Sharon Van Etten on BBC Proms, her ‘dark but hopeful’ new album, starring in The OA and mental health

"This is still an album of love songs, but about the state of the world while trying to stay positive for another human being"

Ahead of her appearance at the BBC Proms, Sharon Van Etten has spoken to NME about about her ‘dark but hopeful’ new album, starring in season two of The OA, and training to become a mental health counsellor.

The special Proms show will see Van Etten performing with The Heritage Orchestra (who have previously performed with the likes of DJ Yoda and John Cale) as well as British conductor Jules Buckley on August 8.

The event, which will be held at London’s Royal Albert Hall, will celebrate the diversity of modern New York City. Visit here for tickets and more information.

With the show just around the corner, we caught up with the singer-songwriter and actress [who played Rachel in season one and the upcoming season two of The OA] as she finishes work on her anticipated fifth album in Los Angeles.

How’s life been since you released ‘Are We There’ in 2014?

Sharon: “Things have been great. I went back to school, I got my first job acting, I had a child, I did my first score for a film. Even with ‘down time’ I feel like I’ve been testing a lot of different waters. It’s been nice to not be travelling while trying out a lot of new experiences.”

So the new record has quite a lot of new life to be inspired by?

“Yes, we certainly have some ground to cover with all that’s happened since my last tour in 2015.”

Are you looking inside yourself for inspiration, or to the outside world?

“I think it’s a little bit of both. I’m reflecting on being in an all-round better place and bringing life to Earth during a mix of emotions. Past records have been heartbreak records or break-up records. This is still an album of love songs, but about the state of the world while trying to stay positive for another human being.”

Sonically, where would you say it takes your sound from the last record?

“While writing a lot of this I was tired of the guitar and felt like I was writing a lot of the same songs. I moved into a practice space with someone who had a couple of keyboards and a synthesiser. A lot of the songs were written on a synth or a ‘70s Korg organ while tracking drums to it. It’s a lot darker and there are more beats. It’s not as acoustic driven and the songs are more uptempo. It’ll definitely be a bigger and darker sound, and a lot more electronic-feeling.”

Sharon Van Etten, live

Has that been your main priority, or have you also been heavily involved in season two of ‘The OA’ as well?

“In the Fall, I started trying to track demos. I had accumulated over 50 demos so I pared them down to about 15 that made sense together. So I started testing the water by working with different producers and musicians, and then started working on ‘The OA’ at the top of the year. I think the record will be finished by the end of July, fingers crossed.”

Do you think you’ll bring out some new material at the BBC Proms show, or is that purely focussed on the New York theme?

“I’m hoping to test a new song, but I have no idea what they have in mind. I sent a handful of ideas to Jules. I’m gonna see what he thinks from the selection I sent to him.”

What made you have this as your comeback show in the UK?

“It sounded like a really amazing event to be a part of. Of course, the venue is historic and I’ve never performed live with an orchestra this big before. I had one performance with John Cale about five years ago for a Nico tribute. That was overwhelming and this is going to be bigger than that.”

Do you bust out different moves with an orchestra behind you?

“Yeah! As a performer I can focus more on singing. I’m not gonna hide behind my guitar. I’m going to try and be as non-distracting as I can from what’s happening around me. I’ll try and not say as many jokes because I’ll be overwhelmed with nerves. I have no idea what will happen when I actually get there.”

What kind of sounds of New York are you looking to celebrate?

“It’s going to be a mix of old, new and borrowed. I want to do a collaboration, hopefully.”

What kind of sounds in New York are exciting you in 2018?

“Oh, it’s all over the place. Just in general, less people are playing guitars and are trying to be new all the time. With such a huge influx of new music all the time, it’s hard to even pinpoint what’s going on. I’m still struggling to understand the music industry right now.”

Sharon Van Etten in ‘The OA’

Do you feel as if you’ve attracted a new fan base since appearing in ‘The OA’?

“That’s hard to tell because I haven’t really been out there performing. I don’t know how that translates. I’m excited to be back on the road, but I’ve no idea what that will mean after not having toured for four years. I’m up for the challenge. I don’t know the TV world, so who’s to say? I’m interested to talk to people who found me that way.”

Do you sense that you may have taken a lot of your own fans to ‘The OA’?

“Well, you know there wasn’t even a lot of time for us to prepare for who would respond to that. It was announced at the last minute and we had no plan in place. People just watch the show and then find out I was in it, then maybe sought it out because of me. I have no idea.”

Have you worked on the soundtrack of the next season at all?

“There hasn’t been a conversation about that yet. They’re still working. I should be tight-lipped about it.”

That’s the beauty of the show. You don’t really need to explain anything when a lot of the charm lies in its ambiguity.

“Yeah, I think all the ‘what ifs’ and having had so many people dissect the scenes of the first season – it’s great. My sisters have been texting me like ‘is this true? Is this possible?’ I’m like ‘I don’t know’. I think they relish in keeping the actors in mystery so we don’t ask the same questions. It’s thrilling to be part of a production where you never know what’s going to happen next.”

Do you have any more extra-curricular plans outside of music now, or are you just focussed on the new record?

“I’m going back to school again this Fall. It’s a long-term plan but I’m hoping that by the age of 50, I’ll have a degree in mental health counselling. I’m only a sophomore.”

Sharon Van Etten, live

What made you choose that path in helping people with mental health issues?

“It was a combination of a lot of things. I think about my teenage years when I first moved from home. I moved to a place where I didn’t know anyone. I was completely lost and influenced by anyone. They were some of the hardest years of my life. If I’d have known how to communicate, reach out, and find someone to talk to during that time, then maybe it wouldn’t have been as rough for me. I learned about communication and acknowledging emotion. That seems very natural to me now, but that took finding the right person to talk to.

“Sometimes I’ll meet fans, and they’ll tell me some pretty intense stories about how my music has helped them or what’s been going on in their lives. There’s a part of me that wants to sit down and talk to them longer, even though I know I can’t. I’m also not certified. But I acknowledged that it was an interest and a concern, as well as noticing their age group and what they were growing through. I connected with it because I was in that place before.

“I don’t want to tour forever. I want to have a job outside of music where I’m still communicating and helping people to get in touch with their emotions.”

The first stumbling block for a lot of people is not wanting to seem ‘vulnerable’, despite the fact that these are perfectly normal feelings. Vulnerability is not a weakness. What advice would you give to anyone seeking to overcome that?

“You’re looking to not feel alone. It is seen as a weakness, but then when you reach out you realise that you’re not the only one. More people talk about it more openly now, and that’s continuing to get better. Therapy wasn’t an option when I was growing up. People would sweep things under the rug and never tackle their feelings head on. That’s changing. You need to open those doors.”