Sharon Van Etten Gets Free

On Remind Me Tomorrow the artist ditches guitars and finds bold new ways to write about love.

Photo: Benedict Evans for Vulture
Photo: Benedict Evans for Vulture

The day before the release of Sharon Van Etten’s new video for “Seventeen,” the third single off her new album, Remind Me Tomorrow, she darts downstairs in jeans and a sweatshirt to open the front door. “This is my first ‘grown-up’ apartment,” Van Etten says as we enter the Carroll Gardens brownstone walkup she shares with her partner and manager, Zeke Hutchins, and their son, who will turn 2 in March.

Inside the apartment, a row of finger paintings and collages give way to a wall of records. Above her piano is a photograph taken by Van Etten that became the cover of 2014’s Are We There — a girl leaning out a car window, hair blowing in the wind — further proof that the 20-years-younger self she addresses in “Seventeen” (“I used to be free, I used to be seventeen”) is still very much part of this world.

“Risky” used to be the best way to describe the raw, stunning and searching music that Van Etten has been recording since 2005. That was the year she moved to New York after a stint back at her parents’ home in New Jersey, nursing the wounds of a toxic relationship she’d escaped in Tennessee with a boyfriend who tried to discourage her playing because, she says, “he thought it was too personal.” The songs she became known for on her first four albums tend to build slowly, starting low in the vocal register, as if pulling from a deep, dark well. Her solitary subjects plumb the depths of heartache and introspection, but seek connection.

Remind Me Tomorrow is a different kind of risk. It mostly does away with guitars. It’s gothic pop, percolating with tape loops and drones and Farfisa keyboards accompanying lap steel and drums; its universe feels vast — dark and redemptive at once, and, for Van Etten, completely uncharted. “I worry about freaking out my fans,” Van Etten says, when I ask her about the new sonic direction of Remind Me Tomorrow. “I’ve never let myself go this way in my music, [but] I feel like it’s a natural progression, just a much bigger leap.” The album was written mostly on analog synthesizers, recorded with Suicide, Portishead, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in mind (Van Etten was one of the opening acts for Cave’s 2013 tour). Against a turbulent, pulsating soundtrack, Van Etten sings radiantly and simply about falling in love, but she also drops deadpan lyrics about finding someone with whom you can share the worst parts of your past and, hopefully, your best future. On “I Told You Everything,” she sings, “Sitting at the bar, I told you everything / You said, ‘Holy shit’.” For someone who’s become accustomed to examining her most vulnerable emotions in song, is there a risk, too, in writing about what it means to find happiness?

“Some fans have written to say they’ve lost faith in me, or whatever,” Van Etten says. “And I’m so proud of the last record I made, but I really needed to make this one. “There are bands where I don’t love all their records, but you want them to challenge themselves and make what they need to make.” She’s used to fans finding personal solace in her music, and telling her so. In fact, she has welcomed such interactions, talking with fans after shows and writing back to some of them. But four years ago, on tour for Are We There — an album “all about a breakup and me being in an unhealthy relationship” — the balance of the conversations shifted. “The people who came up to me weren’t just sharing stories, they were seeking my advice,” she says. Some predicaments were heavy: devastating breakups, terminal illness, friends’ suicides. “And I thought, I don’t have it in me right now — but I realized I also kind of wanted to.”

If Leonard Cohen had run his own merch table, such encounters might have inspired him to become a therapist too. As the tour drew to a close in early 2015, that’s what Van Etten resolved to do, announcing a hiatus from music and beginning psychology coursework at Brooklyn College. The essential nature of the exchange between performer and audience prompted her to think about whether cathartic-seeming music was genuinely therapeutic; what music is capable of accomplishing, on a human level; what it means to express past traumas to strangers. “I would look at those fans holding each other and listening to these songs and it just felt like, Is this a great message I’m sharing?” she says. “I started doubting myself in music. And I started asking what is my responsibility and what is driving me to connect with them.”

At the time, Van Etten believed she was merely putting music on pause to study, stay a little closer to home and keep a more normal schedule than her 17-year-old self perhaps thought she might have. That didn’t last long. Two weeks into classes, she was invited to audition for the supernatural Netflix series The OA, by an agent who’d seen her open for Nick Cave in 2013.

“Honestly,” she says, “there are two or three things in my life that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t done that tour.” Performing as a skeleton crew, she’d taken just Hutchins, her longtime drummer, along with her. “Somewhere along the way we realized we had feelings for each other,” Van Etten says. “We realized we were both in unhealthy relationships. And I got to this place where, I knew when I went home, that I was going to have to end mine.”

By 2015, when The OA came calling, Hutchins was both her partner and manager. “I almost didn’t take it because I felt like such a phony,” she says. “People work their whole lives to get a role like this! I called my mom, I called a handful of friends who I figured would give me a hard time about it, and they were all like, ‘Take it.’” Van Etten deferred her studies for a semester, crossing the country to begin shooting in L.A. In one of the show’s most haunting scenes, she delivers an a cappella version of her song “I Wish I Knew.”

Months later, when a visibly pregnant Van Etten showed up for a meeting at her professor’s office, “he began to cry in this really sweet way,” she remembers. “Like, ‘Promise me you won’t leave us!’” Life became “school, score, acting, baby on the way.” And also music. She’d fly a red-eye and head straight to class to take an exam; she wrote a film score, for Katherine Dieckmann’s Strange Weather; and she amassed about 40 new demos in the months before giving birth to her son, including some of the most genuine love songs she’d ever written.

