We’ve Got A File On You: Sharon Van Etten
The singer-songwriter on acting in 'The OA,' covering Springsteen, singing for Corona, and more
We’ve Got A File On You is a new reboot of an old-school Stereogum franchise. Once called Annotated Media Guide, these are interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
Almost 10 years ago, Sharon Van Etten released her debut album Because I Was In Love. It kicked off a four-album arc in which the singer-songwriter reckoned with the trauma, heartbreak, and listlessness of her young adulthood, garnering more acclaim and more devoted fans with each installment thanks to the deeply personal and emotive nature of her music. When she released Are We There in 2014, it felt like a conclusion of sorts — not just to the themes she’d been exploring along the way, but to the development of her particular strain of melancholic, folk-tinged indie.
At the time, she was frank about the prospect that she might not release another album, that she was weighing the other paths her life could take. In the end, it took almost half a decade to re-emerge with a follow-up, but her new album Remind Me Tomorrow is finally about to arrive. And on this album, fans will find a new Sharon Van Etten, a Sharon Van Etten in a very different chapter of her life and forging into unknown territory artistically.
For Remind Me Tomorrow, Van Etten teamed with the all-star indie producer John Congleton. Early on, the premise was clear: The guitar that had anchored and driven her music until this point would be notably downplayed in her new work. Building songs up from synthesizers, beats, and drones, Van Etten carved out a new sound for herself — one in which you can instantly recognize her communicative vocals and melodic sensibility rendered in surprising colors, one that occasionally pushes well beyond the boundaries we previously associated with her style.
The nearly-five-year period that has elapsed since Are We There was transformative for Van Etten as a person, too, not just as a musician. The tumult of her first four albums has been replaced with a weathered yet hopeful maturity. She’s settled down with her partner and had a son. She’s probably going to call a new part of the country home soon. Yet her life became more stable as the world surrounding her shuddered, threatening to fall apart. Across Remind Me Tomorrow, she examines her new life in relation to her old selves, but she also juxtaposes her own sense of contentment and new beginnings against a darker cultural backdrop. In all of those new synth textures, Van Etten has created a world full of dancing shadows threatening to suffocate her, but moments of peace keep forcing their way through.
When an artist of Van Etten’s age, right in the midst of her ascension, takes five years to return with a new album, chances are you’re going to see articles asking where she’s been, what she’s been up to, why so long. But after a hefty round of touring for Are We There and amidst her life changes, Van Etten kept popping up all over the place — on TV, guest appearances, etc. For years, she’d already been accustomed to lending her voice as an expressive texture, singing background for another artist or duetting. But through the second half of the ’10s, she expanded her resume significantly, appearing in surprising places like Netflix’s The OA or David Lynch’s revived Twin Peaks.
On a recent afternoon, Van Etten and I met at a trendy cafe in downtown Manhattan. We talked about Remind Me Tomorrow, but we also used the occasion to look back on all those little moments, not just from the last five years but before, too. Important turning points in her career, long-standing connections, new ventures, forgotten one-offs — somehow, it all comes together into a story that gives you a sense of the journey from that 2009 debut to now. Read our conversation below.
“Comeback Kid” Video (2018)
STEREOGUM: The “Comeback Kid” video felt like a good piece of knowing self-mythology — to return years later with a song with that title, singing in front of these old versions of yourself in the video. Remind Me Tomorrow is different from your past work, and your life is so different than it was when Are We There or any of the other albums came out. There’s a way you could view that video as burning down those old selves, consigning them to the past, but you could also view it as carrying all that history with you into this new, resolved chapter. How did it come about?
SHARON VAN ETTEN: I had an image for that song, a projector projecting images over me while I was performing. I had early references for the overall imagery and feel of the video, but it took a while to unfold that it would be actual photos of me.
STEREOGUM: Did that feel weird at first?
VAN ETTEN: A little bit. Part of the song is really about, you know, that feeling of returning home. You’re always going to be the kid, you’re always going to be the sibling, there are some stories you won’t live down. Even when you’re an adult and you have your shit together, you go home and you’re put right back in your place a little bit. As I become a mother — I know it’s very early, but I feel so much more for my parents. I have more of an understanding now. I have a lot more empathy than I did before. It’s just such a complicated relationship, once you become an adult. The parents still want to take care of you, but also their job is to let you make these mistakes. So that’s part of it. I’m in a really good place in my life right now.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, it seems a little bit better than the last time I interviewed you.
