Sharon Van Etten: ‘I felt alone. I was done with music’
The New Jersey songwriter took time out to act, become a comedian – and a mother
Sharon Van Etten: Of her 33-date world tour – ‘I’m not going to play anything. I’m just going to sing’
Sharon Van Etten has seen and done many things in her career but even she felt slightly overwhelmed when invited to sing at the legendary Bang Bang Bang roadhouse bar from cult TV series Twin Peaks.
“The experience was surreal and hard to put into words,” says Van Etten (37). “You walk into the room and you are literally in the roadhouse.”
She was thrilled if surprised when David Lynch picked her for Twin Peaks: The Return alongside Nine Inch Nails and Lynch favourites Chromatics and Au Revoir Simone. And while filming with Lynch is surreal under the kindest of circumstances, here the atmosphere was particularly bizarre.
Each episode of the new Twin Peaks concluded with a music scene and, for logistical purposes, the performances had to be shot in one day (on an LA soundstage mocked-up to look like the dive bar at the end of the world). So there the artists were, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nail and Van Etten among them. All propping up the bar as Lynch worked his dark magic.
“Everyone was waiting in the wings – quiet and humble, along with the audience,” says Van Etten, speaking in the context of her just released fifth album, Remind Me Tomorrow. “It really was a beautiful thing.”
Almost as strange, in its way, was a concert by Van Etten at Dublin’s Vicar Street in April 2015. Her father and younger brother had flown in from Clinton, New Jersey, for the show (a Christmas gift from Van Etten’s mother). Wandering the balcony with their access-all-areas passes they were as outgoing as Van Etten was shy and vulnerable up on stage.
“Sharon doesn’t want to play music forever,” her dad had overshared, in that American way, to those seated around him. “She wants to start a family.”
Van Etten’s memories of the evening are bittersweet, as she explains with a quaver in her voice.
“It was great to hang with my brother and father. But then they went home and I found I was really missing my family. Around that time I had a tough show in Brighton. I felt alone and couldn’t hear my voice on stage. I was fighting tears the whole time. Afterwards I gave my band notice – six more months and I was done with music for a while.”
Five years later Van Etten is still making music – but in a very different way. As per her father’s prediction, she has had a child, a boy now aged two. She is also, as incredible as it sounds, a budding stand-up comedian who has gone down a storm at open mic evenings.
And she’s a successful actress with a season of the bonkers Netflix sci-fi show, The OA, under her belt. So the biggest surprise – to Van Etten as much as to her pining fans – is that Remind Me Tomorrow even exists. She still loves music but it no longer defines her.
“During that gig in Brighton I had shut myself off from everyone,” she sighs. “I’ve never had a crazy fit or a breakdown. But that was an eye-opening moment.”
Van Etten’s absence has been a blow to admirers of her soulful alternative pop. It is a club that includes Nick Cave, who took her on tour, and The National’s Aaron Dessner, producer of her third LP, Tramp, in 2012.
Her real breakthrough was two years later with her crepuscular break-up album Are We There. Chronicling the slow implosion of a 10-year relationship, it was in many ways the usual sob story set to music. Yet somehow it had new things to say about the hackneyed subject of love found and lost. Van Etten didn’t spare her former lover but was unflinching towards herself too. Here was a break-up record which left you unsure as to which party to blame.
A huge success, it ranked at 20 on the Rolling Stone albums of the year list. She was suddenly visible on Spotify, and in Ireland instead of headlining Whelan’s was playing much larger venues such as Vicar Street. After years of toil and promise Van Etten had arrived. And to get there all she’d had to do was watch as her heart shattered into a thousand glittering fragments.
But as she made clear to anyone speaking to her at that time – she had already told me she wanted to start a family when I spoke to her ahead of the Vicar Street gig – music was never her ultimate destination. A big world awaited beyond the recording studio and the tour bus and she was determined not to let opportunities pass because she was afraid to open the door and venture outside.
Romance blossomed as she stepped away from music and started living like a normal person. She began a relationship with her drummer Zeke Hutchins (he is now her manager) and their son has obviously transformed her life for the better. But becoming a mother has also required her to run the traditional working parent gauntlet of doing a hundred things at once.
“This is a new balancing act,” she says. “I don’t have a lot of experience yet. So far so good. I have to be a lot more organised and prioritise things and be vigilant about my schedules.”
Motherhood was only the beginning. Van Etten has had a long-term ambition to become a therapist, her interest intensified by after-show conversations with fans who would confide their deepest hopes and fears. Her mother says Van Etten was always drawn to the “broken birds” of this world. As much as she regards music as a calling, it’s clear she sees working as a therapist as perhaps her ultimate vocation.
So she enrolled for an undergraduate course in psychology. But then fate intervened in the shape of a Hollywood casting director. He’d seen Van Etten opening for Nick Cave and, two years on, it had occurred to him that she would be perfect for a new Netflix series.
The OA is, were it possible, even crazier than Twin Peaks: The Return. Van Etten, not surprisingly, was immediately drawn to it and readily agreed to a screen test. She duly landed the part of a Stockholm Syndrome-suffering prisoner of a mad scientist portrayed by British character actor Jason Isaacs (season two, in which she also stars, is in post-production).
She describes The OA as an adventure – in that it was both thrilling and terrifying. “It is very different to the music business,” she says. “In music, if I have an issue, I know who to call. On tour, everybody around is someone I have chosen to be there. If someone has f**ked up or I need a question answered I know where to turn.
“On the set of a TV series there are 100 people on any given day. And when you’re there you have to get stuff done. You work as late as you can every single day for as many days as required. There is a real hierarchy. The really powerful people aren’t even there. At one point my stand-in – the person they use for setting up shots – was next to me and I spoke her. She was surprised I had acknowledged her.”
With her life having turned a corner, it’s a surprise that Van Etten sounds as mournful as ever on the new album. Indeed the biggest change is textural, with guitars replaced by chilly Vangelis-style synths. That brings its own challenges, especially as she looks ahead to a 33-date world tour that includes a Vicar Street show in March. Without a guitar to “hide behind” how should she present herself on stage?
“I’m not going to play anything. I’m just going to sing. Hopefully, if I’m not playing an instrument, I’ll be a better singer. The performance aspect is something I’m not sure about. I’ve been looking on YouTube for inspiration. I want to see what I can do with my hands. One thing is for sure – I won’t be dancing.”
As for her continued penchant for ominous lyrics, Van Etten finds that parenthood tapped into an entirely new series of anxieties. She clutched her baby bump and wept the day Donald Trump was elected president. And though she tries to be positive about the future – she considers it a parent’s duty to be optimistic for their children – there is lots to worry about too.
“It’s scary here,” she says of life as an American citizen in 2019. “I don’t like to speak too politically. I didn’t vote for Trump. It’s embarrassing that he’s president. Things have to change. I have to be positive about it. I don’t think negativity is productive. We have to be optimistic for our kids.”
Remind Me Tomorrow is out now. Sharon Van Etten plays Vicar Street, Dublin, March 23rd