Beall, end all

Sharon Van Et­ten keeps broad­en­ing her hori­zons

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - DONALD CLARKE - WORDS BY ED POWER

Af­ter de­tours that saw her be­come a stand-up comic – and a mother – and ven­ture into act­ing, New Jersey song­writer Sharon Van Et­ten is back with her first stu­dio al­bum in five years. But as much as she re­gards mu­sic as a call­ing, her ul­ti­mate goal still lies over the next hori­zon

Sharon Van Et­ten has seen and done many ex­tra­or­di­nary things in her ca­reer but even she felt slightly over­whelmed when in­vited to sing at the leg­endary Bang Bang road­house bar from cult TV se­ries Twin Peaks.

“The ex­pe­ri­ence was sur­real and hard to put into words,” says Van Et­ten (37). “You walk into the room and you are lit­er­ally in the road­house.”

She was thrilled if sur­prised when David Lynch picked her for Twin Peaks: The Re­turn along­side Nine Inch Nails and Lynch favourites Chro­mat­ics and Au Revoir Si­mone. And while film­ing with Lynch is sur­real un­der the kind­est of cir­cum­stances, here the at­mos­phere was par­tic­u­larly bizarre.

Each episode of the new Twin Peaks con­cluded with a mu­sic scene and, for lo­gis­ti­cal pur­poses, the per­for­mances had to be shot in one day (on an LA sound­stage mocked-up to look like the dive bar at the end of the world). So there the artists were, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Van Et­ten among them. All prop­ping up the bar as Lynch worked his dark magic.

“Ev­ery­one was wait­ing in the wings – quiet and hum­ble, along with the au­di­ence,” says Van Et­ten, speak­ing in the con­text of her just re­leased fifth al­bum, Re­mind Me To­mor­row. “It re­ally was a beau­ti­ful thing.”

Al­most as strange, in its way, was a con­cert by Van Et­ten at Dublin’s Vicar Street in April 2015. Her fa­ther and younger brother had flown in from Clin­ton, New Jersey, for the show (a Christ­mas gift from Van Et­ten’s mother). Wan­der­ing the bal­cony with their ac­cess-all-ar­eas passes they were as out­go­ing as Van Et­ten was shy and vul­ner­a­ble up on stage.

“Sharon doesn’t want to play mu­sic for­ever,” her dad had over­shared, in that Amer­i­can way, to those seated around him. “She wants to start a fam­ily.”

Van Et­ten’s mem­o­ries of the evening are bit­ter­sweet, as she ex­plains with a qua­ver in her voice.

“It was great to hang with my brother and fa­ther. But then they went home and I found I was re­ally miss­ing my fam­ily. Around that time I had a tough show in Brighton. I felt alone and couldn’t hear my voice on stage. I was fight­ing tears the whole time. Af­ter­wards I gave my band no­tice – six more months and I was done with mu­sic for a while.”


Five years later Van Et­ten is still mak­ing mu­sic – but in a very dif­fer­ent way. As per her fa­ther’s pre­dic­tion, she has had a child, a boy now aged two. She is also, as in­cred­i­ble as it sounds, a bud­ding stand-up co­me­dian who has gone down a storm at open-mic evenings.

And she’s a suc­cess­ful ac­tress with a sea­son of the bonkers Net­flix sci-fi show, The OA, un­der her belt. So the big­gest sur­prise – to Van Et­ten as much as to her pin­ing fans – is that

Re­mind Me To­mor­row even ex­ists. She still loves mu­sic but it no longer de­fines her.

“Dur­ing that gig in Brighton I had shut my­self off from ev­ery­one,” she sighs. “I’ve never had a crazy fit or a break­down. But that was an eye-open­ing mo­ment.”

Around that time I had a tough show in Brighton. I felt alone and couldn’t hear my voice on stage. I was fight­ing tears the whole time. Af­ter­wards I gave my band no­tice – six more months and I was done with mu­sic for a while

Van Et­ten’s ab­sence has been a blow to ad­mir­ers of her soul­ful al­ter­na­tive pop. It is a club that in­cludes Nick Cave, who took her on tour, and The Na­tional’s Aaron Dess­ner, pro­ducer of her third LP, Tramp, in 2012.

Her real break­through was two years later with her cre­pus­cu­lar break-up al­bum Are We

There. Chron­i­cling the slow im­plo­sion of a 10-year re­la­tion­ship, it was in many ways the usual sob story set to mu­sic. Yet some­how it had new things to say about the hack­neyed sub­ject of love found and lost. Van Et­ten didn’t spare her for­mer lover but was un­flinch­ing to­wards her­self too. Here was a break-up record which left you un­sure as to which party to blame. A huge suc­cess, it ranked at 20 on the Rolling

Stone al­bums of the year list. She was sud­denly vis­i­ble on Spo­tify, and in Ire­land in­stead of head­lin­ing Whe­lan’s was play­ing much larger venues such as Vicar Street. Af­ter years of toil and prom­ise Van Et­ten had ar­rived. And to get there all she’d had to do was watch as her heart shat­tered into a thou­sand glit­ter­ing frag­ments.

