Singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten moved cross-country with her partner and their son just a few months before their new home in Los Angeles became their whole world during COVID-19 lockdown. Fortunately they’d also moved a decade-plus of collected instruments and recording gear from their place in New York and various storage units. With all of that at her disposal, Van Etten could be productive when she was forced to hunk down, and her concentrated songwriting, creative composition and experimental tracking yielded her sixth full-length record, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, released this past May.
Just as Van Etten’s sound has expanded over her career — 2019’s acclaimed Remind Me Tomorrow proved more technical than previous LPs, and this newest release follows with sophisticated instrumentation accompanying her knack for melody — the 10 tracks that ended up on We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong unfold like a story. They’re sequenced intentionally to create a full arc that’s stunningly emotional and appropriately of the times.
As it turns out, the songs I selected to air during WNXP’s #RecordoftheWeek spotlight fall around the midpoint of the album, and contain moments either overwhelming or cathartic. During the cinematic gut-twister “Born,” track 5, it’s as though Van Etten is simmering steadily, then boils over with a key change. She described writing that tune in a single session, as if “possessed,” and stumbling upon the major chords at the point the song “felt like it needed a change.”
“Headspace” carves out darker grooves with industrial synths that Van Etten described as “nasty” in contrast with her “pretty, sexy” vocals. Thematically, this one will ring out for years to come as a tale of striving for intimacy during a pandemic, when your beloved is in such constant, close proximity but feels light years away emotionally. “I wanted to feel ageless, I wanted to feel here” she sings during the bridge, before returning to the refrain to plead, “Baby, don’t turn your back to me.”
Harmony-rich “Come Back” is as anthemic as anything she’s done, reminiscent of the 2021 duet with Angel Olsen,“Like I Used To,” that soundtracked Pandemic Summer #2. Van Etten is currently touring with Olsen and former Nashville Artist of the Month Julien Baker, and they’re playing Ryman Auditorium on July 23.
Offering some of the most upbeat, “discard your self-consciousness” content in her catalog, “Mistakes” has served as the album’s lead single, but we didn’t hear it until the LP’s release date, since the artist gave us B-sides “Porta” and “Used To It” before then. It was a strategy she admitted was a risk, but aligned with Van Etten’s hope that We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong would be consumed and appreciated as a full work.
“Far Away” closes the record in a satisfying, sedate, low-BPM fashion, also showcasing her heavenly high register as she sings about being gone (maybe for a short time, maybe forever, “long lost”?).
Getting re-settled in California and employing plenty of accumulated and real-time drama, much like her gear, Van Etten arranged a beautiful record that is personal and yet so familiar. I’m betting I’ll reach for it over again to recall the tenseness and the tenderness of the recent years.
On the Record: A Q&A With Sharon Van Etten
Celia Gregory: Hello?
Sharon Van Etten: Hi!
CG: That was a really cute static photo. I’m glad to see your face, but the picture of your family is really cute. How are you doing, Sharon?
SVE: Oh, yeah, that was an old photo from when I was saying goodbye to New York. I had our friend get us in front of the apartment where we had my kid. Well, I didn’t have my kid in that apartment, thank goodness. But, yeah, that was our last place before we left for California.
CG: Here at WNXP, we play all of your music. But we’re really excited about this new record, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, which is our Record of the Week. I can imagine the making of this record was very different than other times, because of the times we’ve been living in. But also, was this your first time recording in your home studio?
SVE: Yeah, that’s right. We had just moved to California in September of ’19 and finished building the studio out in January 2020. New to the neighborhood, the city. Then found ourselves in this little bubble in our new home with time to unpack, but also a lot to process and trying to work and be creative during that time. So it was a lot, but I feel lucky that I became really close with my band, who I toured with in 2019 on Remind Me Tomorrow. And most of the musicians are based in Los Angeles.
And my friend, a house engineer who’s based in L.A., Dan Knowles, he helped me get my studio up and running and helping me learn how to get usable tracks. And then whenever I would troubleshoot, I could call him and he would show me different ways to do settings so I could learn what I liked about getting a good vocal or how to mic an amp, things like that. And as we progressed in the studio and in the writing process, it became clear that I wanted him to produce the record with me, and he helped me build upon the tracks in the studio. We brought them to another studio that had more space to accommodate more musicians, another neighborhood studio called Balboa. I was able to bring my musicians into that space and build upon the tracks that I had started.
CG: It sounds like you did create sort of a lab for yourself, and the timing could not have been better, since you had so much hunkered down time to explore.
SVE: Absolutely. All of my gear has been in storage or in its cases and being shipped from place to place, depending on where we’re touring. And I could finally take them out of the cases and put them in my room and look around and see what I had actually accumulated for the last 10+ years.
