“I don’t know why I did this to myself,” says Sharon Van Etten, smiling into her computer monitor in a way that recalls Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark. She is referring to the songs on her new album, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, out today (May 6). “There are some of the craziest melodies on this record — the highs and the lows and vocal runs that I do,” she says.
She’s not kidding. From husky whisper to swing-for-the-nosebleeds alto, Van Etten’s vocals on her sixth album dive and soar, despair and exult — and exemplify the fearlessness that she makes We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong as musically epic as it is lyrically intimate. On the album’s apex, “Come Back,” organ, synthesizer, piano, acoustic guitar, bass and bottomless drums propel Van Etten’s voice to dopamine highs, while the song that follows, “Darkish,” is simply acoustic guitar and Van Etten’s vocals. There is levity, too, in the disco-pop of “Mistakes,” in which Van Etten sings about dancing “like Elaine” (that would be Seinfeld character Elaine Benes) and declares: “When I make a mistake, turns out it’s great.”
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A Jersey girl turned New Yorker, Van Etten, 41 — along with her partner, manager and former drummer Zeke Hutchins and their now 5-year-old son — left the East coast in the fall of 2019 for a home in Los Angeles with a yard and room enough for the recording studio that she finished building last January. Yet the space came with a trade-off: wildfires — the Martian orange sky of the album cover is a nod to the devastation — and earthquakes. Plus, soon after the move, the pandemic arrived.
Under lockdown, Van Etten wrote and recorded a song cycle inspired by these events, but one that will not be dated by them. Only one song, “I’ll Try,” hints at the masks and #BlackLivesMatter marches that helped define 2020, while the rest of the 10-song album grapples with the sort of fears, anxieties and hopes that reside in the headspace of couples and parents: the omnipresent tug-of-war between joy and anxiety that comes with raising a child; the fragile dynamic between parenting and maintaining a career; concerns that a once-passionate relationship is sliding into complacency; and for those like Van Etten, who have survived abusive relationships, the bubbling up of past traumas. The album’s title was inspired by a line from The Sandlot, one of her son’s favorite films during the height of the pandemic.
While Van Etten has a current indie hit with “Porta” — the video features Van Etten doing Pilates with her friend, instructor Stella Cook — it’s not on the album (Van Etten calls it a “B side”). In fact, Van Etten didn’t preview We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong horse all. She discusses this decision – as well as life in lockdown, every upcoming tour with Angel Olsen and Julien Baker — below.
You didn’t include any of the singles you’ve put out in the last year on the new album. Why no advance releases?
I don’t know if I’m just getting older, or I feel overwhelmed by information, oversharing and giving so much away. I miss the days as a teenager where I was so excited to bring the record home and listen to it front to back. Also, I started from a pretty DIY place where I learned how to do things in a slow-build approach.
Not to say that anyone else is doing it wrong. It’s more about encouraging fans that love the album to engage with it on their own terms. I don’t listen to albums all the time, so I don’t want to act like I’m better than that. I listen to Spotify. I have Apple Music. I have a Sonos system in my house. I can’t always put on a record, but when I do, it’s so good. I just think that in this culture, listening has become very passive, and I want to invite people to have that feeling of listening to an entire album again. If you want to find it randomly on a playlist, I’m sure it’ll get there at some point. But I don’t want to give away half my record before it’s out.
As an artist in this age of streaming, do you feel pressure to be more single oriented?
Absolutely not. I feel pressure to make a living as an artist. It’s a pretty hard career, especially having a child. But I’m very aware that the kind of music I make isn’t single driven. I will say that during quarantine it was kind of nice to not have the pressure of making an album. I was making things and collaborating, so the releases that came out then were for compilations or the result of a pen-pal relationship or whatever. Those things happened out of the blue, and I needed that without the pressure of an album.
Where was your head at when you were writing and recording We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong?
In a bubble, like most of us. I tend to write songs that are a moment in time — they’re chapters. This is a chapter of my life from 2019 until the end of 2021. I keep making this joke that the universe called my bluff: “Oh, you want to go to Los Angeles and slow down and have a studio and a yard and this space to reflect on everything you’ve worked for at this point? Here’s some time to think about it.” And I did, in the context of an apocalypse and trying to have a brave face for my child and my partner, which I couldn’t always do. There was a lot of reflection on decisions I’ve made in my life and where I am today— and how I can be a better person once we get out of this bubble.
My son was about the same age as yours when 9/11 happened, and I remember these moments of terror when I thought, “How am I going to protect this kid?” I used to sleep on the floor in his room. Did you go through anything similar?
