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‘The Universe Called My Bluff’: The Brilliant Return of Sharon Van Etten

Sharon Van Etten is no stranger to drama. The L.A-via-Brooklyn indie-rock star has spent her career breaking hearts, turning grief and lust and pain into cathartic beauty. But even by her standards, life has been messy lately. She fell in love with her drummer and had a kid. She moved cross-country to California, just in time for the pandemic. She got Covid. She planned live shows that didn’t happen; she planned a wedding that didn’t happen. As she says with a dry laugh, “The universe called my bluff a little bit.”

But Van Etten has got her songwriting mojo blazing — and a phenomenal new album, We’re Going About This All Wrong, out May 6 from her longtime label, Jagjaguwar. The music is intensely emotional, digging into chaos that’s both personal and cultural. She wrote most of these songs as a scared mom in the pandemic, taking them down to her home studio.

“Every album is a chapter of my life,” Sharon Van Etten says now, Zooming from California, as her dog runs around. “On the last record, Remind Me Tomorrow, I felt like I was in a good place, reflecting on where I was, offering that to others. With this, it’s more, ‘Yeah, this is hard. I don’t have the answers but I’m trying to figure it out. I know you are too.’ More like a collective ‘What the fuck?’”

You can definitely hear that WTF spirit on We’re Going About This All Wrong. It’s full of songs that ask tough questions about how to find beauty in the darkness. As she says of her family, “Suddenly, we find ourselves in lockdown in a house we’re still unpacking. I just found myself at home and figuring out who I was again as a mother, as a partner, as a writer, in the midst of an apocalypse. I definitely had ups and downs with depression and anxiety and drinking and smoking, like many. And I wrote about it.”

Ever since her 2009 debut Because I Was in Love, Van Etten has built up a formidable catalog as one of the most fearless, soul-shredding songwriters on the planet. Last year, hardcore fans including Fiona Apple, Shamir, Lucinda Williams, the National’s Aaron Dessner, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon covered her songs on a 10th-anniversary tribute to her 2010 LP Epic. She also dropped a duet with her friend Angel Olsen — one of the countless artists who’ve grown up idolizing Van Etten as an inspiration. In 2019, Remind Me Tomorrow brought her powerful voice to new fans. Barack Obama put the banger “Seventeen” on his summer playlist.

But she was already looking to hit reset on her life. She says, “All the reasons I moved out to Los Angeles were to slow my roll, focus on the family, and figure out how to diversify my work and go back to school. I was supposed to get married in May 2020.” She and partner-manager Zeke Hutchins moved west — just before the world shut down. “I went on my bachelorette, February of 2020. I remember landing at LAX, coming back from the trip, and saying, ‘There’s no one at the airport. This is kinda weird. This thing might be serious — maybe it’s not like the bird flu.’”

As she adjusted to the pandemic’s early days, these songs came out. “I tend to write from a therapeutic place,” Van Etten says. “Sometimes the only way I can really get through a moment is, I’ll go into a room, I’ll hit ‘record,’ and I’ll get it out.” Many of the new songs were written that way. “I would hit ‘record’ for 10 minutes, but I wouldn’t be able to listen to it that day. I’d listen when I finally had the headspace to revisit it, and acknowledge that I was in a really low place.”

The first songs to come were two of the album’s standouts, “Darkish” and “Far Away.” As she says, “Those two I had written in New York and I just remember thinking they were too morose, too apocalyptic. I thought, ‘This is not the time to release dark songs about the end of the world and dying.’ But all the other songs, they were coping mechanisms. There were times where I’d be so mad at myself, feeling like, ‘I don’t want my son to come out in the backyard and see me sneaking a cigarette, or having a drink in the middle of the day. Who the fuck am I?’”

Like so many musicians, she was planning to spend 2020 on the road. Instead, she spent the year in “forced domesticity,” confronting her fears of mortality, worrying about protecting her child from the outside world. You can hear that in ballads like “Anything.” As she explains, “That one’s the visual of me, when I finally put my son down and I’m clutching a glass of whiskey in bed, just crying.”

Van Etten has always had a wide range of interests. To her surprise, in 2016, she fluked into a major TV role, playing Rachel on Netflix’s sci-fi thriller The OA for two seasons. The next year, she had a star turn in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks revival, singing “Tarifa” at the Bang Bang Bar. She’s also dabbled in stand-up, no surprise given the humor in her songs. “I write a lot of serious stuff, but I love dark comedy. If Christopher Guest could produce my next record, I think it would be appropriate.”

