On a weekday morning late last month, Sharon Van Etten is sitting in her Brooklyn apartment, inadvertently listening to free jazz on public radio, and trying as best she can to enjoy the restless interlude between the release of a new album and the start of a tour in support of it.
“I forgot that part,” she says. “Right up to when the album is out and then the part right up until tour, you’re just kind of like anxiously and emotionally vulnerable, and just waiting at the same time.”
Presumably some of the singer-songwriter’s anxiety was assuaged by the praise that’s been showered on Remind Me Tomorrow, her first new full-length release since 2014’s Are We There—and that’s not to mention glowing profiles in the New Yorker and the L.A. Times. Produced by John Congleton (who also produced St. Vincent’s self-titled—and Grammy-winning—2014 record), Remind Me Tomorrow is a sonic departure for Van Etten, driven by synth and drums versus previous output driven by guitar. But it makes sense for an artist in the throes of change. In the past couple of years, Van Etten became a mom, took on some acting gigs—including a role on Netflix’s The OA—and re-enrolled in school to eventually become a therapist.
Her March 1 show at the Theatre at Ace Hotel is sold out, but the city will be seeing more of Van Etten soon—she, her partner, and their son are moving to Los Angeles in the fall, after tour wraps up. We talked to Van Etten about the big move, dipping her toe into stand-up comedy on an L.A. stage, and the creative nature of therapy.
What made it feel like L.A. was the right fit for you at this point?
Sharon Van Etten: Well I never had spent a long period of time there before because I’m just passing through and it’s always in Hollywood on tour. At max, I’m usually there 48 hours. So I don’t think I was ever really ready to receive it and I wasn’t at a place in my life where I could take my time to explore. So now I’m in a totally different place in my life. I’m ready to slow down and take my time and set my day with intention and explore other facets of the creative world. And allow ourselves as a family to spread out and make a home. We have a really beautiful apartment in Brooklyn but it’s a one bedroom and our baby sleeps in our walk-in closet.
Oh my God, that’s cute.
Yeah, it’s really cute right now but it’s harder for our kid to sleep when he knows we’re right there. And his toys are overflowing, just…you know, whatever, just normal stuff like domestic things. But I would love for my boy to have a room, you know.
Yeah, it seems like a reasonable desire.
That’s the fun part. And, you know, that’s just one of the many reasons it feels like the right thing to do as a family and also for my career. My partner is in artist management and he has the opportunity to start up his own office through the company on the West Coast. So it’s a lot of reasons.
Will you be pursuing more acting once you’re out here?
I want to learn more about the acting world. I think I still have to educate myself and to learn different processes and do a lot more improv work just so I can react to a scene in a more natural way. But I’m really interested in the writing process and hopefully being in a writer’s room one day and collaborating on something that’s down to earth but funny.
Did you take improv classes?
I did. I took a Groundling’s class with my babysitter that was really fun. So I think that most of my babysitters are in comedy and writing and media of some kind. I think I would do that also if I didn’t have a family. But one of my babysitters encouraged me to do stand-up. She put together a variety show and I nervously read from four typed-out pages; everyday things that I thought were funny. I am no comedian by any means. But I know that I’m interested in writing. And sharing of our funny transitions in life, I guess. I’ve become a mother, but I’m still fighting that kid in me, you know? It’s kind of funny.
“I’ve become a mother, but I’m still fighting that kid in me, you know?”
What’s some of your favorite L.A. stuff so far?
Well let’s see. I got to explore the Eastside a lot which was really fun. And being in a residential area and just to drive up crazy hills and taking a turn and not realizing that all of a sudden you’re on a mountain. But the views are incredible. And for Valentine’s Day my partner took me horseback riding in Griffith Park. That was pretty amazing. I just think the overall mindset is something that I need right now. Just when I’m connecting with people. It’s just no one’s in a rush. No one seems stressed out and everyone just wants to take you under their wing and show you their community which I just…I think the longer I live in New York, the more cut off I feel for some reason.
Yeah, I think it’s a misconception about L.A., that people aren’t…
Welcoming? Yeah. I know people are like “Oh, you’re from New York so you hate it here.” I’m like, “I’m not a hater.” I wasn’t ready at a certain point in my life to think about it. Because I was go, go, go, go, go, driven, career, touring. I couldn’t…I just needed a place to put my shit…And I wanted to be around people that were driven and going places and I wanted to be doing what they were doing. And now I’m doing all those things and now I want to have roots. It just feels like the time.
And now you can have a larger space to put your stuff!
I think so. Emotional space to settle. Now I can have a studio where I live and that alone is worth it for me to be able to invest in a space that is mine.
