Wednesday 26 June 2019

'It seems everyone is trying to do too much these days' - Sharon Van Etten reveals how motherhood has fuelled her musical creativity


New sound: Van Etten's fifth album is sonically and lyrically very different to her previous work
New sound: Van Etten's fifth album is sonically and lyrically very different to her previous work
John Meagher

John Meagher

The striking cover image of Sharon Van Etten's new album shows a young child's bedroom. It looks wildly messy with all manner of detritus to be found - including, if you look carefully, a Sharon Van Etten album. It's the sort of space that would horrify anyone, with the exception, maybe, of cleaning guru Marie Kondo.

The Brooklyn-based New Jersey songwriter is the mother of a young boy, but she chuckles when confirming that the chaotic image depicted is not of her son's room. It's a photo sent to her from her friend, the film-maker Katherine Dieckmann, and it was taken in her children's room when they were small.

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"She showed me that photograph when I was pregnant," Van Etten says, "and she was basically comforting me when I was freaking out about how I was going to do it all."

By doing it all, she means the business of releasing new music, playing live, acting on TV shows like the rebooted Twin Peaks, studying psychology in university as a mature student and taking on projects like providing the soundtrack for Dieckmann's film, Strange Weather, which starred Holly Hunter.

"Yep, it's been a busy few years," she says with a laugh. "Sometimes I feel as though I'm trying to pack too much in, but I'm someone that likes to stay busy."

At that moment, her child, who's not yet two, cries out loudly in the background. Van Etten chuckles and notes that sometimes it really is a challenge to manage her full schedule. But far from being stymied by the demands of parenting, she says it has fuelled her creativity.

That's especially apparent on her new, fifth album, Remind Me Tomorrow. Named after the most-clicked response option to those update notifications that pop up on Apple MacBooks all the time, it's the finest work of her career to date. It's considerably different, sonically and lyrically, to its immediate predecessors, the critically acclaimed albums Tramp and Are We There. While her previous work has examined relationships that went awry and documented the fall-out of emotional abuse, Remind Me Tomorrow is an album that's all about contentedness.

"I'm in a really good place," she says. "I have an amazing partner [the musician Zeke Hutchins]. I'm happy, fulfilled. I have a beautiful son. I'm challenging myself as an artist, as a writer, as an actor and in education [she jokes that as she's a part-time student she may not obtain her degree until she's 50 - she's 37 now].

"The title of the album is about that idea that sometimes you don't have time for the minutiae. It seems like everyone's trying to do too much these days."

One of the album's standouts, 'Seventeen', finds her addressing her teenage self in song.

"Don't you wish you could go back in time and give yourself a hug and tell yourself that everything's going to be okay? You're about to leave home, you think you know everything. And especially now, being a parent and realising that my parents kind of let me figure it out. It's more and more emotional as I'm raising my kid.

"You just kind of have to let them make ­mistakes in order to learn and I think that's a big part of the sentiment there."

She says she is unlikely to have written a song like that if she wasn't a parent herself.

"Your whole life flashes in front of your eyes when you become a parent. But, also, a lot of the sentiment is living somewhere long enough to see the changes that have happened and being a bit nostalgic for that. In New York City, these old buildings that I got to know are being turned into something else for this new generation, for kids that are coming here and living in neighbourhoods that I can't afford any more."

The album is much more expansive-sounding than her previous work. She says the songs she had written were heading in that direction, but producer John Congleton - best known for his work with St Vincent, Angel Olsen and Blondie - helped embellish her material.

"The influences that I gave John were Suicide [very apparent on one of the tracks, 'Memorial Day'], Portishead and Nick Cave's [plaintive grief-soaked 2017 album] Skeleton Tree. A lot of the songs I wrote were on synthesiser and had a lot of drums and bass, and I know how to talk about a band set up - this is where the drums come in, the bass, the second harmony comes in now - but I knew it was bigger than that, even I didn't have the 'language' for it. I trusted John and he really got it."

If parenthood has informed many of the songs on the album, it's also helped to sharpen Van Etten's approach to making music.

"So far, [being a parent] has made me be very creative and more organised with my time, and a lot of these songs were sketched out when my son was napping.

"I'd put headphones on and stare at him and these love songs that started off as songs that I wrote to my partner turned into songs about a deeper kind of love… but I don't know that when my son gets busier and sleeps less [if it will be possible to continue to write that way] and as I'm touring a lot, I'll have to work out how to find that creative space again."

She's unwilling to panic just yet.

"I think if you're a creative person," she says, "you'll find that space."

Van Etten's busy CV features several collaborations including The National. The band's Aaron Dessner produced her breakthrough album, Tramp, in 2012.

More recently, she's been finding her feet on the small screen. She has appeared on the Netflix supernatural series The OA and brought her music on stage in David Lynch's cult creation Twin Peaks. The latter, in particular, was a career-highlight.

"I was too young to see it [Twin Peaks] at the time it first came out [1991]. I was born in 81. I was a late bloomer to David's work. I didn't really understand it until my twenties, and even then there's so much that's mysterious and open-ended. He's such a fascinating person - and he incorporates so much into his work."

She thinks she got the gig because Lynch's son, Riley, who's also a musician, recommended her for the part.

She hopes to spread herself creatively.

"If there's another role that comes up that feels like it's an extension of myself, I'll try it. But I won't just take on anything. I don't want acting to be the forefront of everything but it's something that's interesting to me. This year, the main focus is touring and creating an exciting live show."

The forthcoming 33-date tour will be quite different to any she has done before. There will be very little guitar - except for some of the older songs. Several of the new tracks were written on synthesiser and she will be incorporating that instrument into the show.

"The new songs call mostly for keyboards, bass and drums," she says, "and a lot of drones and synths."

She says she is excited to go on the road with a backing band that includes singer and multi-instrumentalist Heather Woods Broderick, who has previously played in Lisa Hannigan's band.

Her baby cries out again and Van Etten has to go. She has talked about music long enough.

"It's a case of one foot in front of the other," she says. "I don't know how I'm going to manage this upcoming tour. You just do it, right?"

'Remind Me Tomorrow' is out now. Sharon Van Etten plays Vicar Street, Dublin, on March 23

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