VAN ETTEN: [Laughs] I stopped touring for many reasons. I was singing all these songs I didn’t connect with anymore, about someone I loved but it wasn’t meant to be. My touring life was too hard. The whole cycle of touring so much, trying to make my relationship work, but I keep touring because that’s all I know, that breaks the relationship. I’m simplifying it, but I felt like, “OK, I’m not going to try to keep reliving this cycle. I met someone who’s amazing, and I can actually take a break. I’m getting the support from my friends and family to take a break and live my life in New York for a minute and figure out how to live and work in New York without having to tour all the time.” So I got to nurture my relationship, set roots here more, even though I’d been here for 10 years at that point. I ended up getting all these other opportunities presenting themselves. As soon as I closed that one door, many doors opened.
STEREOGUM: Your music being as personal as it is, I was wondering how difficult it might be to relate to your old material given where your life is now. That’s kind of what I was getting at with the video, the idea of these past selves always lingering but putting a line in the sand, leaving them in a different era.
VAN ETTEN: I think it’s a new side of myself. It started off as a joke, but as I was fleshing out all these songs, it was like: If someone who didn’t really know me came into my house and went to this part of my record collection, they wouldn’t be able to do the math, if they only knew my music. If you knew me as a friend, you’d know I had pretty wild tastes.
STEREOGUM: Right, people were surprised to hear you cite Portishead and Suicide and Pat Benatar for this album.
VAN ETTEN: Those are a few of them. There’s Pat Benatar and Joan Jett. Portishead, Suicide, Nick Cave obviously. But my post-punk section is very extensive compared to my partner’s country and rock ‘n’ roll. My music really spans ’70s into the mid-’90s. We just saw Beak> at Elsewhere. I just thought this was a side of myself people haven’t seen. I don’t want to scare people like, “This is a whole new thing.” But it is new.
The OA (2016)
STEREOGUM: It also felt as if Are We There was in some ways the full realization of the arc you had been on. With that and the years removed, it feels like a good time to explore something new. I saw this headline saying something along the lines of “Why Sharon Van Etten Disappeared” and I was like … you didn’t really disappear, you were around a lot for someone who didn’t put out an album for almost five years. So, that brings us to The OA. You had never thought about acting before.
VAN ETTEN: I was in a musical in high school, and I thought I wanted to be on Broadway before I started writing my own songs. What a different path that would’ve been. But I never thought I was good at it. It wasn’t until music where I kinda found my thing.
STEREOGUM: Your character sings “I Wish I Knew,” from your first album, so there’s some of you in there. How different was the experience in terms of using a different creative muscle, or being in this large operation vs. doing your own project?
VAN ETTEN: It was really helpful. On one hand, you start the day getting ready to get into this role, you immediately get sent to hair and makeup and you have to get into the zone. You’re getting in character. It was like, all right, I got my hair and makeup and now I have to be on. I was like the nervous freshman. I had no idea what I was doing. I was the only non-actor. Everyone was so supportive, it was really comforting to see that kind of support from people of all levels, that are just in it for the greater good of this piece.
For conjuring emotions … for my own songs, I’m singing songs that are about myself, so these are my emotions and I’m turning them into songs and hopefully they’re powerful that way. This, I’m drawing on my own experience and I have to pretend to be somebody else. In that way, that was challenging. But it was a hard role, you know? It’s a lot in the face. It’s not so much speaking.
STEREOGUM: In this searching couple of years, was there part of it that felt liberating to be one cog in a bigger machine as opposed to seeing Sharon Van Etten right there on the festival lineup?
VAN ETTEN: It was so great that it wasn’t me in the spotlight, though I did feel like the squeaky wheel. [Laughs] Just constant Mr. Bean like, “You’re standing in the way of the main person,” just stage direction things. Or not singing loud enough. But for the most part it was really nice.
STEREOGUM: You used that song in your audition.
