Sharon Van Etten ignited her own path to indie-rock stardom with her 2012 breakout album, Tramp, featuring the fever-dream single “Serpents.” Since then, she’s released another record (Are We There, in 2014), scored Katherine Dieckmann’s film Strange Weather, and began acting with guest-starring roles on The OA and Twin Peaks: The Return. Her personal life transformed as well: she had her first child and began going to school to become a psychologist.
Needless to say, Van Etten has been busy — including writing her fifth studio album, Remind Me Tomorrow. “I may have bitten off more than I can chew, but I’m also stoked,” she tells EW. “Oddly it feels like I’m balanced. When the record comes out, school’s over for that semester so I can focus on that again. It’s like I’m just changing the tune.”
Tomorrow is a departure from Van Etten’s minimalist beginnings. Here, she opts for cinematic synths and even-handed pop songs. But for longtime fans, the familiarity of Van Etten’s folk ethos is still weaved throughout the 10-track record, including fierce lead single “Comeback Kid” and the starry-eyed anthem “Seventeen.”
Ahead of its release on Jan. 18, Van Etten reveals in her own words the music, TV, and visual art that inspired Remind Me Tomorrow.
Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith
[“Seventeen”] was definitely my homage to New York with a mix of Jersey perspective in there, watching neighborhoods change and claiming your hometown. I was walking around Dumbo taking a break from recording and I caught myself laughing that a place I had gone to a couple of times had already closed. I said that thing all New Yorkers say when they start getting jaded: “This neighborhood’s changing.” When I first moved here I remembered someone saying that about a place and I didn’t really get the context. So having that realization…. It makes you look at your past. I thought a lot about Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith and how long they lived in cities and seen them change.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree
[Nick Cave] was one of the influences for the record when I first sat down with [producer] John Congleton and he asked me what my references were, what I had been listening to, and what was affecting my writing right now. I had just gotten a synthesizer and drum machine and started working out my old demos with that old setup, and it called to mind Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree because it was very beat-driven and had a repetitive chorus all centered around vocals, which is how I tend to write. But I usually play with guitar, so playing keys has a different rhythm.
Katherine Dieckmann reached out to my manager as soon as I decided to stay home for awhile and get off the road. I just started school and she asked me to do the score for her film Strange Weather and she referenced Ry Cooder. I’m not the best guitar player; I punch my guitar when I play. Whenever I felt like I was getting to a place where I was hitting my head against the wall, I would stop, put down the guitar, and to clear my head, I would go to any other instrument in the room that wasn’t a guitar. That’s why a lot of the writing on the record was written on synth and drums. So in a way, Katherine had a huge influence because while I was writing her score on guitar, I wrote this whole other record on synth.
20th Century Women
I put [director] Mike Mills on my list because I had seen 20th Century Women during that time and the soundtrack is so amazing [as well as] the placement of the songs throughout the film. That’s one [thing] that [I learned from] working with Katherine — how to write to film and how the placement of a song can change the whole mood of a scene. It’s an art form in itself. I would think that [my single] “Seventeen” might draw you into a scene just as much as “Jupiter 4” would send you into a scene. I just had very specific location imagery [in mind] when I was writing those.
We waited too long to go anywhere exotic for our babymoon, so we went to Shelter Island, which was really beautiful and really cold. There was a bookstore in the middle of nowhere that had some amazing artwork and I pulled out this book on Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock’s partner. They lived together, and they both had separate studios. I think she liked having intellectual conversations, and he was very volatile. [Her canvases are] so beautiful. That was something that colored my writing because, with my history of being with people that weren’t supportive of my music, I still wanted to do it anyway. That fire — if it ever goes out, I’ll stop playing.
While I was setting up gear testing sounds [for“I Told You Everything”], I had this drum machine going and was testing the piano to see if it was in tune, and I just heard the lyrics and was just thinking about Brit Marling and The OA and her telling this insane story and some people not believing her. I connect typically with the things that happen in my life when I tell stories. You get to a certain level with someone and you know that they understand you even better than they did before, and I feel like between Brit’s story in The OA and my personal life, that’s where that song came from.
“Masterpiece” by Big Thief
My friend Ben Goldberg at Ba Da Bing! [records] sent me a link to Big Thief and this song called “Masterpiece.” Adrianne [Lenker’s] style of writing is so beautiful — it’s like a short story. She really just takes me to exactly that memory she was having; that dream, that memory, or that feeling in a relationship. She has an amazing way with words. Her melodies are so interesting.
Michael Cera’s a funny influence. It ties back to [his Jupiter 4] synthesizer, [which I recorded my song] “Jupiter 4” [on]. I sent him an early demo of it like, “Thanks for helping me clear my head. This is my first pop song.” We met because I played a show before my friend Rick Alverson, who’s a director, and Michael Cera made a cameo. Then I did Twin Peaks and Michael had a cameo in Twin Peaks — that was all the same month. We just got to talking and he’d been working and making music and had been wanting to get a practice space. I was like, “I actually just found a space last week and was looking for one other person who wouldn’t mind having my stuff set up.” His eyes lit up, and he was like, “Do you have a drum kit?” And I was like, “Yeah, I have a drum kit and a piano.” He was like, “I’m in.”