SHARON VAN ETTEN
New Jersey singer-songwriter ditches the guitar for electronics.
A sneak peek at the singer-songwriter/ mother/actor’s forthcoming fifth album.
The cover of Sharon Van Etten’s fifth album features two children in a toy-strewn bedroom: a little boy plays serenely among the mess, while his sister has concertina’d herself into a small plastic box, wearing nothing more than a tiara and an oversized necklace. The picture – and children – belongs to the musician’s friend, director Katherine Dieckmann, who showed it to a newly pregnant Van Etten in 2016 when she was panicking about her ability to combine parenthood and her professional life. The message was: it will be chaotic, but you’ll figure it out. “She showed me that photograph and I felt really at peace,” recalls Van Etten. “I felt like everything was going to be OK.” In the meantime, the 37- year-old musician has been living the reality behind that photo – balancing the overwhelmingly hectic experience that is 21st- century motherhood with a seemingly endless slate of creative projects. Since releasing her last album, 2014’ s Are We There, the New Jersey native has collaborated with everyone from Marissa Nadler to actor Michael Cera to New York disco crew Hercules & Love Affair, acted in creepy Netflix drama The OA, written film scores (including one for Dieckmann), performed on the new-era Twin Peaks, and, in her limited down-time, managed to produce a brand new record. Van Etten has called the album Remind Me Tomorrow – a reference to the computer update notification she realised she’d been dismissing every day for years, and an acknowledgement that her jam-packed new lifestyle meant she really didn’t have time to sweat the small stuff. As well as crediting motherhood with a steep rise in efficiency, Van Etten began to use her music to parse the fraught, but oddly hopeful, experience of bringing new life into Trump’s America. Remind Me Tomorrow’s lyrics are informed by the realisation that “you’re supposed to help your child feel safe, no matter what,” says Van Etten. “You’re pep-talking yourself to be as positive as you can for someone because that’s your job.” The result is a record that is at once ominous and upbeat, with Van Etten’s heavenly vocal harmonies and misty-eyed folk-rock stylings juxtaposed against buzzing drones, frantic breakbeats and the gentle jabber of vintage synths. What’s not present is the guitar sound that has cushioned her output to date. “You only have so many options [ with the guitar] and I felt like I kept writing the same song over and over again,” she explains. “I didn’t want to make the same record, so I wrote a lot of songs on synthesizer.” To help navigate this transition, Van Etten turned to St. Vincent collaborator John Congleton, whose “eyes lit up” when she cited Suicide, Portishead and Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds’ 2016 album Skeleton Tree as reference points for her new sound. One of the producer’s tactics was to rope in the specialists. “I didn’t know you could just call a modular synth guy!” laughs Van Etten. “He was like, ‘This is the wild card’, and he was amazing, especially with those types of instruments. They’re really unpredictable, and you don’t get the same thing twice.” That wonkiness was important to Van Etten. Despite migrating from guitar to synth and drone technology, she was keen to make sure everything still sounded human. Holed up in Sargent Recorders, a studio in LA’s Filipino district owned by Black Keys touring bassist Gus Seyffert, the pair worked on harnessing the feeling of electronic music but maintaining the texture of traditional instrumentation – and ensuring that everything, including the choppy beats, was playable live. Despite this stylistic evolution, Van Etten
says her core motivation hasn’t changed: she continues to make music as a form of therapy. And she’s working on expanding her client base. The singer-songwriter is currently studying psychology at college, a decision prompted by the fans who used to approach her at gigs wanting to discuss their personal problems, and whom Van Etten felt too underqualified to help. “There are people I’ve met that I was compelled to invite for coffee and advise, although I know that I’m not certified and haven’t had the best experience in my life to give other people advice,” she laughs. Considering the way she’s currently juggling everything, from education to music to acting to motherhood, a place at the Van Etten school of life actually seems like a very tempting prospect indeed.
“You only have so many options on guitar and I felt like I kept writing the same song over and over again.”
She’s changed her tune: Sharon Van Etten, Sargent Recorders, LA, 2018.