'A Different Kind Of Force': Sharon Van Etten Takes Her Sound In New Directions

Jan 18, 2019
Originally published on January 19, 2019 12:22 pm

In the five years since her last music release, Sharon Van Etten has had her hands full: She became a mom, she took her first acting role in the Netflix series The OA, she wrote her first movie score, and she went back to school for psychology.

The title of her new album, Remind Me Tomorrow, is a nod to how busy she's been.

"There's a lot more of life pulling me in different directions," Van Etten says.

But music has stayed a constant. And in this collection, the soulful folk singer-songwriter turns full-on rock star. She ditches the guitar and picks up synth and piano to create a bold, fearless sound; experimenting with noises, like one her friend describes as a "velociraptor."

Remind Me Tomorrow is out Jan. 18 and Van Etten spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro about its inspiration and what was behind her change in sound. Hear their conversation in the audio link above and read their interview below.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Ari Shapiro: I've been listening to your early albums which are so quiet and guitar-centric. Then I put on the first track of this album and it sounds like we are going to go in a different direction. Tell me about where this new sound came from.

Sharon Van Etten: I took time off the road in 2015, and one of the main goals there was to focus more on my life, to try to live and enjoy New York and try new things creatively. In the midst of this journey, I got asked to write a score for Catherine Deakin's film, Strange Weather ... and in the writing of that score, I would experience some writer's block. In order to clear my head, I put the guitar down and gravitated towards other instruments to try to cleanse the palate, and I gravitated towards a lot of keys. Inadvertently, I ended up writing a lot of songs on synth.

Was there something about the composition that you think came out differently because of that?

Even behind the production and the noises or what one of my friends references as a velociraptor [laughs] ... I feel like if you really strip it down, they're still love songs. They're still melodically-driven. I just feel like I sing with a different kind of force, you know. Whereas before, my songs were brokenhearted ... these songs are more immediate. They're still reflective, but very present and much more positive.

The first single you released from this album, "Comeback Kid," is just kind of bold and fearless, and it explodes in your ears. Was there an internal change that contributed to this?

I think I turned 30 and I was excited. I was in the best point of my life up until that point and I felt more and more myself. I feel like, the more I embrace my life and trust the people around me, I learn more and more, and I open up myself to new opportunities. Falling in love is a big part of that, and allowing yourself to be loved in a certain way that I hadn't really accepted into my life up until the last five years.

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I also hear a lot of songs on this album that sound like you're trying to maybe give advice to an earlier version of yourself?

Wouldn't you like to go back in time and hug yourself when you were a teenager and just tell them, 'Everything's going to be fine?'

Now that I have a kid, I think about all the phases in his life. You have the baby and then you realize all the other stages of life; he's going to get made fun of, he's going to not make the team, he's going to get a bad grade, he's going to think a teacher doesn't like him, he's gonna get broken up with. I mean, I'm aching for him already and he's not even 2.

So when you sing a song like "No One's Easy to Love," to me that sounds like you're speaking to a version of yourself. Are you also speaking to a future version of your child?

I feel like I'm speaking to the many versions of myself from then to now, and yes, to my son. I just feel like love is complicated, you know. Sometimes it can be easy, but it doesn't come without fear.

You have written a film score, acted in a Netflix show, had a child and started a psychology program. Now you're back with an album that sounds different from anything you've been before, and you're about to head out on tour again. What does this moment feel like?

I'm excited and I'm vulnerable and I'm doing everything I want to be doing. But it doesn't come without a bit of guilt for knowing that I won't be as present for my son as I've been able to be since he's been born. And my partner, since we've settled down a little bit. But I want both of them to see me thrive and working and being creative and engaging with the world that's beyond my little microcosm.

The songs that I would listen to years ago would sound like a person who was vulnerable and tender. The songs now may have that, but the feeling I get is one of bold and fearlessness, which sounds like a good place to be performing from if that's actually where you are.

I don't want to kid anyone that I'm not still in a vulnerable state, but I'm definitely at a point where I'm making more bold decisions and I'm a lot more confident.

Alyssa Edes and Jolie Myers produced and edited this story for broadcast. Fengxue Zhang adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Sharon Van Etten became famous for strumming plaintive, soulful songs on a guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERY TIME THE SUN COMES UP")

SHARON VAN ETTEN: (Singing) Every time the sun comes up, I'm in trouble.

SHAPIRO: From the first single on her new album, it's clear that this Sharon Van Etten has a different sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMEBACK KID")

VAN ETTEN: (Singing) Hey, you're the comeback kid. See me look away.

SHAPIRO: She ditched the guitar, picked up synth and piano. And the soulful folk singer-songwriter has gone full-on rock star.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMEBACK KID")

VAN ETTEN: (Singing) I'm the stay-out-late. I'm recovering.

SHAPIRO: Sharon Van Etten told me picking up the keyboard was like an act of translation.

VAN ETTEN: It helped me look at things in a brand new way, and I also started singing in different keys.

