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Sharon Van Etten on Her New Album, Upcoming Tour With Angel Olsen and Julien Baker and the Joy of Collaboration

Van Etten says she can't wait "to share a whole tour with people that I've admired for a long time"

sharon van etten interview
Sharon Van Etten, photo by Michael Schmelling/Illustration by Steven Fiche
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    Sharon Van Etten’s enchanting new album We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong is her most fulfilling and ambitious work yet: across ten tracks, the lauded singer and songwriter cycles through one dazzling moment after another, reflecting on parenthood, partnership, and the existential apocalypse that we find ourselves in. But for Van Etten, ever the humble artist, she’s already focused on what’s coming next.

    Following a record release show at the intimate Union Pool in New York City — which was Sharon Van Etten’s hometown venue for many, many years — she’ll head out on The Wild Hearts Tour, a sprawling North American trek with her fellow indie superstars, Julien Baker and Angel Olsen (get tickets here). Chatting with Consequence over the phone about the tour, Van Etten couldn’t be more excited: “Just getting to see my favorite musicians play every night… to be able to share a whole tour with people that I’ve admired for a long time, I can just be a fan and catch the whole set.”

    Rest assured, Sharon Van Etten is still basking in the glow of a new album, and is certainly happy with how it all turned out. We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong features not just brilliant songs, but unforgettable individual moments from Van Etten, whether that’s the soaring vocals on “Born” and “Home To Me” or the vibrant indie pop of “Mistakes” and “I’ll Try.”

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    According to Van Etten, the process was very fluid and intuitive to her. “When I write melodies most of the time, it’s not a conscious decision,” she explains, claiming that she finds herself becoming “possessed by the moment” when crafting these songs.

    That sense of being truly present is unavoidable on We’ve Been…, and it’s clear that Van Etten was operating at a maximum level of attentiveness. “I always pay attention to the sequencing, and the change in keys, and the moods, and the tempo, and key signatures,” she tells Consequence. “I’m constantly thinking about how to tug at people, and push them, pull them, or keep them in an emotional state.”

    The impetus to curate a comprehensive album experience led Sharon Van Etten to release We’ve Been… in full, without releasing any singles from the LP beforehand. “I still believe in the concept of the album,” says Van Etten. “I miss the anticipation of a release coming out and not having any idea what it sounds like, and just running to the record store and wanting to get it at soon as you can, and sharing it with your friends.”

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    These ideas of community are a huge part of both the new album and Sharon Van Etten as a whole — she’s a frequent collaborator and lover of new music, taking the time to share all the new artists and songwriters that have been inspiring her lately. But above all, Van Etten carries an air of gratitude and enthusiasm, and We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong is her most passionate statement yet.

    Below, Van Etten digs into the album, the upcoming Wild Hearts tour, her favorite new artists, and more.


    It’s been a little over a week since the release of We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong. Has the buzz worn off? Does it ever?

    I’m excited, because in tandem with receiving reviews and having friends and family reach out, I’m also preparing to tour, so thinking about the album in a lot of contexts also helps me think outside of the box. That excitement is still glimmering. I think for most artists, the build-up is the release, and then you ride it through the touring, and then once the touring is done, you need a minute to reset. And then you start thinking about what’s next, I think. Anyone that’s a creative, no matter what field, I think you’re constantly thinking about what’s the next thing, you know, and as soon as you start making something new, that draws your attention to that space.

    You planned to have the album come out in full, without any singles preceding it. What was the reasoning behind that?

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    Well, after I made the album, I realized that this one, in particular, I paid a lot of attention. I mean, I always pay attention to the sequencing, the change in keys, and the moods, the tempo, and key signatures. I’m constantly thinking about how to tug at people, and push them, and pull them, or keep them in an emotional state, and I felt this album was meant to be received in its entirety and listened to front to back as a statement. I’m not a single[s]-driven artist, and I respect those that are and it’s a different kind of art form, but I… I still believe in the concept of the album.

    I miss the anticipation of a release coming out and not having any idea what it sounds like and just running to the record store and wanting to get it at soon as you can, and sharing it with your friends. But also I feel like with how the natural rollout is, people release two, three, sometimes four songs ahead of the record, and you feel like you’ve heard the record already.

    And I know that’s part of it, but it’s like when you see the movie trailer to the movie and you’ve felt like you already got the whole thing. However people engage with music, I wanted to give them permission to listen to it in that way. For people that casually listen and they just find your summer tune or they don’t think about those types of connections, then they can listen to it by accident, or whatever. There are different ways of listening, and I felt like this was a whole moment in time that I was trying to capture and one song wasn’t going to encapsulate that.