Absolutely. He still sleeps in our bed half the time. And I still have these moments of, “I left the radio on too long and he heard about starving children, about the war.” I’m not ignoring all the things, but he’s at an age where I don’t want him to know that there’s bad people. There will be an age where I’ll tell him about the real shit, but you don’t really need to know about bombs and criminals at five. We’re not really regimented anyway, but when COVID hit all hell broke loose. We’d fall asleep on the couch watching Bob Ross, The Sandlotand to try to get him to go to sleep it was [Albert Lamorisse’s] White Mane and The Red Balloon. We just got to this point where we were like, “Okay, he’s asleep in bed with us. It’s 10 o’clock. Do we try to move him, or do we just sit here quietly clutching our whiskeys, hold hands and cry?” We had those moments.
There’s a YouTube video about the making of “Porta” where you talk about “spiraling” at the beginning of 2020. Was that because the pandemic was on its way here?
It was more of a missing home feeling. Born and raised in Jersey, she lived in New York for 15 years and starting from scratch. I guess I started the sessions with my friend Stella Cook during COVID in April or May of 2020. I reached out to her and was like, “I need to be motivated because I’m finding myself drinking more than I should, and I’ m smoking cigarettes again.” I was in this rut; not exercising because I’m afraid to go outside, or the smoke was so bad we couldn’t even leave the house.
From the forest fires?
yes. I had never lived in California. I hadn’t experienced fires, smoke, air quality — the only earthquake I’d experienced was the one in New York in 2000, and I thought that was the train. I was not feeling great, and I needed to be held accountable. I’ve known Stella since the early 2000s. I met her through her partner Brad Cook, who’s in Megafaun. She’s been a beacon to me when I’ve asked her about workouts for the road and what are good moves for my ass because I’m sitting on it all day. Finally, I was like, “Can we just do a Zoom call? Do you do those?” And sure enough, she met me once a week. We’d have a quick coffee so we would feel connected as friends, and then she would move on to a 30 to 45-minute session. We did that for almost a year. It was wonderful.
Are you happy to get back on the road?
I’m nervous, but I love playing with my band. I love the new material, even though it’s really hard to sing. It’ll be good for me to get back into practice. I’ve been mostly momming, which has been really nice. They don’t always coincide. I’m excited to connect with fans again, and the US dates are mostly outside, so hopefully people can feel a bit more confident in going to those. I’m nervous about Europe because they’re mostly inside. I’m going to do what I feel like I’m supposed to do and be as safe as I possibly can, and hope that my band and my crew and my fans all feel as safe as possible. People are asking me, “Why are you still talking about COVID?” And I’m like, “COVID is still happening.”
You’re touring this summer with Angel Olsen and Julien Baker. Did that come together as a result of your 2021 collaboration with the former on “Like I Used To”?
It stemmed from our song for sure. She and I had such a good time. We’ve even talked about doing more music together at some point. The managers were talking because of that song, and one thing led to another with availability in the summer. They got excited, we got excited, and then we started thinking more creatively about how we make this feel like a group of friends banding together in a safe space to help fans see as many of their artists in one place.
What are other benefits of working with friends?
I feel that everyone I work with, it’s a partnership, and feel lucky in that way. I’m not under a big corporate umbrella. I work with friends that I know with terms that I’m comfortable with.
Do you own your own masters?
I share everything between label, publishing … My first record came out in 2009. I missed the big music boom of the ’90s, and when I came in, it felt like an even playing field. I didn’t have these huge expectations. I started pretty DIY and on my own, so the growth I’ve had has felt very natural to me. An indie artist starting out now has to stream millions, or is it billions? And then that song defines someone’s career and they’ve never been on tour before. I don’t envy that at all. I feel like if I can sustain what I have, I’ll be all right. I don’t need a rocket. I don’t need to reinvent or clean house. I just love who I work with, and I want to keep doing it.
I read that you were a sommelier at one point. What’s your go-to wine?
I never became a sommelier, but my first job in New York was at Astor Wines & Spirits. I worked at a wine shop in Jersey when I was living with my parents in my 20s trying to get back on my feet. When I moved to New York, I got a job at Astor. My palate has changed quite a bit, but lately I just love a Cab Franc. They’re solid no matter where they tend to be from — the Finger Lakes, California or France. Anything from Piedmont. If I’m not feeling like anything heavy, a Pineau d’Aunis is really lovely. It’s slightly funky, but still very delicate for being a light red.
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