freely about politics and what’s going on in the world; they will answer any question with their kids. But one day one of the girls came home crying and asking, “Are we going to die? Are we going to go to war? What’s going on in the world?”

The mother all of a sudden realised that her only job is to make her kids feel safe… and that this is the time of their lives were they’re supposed to be innocent. They have plenty of time to see the darkness of the world and participate in politics and do all those things.

Just hearing that moved me to tears. I was pregnant when Trump got into office and I remember holding my belly, crying, telling him it’s going to be okay. Our only job is to make sure that they feel safe, happy and loved. All you can do is be there.

Remind Me Tomorrow is out via Jagjaguwar.

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