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    Going into more specific moments on the album, I really enjoyed the indie-pop direction of “Mistakes.” What were some of the sonic inspirations on that track, and why did you put it second-to-last on the album?

    Sonically, the song to me felt like old New York — like The Bee Gees, Blondie, The Stooges and such. I liked the setting and that palate with a song that’s a bit more lighthearted, you know? The origin of that story is dancing with my son in my apartment in a living room during quarantine and realizing that I didn’t care that I had kind of let my guard down. And I know it’s like, “Oh well, you’re just around your family, so who cares?”

    But I’m such a bad dancer, and I am usually overly apologetic about everything. So it was kind of nice to have this one perspective of… I let my guard down, I can just dance and not care, and it’s really about the moment and the people that you’re with and connecting with them in this innocent moment.

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    The lyrics kind of drew from there, just about loving who you’re with and focusing on those relationships to be able to let go and really be yourself, and try to be less concerned about the other people around you that you may not know. At that point on the record, I know it’s an intense record, an emotional record, it goes to some dark places, hopefully, some relatable place, but I felt like it was at the point of the record where people needed a break. So that’s why I put “Mistakes” second-to-last.

    Another beautiful moment comes at the end of “Born,” where your vocals truly soar. Did you get a sense of how awe-inducing it was when you recorded it? Or was it only until afterwards in post-production?

    Honestly, I was just like, “Oh my God, someone’s going to have to listen to this in an isolated dry vocal and it’s gonna be really insane,” like, “Please don’t, maybe you shouldn’t release that!” But when I write melodies most of the time, it’s not a conscious decision. I was sitting at a piano, just going through my own shit, and thinking about an incident with a friend where you just have those fights, or when you have growing pains in friendships, or work, or whatever it might be, and you look back and you’re like, “How could I have done that better?”

    So I was thinking about this one instance, but then as I’m thinking, and singing, and playing very minimal piano, looking out the window, it intensified, and the lens went from the micro feelings to the macro of “what can I do better?” It’s in your friendships, it’s in your families, it’s in your work, it’s in your life, it’s in your community, it’s in your world, and I just spiraled. That’s what I did, I was spiraling, and going out into the atmosphere and looking down, and my vocal kind of followed that intensity, and I didn’t know until I was really listening back.

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    But sometimes you just have to follow it, and that’s one of the few songs that I kind of wrote in one sitting. Before I knew what the arrangement was going to be, the skeleton was a drum machine that was super dry and a piano, and it was one of those instances where I felt very possessed by the moment, and I just rode it out.

    What was the process like of recording and completing this album? What was the timeline?

    My family and I moved to Los Angeles in September of 2019, and we finished building the studio in January of 2020.

    Wow. Right in time!

    Yeah, it was very… ups and downs, productive and stagnant. You know, I think everyone had similar ebbs and flows. But when I was able to find the emotional space for it, I was able to write and record. I think that anyone that’s creative, you find those moments, you do it, and you don’t always know what it’s for all the time. But I tend to write in moments of time and the album usually represents the past few years of what I lived and what I experienced and as I’m realizing I have about twenty songs that I made, it was over the course of 2021 into 2022.

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    And as I’m looking at what the thread is between all of these experiences (and it’s obvious that the umbrella is COVID), and our own stories and all the things that were happening and the emotional turmoil that we felt internally, the struggle of having to behave and how to act in a domestic and global way when you’re really in this bubble… how can you do anything?

    So it actually made me think about two songs that I pulled that I hadn’t finished yet before I moved to LA. As I was thinking about what the thread was when I first wrote them, I thought that they were too dark and apocalyptic-sounding, and those were “Darkish” and “Far Away.” Because “Darkish” is about the end of the world, and “Far Away” is about dying and, you know, I was never in [that] place. But the newer songs finally made sense in the context of the songs that I wrote a couple years prior. And they’re actually kind of the lighter ones in context now. Which is funny, that those were the two that I wrote beforehand, because everything else came during the height of all the pandemic.

    You’ve done a lot of great collaborations with artists like Local Natives and Deep Sea Diver. Who would you like to work with next? Do you feel like it’s in your nature to collaborate, or are you much more focused individually?

