Photo: Ryan Pfluger

Sharon Van Etten Talks TV, Her New Record and Focusing on the Positive

Singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten is many things. The recording artist has scored movies, acted in Netflix hit The OA, returned to school to pursue a psychology degree and navigated motherhood. Her accomplishments are dizzying and her talent is seemingly unending, but the musician is incredibly grounded and open about her creative process and personal life. On her fifth studio album, Van Etten put down the guitar and took to a Jupiter-4 synthesizer to compose 10 stunning songs about falling in love and forgiving yourself. The cover of her record Remind Me Tomorrow – yes, like the software notification update that’s universally postponed on computers and phones across the world – features two children in a sea of toys and play clothes.

The children belong to Van Etten’s friend and collaborator, director Katherine Dieckmann, who showed her the image after she expressed her worries around raising a child and being an artist. Dieckmann presented the photo with a laugh and the sincere encouragement of “You’ll figure it out.”

It’s clear that she not only figured it out but also entered a new era in her personal and professional life that’s responsible for the creation of her best work yet. Van Etten describes the photo as beautiful and liberating – an apt description for the feeling that anchors Remind Me Tomorrow.

On Tap: Your music is making a mark on current TV shows. “Serpents” is featured on The Walking Dead, your The OA character Rachel shares her pipes with viewers and you perform at the famous Roadhouse in Twin Peaks: The Return. How did these opportunities present themselves?
Sharon Van Etten:
“Serpents” connected with the zombie crew. It wasn’t something that I had planned or asked for. Someone made the connection and it was an honor, because that show is pretty epic. As far as The OA, I found out the casting director was in the audience when I was touring for Nick Cave in 2013 and I got asked to audition in 2016. They were looking for a singer because that’s a big part of the role of Rachel. In so many ways, that’s her superpower. In the few acting roles I’ve had, they were looking for a version of myself, which is comforting. For Twin Peaks, it was a similar thing. I think [director] David Lynch’s son [Riley Lynch] is a fan, and he turns his dad on to a lot of music and is also a musician himself. I also have a friend whose role is music and film crossover work who also said a kind word to David. There’s also a stroke of luck somewhere in there.

OT: How did you land on “Tarifa” for the Twin Peaks scene?
SVE:
It was a request! It was like, “Well, David wants ‘Tarifa’ so David gets ‘Tarifa!’” [laughs] It was kind of a no-brainer.

OT: It seems like so many people really connected with The OA and are really excited for the new season. Why do you think that is?
SVE:
I think real people in a sci-fi context is just something people connect with. The cinematography is so visceral, and all the characters have such a different emotive feel that it’s hard to just connect to one character. There’s a lot of care put into that show at every level. I’ve never been part of a production that large and everybody cares so much about all the fine details. It’s fun to watch them unfold.

OT: When did you start working on Remind Me Tomorrow?
SVE:
During the writing of this record, which spanned from 2015 to 2017, I was asked to score a film for Katherine Dieckmann called Strange Weather. A reference she gave me for the film was Ry Cooder’s score for Paris, Texas. It’s really beautiful and ambient – very Southwestern, dreamy guitar, introspective playing. It’s a style that I had to try very hard to give an homage to, but I don’t know how to play that naturally. In moments where I was feeling writers’ block, I put down the guitar and gravitated toward the keys [and] synthesizer that my space mate Michael Cera had called a Jupiter-4. I ended up writing a handful of songs on it.

OT: So in the midst of that, how did the record itself take shape?
SVE:
I did it without realizing I was writing for a record, which is really liberating – just to play and sing and not care about what it was for. It was more of a vibe that I was creating. The goal of that was just to cleanse my palate so I could return to the guitar and finish Catherine’s score. So by the time my son was about six months old, I got the itch to be more creative and write again. I opened this folder of demos and realized I had like 40. My partner encouraged me to make another record, but it was not my intention.

OT: How did you narrow it down from 40 demos to the 10 songs that make up Remind Me Tomorrow?
SVE:
When I started whittling down the songs after hearing everyone’s favorites, I wanted to pick the ones that also felt positive. I also wanted to pick the ones that were left of center. When I met with [producer] John Congleton, I had three folders: Folder A was all the songs I felt like needed to be on the record, Folder B was backups, and Folder C was wild cards that were either going to be great or terrible. He picked some from each.

OT: Which of the Folder C wild cards made the cut?
SVE:
That would be “Hands.” I wasn’t sure if it made sense. You don’t know until you go into the studio and let the sonic palette unfold. It ended up really standing out on the record to me.

OT: You said you wanted to pick songs that sounded positive. Why is that?
SVE:
When I was touring my last record, I was really proud of my songs and the production. But playing those songs over the years was also heartbreaking in a way that I wasn’t prepared for. I was going in a dark place to perform those songs. I feel this responsibility to be a positive influence and a role model. I want to share a positive message and my positive experiences. I want to feel good, to sing love songs not about mourning something that didn’t survive but about something that is just born. I think that will help me endure the next couple years of touring as I perform these songs every night, just infused with a bit more love than regret.

Sharon Van Etten performs at the 9:30 Club with Nilüfer Yanya on Wednesday, February 6. Doors are at 7 p.m. and tickets are $30. For more on Van Etten, visit www.sharonvanetten.com.

9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; 202-265-0930; www.930.com

M.K. Koszycki

M.K.'s entire life revolves around music, whether it be scouring Twitter for the band of the moment or catching a live show at one of DC's many venues. When she's not at a gig, find her hanging out with her golden retriever, drinking beer with friends or re-watching Twin Peaks for the hundredth time.