But as she made clear to any­one speak­ing to her at that time – she had al­ready told me she wanted to start a fam­ily when I spoke to her ahead of the Vicar Street gig – mu­sic was never her ul­ti­mate des­ti­na­tion. A big world awaited be­yond the record­ing stu­dio and the tour bus and she was de­ter­mined not to let op­por­tu­ni­ties pass be­cause she was afraid to open the door and ven­ture out­side.

Ro­mance blos­somed as she stepped away from mu­sic and started liv­ing like a nor­mal per­son. She be­gan a re­la­tion­ship with her drum­mer Zeke Hutchins (he is now her man­ager) and their son has ob­vi­ously trans­formed her life for the bet­ter. But be­com­ing a mother has also re­quired her to run the tra­di­tional work­ing-par­ent gaunt­let of do­ing a hun­dred things at once.

“This is a new bal­anc­ing act,” she says. “I don’t have a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence yet. So far so good. I have to be a lot more or­gan­ised and pri­ori­tise things and be vig­i­lant about my sched­ules.”


Moth­er­hood was only the be­gin­ning. Van Et­ten has had a long-term am­bi­tion to be­come a ther­a­pist, her in­ter­est in­ten­si­fied by af­ter-show con­ver­sa­tions with fans who would con­fide their deep­est hopes and fears. Her mother says Van Et­ten was al­ways drawn to the “bro­ken birds” of this world. As much as she re­gards mu­sic as a call­ing, it’s clear she sees work­ing as a ther­a­pist as per­haps her ul­ti­mate vo­ca­tion.

So she en­rolled for an un­der­grad­u­ate course in psy­chol­ogy. But then fate in­ter­vened in the shape of a Hol­ly­wood cast­ing di­rec­tor. He’d seen Van Et­ten open­ing for Nick Cave and, two years on, it had oc­curred to him that she would be per­fect for a new Net­flix se­ries. The OA is, were it pos­si­ble, even cra­zier than

Twin Peaks: The Re­turn. Van Et­ten, not sur­pris­ingly, was im­me­di­ately drawn to it and read­ily agreed to a screen test. She duly landed the part of a Stock­holm Syn­drome-suf­fer­ing pris­oner of a mad sci­en­tist por­trayed by Bri­tish ac­tor Ja­son Isaacs (sea­son two, in which she also stars, is in post-pro­duc­tion).

She de­scribes The OA as an ad­ven­ture – in that it was both thrilling and ter­ri­fy­ing. “’It is very dif­fer­ent to the mu­sic busi­ness,” she says. “In mu­sic, if I have an is­sue, I know who to call. On tour, ev­ery­body around is some­one I have cho­sen to be there. If some­one has f**ked up or I need a ques­tion an­swered, I know where to turn.

“On the set of a TV se­ries there are 100 peo­ple on any given day. And when you’re there you have to get stuff done. You work as late as you can ev­ery sin­gle day for as many days as re­quired. There is a real hi­er­ar­chy. The re­ally pow­er­ful peo­ple aren’t even there. At one point my stand-in – the per­son they use for set­ting up shots – was next to me and I spoke to her. She was sur­prised I had ac­knowl­edged her.”

With her life hav­ing turned a cor­ner, it’s a sur­prise that Van Et­ten sounds as mourn­ful as ever on the new al­bum. In­deed the big­gest change is tex­tu­ral, with gui­tars re­placed by chilly Van­ge­lis-style synths. That brings its own chal­lenges, es­pe­cially as she looks ahead to a 33-date world tour that in­cludes a Vicar Street show in March. With­out a gui­tar to “hide be­hind” how should she present her­self on stage?

“I’m not go­ing to play any­thing. I’m just go­ing to sing. Hope­fully, if I’m not play­ing an in­stru­ment, I’ll be a bet­ter singer. The per­for­mance as­pect is some­thing I’m not sure about. I’ve been look­ing on YouTube for in­spi­ra­tion. I want to see what I can do with my hands. One thing is for sure – I won’t be danc­ing.”

As for her con­tin­ued pen­chant for omi­nous lyrics, Van Et­ten finds that par­ent­hood tapped into an en­tirely new se­ries of anx­i­eties. She clutched her baby bump and wept the day Donald Trump was elected pres­i­dent. And though she tries to be pos­i­tive about the fu­ture – she con­sid­ers it a par­ent’s duty to be op­ti­mistic for their chil­dren – there is lots to worry about too.

“It’s scary here,” she says of life as an Amer­i­can ci­ti­zen in 2019. “I don’t like to speak too po­lit­i­cally. I didn’t vote for Trump. It’s em­bar­rass­ing that he’s pres­i­dent. Things have to change. I have to be pos­i­tive about it. I don’t think neg­a­tiv­ity is pro­duc­tive. We have to be op­ti­mistic for our kids.”

Re­mind Me To­mor­row is out now. Sharon Van Et­ten plays Vicar Street, Dublin, on March 23rd


Sharon Van Et­ten: “I’ve been look­ing on YouTube for in­spi­ra­tion. I want to see what I can do with my hands. One thing is for sure – I won’t be danc­ing.”

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