In­ter­view Singer-song­writer Sharon Van Et­ten talks to Laura Bar­ton

Known for com­plex, folky songs about the dark side of love, Sharon Van Et­ten is back with a hotly tipped fifth al­bum – her first since be­com­ing a mother. Here she opens up about men­tal health and the joy of par­ent­hood

The Observer - The New Review - - Agenda -

In the sum­mer of 2016, Sharon Van Et­ten was in a happy but pro­duc­tive lull; tour­ing for her roundly feted fourth al­bum, Are We There, had fi­nally come to a close and she was now in her stu­dio space in Brook­lyn, mud­dling out the be­gin­nings of its suc­ces­sor and work­ing on the score for Kather­ine Dieck­mann’s in­die film Strange Weather. She had re­cently made her act­ing de­but in the Net­flix se­ries The OA, and in the au­tumn would be­gin stud­ies to be­come a men­tal health coun­sel­lor. And then she dis­cov­ered she was preg­nant. Her lat­est al­bum, Re­mind Me To­mor­row, starts with an open­ing drone and a strike of slightly sour keys, a sound fa­mil­iar to any­one who has fol­lowed Van Et­ten’s work since her 2009 de­but, Be­cause I Was in Love, and on through Epic and Tramp and Are We There. Across those al­bums she re­vealed a voice of lugubri­ous beauty, and made an art form of songs that were emo­tion­ally and mu­si­cally raw. It was a com­bi­na­tion that earned her a fan­base that was not just de­voted but deeply and near-spir­i­tu­ally con­nected to her mu­sic. And so her fifth al­bum is one of the year’s most ar­dently an­tic­i­pated – her re­turn awaited by fans and crit­ics alike, and its teaser sin­gle, Come­back Kid, seized upon and an­a­lysed upon its re­lease late last year. A faster, firmer and more bois­ter­ous record, Come­back Kid con­fused some lis­ten­ers: is this, they won­dered, a new Sharon Van Et­ten? It’s a ques­tion also raised by the sec­ond note on the al­bum’s open­ing track: bowl­ing off to­ward some­where brighter and more hope­ful, a pre­fig­ure­ment of the songs to fol­low, which are punchier and more im­me­di­ate. Van Et­ten at­tributes some of this new mu­si­cal vim to a re­ac­tion to writ­ing Dieck­mann’s score, a gui­tar-led and spa­cious work de­signed to be some­thing akin to Ry Cooder’s sound­track for Paris, Texas. “When­ever I got to a frus­trat­ing point in the writ­ing process where I felt like I was bang­ing my head against the wall, I would just put down the gui­tar and play any­thing else to clear my head, like a palate cleanse,” she re­calls. She found she grav­i­tated to­wards un­fa­mil­iar sounds and in­stru­ments, to­wards syn­the­sis­ers and key­boards, par­tic­u­larly the Jupiter-4 synth owned by her stu­dio­mate, the ac­tor Michael Cera. “And that’s how I started a lot of these songs, with a drone and a beat and I would sing over it.”

How­ever the new en­ergy of these songs also owes much to the im­pact of par­ent­hood: the struc­tured rou­tine of nap times and feed­ing, the sense of days be­ing shorter and more pre­cious. “Be­fore I had so much time and I was liv­ing for my­self,” she says when we meet over cof­fee in east Lon­don. “Every­thing was open-ended and there was still a lot un­re­solved, but now I just feel like I have to fin­ish. And I kind of like that it’s about be­ing an adult and mak­ing choices and be­ing de­ci­sive.”