But parenthood made her focus. “My son just turned five,” she says with a laugh. “He had a best friend two doors down — they had walkie-talkies and screamed across the yards. When my neighbor was watering her yard, my son would stand on the trash can, look over the wall, and they’d have conversations.” Her child is a constant presence on the album. “I want him to know I was thinking of him,” she says. “There’s a few hidden messages to my son in there, just reminding him that I tried my best. I hope that when he gets old enough to listen to the songs and read between the lines, that he knows that I did everything I could. But the message is also to people that feel the same way.”

“Times have changed, but I still believe in the idea of an album.”

Another huge theme on the album: the up-and-down roller coaster of coupledom. “Relationships do this a lot,” she says. “We were in a new place, finding our rhythm, and we weren’t connecting. We just had a moment of, ‘We’re supposed to get married in a couple of months, but I feel like there’s something missing right now.’ It’s just about getting over those slumps and working together toward sexy domesticity.”

“Come Back” is a love song for grown-ups, about keeping that connection strong, resisting the temptations of the phone, the laptop, the TV. “I’m still unloading a lot of this, but I think when you’re deeply in love, sometimes it’s scarier because it’s much more real and much more long-term. And in the face of having to think about mortality every day, we started writing our wills, asking, ‘If I die first, what do you want to do? What if we both die?’ We had to talk about these things that were really heavy.”

She also got Covid this past winter. “Just after New Year’s,” she says. “I made it this far, then I got it in January, like most people I know. I was about to go for a week in the studio with my band, to work on the new songs.”

Last year she released a majestic country-rock duet with Angel Olsen, “Like I Used To” — two kindred spirits. “Angel is a major beacon for me,” Van Etten says. “We’ve always been friendly, but the last couple of years, we’ve really been there for each other, connecting as writers and friends. It’s fun to sing with someone who gets what you’re trying to say.”

For We’re Going About This All Wrong, she’s chosen a very unusual rollout tactic — she’s not teasing any of the songs in advance. “Don’t you get tired of that?” she says. “As a fan, you get excited for a new album, then you’ve heard half of it already. It’s like when you see a trailer that gives away the plot of the movie. I’m not trying to reinvent anything — I just miss the anticipation of a record and a release, as a fan.” Her goal is to make it possible for listeners to hear it all at once, if they choose. “Times have changed, but I still believe in the idea of an album, and my label Jag[jaguwar] makes records. So I want to honor that as much as possible. People will listen to it however they want, but I want it to be given a chance to be listened to in its entirety, and having nothing given away.”

As an album geek, she relishes the challenge of pacing a full record. “It’s like sequencing Tetris,” she says. “The jigsaw puzzle of getting each song in the right order. Then I want to shift gears in the second half, especially for the vinyl lover — you know, when you flip a record and go, ‘Whaaat?’”

You can hear that in the one-two punch of “Anything” and “Born,” two of the most gorgeously harrowing ballads she’s ever done, exploring completely different sides of her voice. As she says, ” ‘Born’ was one of those songs where I hit ‘record’ in this mindset, staring out a window, playing piano, and just feeling very isolated and feeling very helpless. Anyone that’s experienced trauma knows that past traumas are triggered by current traumas, and this is a collective trauma we’re all experiencing. It still helps to know you’re not alone in that.”

That’s why her new music feels healing, rather than gloomy. Strange as it seems, “Darkish” is the one she wrote in a cheerful mood. “I remember writing it on a couch, looking out my partner’s window, before we actually moved in together, and just thinking, ‘I’m not depressed today. I think I’m having a good day.’ It was one of those times when you’re trying to stay in the present, because when you look back, that makes you darker.”

It’s ironic that when Van Etten wrote this song in 2019, it seemed too bleak even to share with people. It definitely says something about the state of world that it now sounds positively uplifting. “With ‘Darkish,’ I just wanted everyone to feel the space for a minute, and hear the birds again,” she says. “And remind ourselves of that time when we did hear the birds, and the sky was fucking blue in Los Angeles. So many birds came into our yard just in that first year. Just remember these moments of calm.”

Van Etten breathes deep, thinking of the birds for a moment. “If you’ve gone through depression or anxiety, the most important thing to know is that it’s momentary, and that we just have to get through this time. So I want it to feel hopeful. It’s just dark-ish.”

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