VAN ETTEN: I had prepared this reading, which happened very last minute. I had to go within 48 hours or something and memorize the whole monologue and at the end it just says: “Rachel sings.” I didn’t really prepare anything, I was like “I’m sure they would’ve said if I was supposed to sing.” But I had a few in my head, and anything I was going to do had to stand alone melodically without instrumentation.
STEREOGUM: What drew you to that song vs. more recent albums?
VAN ETTEN: I don’t know, there was something about that — there’s so much ambiguity and the melody doesn’t repeat itself. The melody on its own is interesting. I like my other songs and stuff, but that one felt very eerie for it being on its own.
STEREOGUM: Maybe this answer’s changed over the last year and a half: Coming out of that experience, are you acting more?
VAN ETTEN: I’m not going to pursue it as my main thing. Music is still my main passion in the end. If the right thing comes up, if I really connect with it, I’m going to do it. I think it has opened me up a lot, and I’m learning from it. Being able to learn as you get older, even if it’s not your thing, you have to love the project.
Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)
STEREOGUM: You also appear in the Twin Peaks revival, part of this sort of odd array of artists playing the Roadhouse over the course of the season. How did that conversation start?
VAN ETTEN: I guess [David Lynch’s] son is really into music — he turns his dad onto a lot — and I think David is also just in touch.
STEREOGUM: You’re just performing in this space. Did you know much of the context before you showed up?
VAN ETTEN: Oh, no, it was all a mystery. We just had to fly out there with no time or anything, we were just waiting around in LA to get the call. We went straight there, I want to say it was somewhere in Pasadena. It was this anonymous house, and there was a crew outside. You knock on the door, the door opened, and you’re in the roadhouse. Already an audience there. There’s the audience, a stage, the director’s chair, and all the artists are there waiting because they shot it back to back.
STEREOGUM: So NIN and everybody were there with you.
VAN ETTEN: Yeah Trent was there, I think Eddie Vedder had just finished when I walked in.
STEREOGUM: Did you talk to any of the other artists that day?
VAN ETTEN: It was pretty quiet on set. And there was only one room to go change. It was a lot of being nervous and excited and quiet. When I was leaving and getting my stuff out, Trent was coming in and he shook my hand and said, “Nice to meet you.”
STEREOGUM: Was he a Sharon Van Etten fan?
VAN ETTEN: I couldn’t tell. He knew my name.
STEREOGUM: You were a ’90s kid, I would imagine —
VAN ETTEN: Oh, yeah, I had Pretty Hate Machine on cassette for sure. But yeah it was crazy. Chromatics were there. I couldn’t bring my whole band because it was so on-call — I couldn’t tell anybody times or anything, and you don’t get paid for that you just do it because you want to. So we had two friends in California who could be on call. They’re the talkers, so they were the ones going up to everybody and I was nervously in the corner watching it all go down.
STEREOGUM: Did you interact with Lynch at all?
VAN ETTEN: He told us where to go. We did one take, he moved a couple light angles and some of the gear onstage and some of the people in the audience and got the lighting just right. We ran it again and he was just like, “OK, are you guys happy with that?” He didn’t have his microphone so he was shouting orders and smoking a cigarette in his director’s chair. He shook my hand after and said, “Thank you for doing this.”
STEREOGUM: It seems fitting that being inside the filming process of Twin Peaks would sort of be this surreal, unexplained situation in which you just find yourself in a changing room in the middle of nowhere with Eddie Vedder.
VAN ETTEN: I know, I know. It still doesn’t even feel real. I don’t know how to talk about it because it does feel like a dream.
Covering Bruce Springsteen’s “Drive All Night” (2014)
STEREOGUM: In 2014, you covered Bruce Springsteen’s “Drive All Night” for this event Pioneering New Jersey. I feel like we probably talked about him before.
VAN ETTEN: He’s ingrained in me.
STEREOGUM: For whatever reason, I hadn’t connected with that song as much over the years, and your cover kind of opened it up for me. When you’re playing a New Jersey-themed event, as a New Jersey native, performing a Springsteen song at the Stone Pony — what was going through your head?
VAN ETTEN: Even in New Jersey, the culture is very car culture. On one hand, I just relate to driving so much. It’s funny, I live in New York, I don’t have a car right now. I attach a huge part of my identity to having a car, just from pre-New York era. It’s such a romantic song. I’m a sucker for — especially for hearing a man being nostalgic and romantic and what he’s willing to do for somebody.
