Seeking Light: Sharon Van Etten interview
We speak to Sharon Van Etten about her latest album Remind Me Tomorrow, the importance of writing about attainable happiness and her aspirations to one day become a counsellor
With August upon us, everything seems to be happening at once. The tourist season fully in swing, and Edinburgh's streets enlivened with fresh faces from around the world; it’s one of the most exciting times of the year. Yet it’s also a month of odd uncertainty, with one foot stuck in summer and the other edging towards the golden leaves of autumn. This grey zone is a fitting backdrop for the chiaroscuro of Sharon Van Etten’s latest album, Remind Me Tomorrow. Released in January (another month of transition) it marks a shift in tone from the melancholy of 2014's Are We There. There’s still the same shades of sorrow, but there’s also a defiant will to thrive and survive, despite the dark weight of the past.
Picking up the phone with a gravelly "Hey, it’s Sharon," Van Etten is drinking coffee out on the deck of her family beach house in the States. It’s clearly a rare moment of respite from an inordinately busy few years which have seen her further her musical career while balancing tour obligations, becoming a mother, acting in sci-fi television series The OA and even finding time to score Katherine Dieckmann’s 2016 drama Strange Weather. Amongst all this, she’s returned to her studies. "In between all the touring and mom-ing, I’m pursuing a degree," she tells us. "I never got a degree out of high school so it will be a very long-term goal of mine. I’m only in my second year of school and I think I need about six years of school for it but I’m interested in counselling."
Given that so many of her songs, particularly those off earlier albums, sound like a form of emotional processing, these career aspirations make sense. She explains that her discovery of the catharsis that music-making can provide, and the opportunities she’s gained to connect with her fans over the years, has led to an interest in the ways that her words might be able to help people. "Over the years I’ve discovered how healing writing music has been for me and through pursuing a career in music I’ve seen first hand how it’s helped fans.
"The music I make and what I write about, as well as my story, feels relatable to a lot of people," she continues. "I’ve realised that I want to see more intimately how I can help people and learn about why people have a hard time communicating their emotions in a way where someone else’s words can give them solace. I’m still figuring out what side of psychology I want to come in on but I know I want it to be a one-on-one counselling situation so that I can develop a relationship with somebody."
While her career has allowed her to help and connect with individuals that follow her music from different parts of the world and walks of life, she’s ultimately looking towards forging more sustained relationships of care with those who need it. "That’s the torture of being on tour, when you meet a fan and you get to talk to them for a while, and I try to engage on social media and have back and forth conversations but I’m not qualified. I do worry about some fans that I meet and I think about them from time to time. It would be nice to be able to check in on some of them sometimes and have an education to help them grow."
Indeed, any career that Van Etten forges within psychology has already begun to lay its foundations in the music she writes, which takes a frank look at some of the inner thought processes that are often brushed under the carpet in vague discussions of mental health. While her lyrics might seem to tap into the specifics of mental health struggles in a way we might not see elsewhere, she’s increasingly focused on helping her words relate to as broad a base of people as possible.
"A lot of the times what I write is to do with my own mental health [but] the way I try to write about it and convert it into mood is through terms anyone can relate to, so I think the things that I write about – whether I’m in the darkness or seeking light, whatever metaphor I use – I try to make sure it feels universal and also attainable. Sometimes when you’re at a low point you don’t feel like you can get out of it but most of the time we do, and sometimes when you’re in it it’s hard to see that. When you’re out of it, hindsight is priceless and you realise it really wasn’t as hard as you thought; to be happy. Things are as simple as they are."
In fact, this move towards relatability is one of the defining changes of Van Etten’s music as she has progressed as an artist, something that will define her process as she continues to grow. "I feel like ever since I realised how powerful lyrics can be beyond my relationship with writing, and how people connect with it in their own way, it's made me realise that I need to take my own experience and write from a more universal and general point of view so that people can connect with it in their own way instead of looking at my songs and being like, 'Oh sorry Sharon, I’m sorry that happened to you'. Instead of thinking about it happening to me they can connect with it personally. That’s still something I’m trying to improve on as I write."
Yet there’s also been a more basic change to her music in recent years, particularly audible on Remind Me Tomorrow, populated less by her signature guitars and piano, but by more electronic synth sounds. As she explains, this was less a conscious decision but more of a natural part of a process that began with the Strange Weather score, particularly as she strived to work in a way that allowed her to experiment creatively while rejecting the kinds of toxic pressures that might take a toll on her mental health. "When I was writing the score for Strange Weather, there would be days where I would hit a roadblock creatively and I would just put the guitar down. For me, I think it’s unhealthy when I’m ramming my head against the wall and I keep trying but I don’t think it’s going anywhere."
Off the cuff experimentation with a Jupiter 4 synthesiser lying around her practice space would ultimately lead to the song of the same name, in turn laying the groundwork for other tracks on Remind Me Tomorrow. It’s this kind of approach, which leaves itself so open to inspiration and experimentation, which gives Van Etten’s music its emotional power. Nothing’s ever forced, with feelings being given the space they need to really take hold on the listener.
For those drawn to Sharon Van Etten for the way that her raw, confessional lyrics give form to their own mental health struggles, Remind Me Tomorrow is a reminder that even if 'happily ever after' is the stuff of fairy tales 'happier ever after' might just be in reach.
Remind Me Tomorrow is out now via Jagjaguwar
Sharon Van Etten plays Edinburgh International Festival, Leith Theatre, 21 Aug