Since mid-2016 the wider world has also changed con­sid­er­ably – there was then no Trump in the White House, no talk of bor­der walls, no walk­ing back of leg­is­la­tion on abor­tion, cli­mate change, health­care. “The world didn’t seem as scary at the time,” Van Et­ten says. “I re­mem­ber I was alone on elec­tion day when I was preg­nant, and I was sit­ting there cry­ing. It’s a dark time. I’m not proud of our coun­try for all that, but he doesn’t rep­re­sent me.” She gave her­self a small pep talk: “I said: ‘My job right now [will be] to make my kid feel safe and to be a pos­i­tive role model and to rise above that.’” She has come to feel the most valu­able con­tri­bu­tion she can make is close to home. “It’s about the mi­cro and the day-to-day and who you are and the lit­tle small acts of kind­ness, and that is what my son will re­mem­ber.”

Van Et­ten’s son is not yet two, and still learn­ing to talk. This is her first trip away from him, and she beams as she talks about him – how the first thing he iden­ti­fied was a dog, how “he can say ‘cool’ and he can point to the gui­tar and he’ll say, ‘Guh!’” How ex­cited he gets when she takes out records, how con­fus­ing it is for him when he hears her songs played on the ra­dio. How on morn­ings at home she will start the day by ask­ing her son if he would like to lis­ten to some mu­sic. “And he’ll just bounce up and down,” she jig­gles in her seat. “Or if it’s slow morn­ing ris­ing, he’ll walk over to the pi­ano and pull him­self on the bench and just start play­ing.”

If Van Et­ten’s mu­sic was marked by its vul­ner­a­bil­ity, there seems to be a new kind of can­dour that comes with ro­man­tic com­mit­ment, be­com­ing a par­ent, a 34-hour labour. She nods. “There’s let­ting some­one in for the first time, and ac­knowl­edg­ing that’s the per­son you want to be with the rest of your life. Look­ing at our child ev­ery day and it’s some of our love that we’re even­tu­ally go­ing to let roam the world. I feel like ev­ery day I’m at my most vul­ner­a­ble. Even when he’s just hang­ing out, I swear, I some­times just spon­ta­neously start cry­ing just look­ing at him.”

When Van Et­ten be­gan these songs in the sum­mer of 2016, she was con­cerned with their mu­sic. The words came later, af­ter the birth of her son, and she no­ticed then how this fun­da­men­tal shift in her life, in her un­der­stand­ing of love and com­mit­ment, had also al­tered the mean­ing of her songs. “The song Stay was talk­ing to my man, say­ing ‘I know you’re gonna stay no mat­ter what, I’m gonna stay, you’re gonna stay, we’re here for each other even when it gets hard,’” she says. Later she saw it was about more than just ro­man­tic trib­ute. “I put on head­phones and I’m lis­ten­ing to the demo whilst star­ing at my sleep­ing child and I re­alised that it’s also about that thing now. So it’s a weird time por­tal.”

It was moth­er­hood, too, that al­lowed her to be open to the idea of bring­ing in a pro­ducer rather than con­trol­ling ev­ery el­e­ment of the record her­self. She chose John Con­gle­ton, known for his work with St Vin­cent, John Grant and An­gel Olsen, who lit up when she walked into his stu­dio with a se­lec­tion of in­flu­ences that might seem sur­pris­ing to those steeped in Van Et­ten’s pre­vi­ous work — Por­tishead, Sui­cide, Nick Cave. “I was ready to let go of these songs,” she ex­plains. “I feel a lot of fall­ing in love and set­tling down and be­com­ing a mother, so much you can’t con­trol, you have to let go. And I feel like the more I let go and trust other peo­ple to do the things I need to do, the bet­ter off I am and the more I progress as a hu­man be­ing. As soon as I let go, I just feel that I open up as a per­son.”