STEREOGUM: Were there any other songs you considered?
VAN ETTEN: I think if it was a different circumstance, if I had a band … but it just felt very intimate to me, and having it be on piano, because I was doing a lot of piano for [Are We There]. It felt, in a way, a part of the record I was playing at the moment. That was my first time writing on something other than a guitar, a lot on piano. Because of that I ended up getting a piano and wound up writing a lot more for this new record.
STEREOGUM: You’ve cited Springsteen as a big influence on the new album too. Were you having a particular moment with a specific Springsteen album that you were able to file alongside Suicide and Nick Cave?
VAN ETTEN: Didn’t he actually cover Suicide?
STEREOGUM: Yeah, he covered “Dream Baby Dream.”
VAN ETTEN: That’s so wild for me. I don’t even know when I heard that cross-section that made me realize what a music fan he was, and even though he’s known for this one thing …
STEREOGUM: So when you’re talking about Springsteen influence on the new album, was it more of a spiritual thing?
VAN ETTEN: I think it was acknowledging where I came from more, or something.
STEREOGUM: Was that a theme of the album overall?
VAN ETTEN: I think it’s coming to terms with it and moving forward. It’s still unfolding itself to me. As people as me questions, I’m asking myself more questions. It feels like my most New York/New Jersey album, even specific songs like “Seventeen” and “Comeback Kid.” They seem very time and place to me.
“Memorial Day” (2019)
STEREOGUM: This is my personal favorite on the album right now. There are other songs like “No One’s Easy To Love,” which you’ve said kinda originated as you doing a sad Leonard Cohen song and then it got built up into this big synth thing. And it comes with a bit more of a traditional SVE melody and sentiment. “Memorial Day” comes right after it and it’s so eerie and different, sort of the first truly shocking moment on Remind Me Tomorrow. It’s almost totally unique compared to anything I can remember in your catalog. It almost makes me feel the Nick Cave influence even though it doesn’t sound like Nick Cave. Where did that one come from?
VAN ETTEN: That was one of the first songs I could feel was different. It was around the time I was writing the [Strange Weather] score for Katherine Dieckmann. I was playing a lot of guitar for her movie, because her reference was Ry Cooder. Whenever I was getting to the point of writer’s block, I would set down the guitar and pick up another instrument.
At the time, I was sharing this space with Michael Cera and he had a synthesizer and an organ and I had my drumkit set up. I gravitated towards that. It was just meant to clear my head. I would play a bunch of weird shit, put it down, and go back to the guitar and carry on. But I got really into it. I recorded for 10 minutes, I had a delay going through my vocal, it wasn’t for anything. That first version is a 10 minute demo of the drumbeat, that organ riff, the “ha-ha” parts, and me singing ambiently over it. You couldn’t tell what I was saying at all except on the choruses you can hear me say “You will run.” I would put that away and I wouldn’t think about it again, and I did that the whole time I was writing the score for Katherine.
It wasn’t until I was home with my child after that, a year later — he’d be napping and I’d put my headphones on. I was getting the itch to be creative again and I was working on lyrics. I was hearing this weird demo, and I’m looking at him, and then that chorus of, “You will run.” And all the sudden I had these crazy visions of all the things he was going to do, in that sonic context. It made it feel creepier. Especially for something I wrote before I was ever pregnant, and then to be listening to this dark energy song while staring at my kid. Another projected image of watching my kid run into the distance, this kid who hasn’t even walked yet.
STEREOGUM: That’s an interesting origin for the song. Compositionally, it doesn’t feel as if it has a chorus to me in the same way. Like it just kinda bleeds further out. Was there a conscious decision about incorporating different textures and structures, or conversely a moment of feeling like you needed to rein things, so people could still recognize it as Sharon Van Etten?
VAN ETTEN: No, I mean, honestly — from the very beginning, I was tired of guitar, and I knew that wasn’t going to be the center. I knew I wanted to let go. The songs I had already written … I was excited for it to be something new. I feel like I grew very naturally from album to album, and if I were to try to recreate what I’d done before it wouldn’t sound the same. How are you going to learn if you don’t push yourself? I learn well from other people if I let myself.
