Living in the now
“I think, in general, the older I get the more I try to be calculated with my words. With what’s recorded, forever on the internet,” Sharon Van Etten tells us while discussing her new record We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong. “You know, what’s there for people to quote, or for him to find.” The ‘him’ mentioned is her son, and the record a crystallisation of what it meant to be his parent at a time when she, when no one, could ensure his safety.
As we talk, Van Etten speaks carefully and with intention – not from the media training of a seasoned vet, though she may be, but from an understanding that the words she says have an impact beyond just herself, and beyond just this moment. A feeling of resilience in the face of perceived impending doom drives the record from start to finish, wherein Van Etten finds trauma, both immediate and decades old, meeting up with her in the standstill demanded by a global pandemic.
On We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, Van Etten brings us on a woozy journey of highs and lows, and ultimately, of transcendence. On Anything, a fever pitch of frustration on the front half of the album, Van Etten finds herself indignant, sleep-deprived, and self-medicating while on Born, the accompanying track, Van Etten recalls a painful memory of a tattered and violent relationship.
Allusions to vile relationships are scattered throughout the album, in which desire and destruction seem inexorably linked. Recalling these memories, Van Etten says, “I still get embarrassed about looking back, and how long I stayed. You know, in those relationships… I became this tortured person because of the choices I made in my life; I think life is just a series of coming to terms with the mistakes you’ve made.”
Ultimately, Van Etten faces a sobering if terrifying realisation – a career in music, at least as it’s been, may no longer be serving her. On Home to Me, Van Etten finds herself on her knees and pleading, “I need my job/Please don’t hold that against me/You are my life/ Ooh… Don’t that sting?” This feeling is reflected by the name of the album, which suggests the sudden surge of clarity Van Etten felt while creating the work. The sentiment is also mirrored by the radically different circumstances under which it was created: Van Etten recorded the record by herself in the privacy of her garage studio, playing around with the many instruments she’s acquired over the years. Furthermore, the songs weren’t born with the initial intention of being relentlessly toured, she approached songwriting with a mindset of meditative escapism, a retreat from the domestic and national worries of 2020. “I finally had years of touring equipment all under roof,” she explains. “I was able to take all the instruments out of their cases, spread them out, and just let my mind wander and try all the things I had acquired over the years.”
Conor Hudnut: I was looking over the credits for We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong and was shocked how many instruments you played throughout the record– guitar, organ, drum machine, synths, bass, drums– what influenced you to take on all of those roles?
Sharon Van Etten: During the writing process I learned to use my home studio in LA. I had just finished this garage studio at the top of 2020, and all of a sudden we were all locked in – I say locked in and not locked down – and I finally had years of touring equipment all under one roof. I was able to take all the instruments out of their cases, spread them out, and just let my mind wander and try all the things I’d acquired over the years.
A lot of the instruments I’d only learned how to play minimally. You know, I can play and I can sing, but I’m really more of a singer than a musician. I can dabble a little bit in everything, but what’s inspiring to me is trying new things so I can look at songwriting in a different way. If you play differently musically, you can sing a little differently, and you find that the melodies and the keys all change according to what you’re playing. So, I was finally in a room by myself with all these instruments for about two years. I managed to salvage a lot of the tracks from my studio that I had learned to record in high enough quality, and then we built upon the things that I had started. So instead of taking it to another studio and having them re-record or reimagine it, my front of house engineer Dan Knowles helped me to do rough mixes of what I did myself, and then we built upon that with my band and all my friends, so we could keep it to my world – my little musical bubble in LA.
CH: Was there an instrument you gravitated toward the most?
SVE: Well, my general palette at the skeleton of the record was a drum machine called Sequential Circuit Strumtracks. You can programme a beat, and then it runs over and over again, and I would run that through my guitar pedal chain. Let that run, play piano, and then through the piano mics on my computer I would add delay. So it would still feel like a piano, but it would have a bounce back. That’s kind of how Born started. Piano, drum machine, and acoustic guitar were at the core of it, and as I started fleshing out what these ideas were I started integrating pads and stuff, and then built on that. I also liked the marriage of real instruments with electronics, so people can hear me playing and then there’s this other element that comes in and stiffens it in a different direction.
CH: This album didn’t seem like a departure from the old records to me, but it did seem like a lot of new ideas and elements were introduced– particularly the drum machines. Was it fun to experiment with that?
SVE: Some days were more productive than others. Whenever I enter the studio I’m not like, “This is what I’m writing about, this is going to be a song.” It’s more like you go to work and hope something happens, and if not that’s okay. I never go into the studio knowing what I’m going to write about, and I never know what it’s going to sound like. You kind of just have to let yourself gravitate toward the things you gravitate toward and build on the things you like. I didn’t really have a goal in mind, but I think over the years, from album to album, I’ve learned how to play different things, or learned what they sounded like and how they worked – I learned the role they could play in a song. As you said, I don’t think the record is a departure either, but I do think it’s like building blocks. I’ve taken what I’ve learned previously, and now I’m doing it on my own thanks to everyone who has helped me along the way.
