In a time full of insecurities, we often find ourselves pondering over the current status quo. Looking for answers that help us to make sense of this world that seems more and more volatile and reevaluating our own place within it. Not uncommonly, we are often left with more questions than solutions to our problems. A healthy, but difficult process to be in. For Sharon Van Etten, the past few years have been a time full of self-reflection, just to say the least.
A time to pour all of her emotions into her work. Maybe in an even bigger dimension than usual. Nothing left to lose while the risks of losing everything couldn’t possibly be higher. Adjusting to new conditions while figuring out how to deal with the past and present. Ready to face it all from the comfort of her new home in Los Angeles.
The beautiful thing about talking to Sharon Van Etten is that her ability to speak from the heart echoes from each of her words. Easily overcoming the distance between Los Angeles and Berlin during the length of our conversation. As if the screen was barely even there. The Californian sun gently making its way into the room on this Spring morning. Van Etten equally beaming with joy only being a few weeks away from the release of her new album as we speak.
A collection of highly introspective and emotive songs that speak volumes of the amount of soul-searching that has been going on for the American singer-songwriter. A process that still continues to this day which Van Etten confirms:
“It’s still emotional listening to it now when I check in, but I wrote it during this time that we’ve all been in during the past two years so it’s kind of an emotional rollercoaster. I still feel all the feelings – ups and downs, silver linings, darkness because we’re still kind of in it.”
Making Sense of the World
Being praised as “the kind of artist who helps people to make sense of the world around them”, the two most important things in Van Etten’s life are without a doubt her family and her songwriting. Reflecting on her own safe haven and support, she says: “My partner is amazing and can shoulder so much of whatever I’m processing. It’s great to have a family unit that centers you and makes you focus on all the things that you can control. All the things that are the immediate, important aspects of my life. As soon as I start thinking about outward things and things that are beyond my capabilities that is when I feel like I get the most anxious. I don’t always like to bother my partner with my own insecurities and anxieties. So writing is definitely a huge part of how I process my emotions.”
“I will lock myself in the studio, even if it’s not for writing purposes. It’s more about the emotive aspect of getting the emotion out. Then I’ll analyse it later and see if there’s anything in there that is helpful to other people. But the actual getting it out is what helps me to feel better.”
Just Being There
With the world almost coming to a full stop in the past few years, spending time at home with her family has been a highly valuable experience for Sharon Van Etten:
“I know I want to be home more often. I want to be present for my child and my partner. It’s the longest I’ve ever been home. It’s been really nice to nest for a minute and be there for all the important like birthdays and anniversaries and firsts. I’m excited to tour with my band and the other artists that I’ll be touring with, but I already know that I’ll miss my kid’s first day of school and it breaks my heart.”
A painful prediction to which she adds: “I want to be there if he has a bad day at school. I want to be there for my partner who needs to vent after a hard day at work. Like, I want to pick out the couch with him (laughs). I don’t want him to make decisions without me. Just normal stuff. Just being there, being present, being available. I think that’s number one for me. And also, I still have so much to learn about protecting my child and the way he sees the world. And how it’s my job to help him feel safe and protected. I know with my absence sometimes, he questions that.”
Van Etten pauses for a moment to recollect herself. The thought of not being with her son for a second clearly weighs heavily on her mind. The balancing act of being a mother and a successful musician. Continuing with her sixth album We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong coming up.
Home To Me is one of the most achingly beautiful songs on there. Written with her five year old son in mind. Hinting at maternal guilt and the compatibility of having a family and a career. While being approached from a very personal angle, the song also reveals a subject matter known to so many women around the world struggling with the same inner conflict. Sharon Van Etten confesses:
“Being a mother is hard. That is a conversation my partner and I have and he is very self-aware. For me, this song is more about having an awareness for my son. He is only five. I’m leaving all these secret messages on the album so that one day when he can understand it – it’s like an apology.”
A Fulfilling Life
Even in 2022, it is still a common perception in society that a mother has to fully sacrifice herself for her child in order to be a “good mother”. While that seems unhealthy and outdated to a certain degree, Van Etten voices her opinion on leading a fulfilling life outside of being a devoted mother:
“If I didn’t have music as an outlet, number one, I would not be alright emotionally, stability-wise. I need that for me. But then being able to share it with other people, it helps to feel less selfish. I want my son to see both my partner and I thrive. Even when it’s hard. Even when we struggle. I want him to see us figuring it out and having these conversations of like…who get’s to get out of town, who gets to get out tonight.
When things are a struggle, he can watch us get through it and watch us communicate and thrive just as human beings. That’ll make us better parents to him so that he can find that independence within himself and whatever relationship he’s in later in life. But it doesn’t make it easier. He’s at an age where he just doesn’t understand it.”
A Sense of Community
A few months after 2019’s release of her acclaimed album Remind Me Tomorrow, Van Etten relocated from New York to Los Angeles. Only having little time to settle into the new environment with her family before the world’s and her daily routine were severely affected. Despite all the struggle, Van Etten still has a basic trust: “I still have faith in humanity, I really do. The sense of community during quarantine really helped us. If Covid hadn’t happened in 2020, we wouldn’t have felt as welcomed as we did by our community. My neighbor would drop off persimmons. Then we had a friend help us with our dog and our sitter would watch both families while we were all juggling working from home.
