Sharon Van Etten: “I have to be hopeful. I’m a mother and I want to be brave for my son”

Locked-down in Los Angeles, the singer-songwriter learned to face the darkness, resulting in the brooding, optimistic new album ‘We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong’

It took Sharon Van Etten a lifetime to psych herself up to uproot her world and move to Los Angeles, the born New Jerseyan having spent the last 15 years in New York. But the second she did, she felt the universe calling her bluff. The year was 2020, and after crossing the US in September 2019 with her partner and young child, she was just starting to settle into things when – well, you know what happened.

“I picked a hell of a timing,” the 41-year-old tells NME, in a photography studio in east London, two years down the line. “All the reasons I wanted to move to Los Angeles were to learn how to diversify my music career, so I could figure out how to not always be on the road. As you get older and you have a family, you want to settle down, and you want to be home more – but suddenly here I am, in this little bubble.”

Like the rest of the world, Van Etten did what she could in her bubble, and made sense of it all with her darkest and most epic record to date, ‘We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong’. The singer-songwriter’s sixth album is an immersive collection of songs, wrestling with trauma both collective and personal in an increasingly destabilising world. The collection finds her expressing regret at the past and her fear about the future and lack of control over the right now. ‘I’ll Try’ is a swirling, heartening attempt to do your best when it’s all falling apart, while the mournful ‘Anything’ speaks to the numbness that comes with existing and surviving in the last two years. It is immediate, and hits terribly close to the bone.

Sharon Van Etten
Credit: Michael Schmelling

“All my songs are written through a period of time, and this is the most specific time I’ve made a record where it’s a collective trauma we’re experiencing,” she explains. “I always struggle with being overly political in my music, because what gets a song out of my head and heart onto a page is coming from an emotionally raw space.”

Much of the album deals with the push-and-pull Van Etten felt between her new life at home and the unprecedented way of working that the whole world was grappling with. It was time to address this head-on, and to lean into the darkness – as well as the often mundane nature of it all. “Having a workspace at home can be tricky – it was separate from the house but I would get so caught up in housework!” she laughs. “Because it’s so nice to do after a while – the dishes, the vacuuming, the satisfaction of folding laundry while it’s still warm. Even just piddling around the yard and deadheading rose bushes, smelling the jasmine and just doing normal stuff for a second.”

“Even in these dark places, there’s a silver lining as long as you’re looking for it”

But in terms of revealing the new album she produced during this time, the musician wanted to try something different – namely, keeping her cards close to her chest. The idea was to give fans new possibilities in terms of engaging with the music by withholding all singles pre-release. The energetic ‘Porta’, unveiled this February, addressed feelings of depression but is at complete odds with the sonic palette of the new record – and so it doesn’t feature. ‘Used to It’, originally written for the HBO documentary Baby God and considered for the album, was eventually released as another standalone as it also had little connection to ‘We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong’.

“When you get three or four songs released ahead of the record, they tend to be the singles and the immediate songs people will connect with,” the artist explains. “Sometimes I feel that over-dictates what people think and what the record will sound like, or what it represents. I thought out of respect to the people listening – fans on any level – I wanted to think about an album and engage in a different way, so we can bring up the conversation about what an album means to somebody right now in a world so centred around the single. This album is such a piece on its own. I intentionally had the sequence in mind, the shift in sonics and keys.”

Sharon Van Etten
Sharon Van Etten on the cover of NME

Van Etten self-recorded much of the album at home in Los Angeles. She shared production duties with Daniel Knowles of the Nottingham rock band Amusement Parks On Fire, and is the album’s sole writer. She explains it was about “moving forward” from the sound of 2019’s ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’, which she developed with the fêted indie producer John Congleton (who’s worked with St. Vincent, The Killers and Lana Del Rey). It was also about adding “more textures and layers” beyond her familiar drones and beats, creating a more complex sound. The result is heavier and more meditative, as evidenced by the self-explanatory opener ‘Darkness Fades’.

Yet this era also somehow finds Van Etten at her most stripped-back and vulnerable, using her voice to speak about the sorry state of the world, but also, crucially, to her four-year-old son, who is currently growing up in it. “The only child, don’t turn your back on me,” she begs on the haunting ‘Home To Me’, anticipating more time on the road in the near future: “I need my job – please don’t hold that against me.” Does her son know how many messages his mother’s music holds for him yet? “I sneak these little messages in there that I think years from now he’ll understand,” she says. “I think he’s proud of what I do, although I don’t think he knows to what level [I do it].”

​​“I was constantly insecure in The OA… I knew I was an imposter”

Van Etten recalls trying to explain her strange job to her son when she was opening for Bon Iver in 2019 – on the eve of her movers packing up her life for LA, no less – and brought him out into the crowd after she’d played her set.

“When he had the awareness of the other people in the audience, it took his perception of what we do to a whole new level,” she says. “It’s still something I have a hard time processing. He’s like, ‘So people outside of me listen to your music?’ I never want to make it this big thing. This is my job. I think he has a sense of how mundane it can be, and how hard it can be for me to be away. I make sure to call when I’m gone to make sure that he knows that I love what I do, but I really want to be home: ‘I’m doing this for you.’”