CG: That is a lot of taking stock, and then being able to say, “OK, what do I want to play with on this record?” Can you talk about the pacing of the writing and recording? I understand that you decided to get all that input and then have a co-producer. But were most of these songs written in the pandemic or in the time that you were moving?
SVE: Most of them were written in California, in the studio. Whenever I write, I never know what it’s going to be about. But it’s usually representative of the time that I’ve been living and reflecting on the feelings of what I’ve already been through and what’s happening now. So it’s pretty much catching up with me emotionally. But I never sit down and say, “This is what it’s going to be about.” I got to a place where I had 20+ songs and I was listening to them all and I was trying to figure out, “OK, what is the umbrella? What is the thread and what am I saying?” Because a lot of it is stream of conscious before I cherry-picked the ones that I think have the most potential. But I could tell that it was a lot of processing trauma and domesticity and thinking about the future and all the things that most of us think about.
There are two songs that I had written before the move to California. But I remember at the time thinking, “I really like these songs, but they’re a little apocalyptic-sounding, so I’m going to wait.” I wasn’t ready to to release them. Suddenly they became appropriate in this context, but also in the sequencing. They actually are the two that have the most light — it’s “Darkish” and “Far Away.” One talks about the end of the world, the other one talks about dying.
CG: Yeah, very much appropriate, unfortunately, but also so cathartic to receive now as we’re still trying to pass through what’s happened and what’s going to happen.
SVE: Right. It’s still happening.
CG: I think that maybe musically “Born” is my favorite, but that’s hard for me to pick a favorite. I wanted to ask you directly about the instrumentation you paired your vocals with, and when you invited others in to flesh that out. Can you talk about that song a little bit?
SVE: When I started writing “Born,” I was having a hard time processing an event that happened between me and a friend. You know, you kind of relive the way things rolled out and you’re like, “I could have done that better. I could have done that differently.” It was someone that I cared very deeply about. I’m very reactionary. I just started thinking of all the things that I could have done.
As I’m sitting at the piano and I’m looking out the window, I have this odd drum machine going, this Sequential Circuits DrumTraks,. That AI is a wonderful writing tool if you’re just a solo musician trying to write something. So this beat going pretty dry, and I thought it would be interesting to have a piano running through some effect. So I had the piano delayed, and just having one stroke of a chord would let it ring out for a while so I could explore more melodically. So it hit one chord and I would see what would come out. I started really low on purpose because I wanted to see how high I would be able to get.
I first leaned into the emotion of the intimacy of a relationship. But as I’m spiraling, basically it turns from the micro to the macro. I was having this realization as I was singing that the bigger picture is way more important. It’s not about my relationship with this one person. It’s my relationship to my community and to my world and what is happening. I started going very quickly to the bigger picture. It’s one of the songs on the record that I wrote in one sitting. The lyrics were quite bare, but from start to finish the melody completely found itself. It was one of those days where it’s a possessed kind of feeling, where I just followed this thing that I was feeling, but I had no idea what exactly I was saying yet until I hit stop on the recorder. And I listened back and I said, “OK, this is going to be something.”
CG: Wow, I’m so glad I asked about that. I wrote in my notes “I’m shattered, but it ends triumphantly with major chords.”
SVE: And that change is an accident too. I was like, “What should I do? This is a point where it feels like it wants to change.” And I was like, “OK, let’s see where that goes.” And it does give you a little bit of relief at that point.
CG: Your collaboration with Angel Olsen — which I’m so excited that you’re coming here [the Wild Hearts Tour at Ryman Auditorium, July 23] and touring with Angel and Julien Baker, who’s from here. I know you spent some time here, too. But when we were playing the hell out of “Like I Used To,” it felt so appropriate. That was a very second-year pandemic song. It was also like the song of the summer, a banger.
Can you talk about deciding to do more together as vocalists and then turn it into a tour, knowing that of course you had this own work coming out that you’d kept a secret?
SVE: I’ve admired Angel for a very long time, and we’ve had parallel paths as we’ve been putting out records and touring and we’ve highway high-fived and we’ve bumped into each other places like in Amsterdam — we were at the same bar and restaurants and just pushed our tables together. So we’ve gotten to know each other over the years just from touring. we’ve high-fived each other on social media and we’ve just checked in as we were relocating and finding our place in life outside of tour and reaching out when we had band conflicts. During quarantine I reached out to her to see how she was doing, how she was finding her creative space, if she was being gentle with herself, those types of conversations like, “Are you OK to not feel like making anything right now, and what is coming to you? What are you listening to? What inspires you? Is it OK to not be inspired?” We had these text exchanges. And during that time, I was asked to cover a Velvet Underground song [“Femme Fatale” on the I’ll Be Your Mirror compilation]. Angel and I were chatting, so I got the courage to ask her if she’d want to sing on it. And she enthusiastically agreed and sent me a beautiful harmony in response.
tt happened so naturally that I got a little cocky, and I sent her a demo of a song I was working on and asked if she would want to help me finish it. I was a little insecure. I was paranoid that it sounded a lot like her. I was really ready to give it to her; I was afraid I was ripping her off. but I knew it was a good song and she kind of laughed at me and was like, “Yeah, do you want me to sing on the lyrics to you? What is it? A duet?” And I was like, “Actually, a duet would be awesome.” And it just naturally happened.
