The name ‘Sharon Van Etten’ sounds somewhat familiar to you? The alternative rock and folk starlet gained recognition with her first two self-recorded albums and cemented her place on any essential indie rock playlist with her latest record Are We There. In 2014 she made it onto several Best of the Year 2014 playlists, but the singer and guitarist from New Jersey has been laying low in the music industry since. What has she been up to? Juggling psychotherapy classes, a role in a Netflix series and a child – Sharon Van Etten knows how to stay busy. In our interview she reveals her secret of managing the multiple roles she plays, not just on screen, but also in real life. The singles Comeback Kid and Jupiter 4 were released in late 2018 to give us a little taste of what to expect on the 18th of January, when the singer’s fifth album will drop. Now almost five years after her last visit to Germany, we had the chance to chat with Van Etten about her highly anticipated upcoming album Remind Me Tomorrow and finally going back on tour.
New Year’s resolutions for 2019 and other traditions
Hi Sharon, first of all Happy New Year! How did you celebrate the beginning of 2019?
Well my New Year’s celebration is a little different every time depending on where I am. This year I spent it with my sister in New Jersey and I got to hang out with my little cousins, which was fun. They had matching scooters and they were scooting around the house learning how to do it, falling down and stuff. It was really cute. My sister is a principal at an elementary school and very busy so it is only during the holidays that we get to hang out.
Did you make any resolutions for 2019?
That’s funny because last year I think I made too many. I started doing some of them, but I just couldn’t do them all. I feel like the more resolutions you make, the less you manage to actually do and the more you feel bad about it. I was joking that this year my only resolution was to do better. But I still have to write the real ones out by myself. I do want to eat healthier, exercise more, and spent more time with my family.
In an interview a while back you mentioned that you look into your Horoscope regularly. Is that something you still do?
I actually haven’t checked mine yet, but I used to do it all the time. I find that there are some similarities of course I don’t live by it, but I do find it interesting.
I had a quick look at yours. I hope you don’t mind. It said Pisces calls for some rebellious changes mid 2019.
That is funny because we are going to leave New York in May to move to Los Angeles. We stayed there like six months and we ended up loving the city. So we are going to try even if it is far away so that is scary. And it makes Germany that much farther! During the sixteen years I have been living in New York I moved neighborhoods because of the touring schedule quite a lot. Sometimes it makes more sense to put all of your stuff into a storage unit, travel freely, then come back and find a spot again. That is what a lot of musicians do. But it is hard, especially with the baby!
A quick guide on how to keep your self insanely busy
Your last release Are We There lies more than four years back now, but you have been everything but lazy. Acting in the Netflix series The OA, writing the soundtrack to a movie, going back to University, having a child AND recording a new record on top of that. How do you fit all of these projects into a normal 24hour day? What is your secret?
I have lists and I have piles of them everywhere. I’m a pile Person. The lists keep changing and I sometimes even loose my lists. I just try to give myself long term plans. So for school I said I’m getting myself to the age of 50 before I’m getting a degree if I want to pursue acting and music meanwhile. I do one thing at a time; one month I am doing the TV show. I mostly read and work on lyrics in that time, and then next time I have a window I go to school. It’s a lot of scheduling. Google Calendar is my best plan.
Was The OA your first acting experience?
Well, I did a musical when I was in high school but I don’t think that counts. So yeah it’s the first real acting experience.
That industry is very different from the music business. How hard was getting accustomed to that?
Music is my thing. I make all the plans and everyone I work with helps me to finish them. The songs I write are my experiences and I get to be myself performing them. Acting is not about you. You’re helping a huge production and on a big day there are like 200 people on set. A lot of people are depending on you to be there and you just need to get it done. I have to take my own experiences and use them for the role and trigger the emotions of this other character opposed to being myself. And that is hard and very different. I have to learn lines that aren’t mine and try to make them my own.
You must have an absolutely insane schedule. What do you do when you have some me-time – does that ever happen?
I like listening to music. I love just sitting down and going through my records picking out something I haven’t listened to in a while. The last thing I listened to was the latest Beak> record. Geoff Barrow from England, who was in Portishead, has this new project called Beak>. It is really fun, dark and driving.
