Charlotte Red talks to Sharon Van Etten ahead of her (sold-out) Auckland show tonight about her critically acclaimed album Remind Me Tomorrow and the shift from folk multi-instrumentalist to pop-rock frontwoman.
There’s something about considering the passing of time in Sharon Van Etten’s latest album Remind Me Tomorrow that keeps you present. Only when you’re standing still can you have the perspective of both backwards and forwards. There’s the idea in its first single, ‘Comeback Kid’ – that she’s chasing someone running out ahead, as well as lamenting what she was like before they claimed her attention.
“My kid’s making me laugh right now because I’m on the deck outside and he’s inside having dinner with his dad and a friend… He just spotted me and he’s, uh, dancing,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Brooklyn.
Does he dance like you? I ask.
With a laugh she suggests he’s the Kramer to her Elaine. “He’s a better dancer than me, that’s for sure.”
It’s probably more important to have a distinctive style than to be technically good, anyway.
We’d been talking about the new way she’s been performing the record. This album finds Van Etten shifting focus away from being an instrumentalist, to finding her footing as a frontwoman.
“I was really nervous about it at first because I knew I would have to be a lot more… ‘confrontational’ sounds strong, but I knew I would have to be more direct and address my audience. I’m not a good dancer but I knew that I would have to kind of rely on my energy and my mood.”
Sharon Van Etten is not typically known for her energy levels. Over the last eight years her brand of guitar folk has been markedly quiet, wistful, and concerned with painful internality. The boldness of Remind Me Tomorrow’s sound seems to have shocked listeners into reckoning with a side of the musician that had been laying dormant.
“[Taking centrestage] actually wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be, although I’m fighting against my nature majorly because I’m an introvert and I’m used to hiding behind my guitar, letting my hair fall in front of my face. I think it’s good for me to step out of my shell.”
The altered sonic landscape of Remind Me Tomorrow also marks a new phase in Van Etten’s career, previously spent largely playing on the fringes. Her European shows sold out well in advance, as did her sole New Zealand show. The album’s big, shiny synthesisers are an addition that appear to have hit on a new audience entirely. So how did the new sound come about?
“Until you get the group of musicians together you don’t know what the song is going to be, what it’s going to turn into,” she says. “I came in just as a singer, and the producer John Congleton brought in almost all of the musicians so I didn’t really know what I was stepping into. As the songs unfolded I found myself performing to complement what they were doing, and it pushed me as a singer.”
Somewhere between Jessica Pratt’s doll-like murmur and Billy Idol’s pretty snarl lies Sharon Van Etten’s new voice. As the guitar disappeared from the front of her body, a deep growl emerged from inside, along with an ability to howl right into the face of the audience. “I started writing on keys, and a lot of the sounds that I was into were like, darker and dronier and distorted, so I have to sing in a different way to either run with it or to rise above it, and it’s usually in a lower register.
“I wrote half of the songs before I had my kid, and then I finished them after I had my kid. After 34 hours of induced labour I had to have a C-section, and I lost a lot of my core. I was weaker in general so there were certain keys that were more comfortable for me to sing in.”
Does she like the way she sounds now?
“That was an adjustment, but I feel that exploring different keys makes you think differently and it affects your voice differently. I think it’s still connected with the way I sang before, you know, just ‘cause I’m getting older and I’m getting more confident, and I think that comes across in my performances. I’m a lot more at peace so I just feel like there’s not as much of a sad inflection… unless I’m just being wistful.”
Some of the best recent music has marked itself out by reclaiming instruments outside of the artists’ expected sounds. Take Frank Ocean’s Blonde, for example, with its lazy, romantic blend of voices and strumming, or SZA’s CTRL, and its subversively classic production of rhythm and blues. Just this year Lil Nas X held the number one spot on the Billboard Country chart while racists debated what the genre ‘actually’ meant, while the Album of the Year Grammy went to Kacey Musgraves’ acid-soaked country album Golden Hour – even as those same country music gatekeepers refused to go near it.
Perhaps Sharon Van Etten had just been waiting for this exact moment for her electronica-infused rock sound to coalesce.