“I was able to take all the instruments out of their cases, spread them out, and just let my mind wander and try all the things I’d acquired over the years.”
CH: One of my favourite songs so far is Home to Me. Could you tell me the story of how that track came together, and how you layered everything? I closed my eyes while listening to it and it was insane.
SVE: Thank you, that song came about early on when I was finding out what the basic palette for the record was. When I first started that one I wanted to embrace the space of it. I liked how that beat was super dry, and that’s why I let the piano have the delay, so the piano is what you hear for most of the beginning, then the vocals and you forget about the beat after a while. I purposefully wanted to ease people into what I knew the record would become heavy on. Obviously when I wrote it I didn’t know that was the role of the song, but as soon as I started figuring out what the sequence was it made total sense that this came second. The opening song builds up and then it’s into this kind of vacuum of dry drum and delayed piano.
I really wanted people to hear the vocals on this one, the lyrics are a meditation. It’s a conversation with myself as much as it is a conversation with my son, and I think every parent to their child, and every child to their parent. It’s a secret message I put in there to my kid, for years from now. Hopefully he’ll know the choices I made had his best interests in mind.
“You have a constant desire to protect your child and keep them safe in a world where we as adults actually don’t feel safe.”
CH: Was this the first record you made as a parent?
SVE: I wrote the last one while pregnant and then recorded it while he was very new. This is my first time writing a record with a kid, and of course, in the midst of an apocalypse – that added to the weight of being a parent. You have a constant desire to protect your child and keep them safe in a world where we as adults actually don’t feel safe. But yes, this was the first one I wrote as a mother.
CH: Do you think being a mother informed your songwriting at all, beyond just lyrically?
SVE: I think in general the older I get the more I try to be careful with my words, and what’s recorded, forever on the internet for people to quote or for my son to find. I think having self-awareness of not being perfect and not knowing everything and allowing myself to be imperfect in the public eye. It’s a type of position I’m still learning how to hone, but yes, definitely. Being a parent informs everything you do, as soon as you’re a parent that’s it, it’s over! Not over, you know what I mean.
CH: Another song that really blew me away was I’ll Try. I had a question about the line “The worldwide intervention on the do not touch.” What were you writing about there?
SVE: I’m talking about “the elite,” and thinking about our former president, and the people that get away with murder while the whole world is on fire, basically. You know, those people. How somehow that one percent can come out unscathed in all of this, while also addressing my internal feelings that I’m not doing as much as I should.
So much came to a head while we were in quarantine, and trying to protect a kid while also trying to be aware and help others, it was this feeling of helplessness. Of wanting to learn more while also feeling completely paralysed. I felt like, comically dry complacency, you know, let’s grab our masks and go march downtown. It turned into such a day-to-day norm, that I feel like we’re still all a bit desensitised. It’s still hard to process what we’ve all been through, and it’s all still happening.
CH: Given everything that’s happened the last several years, do you think it was more difficult than usual to process lyrically?
SVE: It’s also that I’m still educating myself, and I don’t want to say the wrong thing. When I write music it’s to help people, and I try not to be overly political in my music, because it really is about internal trauma, depression, and anxiety. You know, learning how to communicate emotions. But I was processing so much more than just my own issues, I was processing how we connect with the world around us, and what our responsibilities are as citizens. I feel like I’m still processing, which also makes me realise, as I said earlier, that I want to be careful with my words. I try to talk about the things that are in my control and in real life, so I’m not talking about things I don’t really know about. I’m still trying to learn, I’m still trying to help others. I don’t want to regret the things I say.
CH: Is being a public figure ever confusing? I know it’s a big question – is it ever strange to have people looking up to you while you’re still figuring it all out yourself?
SVE: I mean, it’s not confusing. The few people I’ve talked to, you know, fans, who have tried to ask me for advice, I try to remind them that I just don’t have it figured out. And that’s what my songs are about, asking questions and trying to find peace. I’m still trying, I’m still working at it. I think the work is never done, and I still struggle. The last two years were a reminder to myself that I still have so much work to do. I’m way better than I used to be, thank goodness, but I think current traumas brought up past traumas, and it’s been a trigger for a lot of people who have ever experienced something severe in their lives. So, I’m not perfect, surprise surprise, and I will let anyone know that.
CH: What are some useful tools you have for finding peace in your life?
SVE: To focus on the things within your control. What are your surroundings, who is your support group, who do you depend on, who depends on you? Those types of things where you’re like, “This is my world right here, this is who I can call, this is who I can touch.” Whenever I find my brain spiralling I try to slow my thoughts down and do breathing exercises. I also try to be aware of my surrounding, and get into the here and now. I have a saying, and it’s not 100 percent true, but it’s generally true. When I look too far ahead I get anxious, if I look too far back I get depressed, so I have to try to find that middle place of where I am right now. What can I do right now? How can I feel better right now? And that’s my family, my running, and my singing. It’s those things that help me feel better in the immediate without doing something negative.