Her life has not al­ways been so open or so con­tented. In 1998, when she was 17, she be­came em­broiled in a tur­bu­lent and deeply dam­ag­ing re­la­tion­ship, which sti­fled her mu­si­cal am­bi­tions and her sense of self – an ex­pe­ri­ence to which she has re­turned sev­eral times in her songs. “He was an ad­dict and abu­sive and so I just never knew who I would be com­ing home to,” she ex­plains. A tour­ing mu­si­cian, her boyfriend would of­ten be away for long stretches, and Van Et­ten used those pe­ri­ods of ab­sence to work on her own songs. “I would play when he wasn’t around be­cause he thought my songs were too per­sonal to share,” she says. “Which, in hind­sight, they were, I’m sure. I’m that kind of per­son and just let it out. But he asked me not to play un­til I could write in a way where peo­ple wouldn’t know about our life.” When her boyfriend dis­cov­ered she had been se­cretly play­ing shows, he smashed up her new Gib­son gui­tar.

But still she stayed for five years. “I was lost,” she says. Van Et­ten had also drifted out of con­tact with her fam­ily, who did not agree with her life­style. “And I was also re­ally proud and I didn’t want to ac­cept help from any­body,” she ex­plains. “So I was self-suf­fi­cient, sup­port­ing my­self, work­ing at a venue and mak­ing it work. I was em­bar­rassed.”

At a par­tic­u­larly low point, she called her old high-school boyfriend. “I was just feel­ing re­ally lost and I didn’t know who I was and I re­alised that be­cause of this re­la­tion­ship, be­cause I was cut off from my fam­ily, that my mem­ory was go­ing. I didn’t re­mem­ber what I used to be like.”

The old high-school boyfriend’s phone went to voice­mail. “And I just left this re­ally long, prob­a­bly crazy mes­sage say­ing: ‘I just don’t know who I am right now. I just want to hear a story about who I used to be so I can get back to my­self again.’ And the next day his girl­friend called and she was like, ‘Hon­estly, he played me the mes­sage and he wants you to be well, but he doesn’t re­ally know how to talk about that kind of stuff. But if you ever want to talk, just know that I’m here. I know you don’t know me very well, but call me.’”

For a while Van Et­ten and her ex’s girl­friend had a friend­ship she kept se­cret from her cur­rent boyfriend. “I would go for these walks and I would just chainsmoke and we would talk on the phone and she would rec­om­mend me writ­ers. She en­cour­aged me to write more and read more and to reach out to my sis­ter. She was just like: ‘Get the fuck out of there.’”

Van Et­ten called her sis­ter. “And no ques­tions asked, she said: ‘I’ll book the first flight I can af­ford.’ On the day that her boyfriend was next head­ing off on tour, Van Et­ten put all of her clothes into a duf­fel bag and pre­tended she was go­ing to the laun­dro­mat. In­stead, a friend drove her to the air­port and she caught a plane to her sis­ter in Ver­mont.

I won­der how that first taste of free­dom felt. “Oh my God,” she says gen­tly, “I was go­ing through so many things that I didn’t re­alise what it was, but I felt ex­cited, ner­vous, it felt like such an un­known. The whole time I’m think­ing, ‘Can I do this? What’s it go­ing to feel like? How are they go­ing to judge me?’ But I also re­alised I had such post-trau­matic stress that I was on au­topi­lot for a year be­fore I iden­ti­fied what it was.”

Van Et­ten grew up in New Jer­sey, one of five chil­dren. “I’m the mid­dle child. The boys are the book­ends and the girls are in the mid­dle and I’m the mid­dle of the mid­dle.” She was, she says, “a wacky kid. I was open to any­thing. I was very out­ward. Very opin­ion­ated. Very into com­edy and romance and Woody Allen.” But she was also “just such an angsty kid, and I felt mis­un­der­stood and I wanted to do mu­sic but I didn’t know how,” she says. “I knew that I was more cre­ative than smart. I wasn’t an in­tel­lec­tual. I didn’t ab­sorb in­for­ma­tion very well. Tests gave me anx­i­ety. So it was a frus­trat­ing time and I would just slam doors and say things un­der my breath.” Even­tu­ally her mother gave her a note­book and told her to write. And so she wrote. “I didn’t know what I was do­ing at the time, they weren’t songs that I was writ­ing, but I learned how to have this out­let.”

