How Sharon Van Etten came undone on her new album

By Mark Savage
BBC Music Correspondent

Published
Sharon Van EttenImage source, Michael Schmelling
Image caption,
"I'm very aware that these songs are heavy," says the singer.

When Sharon Van Etten came to London to promote her new album this March, her five-year-old son was worried.

"I was showing him England on the map and he asked if I'd be close to the war," she says. "And I was like, actually that's a really, really good question."

With reassurances given, the singer left the US for the first time since lockdown. But the joy of hitting the road is now tinged with sadness, after two years nesting at home.

"I'm dreading leaving them to go on tour this summer," she says. "I already know I'm going to miss his first day of school. Little things like that, I feel like I'm going to have to get used to."

That struggle is made explicit on her new album, We've Been Going About This All Wrong. At one point, she sings directly to her son: "I need my job / Please don't hold that against me / You are my life."

"I put in these little messages that I know he won't quite get now," she says, "but hopefully, years from now, if he resents what I do for a living, he'll listen and be aware that it was hard."

That lyric, like most of her new album, was informed by the harrowing experiences of the last two years. In the era of the lockdown album, Van Etten's record captures that unique mixture of anxiety, liberation, confusion and inertia better than most.

"I'm looking at our grass / I'm struggling for words," she sings on the meditative opening track, Darkness Fades. "It's been a while since I last held you close."

Later, she describes being kept awake at night by thoughts of "peace and war" before realising the constant stream of bad news has left her numb.

"I didn't feel anything... I couldn't feel anything," she sings repeatedly over an volcanic wall of sound.

"I had these moments where I thought it was the end of the world and nobody was telling us," she explains.

"When you're so isolated and all you know is your little family unit but you're hearing about protests and tanks being brought in… It felt so far away but it was also in my back yard, so I didn't know how to process it."

Figure caption,
Warning: Third party content may contain adverts

Van Etten's music has always dwelt in the darkness, from her 2009 debut, Because I Was in Love, which documented the fall-out of an abusive relationship; to last year's Like I Used To, a raw-nerve duet with Angel Olsen, about emerging from lockdown, that should have been number one in 50 countries.

While she isn't a household name, she's revered by her peers, working with Bon Iver, Fiona Apple, The National, and Josh Homme. One of her biggest inspirations, Nick Cave, hand-selected her to open his 2013 tour and Barack Obama named her coming-of-age anthem Seventeen amongst his favourite songs of 2019.

One of her performances even reduced New Zealand broadcaster John Campbell to tears during a live broadcast.

Amidst all of that, she's starred in the Netflix drama The OA, and started a bachelor's degree in psychology, with the hope of becoming a mental health counsellor, Oh, and she's also an accomplished sportswoman, with competitive experience in discus and javelin.

"My mom and I joke that I should have majored in hobbies in High School," she laughs, "because I like to learn how to do stuff but I'm never great at anything. Singing is the farthest I've gone."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The star's operatically emotional songs are designed to be heard live

Her last album, 2019's Remind Me Tomorrow, brought her dramatic contralto voice to new fans. It helped that the heaviness of her previous records had lifted slightly - joy was now balanced against sorrow, as she settled into the contentedness of a serious relationship with her manager and former drummer, Zeke Hutchins.

After their son was born in 2017, the couple planned two major life changes: Moving from New York to Los Angeles, and getting married.

The removal men arrived at Van Etten's apartment on the last date of her 2019 tour with Bon Iver; and she went on her bachelorette party a couple of weeks later.

"I remember landing at LAX, coming back from the trip, and saying, 'There's no one at the airport. This is kinda weird. This thing might be serious - maybe it's not like the bird flu,'" she later confessed to Rolling Stone.

And so, she found herself in a new house in a strange neighbourhood, trying to navigate the complexities of lockdown with a toddler.

"We had dance parties, we put a mat on the floor and did gymnastics, he had an easel outside and did painting," she recalls.

"At the end of every year I go through our photos to print an album. But that year it was like, 'There's the living room, there's the hallway, there's the yard and that's the TV'."

Although she put on a brave face for her son, her mind was reeling.

"We were living through fires and earthquakes and protests that we couldn't go to because our kid wasn't [eligible to get] vaccinated. We just felt, did we do the wrong thing? Are we in the wrong place? Do we need to be closer to our families?

"I have my ups and downs like anyone. I'm not perfect. I drink and I sneak cigarettes when I really shouldn't; and I'm supposed to be this positive role model but I'm not perfect.

"But I think I have enough hindsight to be able to call myself out too and be like 'Alright, get it together. You had a moment but you also have to be present for your family. This is a hard time for everyone but this is the time you need to be strong'."

Image source, Michael Schmelling
Image caption,
Van Etten has chosen not to release any singles or promotional songs before her new album

It helped that her new house came with its own recording studio. As Van Etten wrestled with her emotions, new songs started to crystallise.

Some, like Anything, were written in the grip of existential horror. Others crystallise a sense of hope. I'll Try is a swirling, shimmering pledge to do better in a world where dark forces are gathering.

"Protests are just a normal thing [in LA] now," she observes. "When you go for a walk, everyone is holding up a sign. I saw one the other day that said, 'Make science great again', and it's become this everyday thing like, 'I'll pop out and pick up some milk'.

"It's easy to feel like it doesn't matter. Everything feels like its apocalyptic - but I'm still gonna try."

That resolve is threaded through the record, reflecting Van Etten's desire for connection during the pandemic.

"I sent out lifelines to people that I hadn't talked to in a while and it definitely relit that flame in our friendship.

"That's a big thing on this record, connection and reaching out and accepting help. Even when it's real hard, those connections help you get through."

So amongst the desolation, there's a refreshing sense of humour on Mistakes (a song about her total lack of co-ordination on the dancefloor); while the album's most tender track, Darkish, offers the comfortingly sarcastic observation: "It's not dark,,,, It's dark-ish".

The 41-year-old says those moments are a necessary balance.

"I'm very aware that these songs are heavy," she says. "And I get to this place where I think, 'OK, now I need to let the listener breathe.'"

She even toyed with putting a 10-second pause after Born, a song of pulverising sadness, until her manager talked her out of it.

"He said it was too long," she recalls, "but how long is too long?"

Figure caption,
Warning: Third party content may contain adverts

Pauses or not, she wants fans to absorb the album all at once, refusing to release any singles or previews before it hits the shelves this weekend.

"When you hear two or three songs ahead of time, I feel like you lose the excitement of listening to the album front to back," she explains.

"I made this music during a time where I felt so vulnerable, like so many, and I want people to feel that with me."

So what does her son make of this new music? A trailer for the album pictured him in Van Etten's home studio, grasping her microphone - so does he ever try to join in?

"He doesn't sing along but he'll play drums," she laughs. "Oh my gosh, he's so good!

"When we're driving around and I look in the rear-view mirror and he's quietly air drumming. Its like the cutest thing in the world."

Maybe she won't have to miss him on the road for too long.

Follow us on Facebook, or on Twitter @BBCNewsEnts. If you have a story suggestion email entertainment.news@bbc.co.uk.