A yellow robot sits on the mantle of the fireplace in Sharon Van Etten’s apartment. Her son, who’s now almost two years old, absolutely loves it. He plays with it all the time, she says, although lately he’s been more preoccupied with his new scooter. “This is the sum of your life right here,” the 38-year-old tells me over coffee in her dining room. “He’s so innocent and so curious and so unadulterated and so happy. I get tears in my eyes sitting on the floor with him. Pure joy when he plays.”
The last time Sharon Van Etten released an album — the critically acclaimed Are We There — was about five years ago. Back then, she was in a completely different period of life, still dealing with the blast zone of a tumultuous relationship earlier in her life while pushing herself to move forward. That record’s cover image now hangs on the wall near the robot, which, for some reason, feels symbolic. It’s a photograph of her friend hanging her head out of the window of a car speeding down a highway in Tennessee. “We used to work together at a bookstore,” she says, recounting the time she spent in Nashville in her early 20s. “We hated our jobs but had so much fun together. After work, we’d drink Diet Coke and chain smoke cigarettes, blasting music, screaming out the windows to our favorite songs.” It’s a past life that flashes like a memory, sitting right next to a toy that represents the future.
Her new project is called Remind Me Tomorrow, her fifth studio album, and it signals the most significant step forward she’s taken in her career. The ten songs evolve her introspective songwriting into something much more realized. Part of that literally has to do with her working with a producer for the first time (indie legend John Congleton), but the other part is rooted in her desire to grow and challenge herself as an artist. That’s both in songwriting and style, but also in her genuine approach to expressing her creativity (for example, this is the first tour where she won’t be playing guitar). You can also hear it in the songs, which at times take on a fleeing Springsteen feeling — and that’s not just because she’s from New Jersey.
On top of music, Van Etten is striving for more. She acts in the Netflix show The OA, which is about to release a second season, and has found herself with a desire to get a psychology degree to one day become a therapist. She still smokes cigarettes, though. “I have bad mom moments,” she says at one point, winking.
Five years is a long time. Did you plan to come back?
I didn’t know for sure if I was gonna make another record. But I wasn’t worried about it. I didn’t care. It wasn’t this grand exit, like, I’m retiring. This is the last tour ever. But I also knew that I didn’t have the answers. I did the record in little pieces but not thinking it was for anything. And it wasn’t until fall 2017 when I realized I had like 40 demos.
Did you expect the response to the record to be what it was?
I had no idea. I’m ready to face my fears because a lot of it is the insecurity of performing and people being right there with me. But I’m also doing it for them, so I also feel like I owe it to them to be more present. And a lot of times in the past, I would get lost in the old songs because I was still mourning that love or I was still going through that process. And now I’m just so far from it. I don’t want to play those songs anymore. Can you really blame me?
It feels like this record is a purposeful shift in tone. Was that the case?
My writing always comes from a very therapeutic place. Whenever I’m going through a hard time, I need to write about it — regardless it turns into a song. The writing of this record started with these complex emotions I had before I got pregnant. The songs began as love songs to my partner, and then I finished writing the lyrics as I was pregnant. Then I gave birth. And I was staring at my child, rewriting these songs that were just about me and my partner that were now about something so much more. It comes from a similar place as my previous work, but with the complexities of bringing life into the world.
How is it being a parent?
It’s amazing. It’s complicated. It changes everything.
Were you planning to have a kid?
I never even thought about it until I was with my current partner. There’s a time in your life where you feel like everything clicks and you know what you want. You meet the person you want to be with. It was still scary as hell. But, I saw my partner — the way he treats people, the way he talks to people and respects everyone. No matter what, he always is thoughtful and considerate. I don’t even remember exactly what it was but he said something amazing and in my head I thought, he’s gonna be a really good dad. It was the first time I realized that I thought I would be a good mother.
How have your expectations for yourself evolved over the last few years?
The one thing that I have — that I’m still learning — is the process of letting go and trusting other people. Asking for help when you need it. Those are very adult things. Sometimes you need that to do a better job. With this album, I learned to let go.
That’s a hard thing to do. Especially for the first time.
“Plays well with others.” That’s a good box to check. I’ll be 38 in February, and I’m finally learning how to collaborate more openly [laughs]. But it’s still something I’m learning how to do. And that’s scary. But I’m getting better at it.
You’re hitting a point in life where you have lived many lives. How does it feel looking back on them?
The past is a funny thing. I feel so far from my past, but I’ve become who I am because of that time. And what I’ve gotten through because of it. And the stronger person is me. It does feel so far away. Someone just sent me an old photo, this guy that was in a band in Tennessee back in the day. It’s funny, because I look like my little brother. My hair is cut super pixie, home-cut short. I was also shy so I was always in the shadows of photos, and he’s like, I remember you. You were always sweet to me. I worked in a venue and I let bands crash on the floor. But I was the quiet coffee shop girl that would hook up free food. I don’t hate every moment of that time period, but looking back is always hard. You remind yourself who you are.
It takes a lot to not hate every moment of things that you don’t like in your past.
Yeah, just because — especially if you got through such a hard time — you have the perspective of being in such a better place and having more knowledge and experience, you know? I’m so glad I’m not 17 anymore. I’m so glad I’m not in high school. I mean, I know I have a lot more to figure out, and probably when I’m 50 I’ll be like, I’m so glad I’m not in my 30s.
