It's been five years since Sharon Van Etten's last album tour — but that doesn't mean she's been stagnant. In that time, Van Etten has dabbled in acting, gone back to school to study psychology, scored a film, had her first child, and wrote a career-defining record.
That record, Remind Me Tomorrow, was not written in spite of, but because of, this period of growth and experimentation in her life. Where Van Etten's vast catalog of music before Remind Me can be characterized as devastating storytelling and finding avenues for healing, her latest record shines with the essence of an artist who has triumphed over trauma and stands fulfilled, bursting with creativity to share with the world.
Van Etten says she started writing Remind Me before she even knew she was pregnant. She had decided to take a break from the road for a while to focus on family, friends, and her relationship. Little did she know chaos would follow her even when she decided to remain stationary. Between accepting a role in the Netflix series The OA, starting school, and becoming a mother for the first time, Van Etten didn't revisit the new songs until after her child was born.
"I finished writing the songs while I was staring at my child napping," she says. "There's different kinds of happiness, different kinds of love, different kinds of optimism [in the record], while also being a little scared in the back of my mind... I grew a lot as a person and an artist."
That growth is evident on Remind Me, which deviates from the gentle, acoustic-based compositions that Van Etten is known for. While she's always had a hand — if not the only hand — in producing her previous albums, the songwriter turned to renowned producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Swans, the Paper Chase) to bring her vision to life. "I was really excited to completely let go," says Van Etten. "It was the first time I gave my demos over to a producer, and after discussing my influences for the record and deciding what the sonic palette was, I just trusted him."
The result is a lighter, layered, ethereal version of the Sharon Van Etten her fans know and love. Songs like "I Told You Everything" and "Memorial Day" hold the same emotional weight, but with glimmers of hope and more room for interpretation. "Seventeen" joins Van Etten's younger self with where she is now — experiencing motherhood, in a happy relationship, and reminiscing on the brashness and fragility of youth. "I just had these vulnerable moments of seeing how fleeting life is... and just how far I've come,"she says, referring in part to an abusive relationship she experienced in her early adulthood which influenced much of her songwriting. "I remember one time I never thought I'd get out of there. So the fact that I'm in an amazing relationship with a beautiful son and a music career in New York, I just can't believe it sometimes."
Van Etten's honest and humble personality is part of what draws so many listeners to her music — to feel pain, to seek healing, to know they're not alone. It's probably also why she connects with so many fans on a personal level — fans that have lost loved ones, found the courage to come out to their families, and experienced abusive relationships of their own.
"It means a lot to me that (fans) connect with my music, but I take that with me also," says Van Etten. "I think about them all the time, and I wish that I could be closer to them and find out how they are and what they're doing and if they're getting through it."
She acknowledges that she's used songwriting and music for years as a form of self-therapy, but wonders about the aftereffect of her creative output. "What I'm working on now is, once I get it out of my being, how do I turn that into something more positive than what I got through?" she says. "I think helping people to learn how to communicate their feelings better, in whatever way that is, is something that I'm interested in."
The artist also admits that while playing her songs can be cathartic, there's also a dark side to reliving traumatic events time and time again, in front of an audience. "If I'm going through a hard time and singing my old songs that are all about heartache and bad relationships — on a bad day, it gets me spiraling," she says. "On a good day, I can see beyond it and get through it."
For her current tour, she says that she's opted to perform the more positive songs that she's written, which is easy to do with a fresh album full of songs that reflect the good place she's in now. "The songs that I wrote for this new record are more positive," she says. "There's some underlying fear in it, but they're just really optimistic and fun to sing, and it's about being in a better place."
Sharon Van Etten performs on Wednesday, Feb. 13 at the Majestic Theatre, 4140 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700; majesticdetroit.com; Doors at 7:30 p.m.; Tickets are $25 advance, $30 day of show.
Get our top picks for the best events in Detroit every Thursday morning. Sign up for our events newsletter.