The title of the album, Remind Me Tomorrow, refers to the infernal daily prompt your phone issues to install system updates. It signals a yielding to the unpredictable turns that life and art can take, and a career mapped along a more patient, natural, genuinely creative trajectory — not unlike the slow-build structure of so many of her own songs. In a dozen years — i.e., the more realistic time frame Van Etten, who turns 38 in February, has now given herself to get her counseling certification — she’s opened herself to multiple paths independent of the whims of the music industry. After more acting jobs, like taping a performance of her song “Tarifa” before a chain-smoking, megaphone-wielding David Lynch on the set of Twin Peaks, she’s reading scripts for film roles. She tried out stand-up comedy recently in L.A., but ideally pictures herself in a writers room — she has an entire series planned out (think the awkward, real-life situations of High Maintenance, but with moms and babysitters). Someday, too, she’d like to write a concept album, maybe one encompassing books by her favorite authors — Anaïs Nin, Richard Brautigan, Milan Kundera. In that batch of 40 demos, she reckons there was one whole album of piano ballads (“I just didn’t think the world needed an album of piano ballads”) and another of country songs (“I thought, I can do that later in life”). When she listened back to the demos she’d written, she says, “I gravitated to what was left of center.”

Photo: Benedict Evans for Vulture

Among the selection of songs she showed producer John Congleton were “Jupiter 4,” named for the synth she wrote it on. “I had the riff, and I had the drums minimally in there.” When she mentioned Nick Cave and Alan Vega, “his eyes got really big and excited. John just ran with all of it.” “Seventeen” had initially been a Lucinda Williams–esque country dirge; the album’s first single, “Comeback Kid” started as two songs, which her friend Sam Cohen helped her fuse into one. Transformed, it’s the anthem of a dark pop star, Springsteen meets Benatar meets Siouxsie Sioux: “I’m the runaway, I’m the stay-out-late,” Van Etten sings, gritty verse rendered in glittery vocals. In the video, she comes off like a toughened-up version of the roadhouse chanteuse she embodied on Twin Peaks.

“It was so fun to sing like that,” Van Etten says of recording and mixing in Congleton’s studio in Los Angeles. “I was conjuring my PJ [Harvey] — like, slamming my coffee and singing those songs. It was so great to just show up and be the singer.”

With this change in her perception of herself as an artist, came a new outlook on how her life is intertwined with her art as well. [Keyboardist] Heather Woods Broderick “opened me up in ways beyond being an artist … like she’s way more into health and exercise and things like that and I was more a tomboy, smoker, drinker, because of the lifestyle. She taught me how to put on eyeliner! And when you’re on the road with dudes, it actually feels nice to get ready like that. She and I would warm up together. There’s a level of performance you have to get into, this mind-set.” One of her prevailing influences is Hutchins, who after years of playing with Van Etten, became her manager. I ask how it feels to have your partner shepherding your career, after being involved with boyfriends who actively tried to stop you from playing?

“To fall in love with someone who gets it, who’s been on tour, who’s played with me, who knows my past, knows all my weaknesses, he knows all the shit, he knows my family, my friends, my band, my lifestyle,” she says. At home, they try to separate worlds: “We come home, we feed our son, we make dinner, we sit down, we talk about life, and every once in a while, he’ll say, ‘You know that email I sent you a week ago — um, can you write me back?’” Mostly, though, she says, Hutchins is a voice of encouragement. “He’s the one always saying ‘it’s an adventure.’”

Their next adventure, after touring with and without a young child, is moving to Los Angeles, where they lived last spring while Van Etten filmed The OA. “At first I was walking down the street all in black with my New York sarcasm,” she says, then interrupts herself as Michael Cera walks by our table, wearing the mustache he’s grown for his current Broadway role in The Waverly Gallery. “No way!” Van Etten says, jumping up to say hello. Until she let go of her practice space (“one of the bittersweet parts of saying good-bye to New York”), Van Etten and Cera shared it; he owns the synthesizer she used to write “Jupiter 4.”

“That’s so funny,” Van Etten says, after Cera and his wife Nadine leave. She and Cera met by chance on a day like this — after running into each other repeatedly over the course of an afternoon in Brooklyn. “That’s the kind of New York run-in I’m gonna miss. In L.A., you have to set your day with intention. But we found a house and a studio for what our apartment costs here. And we can always come back.”

Growing up in New Jersey, in a family of five kids and a dad who still makes regular shopping trips to Princeton Record Exchange, the musical common ground was Neil Young, Tom Petty, and the Kinks. “That was who we could all agree on,” Van Etten says. “People that have longevity. Who’s the equivalent of any of those now?” The morning Prince died, she and her friend Carolyn were playing music in a basement in Dumbo and didn’t find out until they went upstairs. “We started crying, and Carolyn just goes, ‘I’m gonna dye my hair purple.’ And she did,” Van Etten says. “You start thinking of all the artists you’ve admired forever, like they’re all going to go eventually and who do we have that will fill that space? I’ve never seen Bob Dylan play, that’s on my list. I’ve never seen Neil Young play, though I’ve seen him speak. I saw Bruce Springsteen a long time ago.”

At the end of the week Van Etten will fly to L.A. to start rehearsal for her tour. She says she still hasn’t quite figured out what to do onstage without the guitar. (“You don’t want to see me dance,” she says.) Lately she’s been reading quantitative psychology in an effort to keep up her studies on the road, and to understand why certain songs last, and become universal. “I’m trying to find ways,” Van Etten says, “of understanding people’s connection to music.”

She’s writing her set lists. “I have this desire to not play ‘the hits,’” she says. “I don’t want to play the ones that are angsty, or mournful.” She’s still “not in a place where I can really give people advice, ’cause everyone’s experience is unique.” But Van Etten is very much listening. “Some musicians need that distance, but I need that connection. I need to remember why I’m doing this.”

Sharon Van Etten Gets Free