Scoring Strange Weather (2016) & “Words” From Tig (2015)
STEREOGUM: So you were writing these fragments instead of songs for Strange Weather. Aside from the practical side of needing to go take on other projects to clear your head, did you find the different approach of this folding back onto your personal songwriting at all? Like unlocking new ideas?
VAN ETTEN: I paid more attention to ambient sounds around it. When I’m writing, I’m drawn to the immediacy of chord changes and melody. But sometimes holding back, and having almost nothing there, a synth or a drone — that’s something I used a lot on this record, drone instead of crazy percussive movements. There’s so much more room to build on it, or decide not to build on it. There’s so much more tension there without clear changes. I found that to be really interesting. In learning how to write for small pieces, and learning what worked and what didn’t to make moods, I know I’ll be able to spend more time with that over future records.
STEREOGUM: Again, you have always been such a personal songwriter. I know you and Katherine felt like kindred spirits pretty quickly. But I’m also thinking about the song you wrote for Tig Notaro’s movie Tig, or the song you did with Michael Cera, the idea of writing songs for somebody else’s vision. Writing to a different prompt. That’s really been mostly in the past several years for you. Did you discover a different way of working or find things you didn’t know were there?
VAN ETTEN: For example, Tig’s movie, at the end of that movie something … “celebratory” isn’t the right word. You still need it to be a little melancholy. She had been through so much. I had an unfinished song and I didn’t know what I was gonna do with it. As soon as I saw that movie I knew I wanted to finish it for that. It finally made sense to me. You’re talking about words, your career and your relationships — being in the moment and not having those words, it finally made sense to me.
STEREOGUM: So more similar to The OA, more so going with the things that make sense and you connect with, rather than taking on assignments.
VAN ETTEN: I ended up expanding on it more. It just took on this whole new thing. It wasn’t finished when I had it. It’s one of those things that might not have ever seen the light of day. That was the right moment. I heard it at the end of the film.
STEREOGUM: Do you think scoring movies is something you would like to continue doing? Or that was a specific bond?
VAN ETTEN: I would be open to trying it again. It is quite an undertaking. And this was even a very minimal film. I would definitely have to start nerding out on more gear. I think synthesizers would play a big part in it. I’m dabbling already, but I don’t have a lot of space.
Singing “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” at BBC Proms (2018)
STEREOGUM: Unfortunately, over 10 years later, LCD Soundsystem’s “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” is a song so many of us can relate to living here. But you also spent some time in LA working on the album, and at first I thought you had moved out there. I was wondering if there was some subliminal reasoning to covering this song about conflicted relationships with New York.
VAN ETTEN: The show for the BBC Proms was New York-themed, and it was also funny because most of the people who were performing no longer lived in New York or were thinking about moving. So they asked me to cover that song. I was actually nervous. I was like, “Are they fucking with me?” I’m probably the one New Yorker in there and I’m in England and I’m singing this song. But I thought it was pretty funny.
You know, I do have those feelings. I will probably leave New York in the next year. Having a kid changes everything. And I’ve worked so hard to afford to live here and now I can’t afford to live here. I’ve been here for 15 years now, and I’ve been chasing the neighborhoods. Like, OK, changes are happening, let me go to the next one. Let me go to the next one.
STEREOGUM: Where do you think you’ll move? To LA?
VAN ETTEN: LA, probably.
STEREOGUM: Man, you’re killing me. Everyone’s fleeing for LA.
VAN ETTEN: I know! But I can have a house for what I pay for a one bedroom apartment [here]. My baby’s sleeping in my closet vs. there’d be a studio in my garage. For music and acting and comedy, it’s just so wide open there. I feel people are more open there, and encouraging.
STEREOGUM: And you can drive again.
VAN ETTEN: I never even connected to LA until recently. I went there for six months at the top of . I originally went out there to shoot The OA, because there will be a season two. Originally, they were just like, “We’ll call you when we need you.” And I was like, “I can’t just be on call from New York and fly at the drop of a hat.” So we decided, as a family, to relocate out there. And that’s how I wound up talking to John Congleton [for Remind Me Tomorrow]. I wound up only working eight days over the course of six months. So I tried other things. I met some amazing people. I ran into people I didn’t know lived out there. And people brought me into their world.