So you’re going to be touring for the first time in a while, right? It’s the first time since you had your son, right?
I feel….I’m a little nervous about it. I think your threshold for missing someone in general, it changes depending on the day, the tour, what you are going through personally. So I know it’s going to be a learning curve for me. But I’m going to have a partner who is helping me figure it out. And, thank goodness, our kid loves his daycare because I also…it won’t make me feel so selfish leaving all the time because he has his friends and he has a lot of fun there. And he’s learning a lot there. I don’t want him around adults all the time.
Yeah. That makes sense.
But I want him to travel and see the world and see what I do. But we’re just gonna figure [it] out. We’re going to have to figure out the balance and what works for us, because we’re both working parents.
Do you feel like becoming a mom has changed your creative process at all?
Well, I think it helps me prioritize things in a different way where my writing still kinda comes and goes according to when I just need to get it out. But I think I have to be a bit more controlled when I do that. My son loves…you might just hear him singing along to some demos and my voice memos on my phone more or a couple off notes on my piano when he is dueting with me or whatever. But I still find that drive to just, even when it’s just for myself, to still write. Nine times out of ten it won’t ever see the light of day, but it’s just something that I need to do. And it’s something my son will grow up seeing for sure.
And you’re going back to school, which I know you’ve probably been talking about to a lot of people, but how did music lead you to psychology?
Well, you know it’s kind of been an ongoing interest in my life. It started in high school. I took a class, which I really loved. My mom was a history teacher and her best friend to date is a psychology teacher. They are both now retired. She has played a recurring role in my life because when I moved back home with my parents there was a really a tough transition and she recommended me to my first therapist in my 20s when I first moved back home to figure out my life. And that was one of the people that helped encourage me to move to New York to pursue music as a real thing. So then later I moved to New York worked at a label, Ba Da Bing Records, and Ben Goldberg at Ba Da Bing Records helped encourage me to find a therapist, too, because he just thinks it’s important.
From there, I had the courage to pursue my music, and then through that I met fans along the way who told me how my music has helped them, how it’s affected them. But more importantly, at the merch table after shows I started hearing stories from people about what they actually went through and I had these pangs of wanting to know more. I had to be a little careful about the gray area of the territory of getting to know a fan. I know I’m supposed to be safe about it because you just don’t know. But there’s so many people I just wish I could call and check in and see how they’re doing and give them advice which I don’t have…they’re not my friends, they’re not clients. But I care about them. And it’s something I’m interested in. And I just paid attention to that. And, like, in my heart I just felt it all the time. And I started feeling badly but not just because I couldn’t help them beyond my music but because I just wanted to know more.
I applied to Brooklyn College in 2015 and started getting to know the head of the psychology department there, who kinda took me under his wing and started advising me and was really a positive guiding light in that scary re-entrance into school. I’m only a sophomore right now. I never got my undergrad. So I’m starting from scratch and still taking general studies, basic psychology classes, but there’s a program there called mental health counseling that I was interested in and working towards and now I just have to figure out how that translates to Los Angeles. I probably won’t be able to go back to school this year with my touring schedule. But I will go back to school in 2020. I’m giving myself until the age of 50 to have my certification.
It’s nice to just give yourself time and not put a bunch of pressure on it.
Yeah. I think being realistic while still giving yourself a goal. I think, you know, I need goals but within reason in my life, because I know I’m just all over the place, so I’m going to be gentle.
It actually seems to me like being a little older is more conducive to academic success than being 18…
Oh, yeah. I went for a year [out of high school] and I had convinced myself I wasn’t ready. [Back then] Because you are going to school for a lot of different reasons. One because you just want to get out of the house. Because you want to meet people and party. But now I’ve made the joke, “I’m not here to make friends.” I mean, there are really amazing people there, but I was definitely older than most students. I asked questions a lot and I took notes and brought a text book which kids just don’t do anymore. I’m like “Seriously, I don’t know how to do this. Am I being weird?” I was definitely looked at as the nerd in class.
I think a lot of creative people kind of struggle to decide what’s next in their life especially if that thing isn’t necessarily overtly creative. But do you feel like psychology can be creative for you?
Absolutely. Even if it’s just helping somebody else find their outlet. I mean if I hadn’t discovered that writing and singing were cathartic for me I don’t know if I’d be here today. I need that for myself for therapy whether or not I had a career. That doesn’t matter. I started writing when I was a teenager not knowing it was for anything and it saved me.
I think people just don’t realize that when they are going through something that they can’t communicate, they feel alone, they feel isolated, and they have no way to share that with anyone. Or feel understood. And I think just giving yourself that freedom to explore what your outlet is, I think, is just not talked about a lot.