Sharon Van Etten
Credit: Michael Schmelling

Since 2016, Sharon Van Etten has become something of a polymath. With four albums to her name at the time, the artist caught the attention of Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, who ended up casting her in their supernatural Netflix series The OA. When, in 2019, the show was cancelled after two seasons despite plans for a five-season story, Van Etten found herself at the heart of an internet uprising as fans around the world campaigned for its return. She played Rachel DeGrasso – a young woman who died during a car crash and came back to life – in both seasons, alongside Jason Isaacs, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Emory Cohen, Scott Wilson and Marling herself.

“It was a challenge to take on a role like that, and I feel very lucky to have worked with Brit and Zal – they’re very adventurous in the kind of work they produce,” the musician says, before revealing her surprising reservations about her assured-seeming performance among such esteemed actors: “I was constantly insecure, and I knew I was the imposter. So as lucky as I felt that that show wanted me to be part of it, I was also quietly relieved I didn’t have to do it anymore. I’m sorry to the fans but I just felt like I was going to be found out… I didn’t know what I was doing!”

Sharon Van Etten
Credit: Michael Schmelling

Van Etten’s work has increasingly made its way to screens over the last few years, both through original songs (2020’s hypnotic ‘Let Go’, written for the documentary Feels Good Man, which charts the rise and fall of infamous internet meme Pepe the Frog, is one of her best songs in years) and firm favourites. Five songs – including the top-tier singles ‘Seventeen’ and ‘Serpents’ – featured in last year’s Netflix drama Maid.

The show focuses on a young mother forced to leave home with her daughter to escape an abusive partner, and somewhat echoes Van Etten’s involvement in the 2020 independent film Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which follows a teenage girl travelling from Pennsylvania to New York in order to get an abortion. Van Etten plays the girl’s distant mother, and also wrote the song ‘Staring At A Mountain’, which plays over the film’s credits. The heavy and harrowing track feels like a eulogy for the stolen youth of countless teenagers who’ve endured similar experiences to the main character, Autumn.

“Angel Olsen is one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met. Our friendship is still growing”

Regarding her passion for these stories, which grapple with the strain and urgency of young motherhood and thwarted adolescence, Van Etten is well aware of how quickly people might try to pigeonhole her as an activist for women’s reproductive rights. “I don’t say ‘Yes’ to things that I don’t connect with on a deep level,” she says. “Because I know whatever you agree to is going to define you as an artist. It’s all about a woman’s choice. When I was about eight or nine months pregnant, I played a Planned Parenthood benefit in New York.”

The artist pauses for a moment, before reiterating why it’s so important to her to speak up about this kind of bodily independence. “I think it’s just a narrative that people don’t tell because [an abortion can be] considered faux pas, which seems really, really crazy to me in this day and age. But I think it’s important to drive home the point that it is the individual’s choice.”

Sharon Van Etten
Credit: Michael Schmelling

Sharon Van Etten has always been a deeply empathetic artist and human, as is illustrated by her goal to become a therapist by the time she turns 50. How’s that coming along? “I took three courses during the last two years,” she says, “and I have two more classes to take before I get into a Psychology program. But I took a Sociology class this year that changed my life. During the last two years, I just had to call myself out. I need to be more involved in bettering a community, and feeling part of a local community.”

The artist has certainly spent the last few years expanding her community of musicians, namely by starting a collaboration – and friendship – with former NME cover star Angel Olsen on their 2021 track ‘Like I Used To’. Could there be anything new on the horizon? “Angel is one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met, and our friendship is still growing,” Van Etten says. “Our schedules are pretty crazy coming up, but I feel like this is just the beginning of working together.”

“Mistakes happen for a reason – if you allow yourself to learn from them”

Her ambition to engage with the world and the people around her, even if it means trying new ideas and fucking up as a result, is best captured on the rousing ‘Mistakes’. It’s perhaps as close as the new album gets to a radio-ready single, as Van Etten sings about how bad decisions sometimes pan out for the best: “When I make a mistake / … Turns out it’s great.” Today she says carefully: “I don’t think there’s an order to things, but I do think that things happen for a reason, if you allow yourself to learn from them. And if you give that thing purpose and have the mindfulness to know things can pass and get better, you are part of that change.”

Despite the uncertainty of life in 2022, Van Etten remains sceptical but ultimately optimistic, a sentiment she conveyed on the new album’s ethereal ‘Darkish’, which features the soft chirrup of birdsong in the background. “And crazy as can be / It’s not dark, it’s only darkish.. waiting,” she croons against a stark acoustic melody, promising that things are not fully dark yet, in spite of it all. “I was very aware at that point in the record that everybody needs a bit of a breath,” she says. “We left the birds in there on purpose, because do you remember that point in COVID where we were all pretty scared and isolated? Because nobody was driving around or travelling, I felt like I heard more birds than ever before.”

And if Sharon Van Etten felt that way in the middle of the world crumbling around us, surely she can only have more faith now for what comes next?

“Even in these dark places, there’s a silver lining all the time as long as you’re looking for it,” she says, “if you stop and pause for a second and let yourself be still. I’m not going to tell you I know what’s going to happen in future, but I have to be hopeful because I’m a mother and I want to be brave for my son, for my partner and for my friends. Even if it is the end of the world tomorrow, I still want to go on feeling hopeful.”

Sharon Van Etten’s ‘We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong’ will be released on May 6 via Jagjaguwar