The National’s “Think You Can Wait” (2011)
STEREOGUM: As far as I can tell this is the first time you sang on a National song.
VAN ETTEN: I didn’t meet them until 2010. Then they had me sing, just for fun, on some of their songs during the tour. Then I would show up and sing on six songs and then you can’t tell [where you are on the recording]. So I even hesitate to say which songs I sang on.
STEREOGUM: Early in the following year, you released Tramp, the album where you had Aaron Dessner as producer. You’ve had this long relationship with this band, all of you sort of growing up together into this generation of indie artists.
VAN ETTEN: We stayed connected over the years. I love to see [Dessner] championing young writers and he does nurture a community. I think it’s harder now that he doesn’t live here, but they make an effort when they play shows to be very inclusive for the most part. That’s hard to do, especially for where they’re at. They have a massive production. The fact that they could even have any headspace to bring in any others into that vision is pretty amazing.
Two Irving Berlin Songs, For Boardwalk Empire And A Corona Commercial (2012 & 2015)
STEREOGUM: I was surprised to find that you’ve covered not one but two Irving Berlin songs over the years.
VAN ETTEN: One was “What’ll I Do,” for Boardwalk, which is funny because you can’t even hear it over the shooting. I remember my mom calling me like, “I think it’s happening now, oh my God, oh my God.” I don’t think they watched the show at all and they just turned it on for that one episode like, “What is this!?” The Corona commercial came out of nowhere also.
STEREOGUM: I was going to say, given the nature of your music, was it strange to hear your voice … over a beer commercial set on the beach.
VAN ETTEN: I mean, I’m on the beach drinking beer all the time. Well, that’s where I’d like to be. There are worse songs and worse beers to be connected with. It is funny, because people have written me asking “Did you record a whole version of this song, I’d love to hear it.” No, it’s just this one little bite.
STEREOGUM: I didn’t realize that’s how it’d work with a commercial.
VAN ETTEN: I’ve only done a few. I don’t have many to compare it to. They were super nice, this Australian company. They had sent me a reference with somebody else’s voice in there just like, “We just want you doing this.” OK, I’ll try that.
STEREOGUM: Do you have a thing for Irving Berlin or were these just a coincidence?
VAN ETTEN: Well, I definitely didn’t pick the songs.
STEREOGUM: Right, because the Boardwalk stuff, they had indie artists periodically cover these old time-y songs.
VAN ETTEN: Yeah, Matt Berninger and I were there the same day tracking. That was at Avatar Studios. It’s amazing. Stewart Lerman did all the music for Boardwalk, and before we did Are We There together, that’s how we met, doing these different things. So I did a song with him for that and I did a Rufus Wainwright duet he was producing, those both happened before we were working together.
It was funny. Recordings time travel. You can record it and it won’t be shared until a certain time. I think I recorded that [Boardwalk Empire song] in 2011, but it didn’t see the light of day for a while. We walk in, and it’s a full-on orchestra in the live room at Avatar. And I’m supposed to just walk up and sing the song, which is super high for my range. I was just up for the challenge. I loved the show.
STEREOGUM: Had you ever played with an ensemble like that at that point?
VAN ETTEN: No. And they’re getting paid by the hour. They sounded amazing. The classical world is a whole other beast. So I was like shitting my pants. Matt’s waiting to go on while I’m trying to get it right. It was pretty amazing though. Everyone was pretty cool.
STEREOGUM: Did they say, “Don’t worry there’s going to be a shooting spree happening over this anyway?”
VAN ETTEN: No, but Stewart did warn me, you never know how it’s going to be. It can be super low in the background while people are having a conversation, it could just be cut altogether. You never know.
“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” With Shearwater (2012)
STEREOGUM: When I first heard your music, I didn’t know where to place you exactly, what lineage your vocals belonged to. Then I saw this cover, and this raw Sharon I hadn’t quite seen before, and I could hear this melancholic interpretation of Stevie Nicks there occasionally. Maybe. That’s why I’m asking you now, if you have a history with her music.
