“Those prenatal vitamins, they’re for real,” Sharon Van Etten says with a laugh about how her rippling hair has grown since she went on hiatus in 2015. “I used to have a joke that the happier I am, the more positive place that I’m in, the longer my hair gets. Whenever my hair was short, my friends were all worried about me.”
Of course, hair growth pales next to everything else Van Etten accomplished these past few years. Yes, she gave birth to a boy with her manager Zeke Hutchins. But the Brooklyn singer/songwriter also returned to college for psychology, deferring studies when she landed an acting role on Netflix sci-fi series The OA. She penned the score for Katherine Dieckmann’s film Strange Weather and wrote a song for Tig Notaro’s show Tig. She even tried stand-up comedy for a night.
“I wanted to pay attention to my life for a minute and nurture my relationship and be home for a while and try to expand my knowledge in other ways, to hopefully grow as a person,” Van Etten, 37, says of the break in her indie-folk career. “I feel very lucky that it ended up leaking into my creative world.”
In turn, Van Etten just released her fifth and best album, the sonically divergent Remind Me Tomorrow, with producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Angel Olsen).
“I wasn’t thinking about making a record,” says Van Etten, who plays Royale on Feb. 8. While she was scoring Strange Weather on guitar, she fiddled with other instruments, gravitating to a vintage Jupiter-4 synthesizer owned by actor Michael Cera that she picked up in a rehearsal space they shared. “I was interested in trying something new just to cleanse the palate so I could approach the score with a fresh set of ears,” says Van Etten, who sketched songs from keyboard riffs and drones, added beats and basslines and sang melodies. “Out of all the demos that I sent Congleton, the left-of-center, synth-driven ones were the ones that excited him most.”
Along with demos, Van Etten gave the producer three references for the dark, spectral sound she envisioned: Suicide, Portishead and Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree. “I don’t know how to create the universe,” she says. “I don’t have the production chops to do that, and also, with all the other things going on in my life, I don’t have the mental headspace to figure out the logistics.” Congleton hired several musicians, including Beck drummer Joey Waronker. Van Etten sang live with the studio band and played some keyboards but not guitar.
“I had never felt so understood,” Van Etten says of Congleton’s treatments, which range from trial runs “Memorial Day” (where he wove a vocal loop into a sparse, eerie backdrop) and moody love song “Jupiter 4” to the sludgy synth-rock anthem “Comeback Kid.” They even built a worthy hit in “Seventeen,” inspired by young people in neighborhoods where Van Etten once lived but can’t afford now (one reason she’s moving to LA). “I used to be 17,” she sings, “now you’re just like me.”
“I see my ghost everywhere—I saw that ghost in the girl who just moved to New York and the adult that I’m still becoming,” Van Etten says. “I wish I could go back and hug that 17-year-old girl, but at the same time, I had to make mistakes to become the person I am today. Being a mother now, and knowing that my parents had to see me go through all that, my heart breaks for my son.”
She’s in a far different place than in her late teens, when the New Jersey native left for Tennessee and fell into an abusive relationship, worrying her family and friends. “I have more understanding and forgiveness for those times,” she says. “In some ways, I’m still that same person, and in other ways, I’ve grown so much.”
Partly fueled by conversations with fans, she’s now set another path: to become a mental-health therapist by age 50. “As a teenager, music meant so much to me,” Van Etten says. “One of my goals is to learn how to help people find their outlet.” ◆
Sharon Van Etten plays Royale on Feb. 8.
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