CH: I’m curious what music you were listening to, or what you were reading, while writing the album?
SVE: It’s funny, I was building this Spotify playlist for a while called Good For You, and originally I was thinking about calling an album that. It was like a comeback for someone but you don’t think of it until it’s too late. Like when someone’s telling you how great their life is, and you’re going through all this shit, then they hang up the phone, and you just wanna yell, “Good for you!”
So I started a playlist in that honour, and let’s see, there’s some Scott Walker, some Roland S. Howard, Cocteau Twins, Joy Division, what else… Some XTC maybe, Durutti Column, those are the things that come to mind, maybe some LIND. It was more of an inspiration, a broad scope of beauty, melodies, noise, darkness and space. I also read a book by Susan Burton. I learned about her through a sociology class I took. I took a few classes online during this time, to chip away at my undergrad. She has a non-profit organisation called A New Way of Life, and we’re going to be working with them with Plus One organisation to raise money during the Wild Hearts tour this summer. She takes formerly incarcerated women and helps them reconnect with their families, get clean, stay clean, and seek therapy. She houses them and helps them clean up their record; she has multiple houses around Los Angeles. I read her memoir about how she started this organisation, it’s really beautiful.
CH: That sounds really moving. Would you be comfortable talking more about why you wanted to take more undergrad classes?
SVE: Yeah, sure! Embarrassingly I still have two more to go before I can actually get into a psychology programme.
CH: Why did you decide to go back and take more classes?
SVE: If I go way back, I had two therapists completely change my life. One when I first moved back home with my parents, in my early twenties with my tail between my legs having become a major fuck-up. They helped me find a therapist and said “You can live with us for a year if you go back to school, get a job, and seek counselling.” My mom was the head of the history department at my high school, and she was best friends with the head of the psychology department there. She got a recommendation for me to see a therapist nearby, and this woman changed my life.
She helped me find the confidence to find the words, and to be real about my experience and what I had been through. She helped me learn how to be around people again, and to identity when I was feeling anxiety, what my triggers are, and what my crutches are. To be able to, you know, just go out into the world, relate to people, and communicate. She gave me that extra push to move to New York in the early 2000s. She said, “You can go out there, try it, and if it doesn’t work out you can go and try something else.” That’s the beauty of life, nothing is irreversible except for death, my mom says the same thing.
There was another therapist I had when I was in New York who helped me identify patterns in my behaviour. I fell in love with people who tended to be projects, who were hard to reach. There was something about that rollercoaster of falling in love, where you’re like “It’s beautiful!” And then it’s a struggle, it’s a constant fight. But when there are glimmers of light it’s totally worth it. I did love these people for real, but you know, it was definitely not an even playing field. I gave so much, but there was so much fighting, and in the meantime there was someone in my life to help me through it. She helped me to ask myself why I was working so hard with these people who just weren’t loving me, and I needed those awakenings. I want to help somebody find the words, and then help them mirror their own words to themself, to be finally able to find the answers on their own terms because you know, whatever other people tell you, you don’t believe them. You need to be able to find it on your own terms.
“There was something about that rollercoaster of falling in love, where you’re like “It’s beautiful!” And then it’s a struggle, it’s a constant fight.”
CH: Do you think your therapist helped you work through those patterns?
SVE: Yeah. I didn’t seek therapy until after the hardest relationship. For me it was being able… I still get embarrassed looking back at how long I stayed in those relationships. About what I allowed myself to be put through, because I was an adult, I should have known better. I have awesome friends and great family, it’s not like I had anything happen to me in life that could have led me there. I became this tortured person because of the choices I made in my life, and I think life is just a series of coming to terms with the mistakes you’ve made.
So when I left the worst relationship, the first therapist helped me to move on, and learn how to deal with my anxiety and the fear of people that came from the abusive relationship. Once I finally got the confidence to move to New York and I felt more like an adult, I needed help admitting to myself the patterns I had falling for people who weren’t available emotionally. I saw it as a challenge, I wanted to fix things, I was a constant fixer. I think anyone that’s experienced trauma knows the feeling of walking on eggshells and you can’t get out. She helped me realise you don’t have to walk on eggshells and you shouldn’t feel that way at home.
CH: I think that will be a powerful message for people to hear. Do you think you would be interested in becoming a therapist?
SVE: Absolutely! I’m 41 now and my goal is to have some kind of degree or certification by the time I’m 50. I’ve been chipping away so I can get to the fun stuff, and not overload. I still write, and momming is pretty full-on, so if I can just do a few classes every couple of years, then maybe when I have a lot of time off I’ll take more of the heavy classes and dig in. Someone just scared me, they said because of my name can I even be a therapist? I was like, what can I do about that? Can I take a fake name?
Sharon Van Etten’s new album We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong is out now.
Find dates for her upcoming EU, UK and US tour here.