VAN ETTEN: So Jonathan [Meiburg from Shearwater] picked out that song, but he knew I also had a thing for Fleetwood Mac. I think her voice is so unique and raw and expresses so much in itself. I do have a handful of favorites, but there’s one video where she’s warming up backstage and it’s the sweetest thing ever, then you hear a song where she’s talking so much shit. I like that she, with the rawness of her voice, can convey all these things.
Covering Nick Cave’s “People Ain’t No Good” (2013)
STEREOGUM: Before Are We There, you talked about how life-changing your tour with Nick Cave felt. And you’ve also cited him as a big influence on the new album.
VAN ETTEN: I think about that tour all the time. That’s where I fell in love with my partner. That’s where I realized I wasn’t with the right person. It also just felt like I was performing really strongly. And having fun on the road. I was going through a weird time … I look back on that tour very fondly. [Nick and I] stayed in touch over the years and I heard about his son and I heard about the documentary. I went to go see that and it was so moving.
By the time Skeleton Tree came out, it was around the time I was pregnant and had my child. I got to see that show for the first time after he was born. It’s so intense. He basically helped me find my way to where I am now, he had a hand in that. And then to me being inspired by my partner and my son and watching him perform these songs that were basically his way of dealing with it, it felt like it brought me closer to him in a way. I feel that record so deeply.
STEREOGUM: I remember you talking about Skeleton Tree specifically being an influence on the new album. And you also described Remind Me Tomorrow as being “dark, but hopeful.” I can hear that on Skeleton Tree, too. It’s obviously devastating, but has these slight glimmers of hope.
VAN ETTEN: That song “I Need You”? Woo. It was that album specifically I referenced with John Congleton. He was looking forward to not having guitars on the record. That can get old after a while.
STEREOGUM: Did Cave know about you before you were on that tour?
VAN ETTEN: I think he knew my music, he is in touch. But he never said anything. I look at some of the bands he brings on tour and I’m like, “He’s a music fan.” He was amazing to tour with. Such a gentleman, and he took good care of us.
STEREOGUM: Have you sent him your new album?
VAN ETTEN: I did. He likes it.
“Jupiter 4″ Video (2018)
STEREOGUM: I loved how you described this video’s concept as “apocalyptic mom.” That could be taken a couple different ways.
VAN ETTEN: I was trying to find the time to meet with Katherine Dieckmann [who also directed this video], because she teaches at Columbia. So her being up there and me being deep in Brooklyn, I met her in the Village somewhere. We were walking and talking while my boy was running around. I was a wreck. I had shit all over me, chasing him around, having fragmented conversations, trying to pick up where I left off.
We were hanging out that way, which she understands because she’s a mom. So I was like, “You know, a mom with insomnia who’s dreaming about all the things she loves and all the things she is.” There’s this feeling like, “A weight to all this happiness.” There’s that balance. I can acknowledge there’s all these great things going on in my life but acknowledge there’s this weight around us. I can be a good mom all day long and put the baby down, and then I can freak out.
STEREOGUM: I would imagine becoming a mother in 2017, there could be an aspect of processing having a child in this world that crept into this album.
VAN ETTEN: Oh my God, yeah. For sure. If you read the lyrics, you wouldn’t think this is a dark record. I wanted to have both. I think someone made a joke, “This is not the album a new mom would’ve made, who’s in love and all this shit.” I was thinking, you know what, I have to acknowledge the darkness. Yes, I’m happy and all these things are good, but I have to acknowledge the world around me.
I was pregnant when Trump got elected. I was stifling my cry, because I didn’t want my son to absorb any of that shit. I had this realization it’s my job to protect him. Making him feel safe, protecting him, shielding him as much as I can, while I can. But I have to acknowledge everything else, too.
STEREOGUM: That’s part of why that phrase “apocalyptic mom,” perhaps even if it was tossed off, stuck in my mind. It’s evocative in relation to that video — the idea of having a newborn in such a chaotic, backsliding world — and then the video almost takes place in this shadowy, foreboding scenery. But to go back to that “dark but hopeful” thing: In the end, do you think the album leans that way, towards optimism?
VAN ETTEN: I hope so. I chose the song “Stay” [as the closer] because I thought it offered it a bit. But, you know, always with one foot in the door. It was my attempt at being hopeful.
Remind Me Tomorrow is out 1/18 via Jagjaguwar. Pre-order it here.