Your music feels like it’s meant for looking back on life and taking lessons.
I think about perspectives, about reflecting on the past. With the future you get super anxious, and with the past you have all these doubts and fears and regrets. It’s about where you are right now. One of the things that I’m processing is how important the past is, how it affects me, trying to live in the now because any other time brings anxiety. You can acknowledge and move on while still being present.
You’ve spoken about one day becoming a therapist. Where does that desire come from?
I feel very lucky for the support I’ve gotten over the years, and I feel like it’s grown naturally from working my ass off. I’ve been true to myself. When I started playing music, it wasn’t like I wanted this thing. I just wanted to play, and I was driven to play, and I’m still dumbstruck about having a following at all — from basically sharing my journals. When I first moved back home after I ran away from Tennessee, an old teacher recommended me a therapist. Because the agreement when I moved back home was that I would get a job, I would go to school part-time, and I would see a therapist. It was a great parenting move. And it was the best thing I ever did. My therapist helped me eventually have the courage to move to New York. I had a lot of anxiety that I was getting over. It took me four years of living in the city before I learned how to deal with my social anxiety. I’m still living with it.
It’s one of those things that never goes away.
And that’s okay. As I pursue music and it’s grown, I’ve gotten to meet fans and I’ve heard many, many incredible stories from how it’s gotten people through really hard times. Which is amazing. It makes me feel like what I’m doing isn’t completely selfish, because sometimes I wonder.
Every creative person is always wondering that.
I want to understand more about why people have such a hard time communicating. And why it’s so hard to find your own outlet sometimes. And why we’re so stubborn about talking about our emotions. I know I’m talking more right now, but I’m a really good listener.
You just became a parent and the world is —
Yes. What’s it like bringing someone into that?
I was like five, six months pregnant when I watched Trump get elected into office. And I had this funny moment of sitting on the couch like, This isn’t happening, shit, this is happening. And my eyes were welling up and I was like, No. Because my baby was going to absorb all these negative emotions. In that moment, I realized, that’s what the rest of my life will be. I’m going to have to sit and watch the world burn, trying to protect him from it as much as I can.
Is that a tough balance?
It’s actually a great retreat. I’m doing everything I can, too. I perform for events for Planned Parenthood. I’m trying to figure out ways to be involved with Families Belong Together and focus on the things that I think are important that are in my control. I didn’t vote for Trump. I’m trying — within my power, within reason, with my schedule — to be a part of things that are important without it being super political. I ask myself, what do I believe in that is positive and that helps people without having arguments or watching some speeches that I don’t believe anyway? It helps keep our home peaceful. I focus on the things that you can do. Put your phone down.
Put the phone down! All this energy out there is killing me.
I know we’re on our phones a lot, but wait until a kid sees you on your phone and then wants it all the time. We’re zombies.
You’re moving to California. Your music feels very New York to me.
I grew up in New Jersey. I’ve lived in New York for 15 years. It’s a huge part of my identity and I do feel like I’m gonna stick out like a sore thumb in L.A. Maybe that’ll give me some great material! I honestly can’t afford to live in New York anymore. I thought about Jersey, but I can’t go back to where I’m from. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have moved. But I’m at a time in my life where, like, I want to slow down. I want to nest. I want to invest in a home that I can live in as mine. That I can afford and make my own. Have a studio at home. Have a yard for my kid and maybe get a dog. I want these things now. Twentysomething Sharon did not want these things.
She didn’t want that.
I think about falling in love with someone and being scared of them dying. It’s like, I love you so much. I’ll give you everything. Let’s make a life together. When one of us is going to go first. And moving that far away and knowing that our parents are getting older and we both have siblings with kids. But we know that we need to grow as a family and as artists.
At this point as an artist, is there anything about which you feel misunderstood?
Sometimes it’s more that my perspective changes. When you make a record, you’re in the thick of it. You’re so emotional about everything. But as I’ve had more distance and perspective and forgiveness; it’s like, you fall in love, you fall out of love, and you learn from that person. And you’re better for going through that experience no matter what it was. As I get older and have more perspective, I can convey that more in my work. And my appreciation for everything that I’ve been through and all the people that have held my hand through it all. I don’t know if it’s a misconception, but I think about showing gratitude for even the hardest times, because it’s about the struggle, too.
Having a child must be wild. Being in charge of a life.
It makes me want to learn more. I’m so nervous. One of my last memories before I gave birth was going to Shelter Island for a getaway. It was freezing. It was March. But we decided it would just be nice to go for a drive and go somewhere where we could just go to eat and somewhere just out there. We were driving out of the neighborhood in our rental car, hitting every single stoplight. We were laughing because we realized we were preparing the birth, but then you forget about the fact that, Oh, he’s gonna be two, and then he’s gonna be four, and then he’s like riding a bike. Then it’s an awkward teenager. A kid falling off his bike. A kid not making the team. All of that heartache.
It’s all coming.
He got a scooter for Christmas. He’s already cruising. And one of the best gifts his grandparents gave him was this silver jacket. Which, as soon as he opened it, he just tore off his pajamas and only wanted to wear his silver jacket and these Vans that he picked out. They’re orange and pink. I have to show you because, not to brag, he’s the fucking cutest.