Sharon Van Etten :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

In the four years since her last record, Sharon Van Etten has been busy. In that time she’s gone back to school, scored a film, and become a mother. It’s that last element that seems to hang over much of her excellent new album, Remind Me Tomorrow. Produced by John Congleton, it’s solid leap forward for an artist who has made substantive changes with every album she’s released. Aquarium Drunkard caught up with Van Etten, via phone from her home in Brooklyn, to discuss her new record, the paranoia of parenthood, the connective power of shared stories, and how Suicide, Nick Cave, and Portishead informed the work.

Aquarium Drunkard: You and I have this in common – we’re both parents. It’s been four years since your last album, and you’ve been busy with various things. But that was the thing I was most interested in from my own perspective. Since the last time you put out a record, I’ve had two children. So I know what a different person I am from the 2014 version of myself as a result of that. When I read you’d had a child, I couldn’t help but view and think about the album through that lens. Is that a right way to look at it? How much of the album was written or put together while you were at least pregnant, if not after your child was born?

Sharon Van Etten: Well, I think what was so intense about these songs for me is that I started writing them as love songs to my partner before I was pregnant. And then, while I was pregnant, I was working on lyrics. Then after I had the baby, I would write during nap time. And I’d be staring at him like this psycho mom that was afraid he’d die at any moment. Like ‘is he breathing?’

AD: [laughs] I’ve been there.

SVE: I’m literally staring at him while writing, you know, and writing just when he’s sleeping and having these moments of staring at the wall and envisioning the projections, showing home movies of my kid in the future. And a couple of those songs were really probably hallucinations of all those dreams of just what he was going to be like, what he would do, and things I hope for him. Most of these songs started before I was pregnant, but I didn’t finish lyrics until after he was born. So you realize you’re writing love songs that are so much bigger than your relationship with your partner, and it’s way more intense than that.

AD: I did an interview a number of years ago with some songwriters about their experiences with writing as fathers. And one in particular had a newborn, and he had to set aside specific time to write. He would usually get up before the kid woke up to work on things. And it sounds like you have a similar experience – taking the nap time to write.

SEV: I think technically they tell you that when the baby sleeps, you should be sleeping, but I’m like, are you kidding me? I need to get shit done. I don’t have a regimen. As I think you know – as soon as you think you have it figured out, things change. At first he was napping all the time, then three naps a day, then two naps, now he’s down to one nap. And I feel like as much as I love my partner, a lot more falls on the mother in terms of domesticity and knowing what to do and planning meals and diapers. A lot more falls on the mother intuitively. And I’m learning how to balance that and how to ask for help more, and learning how to delegate more. It’s hard to let go of that stuff, too, but as I’m preparing to leave for tour, which is a whole other mindset, I just feel like [my partner and I] haven’t had time to talk about what that’s going to be like. My son started at day care when I went to school this semester, and that was a big leap. But I’d be at school, then I come home, get back into mom gear, then I squeeze in interviews. I think in a weird way, touring will be my first stability in a while.

AD: In preparing for this, I went back and re-listened to all of your albums starting with Because I Was In Love, which you had remastered for a re-release last year. I would imagine that going back and re-engaging with music like that, even though it was only ten years, is a lot like going back and looking at old photos of yourself. Do you recognize the Sharon of ten years ago? Is that someone you still connect with, or is there more distance from that person?

SVE: There’s definitely still a part of that person in me. You evolve, but you don’t completely change. My language has gotten different, my perspective is very different. I’m at a different place in my heart and my head, so it’s easy to look back at that person like ‘Aww.’ [laughs] I still listen to those records like Vashti Bunyan – broken-hearted music – and I just love it. I still gravitate toward that kind of vulnerability, whether or not that was me. But seeing that person and seeing that’s what I was going through, it’s hard to watch. And now that I’m a mother, I think of the ways my mother must have felt watching me go through that stuff. But it is me, so I still know exactly where I was when I wrote that, and I needed to write that to get through it.

AD: You mentioned something that was the thing that I cite as my biggest revelation as a father, that I always knew how much my parents loved me, but that I finally got it when I had my own children. So now I do the same thing – I think about how I’m going to feel having to watch them go through the things that I went through.

SVE: I know. On the one hand, you want to protect them, but you also know they need to make mistakes. And the more you try to control those mistakes and choices, the more they’ll rebel against it or the more you’ll prevent them from having their own experiences. The biggest lessons in life I learned were making my own mistakes in my own way. So I know I’ll have to have the strength to let them do that. And it’ll be so hard to watch.

AD: You worked with John Congleton on the new album, and he has this incredible resume of records he’s worked on. How did you end up working together?

SVE: It’s funny, because he actually reached out before I went into the studio to record [the 2014 album] Are We There? I had my heart set on producing that record and working with someone who just wanted to hold my hand through that process. And after talking with a few people who were friends with him or had worked with him, they said, ‘well, work with him when you’re ready to have someone produce your record, because that’s his type.’ He’s a great collaborator, but for the place I was at in my career, I wanted my hand in it, I wanted control. I had to be ready to take that step.

