Written during moments snatched from the banks of a swamp of other projects, Remind Me Tomorrow is Sharon Van Etten’s wickedly dynamic new album of crushed and booming beats, chopped guitar, gleaming piano triads, and her husky vocals up front. She shared some of its story and ideas in conversation with STACK.
Indie rock monarch Sharon Van Etten has added several feathers to her cap in between the release of her extraordinarily beloved fourth album Are We There (2014) and this month’s similarly astonishing (though very different) achievement Remind Me Tomorrow: she acted in mystery drama series The OA, wrote film and television scores (Strange Weather, Tig, Twin Peaks), started a psychology degree, and had a baby. It’ll all turn out dandy, she says, if you don’t reach too far ahead of yourself. “Everything kind of unfolded one after the other,” she explains, “and I feel like the more present I am, the better. It’s like, ‘Okay, what am I doing today?’ And if a project comes up, then yes, Google Calendar is amazing, but we block it off and we still live in the now. I think life gets more and more complicated as you get older, but having people around you to help you figure it out has been so helpful for me. I feel very lucky that my partner has very much helped me figure it out, as things have presented themselves.”
This approach to fitting the pieces together has resulted in an album which was created across some very distinct stages – “A lot of these songs I started writing before I was pregnant, and then I finished the lyrics while pregnant or after I had my kid, so a lot of them have this multi-faceted, multi-personality to them,” she explains – and the brilliantly crunchy, playful but belittling see-saw of stand-out You Shadow is a prime example. Sweet organ and piano accompany stroll-jolly drums as Van Etten sings: “You don’t do nothing I don’t, do you shadow? You say you’ve changed your mind, yeah? I let you.”
“I started [writing] it walking around an old neighbourhood of an ex of mine,” she says. “It was a really beautiful day, and everywhere I turned I kept seeing my shadow. So I was kind of talking to my shadow like I was talking to my ex. The next time I returned to the song, I was pregnant. I was in such a good place, and I was [looking back on what I’d already written] like ‘Man, that sounds so dark!’, And then I thought, ‘Am I actually talking about me? I’m not talking about my ex, I’m talking about me and my feelings!’ Then while I was acknowledging that, I’m like, ‘But I’m also talking about my kid…!’ It was a tough ol’ thing: ‘Get your sh-t together before you have your baby; deal with your shadow now.’ It started in a darker place, and then I kind of was able to poke fun at myself a little bit.”
The golden puzzle piece was the meeting of Van Etten and her producer John Congleton, who guided the musician towards the propulsive wrinkles at the seams of her more meditative tracks and encouraged her to grab them with both hands. “I ended up deciding to record a record after finding out that John and I were definitely on the same page,” she says. “I had set up a show at this venue in LA called The Moroccan Lounge which seats 150, maybe 200 people, just to test my new songs so that I could rediscover the core of them, just by playing solo. While rehearsing for the solo show, I wrote I Told You Everything.” It’s the album opener, and its beat (until half-way in) is literally just a kick, snare, and hi-hat – one, two three. “When John heard it I don’t think he imagined much more to it, and I’m glad he didn’t.”
Further collaborative inspiration came from Jamie Stewart, an example of whose fantastical ideas can be heard on Hands – three-quarters of the way through, just before the dotty Human Music-esque blips come in, a wash of ominous sound rips forth from a cave maw. “He is a sorcerer,” Van Etten smiles. “He’d be banging rocks on metal, he’d be rubbing pens on wire. I wouldn’t know what he was doing half the time, but it was so much fun to watch him. I understand how keys work, guitars, bass, drums – I can’t play all those things very well but I have a basic knowledge. But modular synth is beyond me. [Stewart] opened two suitcases that could do a million things. Even when I sent the initial mixes to my work crew – my label and publisher – they were like ‘Yew! That velociraptor in there, woo, what is that!?’ That would be James Stewart, and I f-cking love it.”
Remind Me Tomorrow is out Janury 18 via Jagjaguwar/Inertia.