For Sharon Van Etten, the times might be a-changin’, but she seems to have figured out just what she’s looking for. The former folk singer-songwriter has been reborn and found herself straddling the worlds of music, acting and parenting.
With a little help from her friend the demon producer John Congleton, Sharon Van Etten’s new album, Remind Me Tomorrow, takes a leftish turn to atmospheric, new-wave-infused soundscapes, and the result is just as exhilarating as it sounds. Much has happened in the five years that have passed since the release of her widely acclaimed record Are We There. She tells us that every year since she took time off from the road has been different from the one before. “When I decided to take a break in 2016, I applied to go back to school. Two weeks later I got asked to audition for a TV show and, taking my chances going to the audition, I ended up getting the job. It’s for the first season of The OA on Netflix.”
Having decided to defer her enrolment until the following autumn, she took the role. By then she had also been approached about writing the score for Katherine Dieckmann’s film Strange Weather. “So that year, I ended up acting, doing the score and going back to school. But in there somewhere, I got pregnant and went to school pregnant. When I finished the semester, I had three months before I had my son. And I just worked on music until I had him. I got to be a full-time mum in 2017, which was a nice luxury, to enjoy being home and connect with my partner. When my son was six months old, whenever he took naps I would put on my headphones and listen back to demos.”
One day she realised that she had more than 40 demos from the time she left the road in 2016 to the autumn of 2017. “That’s when I decided to make the record. I made it at the beginning of last year and then I’ve been in school. I went to school straight from finishing the album. So it’s pretty nonstop and every year has been very different.” The sound on this record is more ambient. “One of the things I noticed when I started going through the demos that I wrote from 2015 to 2017 was that the songs I was most drawn to were the ones driven by drones, synthesisers and keys more than guitar. It was a lot of drones and beats, you know? I always have complex melodies and stuff, because that’s usually my favourite part of the writing process.
“When I met with John Congleton, he asked me what my influences were for the record. I told him Suicide, Portishead and Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree, and he just got really excited. We had talked years before about doing something together, but I wasn’t ready to relinquish control of my songs. I like being hands-on in the studio. But I think that I found a point in my life where I knew that I wasn’t going to do anything differently than I did before with my knowledge in the studio. And I wanted to make something different. I knew it was time to work with him. He understood all my influences. He took the songs to another level, for sure, but he also kept a lot of dark tones and enhanced them. “The first day he brought three musicians to the studio. It was Joey Waronker, Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu, and Zachary Dawes. We did two tracks in one day – Jupiter 4 and Memorial Day – some of the more psychedelic songs on the record. I mean, they’re all pretty out-there. That being the entrance to working with John, I felt really understood. I felt my demo unfold in a way I had always envisaged but I couldn’t express. I saw studio musicians experimenting with my song and tube things out that I’d never heard before.” She pauses, then: “John’s method is really fun to watch. Because he’ll give everybody a really different reference without them knowing what he told the others separately. Then everyone will come out and start playing, kind of start looking at each other, ‘What are you doing?’ It was a really fun thing to observe. People sounded very natural, everybody had a really good chemistry, even if they hadn’t worked together before. John handpicked some really special people for this record.”
Although she wrote the score for Strange Weather, starred in a Netflix show and appeared in an episode of the revival of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, she points out that the album wasn’t a reaction to those other creative fields she was involved in at the time. “I feel like acting is a chapter just as much as music is a different chapter, just as much as my family is a different chapter. At some point they all intertwine, but I wouldn’t say that being an actor influenced my writing that much, other than it’s a side effect of my time off or when, for example, I was writing the score and hitting a dead end in my music. “When I was working on the score, Katherine [Dieckmann] asked me to play guitar in the style of Ry Cooder’s soundtrack for Paris, Texas. Whenever I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere in the writing process, when I was hitting a wall creatively, I would just put the guitar down. I would play any other instrument to clear my head and ‘cleanse my palette’, so that I could get it out of my system. So I could return to the score work with a fresh set of ears, you know? So it’s not like one would inform the other, because I would clear the stage in order to do something else. I’m the kind of person who can’t do more than one thing at a time.” Combining parenting, studying and rock’n’roll has made her more decisive. “What’s important becomes quite clear when you don’t have a lot of time. I go to school Tuesday and Thursday. My partner and I swap mornings off when we take our son to daycare. Then, during the week I try to study, I try to read and do a lot of domestic things in between, such as preparing meals, cleaning the apartment, providing the things at home that my partner can’t because he works full-time.
“I feel like I’m constantly learning how to represent different people, emotions and perspectives. I just feel more deeply about emotions, about love and about relationships that aren’t just between lovers, you know? Being a parent, being a daughter, and being a sister. They’re all very complicated relationships. I feel like I need to discuss that more as well.” While the title Remind Me Tomorrow could be interpreted as a political comment, she points out that it’s intended to be more personal. “It’s definitely a general state of where I’m at in my life. It started as a joke when I was trying to catch up on emails and one of those updates popped up on my computer. I realised that I hadn’t updated my computers for two years. So I just kind of laughed. But then, a lot comes from being a mother, just working too much, and I would say it’s less political and more personal, about what’s going on in my life – how I feel about all I’m trying to achieve.”
Now that she’s picked up acting and written film scores, there’s one more thing that she wants to explore. “I actually tried stand-up for the first time this year. I’m not so great on the actual stand-up part, but it made me realise that I’m interested in the writing process of that world. I will probably be experimenting with that in the next couple of years. I love to laugh. I like to make people laugh. I like to watch people laugh, whether it’s something I said or something they watched. But what I’m interested in pursuing personally in the writing side of things is the comedy in day-to-day things. Not in a sitcom kind of way, more like a real-life awkward-situations kind of way. I’m still holding in what it is I want to do, but I have funny ideas all the time.”
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