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Sharon Van Etten On What Inspired Her New Album, From Michael Cera's Synth to Old New York

Sharon Van Etten
Ryan Pfluger

Sharon Van Etten

In the four years since Sharon Van Etten, 37, hit an artistic peak with Are We There, she didn't want to rush her next album. Instead, the singer-songwriter went back to school part-time to study psychology; wrote her first film score, for Katherine Dieckmann’s Strange Weather; launched an acting career (with a role in The OA and an appearance in David Lynch’s revived Twin Peaks); and gave birth to her first child.

And on Jan. 18, the Brooklyn-based artist will release Remind Me Tomorrow, an experimental indie-rock album that probes newfound joy in a post-Donald Trump era. Here’s what she did to make it happen.

Wrote her first film score

[Strange Weather director] Katherine Dieckmann was the first person to reach out when I decided to be home and off the road, which coincided with being asked to audition for The OA. She was amazing, because I agreed to work with her before I got into school. My goal [was] to go to school part-time and work on the score, and that would be my outlet -- but then The OA kind of threw things a little bit. She was go-with-the-flow: “You do this show, and you let me know when you’re ready. I just need it by the end of the summer.”

When I was working on the score, a lot of it, her reference was Ry Cooder’s score for Paris, Texas, which was a pretty tall order -- I don’t play guitar like that, but it was a good challenge, so I would go to the practice space, and I would work on my guitar, and try to create the ‘scapes. It’s the opposite of writing a song, so you’re creating these moods that last 15 seconds, maybe 30. Every time I wanted to sing, she told me to hum instead, because she was like, “Remember, you’re not writing a song.” She was really patient with my process because she knew I had no experience. She held my hand through the whole thing and was really specific point when it needed something or needed less, things like that. In a funny way, the way the score influenced the album was that -- or even me, in general -- was that when I’d get to a point where I couldn’t write anymore for the score, I would put the guitar down, and I would go to any other instrument, because I’d feel I just needed to clear my head.

Borrowed Michael Cera’s synthesizer

At the time, I was sharing a practice space with Michael Cera who had a synthesizer, a G Pro 4, an organ amongst other things. I had a piano. It was mostly keys and Zeke’s drums. I would put the guitar down and gravitate towards something I’m not used to playing. I started writing a lot on the synthesizer without any preconceived notion of what it sounded like, without anyone watching me. I could just plug it in and mess with all the sounds, plug it through my board like I would my guitar and screw around with songs like that, run it through my amp just as I would a guitar and tweak it that way. I would find cool loops and sounds and start playing over it. I would have a melody, just like I’d normally write for myself, but it was really just to clear my head for this thing -- so when I finished this idea, I was like, “Oh, wow! That was like, a ten-minute jam. That was fun.” And put it in a folder and not think about it, and then the palate was cleansed, and I’d return to the guitar and start again -- and then a lot of those turned into the record.

Fell back in love with the piano

After Are We There I got my first piano. That’s what I had at West 4th, that cute little Melody grand. Zeke used to work in a piano shop, so he told me that specific kind. It’s short scale, it’s meant to be in an apartment, in a small space. It was highly influential. Early on, that’s what I was writing on when I was home. In there, I had his drum kit for awhile, so I had the drum kit in the bedroom, the piano in the kitchen and I would write that way when I first got off the road. So, that kind of made me want to get a studio. I eventually got a studio. It’s a percussive instrument, you know? Guitar can be, too, but it’s -- I feel like you get more space and you have more room to explore melodically and move vocals around more and do quicker phrasings and stuff. I’m not very well trained in piano. It’s a lot of chords held, slow-moving, using that space to write more syncopated rhythms and stuff. I actually wrote “Comeback Kid” on piano before it went into the synth world at all!

Listened to Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree

I feel like Nick Cave going from his punk rock style to allowing the time to mourn [the loss of his 15-year-old son, Arthur, who died in 2015] and really shine above the instrumentation was really daring for him. Daring sounds like a bad word, but he took some chances by letting the mood take over rather than the aggressive style. It makes you confront the vocals more and what he’s talking about, and letting him deal, and also feeling like his friends just support him. It’s not a battle. That was just really intriguing to me, the bed of tones with the straight-up groove -- that really moved me.

Thought about her New York, and its ghosts

“Seventeen” just feels like my New York song. This is talking about living somewhere long enough to see the changes that I have. I’ve been here fifteen years. To be like, chasing neighborhoods constantly, walking down the street and seeing a place that’s closed that I used to hang out in, in a neighborhood you can no longer afford, but then you see kids younger than you moving in, things like that, constantly -- it’s just the New York Story. In writing it, I was literally catching myself bitching about something closing and reopening, but then realizing that I gave my friend [Kyp Malone, of TV on the Radio] shit about it when I first moved to New York. He bitched about it, about Williamsburg, and warned me that things were gonna change. I remember him saying his mantra: “civilizations throughout time rise and fall.” [Laughs.] He would get upset when something closed and a new place would open, and he was just like, things are going to change really fast.

Got in her feels

[Producer John Congleton] asked me what my influences were and I told him -- Nick Cave, Suicide, Portishead -- and he got really excited. We started talking more about film and musicians and what I wanted to draw from them. I said I wanted to be moody and dark and I don’t want to walk away from the darkness. These are love songs, regardless of who they’re about, but I want to acknowledge the state of the world. I want to put it into some context. Even if it’s only production-wise, sonic-wise, a grey sky looming over a love song is interesting to me, because that’s how it feels some days. We’re trying to be the best that we can, but I have to acknowledge the intensity and the weight around us, too. We talked about that a lot and creating an atmosphere around it. What I can draw from my experience from acting and becoming a different -- it’s more of an alter-ego of myself, where I put on another outfit. I started doing that for these songs: “Oh yeah! This is the part of my record collection that people don’t know that I have.” If you’re going to come to my apartment and look at all the music that I have. Most people have a pretty wide taste, so when you come in, and you’re like, “This is the post-punk section, the noise section, electronic section,” it’s fun to put on that role, and to work with other musicians that are interpreting your work in this way, knowing your tastes, and then you can come in there and sing in a different way than you have before because you never got to wear this costume.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jan. 12 issue of Billboard. 

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