In 2017 Van Etten was a guest vocalist on the (much underrated, in my opinion) on Omnion, the fourth album from house producer Andy Butler, who performs as Hercules & Love Affair. The two musicians began talking over social media, and their first collaboration was ‘Not Myself’, a song which Van Etten wrote to honour the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida.
“We wanted to create a remix for the club scene so that it reached more of the people that that shooting touched. And I asked [Butler] if he would wanna do the remix for it and he said ‘that’s crazy, I was just about to write you because I’m looking for a vocalist for this song.’ We did a trade, helping each other out, putting some songs out into the world.”
The proceeds from the sale of the song and its HALA remix went to Everytown For Gun Safety, a non-profit that lobbies for gun control in the US. Through ‘Not Myself’, a song that’s raw from exposure to heartache and hopelessness, Van Etten was exposed to a whole new cache of sounds. “I love how [Hercules & Love Affair] mingle together a vocalist and… find a way to have this electronic-driven music and have it feel personal. [Butler] was really fun to work with, and again had me singing a different way to how I normally would.”
While Van Etten has referenced experiences of abuse and power imbalances in relationships in her songwriting before, Remind Me Tomorrow looks to the future as well as to the pain of the past.
Take second single, ‘Seventeen’: it’s both an epic, nostalgic punch to the heart and a song whose message is less about looking back than projecting forward to the person you have the potential to be.
Ten years ago I was seventeen, and the first time I heard this song I felt like it expressed the exact question I’ve been asking myself all year: would seventeen year old me like twenty-seven year old me? Would she be happy with the choices I’d made for her?
“I feel like the older you get the more hindsight you have, and that hopefully comes with experience. But having a child is like that exponentially: you’re not just looking back on your life but you’re looking at this life you created. Sometimes my nostalgia is misplaced in my kid, and [the songs] are memories, but it’s also what I’m reflecting in my child.”
None of the album expresses that dichotomy better than ‘You Shadow’, a song whose boom-bap swing makes it sound sing-song, almost juvenile, but also the work of a songwriter clearly comfortable with exactly where she is, and that’s very happy to be right here.
Then I ask her my stupid question: “The title of the album… is it named after the little notification you get in the corner of your computer that you just put off and put off about installing updates?”
She snickers. “Absolutely.”
“It was during a time where I was finishing up the record and I already had this photo in mind for the cover, [her friend Katherine Dieckmann’s son sits in a nappy on the floor surrounded by the carnage of toys, and an upturned storage bin nearby, which her daughter has folded herself into] and I was on my email one day, just multi-tasking at home in my pyjamas, something so cliché. I realised when I went to hit ‘remind me tomorrow’ on my computer I hadn’t updated it in like two years, and it just all of a sudden, it all made sense.
“That’s kind of where I’m at in my life; you prioritise things differently. It made me giggle because I think a lot of us are like that.”
The notion of putting it off might seem like procrastination, but Sharon Van Etten is busy. She acted in the Netflix series The OA, and at the same time completed a degree in psychology, and will be touring this album for the next few months.
“Google Calendar is my best friend,” she laughs.
But it’s not really procrastinating. It can teach us to take our time, that you can make it all fit in if you want it to. “I wasn’t planning on making a record when I decided to be home for a while. I wanted to go to school, and in the midst of school I got asked to audition for The OA, and I just kind of moved things around and made both happen. I think as I’m opening myself up and trying new things, I like a lot more things than I thought. But I’m still figuring everything out.”
If there’s a lot on her schedule she’s remarkably chill about it all, decompressing from touring at home, as she laughs at her kid through the window, and reflects on being this age, being in the middle of it all.
“I was a little nervous releasing [the album] into the world, I was afraid that I was gonna be alienating fans that were more familiar with my earlier work… [My earlier music] is very stark and folk and I’m really proud of it and I think they’re beautiful records, but they’re definitely not where I am today.
“I’m still the same person, in as far as a singer and my melodic tastes, and my left-of-centre choices. I think you can hear inklings along the way and I don’t think this album came out of nowhere.”
But with a hint of uncertainty she laughs. “People seem to be into it?”
Remind Me Tomorrow calls back to nostalgia, and it calls forth something new. It’s a state of remembering who she has been as the future runs by, looking back to see if she’ll catch it. Remembering that you’re always both a kid and an adult, all at the same time.