So for Are We There? I just brought in my own friends and musician choices, all my favorite people in the world, and telling them what to do and interpret what I said, and making the choices at the end of the day. And I’m so proud of that record for what it means to me, and it was the record I wanted to make. But I knew if I did the same things this time, that I would make a similar record. And while I’m proud of that record, I like to try and do different things each time so that it doesn’t feel like the same record over again. Where I’m at in my life and my writing, I know that every time I let someone work with me, or I just collaborate and let go, even though it’s hard, even though I struggle with being nervous and needing control, the last couple of years when I’ve done that, I’ve grown and learned so much.

So a lot of these songs are synth and keys driven, and I knew that the extent of my knowledge was mostly in a band line up – guitar, bass, drums, here’s where the piano comes in, here’s the melody, the harmony comes in on the chorus. I know that basic thing. But for production tricks, studio session players – those things were not in my wheelhouse. And with my time constraints, I just wanted to make a record in three weeks. That’s what I’ve got, so if you can do that, and bring in your own people and I can come in as a singer after I give you these demos, and talk about the musicians, I am happy. I am happy to let it go and say ‘I’ve done my thing, now do your thing – I’m trusting you.’

AD: The new record seems like one of the more aggressive records you’ve made, at least musically. Not in a loud sense, but in the feel of the record.

SVE: We were all about the low-end and the drones. My references to John were Suicide and Portishead and Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree, and that was before we went into the studio. And a lot of the songs were written on a drone that was kind of meditative but dark.

AD: That’s exactly what I was thinking. I love that Third album by Portishead, and that’s the exact kind of aggression I was thinking of.

SVE: “Machine Gun” is one of my favorite songs. It’s so intense. I actually just saw Beak recently and it was such a great show. I didn’t see that until after the album was made, so I can’t say it’s an influence. But Geoff Barrow [of Portishead; member of Beak>] is just amazing.

AD: One of my favorite songs on the new record so far is “Memorial Day.” There’s this odd sound that loops in the verses that sounds like…kind of..[imitates a muted whooping sound]. I know that sounded terrible. I shouldn’t try to recreate that. [laughs]

SVE: No, that was kinda dead on! You know, it’s funny, that’s one of the many reasons I love that song. That was actually a stem from my demo. I had the organ loop and the drum loop that I wrote. The chord progression is the same all the way through. But [Congleton] wanted to use the organ part as the click in the background for everyone to play with. I was taking a break from writing the score to Strange Weather. Whenever I would get writer’s block, I would put my guitar down and play literally anything else. This particular day, just to clear my head, I came up with a really simple chord progression that I looped. Then I grabbed my mic and put it through a delay pedal and just started singing “Ha.” Like I was laughing at myself. And when I played that demo for people, people were like ‘this is the creepiest song! What is that?’ It’s just me saying “ha.” But that was something that John was like ‘No, no. Let’s not spend all this time trying to recreate something that already exists. This shit is cool.’ And I really respected that he had the wherewithal to just take this stuff, drop it in, and use it in the song, something that I originally recorded as a demo. He did that for several songs.

AD: The opening line of the album – from the song “I Told You Everything” – is one of those lines that just grabs you from the start. “Sitting at the bar / I told you everything / You said ‘holy shit, / you almost died.'” I know writers aren’t always keen on talking about the explicit things songs are about, but was that an actual experience of yours?

SVE: Yeah, it was the first time I ever sat down with someone – and you know like you have those experiences where you’re talking to a friend and you start telling this really intense story and you realize they haven’t heard it before? And it’s like, oh, well, okay. I’m going to tell you this story and it’s going to take our friendship to the next level. Are you ready for that? I remember I was telling – at the time, he was my drummer, now he’s my partner – we had just finished rehearsing for the Nick Cave tour and we were rehearsing all these songs as a duo. After practice one day, we went to a bar to talk about things – and I told him something about my past and realized I hadn’t told him a certain story. It’s one of those things I’m still learning how to tell friends, let alone in the public eye. And as I told him, I saw him change. He looked at me differently. Not in a belittling way, but like he knew me more. I took for granted that I hadn’t told him this part of my life, but it definitely shaped the person I am today. And it brought us closer together. And I remember this moment in slow motion in my mind, just watching him receive this story with such love as a friend. And I’ll never forget that.

AD: You bookend the song with a line at the end that echoes that first one, “‘Holy shit / we almost died / I had no idea.” I was curious about that shift in pronoun from ‘you’ to ‘we.’

SVE: That was more of a reflection after the fact, because we were friends starting out and we realized we had feelings for each other. And we decided to wait because we weren’t ready. We were both in relationships that weren’t healthy and we wanted to do the right things. But on that tour, we realized we had feelings for each other and we just talked about it, we didn’t do anything about it, but we knew it was there. So we decided to just go home and see what that was like and revisit it later. So upon reflection of us first connecting, and going on tour, and disconnecting as people and friends. Just thinking about – it was a hard decision to decide to do that. To take that chance and let go of that person who I was with that I knew wasn’t right, and to go with someone new, it was like woah. But I knew if I hadn’t taken that leap, it wouldn’t have happened. words / j neas

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