    I love Deep Sea Diver and Local Natives. They were very easy to work with and very gracious, and I would do that again in a heartbeat! I feel like as an adult, I’m still learning how to collaborate, but I do enjoy it when we have the right person and it’s the right chemistry.

    It also took me years before I found a band like I have now, so now I want to write with my band! I’ve never really done that before. My band always changes iterations, depending on their side projects and how much time I have off in between, and I can’t afford to keep people on retainer, so people come and go at their own lives and their own work. I’ve finally found this band that I just want to write with all the time, record with all the time. I want to learn how to jam and let go in a room because I tend to write by myself and throw ideas to the wall without fearing judgment.

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    And when we were doing pre-production for touring the record, the band and I went into a studio in Joshua Tree and we just put a workshop of songs and how we were going to do them live, and it was such a wonderful experience being able to talk through things creatively and try new ways of exploring the songs that already exist, because from an album to a live space, you can totally redefine a song.

    When we had leftover time in the day, we would just play, and I would just sing. And, you know, it opened up this paradigm musically where I realized that this is the part where I need to explore, to grow as a collaborator. So that’s one of the things that I definitely want to do, just write with my band. And I do want to make more music with Angel [Olsen]. I had such a good time doing that one song [“Like I Used To”] and so we’re trying to figure out if that’s possible with our schedules.

    I love Cat Power, I love PJ Harvey, I love Warren Ellis — I would love to collaborate with him sometime. There’s Beth Gibbons; I’m a huge fan of her work and her whole band, and Geoff Barrow, who is in his own right, outside of Portishead, is such an amazing drummer and producer. There’s a lot that I’m still interested in, whether it be writing with other people, or collaborating on something new, or coming in as a singer for somebody else. I’m down for all of it.

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    What other artists and songwriters have been inspiring you lately?

    I just heard the new Ethel Cain. And I’m opening up to ideas that are like, “What is pop music?” You know, and it’s so dark for that world, especially the opening track, it’s almost like this goth universe that she’s like climbing out of to create something that people can connect with on a broader scale, but still very personal. That’s something that I just heard recently that I’m still trying to wrap my head around, but I think it’s really, really amazing.

    And I guess he’s not a new artist, but Kevin Morby. The new record is so good, and it’s comforting when you see people who are still going for it when it’s so hard right now. He’s a peer as well as someone I’ve admired for a long time. I like Skullcrusher, I think her songs are really beautiful. We also have a friend who moved from North Carolina to LA just before the pandemic, her name is Adriana McCassim. She’s a wonderful songwriter, too, and has this really beautiful dark, smoky voice, and really writes passionate songs that are about connection and love, and they’re really romantic and beautiful.

    The new Madi Diaz record is really thoughtful and profound. I’m still catching up on new stuff, because the past couple of years I’ve kind of gone to my comfort zones and songs that probably inspire the record. I’m still learning how to seek again. I don’t even know where to begin!

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    You just played an intimate record release show at Union Pool in NYC. What was it like formulating those new songs for such a small space, as opposed to a festival or amphitheater set?

    Honestly, it’s my preference to play smaller venues where I can actually see who I’m connecting with as a whole. I miss the intimacy of those shows and, I think after two years of not touring, I was seeking that connection again. And I wanted to give that to people also.

    It’s also an emotional thing for me because Union Pool was one of the handfuls of venues that I came up in that every time I went, everyone was always so sweet, and I saw so many shows in that back room and it’s an institution in that neighborhood. It’s been there forever and it’s pretty much run by music lovers and musicians and they’ve helped create a beautiful community that was one of the foundations of early Williamsburg. And it still remains relevant and full of heart and spirit and the love of music. So, that meant a lot to me. But, you know, it’s intense, it’s a small room too, so I didn’t even invite a lot of people because I wanted fans to be able to get in the door as well. But yeah, I wish I could do my whole tour like that!

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    Finally, you’re about to embark on The Wild Hearts Tour with Julien Baker and Angel Olsen. What are you looking forward to the most?

    I mean, just getting to see my favorite musicians play every night… I think that’s one thing as a touring band, you see all these bands that you love and you’re touring simultaneously, but because you’re performing, you miss them. If you’re lucky, you can catch some of their set at a festival, but for the most part, your shifts in the night and you’re high-fiving and leaving notes at clubs and finding things like that, but to be able to share a whole tour with people that I’ve admired for a long time, I can just be a fan, I can catch a whole set!

    We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong Artwork:

    sharon van etten we've been going about this all wrong album cover artwork review

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