Remind Me Tomorrow
Speaking of dark and driving. What was the inspiration for the shift in style going from folk earthy songs to darker post-punk influenced style on Remind Me Tomorrow?
When I started out I was a solo artist and I didn’t know how to play with other people but I have always had all those influences. Even when I was folk I was listening to Civil Twilight, Meg Baird, Nick Cave, who are more about the psych world, but I was only playing the acoustic guitar and singing. Once I made my first record and went on tour I started meeting other musicians, who were interested in playing with me. So when I went on to make my second record I was more open to playing with people. Before I had always been too insecure about my knowledge in music, because I am not a trained musician, I am self-taught and I don’t really know keys or time signatures. When I met other musicians I realized that it was okay and that everybody has a different style of playing. That led to me making Tramp and Are We There.
After a while I felt like this was the extent of my knowledge. I was tempted to make a very similar record, just because I knew how to do it. But I had to move forward. During that time I got really into writing on synthesizer and organ and writing syncopated drumbeats on my drum kit. Without realizing I was focusing more on bass-driven and drum-driven songs just to clear my head, because I felt like I was writing the same song over and over again. I actually got really interested in where this was going and I started sharing the demos with other people. That is how I found myself working with John Congleton on Remind Me Tomorrow, because these were the songs he got most excited about.
The title of the new record is Remind Me Tomorrow. Was that just inspired by your MacBook asking you to do the update the software – where I always press ‘remind me tomorrow’ – or is there a deeper meaning to it?
It came to life out of a combination of things. I had a bunch of ideas in the back of my notebook. I always like to have a little bit of a joke in the title of an album and I had this photograph which I was using as ‘inspirato’ from my friend Katherine Dieckmann whose film Strange Weather I did the score for. It was kind of comforting to see these kids, who were just okay in this chaos, which reminded me of my life. I was catching up on emails, working on songs and the window popped up on my mac and then everything else just made sense.
Well you guys did a great job! On the new album is a track called Seventeen. You sing ‘I used to be seventeen / Now you’re just like me’. If you could go back now, what would you give your seventeen-year old self on the way?
I’d tell her to stop running away from everything. You are already who and stop caring so much what other people think. Even now twenty years later I still can’t really believe that I went on to become a successful musician and actor. I still feel like this nerdy seventeen-year old kid hanging out in her sweatpants dreaming about going to Paris one day.
The therapeutic power of music, and nostalgia
So after taking a look at the past, let’s look ahead. Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
Well, I’m going to school on and off and my goal is to become a therapist by the age of 50. I’ll be 38 in February; by the time I turn fifty I would like to have my own practice and do one to one counseling.
Quite the big change. What got you interested in pursuing work in this field?
Over the years I realized how therapeutic writing is for me and how it taught me to get in touch with my emotions. It is outlet for me. I am an introvert, but over all a happy and optimistic person, I just have a hard time accessing my emotions. My personality benefits from retreating for a while, thinking about things, and working them out before I try to communicate them – sometimes through songs. Like that I have more clarity about where the emotions are coming from. I noticed that fans get a similar feel out of listening to my songs. I connect with them through music and in a way I’m saying the things they don’t know how to say. It seems like mutual feeling of therapy. I have talked to my fans about how my music has helped them and it made me want to understand more why that is.
Are you nervous to go back on stage and be face to face with your fans again, after four years of not touring?
Yes! Especially with the new line up in which I’m not really playing guitar at all, I am just singing. So I am going to have to watch a lot of videos of my favorite singers and see what they do on stage. I am also not much of a dancer in public. It will be more like a rock show, I guess, and me singing to the people. I wouldn’t be able to sing very well while I was dancing. I would scare people away if they saw me dancing. I dance like Elaine Benes from the Seinfeld club.
On a Pitchfork interview you talked about how underrated nostalgia is and that you ‘live in nostalgia everyday’. What is something that you would like to bring back if you could?
People just hanging out at home listening to music – the act of people listening to an album back to back and looking at the artwork. I know people still exist who do that, I am one of those people, but to have that being the main event, I miss. I still believe in the album. I think about the beginning and the end, how it works and how it feels. I like having the lyrics to sit with, read, think about, and to connect with the music at my own pace. Also watching someone react to something they hear for the first time; I like that.
Remind Me Tomorrow will be released on the 18th of January via Jagjaguwar.