We had an art teacher across the street that would do an outdoor art class for all the kids in the neighborhood. It turned into this community that I wouldn’t have had if Covid hadn’t happened. I feel like for me to see what is in our control, what is in our arm’s reach, there is still so much good. We have to focus on that in moving forward and what communities actually mean.”
“If there is anything we have learnt during this time is that you have to learn how to coexist with people you don’t agree with. Even if you don’t like their politics or don’t like how they live their life. It’s all about being a good person and being a good neighbor. It’s hard sometimes. You just have to be able to be tolerant and move on. It’s a practice.”
The Only Window
Moving from one coast to another and absorbing new forms of energy, Sharon Van Etten not only settled into a new home, but she also started working on a her custom build studio which became the groundwork for her new songs as she fondly remembers:
“I felt lucky because when we first moved in, there was a producer that worked in there before, but he did a lot more like outboard stuff so the room was perfectly tuned, it was like a floating room – like a box inside a box – and it was completely covered in black foam. The only window was filled with an air conditioner.
I’ve been working in New York for so long out of basements and shared spaces with the exhaust from a restaurant feeding into the basement right outside my door with garbage bags and rats and no windows. So I said to myself, I’m not moving from like a basement in New York to a garage in Los Angeles without any windows. There is no way.”
Gateway to the World
While some songs can be like a window to the soul, there was no way for Van Etten to get comfortable in her home studio without an actual window being the gateway to the outside world. A few months of construction work later, the transformation was done. Van Etten describes the process as follows:
“So we took out a lot of the foam and we had custom panels made and I painted everything white. Then we took the air conditioner out, put a split in the wall so we could actually utilize the window as a window. We put in a new big picture window looking out to the back yard. I knew that I wanted my piano underneath it so that I could just sit at the piano when I’m writing and be able to look out of the window, space out and think…and also watch my son.”
“I wanted it to feel light and I wanted it to feel open. Everything just set up and ready to record. That was the most important thing.”
New Chapters of Life
Once the studio was up and running, it was time for Van Etten to channel her emotions. In fact, fully embracing their abundance:
“I think always in the way that I write, the benefit is that I never feel pressured to write a record. There are always these chapters of my life, they are moments in time that I just write freely, I record. I feel like I had two years to allow myself the time and the freedom to process. Actually, I’m still processing everything. It’s not that I’m resolved. I got to the point where I had about 20 songs and I knew that I wanted to honour the past two years and what this time meant to me.”
“I really wanted to honor the time in my studio and with my band. That really helped me to get through the last two years. My band checking in on me and putting fire under my ass to make stuff.”
The songs on We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong speak of loss, growth as well as the small and big challenges one has to face with the world constantly changing, oftentimes ripping through our inner world too, before leaving us piecing together the remains of it all. No matter how painful and debilitating, there is only one way to cope with it all according to Sharon Van Etten:
“Even though it’s been the hardest time I think collectively as a world we’ve had in our lifetime – we just need to keep moving. It’s gonna be lingering, it’s gonna be there, but I want to walk away from this time and I think we just need to keep moving forward and progressing. I’m confident, but indefinitely misty-eyed (laughs). There is so much work still to be done, but you have to just forge ahead.”
Time to Grow
Thinking about her past and present achievements, Sharon Van Etten acknowledges her own growth as an individual and artist, but humbly emphasizes she is not done yet growing:
“Some days I’m like, ok I’ve come a long way. I learnt how to tune my guitar, I went from a van to a bus, I went from being solo to having a five piece, my partner and I have a house and a dog. But I still feel like I’m honing my craft – what it is I wanna say and how I say it and how I process the world.”
Explaining her viewpoint a bit further, she adds: “What I’m most inspired by are the emotions that sometimes hold back people from being able to communicate them. So for me it’s learning how to process emotions and sharing those emotions in a universal way, but that also means because I write in this way I don’t always have a narrative. It’s more about feelings and moments, but not stories.”
“I want to learn how to tell more stories. That has never been my strength. Just being patient with myself and knowing that it’s something that I want to learn how to do while I’ve also bettered myself in other areas.”
Patience can be a tricky thing, especially when – most of all – it means you have to learn how to be gentle with yourself in difficult times:
“Just like any kind of grief, I feel like it comes in waves. Sometimes, you can remember something fondly, and other days it just makes you feel really sad and you feel paralyzed. In other days, it’s inspiring when you look back at things that you have lost along the way. I think a lot has come up during this time for people in this collective trauma that we’re all experiencing in different ways and everyone has a different way of coping.”
Identifying Those Feelings
On a personal note, Sharon Van Etten concludes: “I think just learning how to be gentle with yourself and helping the people around you understand what those triggers might be for people is important. Like learning how to communicate those past traumas that are now triggered with current ones. Talking about loss and talking about growth, being able to identify what those feelings are.”
With an incredible sensitivity and candor, Sharon Van Etten bravely leads the way by sharing ten new songs on her latest album that display a new whole new dimension in her own process of growth as a remarkable songwriter.
We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong is out now on Jagjaguwar.