Sharon Van Etten Was Too Busy to Make an Album, Then She Wrote 40 Songs for 'Remind Me Tomorrow'

Sharon Van Etten Was Too Busy to Make an Album, Then She Wrote 40 Songs for 'Remind Me Tomorrow'
Photo: Ryan Pfluger
In between going to school, having a baby, starring in the Netflix series The OA, writing the score for the film Strange Weather, and being a friend, partner and new mom, Sharon Van Etten wrote about 40 songs for an album she didn't set out to make. The result, Remind Me Tomorrow, comes out on January 18.
From her home in Brooklyn, NY in early December, Van Etten tells Exclaim! that when she finished touring her 2014 record Are We There, she wasn't sure that she would return to music. She enrolled in classes to pursue a psychology degree, with the end goal of becoming a therapist, and planned to focus on life for a little while. But when the opportunities arose to score a film and to act, Van Etten took them. "I just kind of let the universe speak to me and I would walk through the doors as they were being opened," she explains.
In 2016, while working on the score for Strange Weather, she shared a studio space with actor and musician Michael Cera, who had a Roland Jupiter-4 synthesizer, a Korg CX-3 Hammond organ and a drum kit in the space. As a break from her guitar-heavy score writing, Van Etten turned to these instruments and recorded long improvisational pieces while singing stream of consciousness lyrics and then filed them away for a while. When she did listened back, Van Etten was sometimes drawn to moments in these pieces that she then explored further. Eventually, she shared her songs with her partner.
"It was in the fall of 2017, and we had just put our little one down and we were sitting in the kitchen, having a glass of wine, and catching up about the day. I asked him if I could play him something," she says. "I played him one of the new songs and he's like, 'Oh wow, that's really interesting, do you have another one like that?' I played him another one and then I was like, 'I have another one too.' I played him three or four and he was like, 'How many of these do you have?' He clicked on the folder and there was like 40 songs in there. We just kind of laughed and he held my hand and he was just like, 'I think it's time for you to make a record.'
"It was comforting to see that I was still driven to make something for me, without it having to be for anything," Van Etten adds.
Van Etten says that within her 40 or so song collection, there's a piano ballad record and a country record, but she wasn't driven to make either. "I just don't feel like the world needs a country record right now, I'm sorry. It's not the record I want to make. One day I will," she laughs.
Remind Me Tomorrow is decidedly rougher than Van Etten's previous records. She went into the studio with skeletons of tracks and without a preconceived idea of what the album would sound like. Under the guidance of producer John Congleton (Alvvays, Lana Del Rey, St. Vincent) and his team of musicians, the songs became textured and propulsive. Like when the tracks began to form in Van Etten's shared studio space, guitars are minimal; instead, distorted synths conjure thick dronescapes.
"If I had brought my own musicians into the studio, I would make a record that sounds like my last record — which I'm proud of and it was my first turn at producing a record, really — but I'm also limited. I feel like [Congleton] elevated my songs in a way that I couldn't have by myself," Van Etten says.
In spite of its sonic heaviness, Remind Me Tomorrow is, at its core, an encouraging record. Throughout, Van Etten is reflective and is sometimes nostalgic but she also recognizes how far she has come and celebrates the love in her life.
"I wanted to acknowledge the weight around me in the world right now, but I also didn't want to not acknowledge what a good place I'm in," she says about the contrast between the album's instrumentation and her lyrics. "Even though there are conflicting emotions when you think about the state of the world and you're looking at your son, for example, I couldn't deny my happiness.
"It's about so many things," Van Etten says about Remind Me Tomorrow. "It was about my partner and then it was about my son and then it was just about my life. It's all about change and growth and moving forward while acknowledging the shift in your life and the changes and who you were and who you are and how they're the same. A lot of it's unfolding for me too. I wrote it in a delirium of wanting to be creative."
Remind Me Tomorrow comes out January 18 on Jagjaguwar.