SHAPIRO: Wow. I imagine it's almost like trying to write a story with your left hand instead of your right hand. Like, the story's going to come out different just 'cause you're not as used to doing it.

VAN ETTEN: (Laughter) Well, hopefully it's not as messy.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: The new album is called "Remind Me Tomorrow," a nod to how busy Van Etten has been. In the past few years, she had her first child, took her first acting role in a TV show, went back to school for psychology, composed her first film score. And even if her music today sounds different, Sharon Van Etten says these songs still feel like her.

VAN ETTEN: My melodies are still very much what my friends would call SVE melodies because...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Sharon Van Etten - SVE, yeah.

VAN ETTEN: (Laughter) But you know, I've had friends that were nervous about the change in sonics and everything. But I think even behind the production and the noises or what one of my friends references as a velociraptor somewhere in there...

SHAPIRO: Which song were they referring to there?

VAN ETTEN: (Laughter) Maybe "Hands."

SHAPIRO: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HANDS")

VAN ETTEN: (Singing) Putting my hands up...

There are definitely some noises and sounds and registers that you wouldn't normally hear. But they're still love songs. And I just feel like I sing with a different kind of force, you know? Whereas my songs were brokenhearted before, these songs are more immediate, very present and much more positive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HANDS")

VAN ETTEN: (Singing) Put your hands on your lover. I've got my hands up.

SHAPIRO: I also hear some nostalgia for the self you've left behind.

VAN ETTEN: I remember when I first moved to New York and a friend of mine took me under his wing and showed me around to certain neighborhoods he thought I would find a kinship with. And he introduced me to a community of artists and musicians. And as we were walking down a street, I remember him being upset that one of his favorite places had just closed. And then he stopped himself, and he closed his eyes. And it was like he was repeating a mantra. Throughout time, civilizations rise and fall. And then he looked at me, and he just said, it's going to change a lot here over the years, so just be ready.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEVENTEEN")

VAN ETTEN: (Singing) I know what you want to say.

And then I was writing "Seventeen" at the time when I noticed myself doing that about a place that had recently closed, reflecting on all I had. I used to hang out there, and now these kids are moving into a neighborhood I can't afford anymore. And I stopped myself, and I said the same thing to myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEVENTEEN")

VAN ETTEN: (Singing) Downtown harks back halfway up this street. I used to be free. I used to be 17.

SHAPIRO: So if in that song, you say, I used to be free, then what are you now?

VAN ETTEN: When I first moved to New York, I didn't even know what it was I wanted to do. But now that I've lived in New York long enough and I'm doing all the things that I didn't realize I wanted to be doing at the time, I have different goals. And so I'm free to make those decisions, but there's a lot more of life pulling me in different directions now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEVENTEEN")

VAN ETTEN: (Singing) I see you so uncomfortably alone. I wish I could show you how much you've grown.

SHAPIRO: I also hear a lot of songs on this album that sound like you're trying to maybe give advice to an earlier version of yourself.

VAN ETTEN: Wouldn't you like to go back in time and hug yourself when you were a teenager and just tell them like, everything's going to be fine?

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

VAN ETTEN: And, you know, now that I have a kid and I think about all the phases in his life - I mean, when I was pregnant, when I had him, you know, it's all this buildup around having the baby. But then you have the baby, and then you realize all the other stages in life that he's - he's going to get made fun of. He's going to not make the team. He's going to get a bad grade. He's going to think a teacher doesn't like him. He's going to get broken up with. I mean, I'm aching for him already, and he's not even two.

SHAPIRO: Is the last track on this album "Stay" about your son?

VAN ETTEN: That song actually started as a love song to my partner before I was pregnant. And the process of writing some of these songs has been interesting because I wrote a lot of them before I was pregnant, and then I finished writing a lot of these songs after my son was born, with headphones on while he was napping, staring at him...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

VAN ETTEN: ...Hovering. And these songs that started off as love songs to my partner ended up being love songs to something that was much more intense.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAY")

VAN ETTEN: (Singing) You won't let me go astray. You will let me find my way.

SHAPIRO: When I look at the things you've done in the last couple years - besides creating this album and creating a human being, composing your first film score, taking on your first acting role in the Netflix program "The OA" - I don't know how you do two of these things, let alone all of them.

VAN ETTEN: Well, you know, not to sound sexist, but I think women are better at multitasking.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

VAN ETTEN: But at the same time, I feel like there are days where I am just doing everything at a B, you know. I have an amazing partner that helps me figure out how to do it, and Google Calendar is our best friend.

(LAUGHTER)

VAN ETTEN: It's probably the - hopefully the nerdy thing I'll say on air, but it's very true.

SHAPIRO: Well, Sharon Van Etten, congratulations on the new album. Thanks for talking with us about it.

VAN ETTEN: Thank you so much, Ari. I really appreciate it.

SHAPIRO: It's called "Remind Me Tomorrow."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMEBACK KID")

VAN ETTEN: (Singing) Hey, you're the comeback kid. See me look away. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.