It came from she and I just having conversations and it turned into this really beautiful thing and we got to work with John Congleton, who we’ve both worked with before and who’s an amazing person and beautiful ear. I would love to work with her again. We’re both a little busy this year, so if we can find the time to make something together, that would be great. Hopefully something happens eventually once we wind down. But I think the the key to success in anything is not putting pressure on it. Not forcing it to be something that it ain’t yet. I’m sure that when we do go on tour for the Wild Hearts tour, that there might be some things that just happen naturally. Maybe we actually have some downtime to just play and sing together, and maybe Julien will be a part of that.
But Julien [Baker, a former Nashville Artist of the Month on WNXP], such a great energy. I met her pretty early on when she was starting out on her solo career. And we have the same booking agent. My friend Hunter, who I used to work with, turned me on to her music and as soon as I heard it, I became obsessed and I reached out and we met when she first came to New York. She’s really maintained this genuine, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, grateful for everything that’s come her way. And it’s nice to see that she still has that.
CG: Well, what strikes me is you’re saying you felt like you were ripping off Angel, because I’m sure that happens all the time with artists about YOU.
SVE: Right? Because how do you draw the line? How do you draw the line, when is it inspired and influenced by and when is it actually ripping?
CG: So I have to ask — it was such a queen shit move to be like, “Hey, I’m releasing a full length album in a month and you haven’t heard a single song off of it.” Your values-based description of why you did that really spoke to me as an elder millennial, who still loves records start to finish. But I know in 2022 that was maybe — even if it wasn’t emotionally fraught for you, maybe business-wise. Did you have any pushback about that creative choice to just wait and hold it then be like, “Here it is, world”?
SVE: What I love about everyone that I work with is, yes, there were questions raised. But in the end, whether it be my label or my management or whoever, they just want to help my music be heard by as many people as possible and they want it to have a fair shake at being released and being received in as big a way as possible. So it was a creative conversation with every single part of my team. We’d have calls with 20, 30 people on it, discussing the reasons why I wanted to do that.
for me, this was a moment in time. from start to finish, the sequence of the album became emotional and then intentional and it felt more of a narrative and an arc for me that I couldn’t really pick a song that really represented the album. I felt one song going into the other was crucial to really feeling the roller coaster of the last two years that we’ve all been through. I wanted to let fans know that something was coming. And that’s why I released two songs ahead of the record, that would have been B-sides later. But I think sometimes that B-sides, when they’re released after a record, they’re perceived as the fluff of the record that didn’t make it. So if they were released ahead of time and people liked them, then I can’t get a hard time once the album is out and then I’m like, “Well, you liked that.”
They were hard decisions to make, to decide what wasn’t going to be on the record. I loved them all, I made them all, I recorded them all. I put so much heart into making them. If it weren’t for “Mistakes,” I would have put “Porta” there. That’s the role that that played in that very particular moment in the record. It needed something a bit more light and energetic. But it could’ve been “Porta” instead of “Mistakes.” So I had to pick between those two and then “Far Away” would have been “Used To It.” You just have to make these choices.
CG: As you listen back to this, as a full arc, is there a moment on the record that particularly moves you differently than maybe when you laid it down or arranged the tracks?
SVE: I guess it would be the song “Headspace.”
CG: Headspace is really sexy. The industrial sound, it’s a different feeling in your body when you hear it.
SVE: Originally that one started out with a drum beat and a synthesizer, and the synthesizer was so nasty-sounding that I wanted to make it kind of pretty, sexy vocals over this really intense core. But then I wanted to talk about something difficult that people don’t really talk about. And that’s even when you’re in a happy place in domesticity and you’re with the person you want to be with — we have a house and a kid, jobs and a dog, but we’re also working from home. It’s very distracting and it’s hard to find those intimate moments. Sometimes you have to be the one to pull that person back in from the screen or from their work or from the cleaning or whatever it might be. And even in in a healthy relationship, you have those moments where you have to pull the other out of a rut and connect and communicate.
CG: Yes. Very well-put. Sharon, thank you so much. Like I said, I really as a listener appreciate this and I appreciate that I got to digest it all at once, at the same time everybody else did, that does feel like some cosmic special thing. So thanks for sharing it.
SVE: It’s really nice speaking with you, Celia. Thanks for receiving it.