These days she doesn’t pick up her note­book as of­ten, but song­writ­ing has come to of­fer a sim­i­lar emo­tional out­let. “When I go sit down and write mu­sic, I set up an in­stru­ment, and I de­velop a chord pro­gres­sion and I sing it, and I just hit record and I let it go.” Those early in­car­na­tions are of­ten “10-minute me­an­der­ings”, which she will set aside to see if they can later be edited down into a song. “And then I’ll put on head­phones and I’ll lis­ten to what I was go­ing through,” she says.

It is per­haps this con­fes­sional open­ness to Van Et­ten’s work, its sense of be­ing an out­let, that have led many to feel such deep con­nec­tion with her mu­sic. Even on her first tour, in 2009, she re­alised the weight of fans’ emo­tional in­vest­ment in her songs, of “how your mu­sic af­fects peo­ple, and the sto­ries that come out of that”.

They would come and speak to her af­ter the show and she would want to keep in touch with all of them, would worry about them af­ter they had left. She would find her­self sit­ting at the merch ta­ble some­times feel­ing: “Every­body in line wants to tell me some­thing in­tense that hap­pened in their lives and how they con­nected to my mu­sic.” And she wanted to hear. “But emo­tion­ally, some­times, it’s so much to take af­ter a show,” she says. “I started to strug­gle with en­ergy and start­ing to feel like I wasn’t cer­ti­fied [to ad­vise peo­ple on their men­tal health is­sues].”

Af­ter a while she be­gan to re­alise that as much as it was a source of con­cern it was also a sub­ject of in­ter­est to her: “Why is it that peo­ple con­nect so deeply?

And what is it about mu­sic? And what is it about com­mu­ni­cat­ing that they don’t have it in their lives, but for some rea­son they can talk to me? Or a song says some­thing that they can’t? It made me re­alise it’s some­thing I want to fig­ure out, to help peo­ple learn how to com­mu­ni­cate..”

She has started train­ing as a coun­sel­lor at en­try level, ex­plor­ing dif­fer­ent kinds of ther­apy, work­ing out which style suits her best. “I think a big is­sue for me is whether or not talk­ing about the past is im­por­tant,” she says. “Be­cause there are dif­fer­ent meth­ods where it’s only about the now and only about the fu­ture, but I think the past is in­flu­en­tial.”

She knows she wants to fo­cus on help­ing young peo­ple just leav­ing home, those who might ben­e­fit from ther­apy – as she did af­ter her par­ents made it a stip­u­la­tion of her re­turn­ing home af­ter her time in Ten­nessee. “I needed to learn how to com­mu­ni­cate what I had been through, and what I was go­ing through, so that could help me nav­i­gate what the hell was next. Be­cause I didn’t want medicine, I just wanted to un­der­stand. I was get­ting panic at­tacks and I was em­bar­rassed about my life.”

She is in­ter­ested, she says, in the point in a young per­son’s life when “they’re leav­ing, and they don’t have any­one. They think they know who they are but they have no idea. Then they go to a strange new place to de­fine them­selves around peo­ple that don’t know them­selves ei­ther.” It is such a strange time in a per­son’s life, she says. “And it’s so easy to see once you’ve been through it. That’s the age when, if I had had some­one that I could talk to, maybe [I would] not have gone through what I did.” She smiles. “But no re­grets,” she says, and for a mo­ment she sits at the cafe ta­ble, a ball of wis­dom and con­tent­ment and open­ness, aware that all that she went through has led her to here.

Re­mind Me To­mor­row is re­leased via Jag­jaguwar on 18 Jan­uary

I was ready to let go of these songs. As soon as I let go, I just feel that I open up as a per­son

In­ter­view by Laura Bar­ton Por­trait by Suki Dhanda

‘Why is it that peo­ple con­nect so deeply with mu­sic?’ Sharon Van Et­ten in Lon­don.

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