How Sharon Van Etten learned to take life a little easier
This article is taken from Issue 130. Get your copy now via the online store.
“Summertime,” Sharon Van Etten tells the waiter as he brings over her Aperol Spritz, “is a state of mind.”
It doesn’t feel very summery on this rainy March day in London. The New Jersey-born singer-songwriter has already changed into her waterproof shoes in preparation for a sprint to the Eurostar when we’re done. Compounding the sense of dissonance is the fact that Van Etten’s music, honed over (soon-to-be) six albums, tends to essay a certain kind of emotional intensity. Musically, her songs have a way of making sense of the world via vintage-sounding production, doom-laden drums and a singing voice that comes from somewhere between throat, chest and soul. In other words, I expected to meet a brooding rock star. But with an Aperol Spritz fizzing in front of her, she’s an image of radiance in a buoyant mood.
You get the sense that she’s relishing returning to the semi-normality of a touring rock star: travelling, interacting with new people, sipping spritzes at 5pm and sneaking the odd cig (“I have to keep up my rasp!”). Since her first album, 2009’s delicate but devastating Because I Was in Love, she’s been living inside the album cycle – writing, recording, promo, touring, and then back around again. She spent the first years of her career essentially sofa-surfing around New York City, living for the work she was doing. But for Van Etten, the enforced domesticity of the pandemic was prefigured by her own radical lifestyle change.
In late 2019, Van Etten, her partner and their infant son moved from New York to LA in search of a gentler way to live; more time at home than on the road, more space to live. She was interested in writing film scores and found herself occasionally stepping in front of the camera, too, in Netflix’s The OA and 2020 film Never Rarely Sometimes Always. The relocation proved serendipitous: when the pandemic struck, there was outside space in which her son could play, and room for both her and her partner (musician and her former drummer Zeke Hutchins) to work. And listen.
Lockdown, she says, gave her the opportunity to experience records she loved in new, more intense ways. She spent her days actively listening to Fleetwood Mac, The War on Drugs, Neil Young and The Beatles, finding new moments of clarity and joy that she’d missed when they played in the background of hectic, everyday life. “There’s a few that I’ve discovered I love as a whole because now I’m looking at it in a new way,” she says, studiously pushing her cropped hair behind her ear.
Because of this shift in perspective, you won’t hear any of We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, the follow-up to 2019’s Remind Me Tomorrow, before release day. After living with the record, she couldn’t bear to see it stripped for parts. “We’ve been kind of sneaky about it,” Van Etten grins. “I feel like to use a song from it as a lead-in to the record would do a disservice to the album. I want people to have the opportunity to listen to it in its entirety, without being dictated to.”
Though Van Etten has long been adored by fans of indie rock, her recent releases have reached wider audiences. One in particular. Seventeen was a huge hit, the kind of song that gets performed on US chat shows, or becomes a staple for music supervisors looking to soundtrack a certain type of coming-of-age drama. A soaring, stadium-sized rock song high on wistfulness, wisdom and hope.
That’s not to say her new record doesn’t have a wealth of anthems-in-waiting. Mistakes, I’ll Try, and Come Back all have that Van Etten alchemy that winds classic rock elements around 60s-inspired melodies to evoke all the mistakes you’ve made and the eternal hope that you might yet fix them. But when you take the songs as part of a whole they hold a greater power. This is a record that embraces complex issues: fear, guilt, love, motherhood. “It’s been a while since I held you close/ Been a while since we touched,” she sings on Darkness Fades before swan-diving into the impossibly gorgeous Home to Me, written for her son. Her voice, slightly altered by the body-reworking experience of a 36-hour labour followed by a C-section, is breathy and full; lower than you might remember but discovering new heights and unexpected melodic twists.
Yet, throughout the album there’s something else; a looming darkness that threatens like storm clouds in the distance. When this is raised, she sits up a little straighter as though she has been waiting for it to come up. “I have to say this quickly or I’ll cry,” she says, steeling herself. “I’m a trauma survivor. And it’s not something that goes away; it’s something you learn to live with and process and understand.”
She explains that, as the pandemic played out, its effects on her life triggered those trauma responses. “I feel like for anyone that’s had any trauma, during this time, it’s come up. Suddenly it was like 20 years of therapy and learning how to find my space and being in control of the things I can control… All of a sudden that’s gone: you can’t leave your house, and it’s the end of the world.”
The way that Van Etten deals with these feelings, and subsequently writes her songs, is by letting everything out. She’ll go into her studio and empty herself of her thoughts: whatever comes out, comes out. Alone in the booth, she reveals things she’d never share elsewhere: “I’m getting shit out, whatever it is. Sometimes it’s nonsense; just a sound, a chord progression, a whisper, crying, screaming. It’s very primal.” Then she’ll let the music sit. She doesn’t need the instant gratification of turning a white-hot flame of emotion into something immediately concrete. Sometimes songs and revelations will sit for months or years before she comes back to reassess them and see if they still hold true. She’s not against revisiting songs that have reached completion either. In 2021, she invited artists she admired to offer their own takes on the songs from her 2010 album Epic. Among them, Fiona Apple and Lucinda Williams, key influences for Van Etten, and which lended the project the feel of a loop closing. The emotional charge of her songs, forged in those early solo sessions, is what makes a project like this possible.
“When I first started driving into New York, I would get honked at and just start crying... but nobody gives a shit, you know”
Despite Van Etten’s open-hearted approach, there are some things she wishes to keep to herself. There are demos in her hard drives that no one will ever hear after she made a decision about what she would and would not share a while back. “I think, as a survivor, that’s one of the things that helps you get through; the things that are in your control,” she says. It’s this sense of regaining her agency in the face of chaos that has shaped We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong.
Navigating the pandemic panic lay not just in her artistic practice, but in her personal relationships too – like reaching out to friends back on the East Coast, or being held accountable by both herself and others. “I’m very good at being like, ‘Oh, that’s it, I can’t stay here.’” Listen closely and you can hear chinks of daylight filter through We’ve Been Going About this All Wrong, like the spring-invoking birdsong on the impishly named Darkish which keep Van Etten company as her voice careens around a gentle acoustic guitar. Darkness fades, as she reminds us on the opening track.
Van Etten is finding her way through – and part of that is working on taking things less personally. “When I first started driving into New York before I moved there, I would get honked at and just start crying. Everyone’s merging eight lanes into two and I thought I was merging the right way… but nobody gives a shit, you know? And I’m listening to hardcore music and smoking a cigarette, and I’m crying like, ‘What did I do to them?!’” She cites The Four Agreements, a shamanistic text written by Don Miguel Ruiz, for this change in outlook. “You know, maybe they’re on their way to the hospital! You just don’t know what’s going on in a person’s life. So have some compassion and stop blaming yourself.”
Recently, she’s been working out how to play the new songs live. She and her band spent some time just thrashing them out. In doing so, it opened her up to a whole new creative process. “On one of the last days we had some extra time and just played [for fun] for two or three hours. I’ve never done that before. It’s really fun – they’re all playing super hard, crazy arpeggiated stuff with random distorted guitar, and I’m just screaming. It was amazing.” It was communal and cathartic, and she laughs when I joke that I can’t wait to hear her punk record. She’s been listening to a lot of IDLES, she says, “and I’m like, ‘I want to do that.’”
For now, though, she’s content to explore her own inner world, letting in shafts of light to counter the dark, and allowing the stability of family life to anchor her in an uncertain world. Keeping that summertime state of mind.
We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong is out on 6 May via Jagjaguwar