Sharon Van Etten on “Remind Me Tomorrow”

Embracing the Mess

May 31, 2019 Photography by Ray Lego (For Under the Radar) Issue #65 - Mitski and boygenius
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Just seconds after answering her phone Sharon Van Etten is already apologizing to me. It's a Sunday, and the New York singer/songwriter has just excused herself from an impromptu brunch, having bumped into some friends earlier that morning. Reassuring me she was expecting my call and that she's already said her goodbyes, it takes only a few minutes before she's in the far less distracting space of her Brooklyn apartment, located a literal block away from the restaurant. Van Etten has moved around a bit in the 15 years she's lived in New York City, but her current place she's managed to hold onto for some time. And while she'll say that one of the things that she loves most about her home is its deckoffering the all too rare urban experience of outdoor privacythe most predominant feature of Van Etten's residence are the scattered, ever-present artifacts of her 19-month son. "In the final days of my pregnancy we were like, 'Okay when people come into the apartment you're not going to know that we have a kid as soon as you walk in the door,'" recalls Van Etten. "And that's all out the window. We've got one of those nice woven baskets and we were like, 'Toys have to fit in this. And as soon as they start overflowing then we're just going to start giving stuff away.' And they're just all over the place. There's no controlling it. Everything about having a kid is justyou've just got to roll with it and what makes him happy and ask, 'How can we all thrive?' And apparently we thrive in chaos."

Midway through our conversation Van Etten will stake out a hiding position on the deck as her partner, and former drummer-turned-manager Zeke Hutchins arrives home, bringing their son for his scheduled nap. "He's amazing," she boasts of her boy. "He's in the phase where he can follow directions really well, he understands everything we're saying, but he's just climbing on everything. He's also really into his dad's skateboard."

Becoming a parent has been but a part of the numerous life-altering opportunities and roles Van Etten has taken in the intervening years since releasing her 2014 LP Are We There, but there's no mistaking its influence on Van Etten's newest record, Remind Me Tomorrow, an album that successfully captures her parental existentialism, her insecurity in the face of true love, and her memories of who she used to be, sentiments all beautifully frayed by an eclipsing darkness of synthesizers, drones, and machinery.

The development of Reminder Me Tomorrow arguably began in 2015 when Van Etten decided to stop touring not long after the release of Are We There. "I wanted to focus on my life," she says. "For the first time I was in a really stable relationship. I know it sounds so childish to say, but I was in my 30s and I was like, 'I don't wanna go anywhere.' [Touring] is hard. It's hard on my relationships. It's hard as a daughter, a sister, and for my friends. And some people don't understand it. You come back after being gone for a month or two or more and life moves on without you. Some of the friends stay and understand, and others, it's just hard to maintain. And so I just realized that I just wanted to be home. I wanted to enjoy what New York had to offer, pay attention to my relationships, and figure out what that is and what it means and what my place is here."

The first thing Van Etten decided to do was go back to school. As she began taking classes to get a degree in psychology, she next began brainstorming potential avenues of incomes for her new stationary lifestyle. Her first gig was writing a score for director Katherine Dieckmann and her independent film, Strange Weather. At the time she was working on the score, Van Etten says she shared a practice space with actor Michael Cera, who had a fairly robust collection of synthesizers, keyboards, and organs. "Whenever I started feeling like I was up against a wall and not getting anywhere, if I felt a block, I'd put the guitar down and just ended upto clear my headI would play his instruments," she says. "I wasn't writing for me. I was just playing so I could get past this obstacles and then move on. But I was writing all these songs I didn't realize I was writing."

In the midst of inadvertently building all these new demos, Van Etten wound up filling her calendar even more when she auditioned and landed a supporting role on the Netflix mystery/sci-fi series The OA. All of these new opportunitiesthe trifecta of being back in school, acting for the first time, and finishing her film scorewere of course just a warm-up for when she discovered she was pregnant. "I was like, 'Are you kidding me?'" she says.

In between everything, Van Etten was still writing songs. After her son was born in early 2017, she would often put on a pair of headphones, and while he napped, listen to her instrumentals and write lyrics just as a mental exercise and a means of being creative. Somewhere along the way she amassed over 40 demos. "I was like, 'How the hell did I do that?'" she says. "[Zeke] was laughing at me, like, 'Sharon, I know you didn't want to, but I think you wrote a record. We should start talking about this.'"

When Van Etten wrote and recorded Are We There she was struggling with the realization that she was in a romantic relationship that needed to end. As a result, its brutal honesty towards love, forgiveness, heartache, and frustration gave it a beautiful, punishing quality. It's the kind of record you would imagine some 21st century Miss Havisham would have echoing on repeat through the empty halls of her decaying mansion. Remind Me Tomorrow maintains Van Etten's complicated vulnerability. It does so, however, for different reasons. "I'm finishing writing these songs, and while I'm in between studying, while my son is napping and I'm literally looking at him, I'm thinking, 'How are we going to do this?' I'm thinking about all the things that I want for myself, but also all the things I want for him. That started coloring all these songs. When I broke them down I was like, 'Well yeah, these are love songs, and I'm in a really good place.' But it was also a really dark time. A lot of it was the state of the world. So it's me trying to sing about love in that context, battling a lot of who I used to be and what I've gone through, with this perspective of knowing that I'm in such a different place now."

Still questioning herself and what she wanted, Van Etten made several attempts to reimagine the more drone and synth-based direction her compositions had taken into something that was more traditionally expected of her. Ultimately, however, she realized she was trying too hard to exert control over where the songs were wanting to go, and decided to instead lean into the influences of bands like Portishead, Suicide, and albums like Nick Cave's Skeleton Tree. Relinquishing control further, Van Etten recruited veteran producer John Congleton. "I knew I didn't have it in me to produce this type of record," she says. "It's beyond my knowledge and my language and the recording atmosphere. And I made the decision to work with a producer that did everything. And I'm usually very hands on. Every other record I've chosen everyone, I've told them what to do, where it's just like, 'Do it better than my demo. You have freedom within these lines.' But I was finally ready. I distanced myself in a way and watched the songs unfold."

The finished record as Van Etten puts it, lets "the darkness shine through" her love songs. "One of the things that one of my friends touched on when I sent her the record for her opinion because she knows me better than most people, she just was like, 'For you being in such a good place I was not expecting this dark of a sound. This is not the record that I thought a mother was going to make.'" Much like Van Etten's apartment and what it represents about where she is in life, Remind Me Tomorrow thrives in something messy and complicated and wonderful and hard.

Near the end of our conversation Van Etten and I eventually turn to the topic of what our kids are listening to, and the strange parental satisfaction that comes with introducing them to new music. "I'm surprised by some of the things my son likes because the past few days I've been listening to the reissue of Susan Sleepwalking by The Arms of Someone New and it's super minimal electronic kind of stuff. It's very spacey. It's beats and drones and a little bit of guitar and this very ambient vocal, and he just loves it. It's so funny. I mean, we play music all the time and you can tell when he doesn't like something. I'll be like, 'Okay, okay, I'll turn it off.' But it's funny to watch his taste unfold and his personality come out." 

Knowing full well how precious personal time is when an infant is napping, I inevitably thank Van Etten for the conversation and say goodbye. A few hours later I get a text on my phone. It's a link to an Arms of Someone New song called "The Fisherman," and a message, "This is the song my son has been digging lately." I scroll down a bit more and there's a picture of Van Etten's son, sitting outside on a skateboard, propped up by Hutchins, wearing the tiniest helmet I've ever seen.

[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 65 of Under the Radar's print magazine, which is out now. This is its debut online.]

www.sharonvanetten.com

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