As a young woman, whenever Sharon Van Etten was racked with anxiety she would take a pair of scissors to her hair and cut. Her friends would be able to tell how bad she was feeling by how short it was, and how uneven. “It’d often end up looking manic, because I just needed something immediately, and I was trying to do something that wasn’t unhealthy,” she said. “I’d be up late at night cutting my hair like, ‘This is the best I can do.’”
For much of her music career since then, Van Etten has worn her hair long. Her dark, wavy mane with a messy fringe became her “identity, for a minute”. But when we met at an east London hotel in mid-March her hair was sharply cropped, harking back to how she wore it at the very start of her career, around 2009. This time the new style wasn’t a reflection of her desperation. Her friend Barb had cut it for her. “I’m at the age now where I don’t cut it myself. I do have the patience to wait and make it a conscious decision.” But the new style is symbolic, she said, “of moving forward and starting new. I wanted to shed some weight.”
In the autumn of 2019, Van Etten moved with her partner, Zeke Hutchins (who is also her former drummer and manager), and their young son from New York City to Los Angeles. She had first moved to New York, having grown up in New Jersey, 15 years previously, before her music career had taken off, and at first she often slept in her car or on friends’ sofas. As she approached 40 she began to find the city ever more “confined and rushed”.
Now 41 and settled in LA, she has learnt that she loves “nesting”, she said. “I love cooking, even tidying.” Best of all, in her new home city she had the space to build a studio in her garage, which became a lifeline during the Covid-19 pandemic. The convenience of such a space lent her songwriting an immediacy that is audible in many of the lyrics on her sixth record, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, released on Jagjaguwar on 6 May. “You come home to me,” she sings, staccato and over and over, on the hypnotic “Home to Me”. On “Headspace”, which swells with stormy synths, her repeated phrase is another command: “Baby, don’t turn your back to me.”
The pandemic brought to the surface a past anxiety that Van Etten thought she had learnt to control. It also brought about new fears: “For the city, for the state, for the country, for the world. It quickly dominoed. In some ways I feel more anxious than ever.”
While Van Etten’s previous albums were concerned with love and romance, on We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong she inhabits our age of uncertainty. The album title comes from a line in the Nineties comedy film The Sandlot, which became one of the family’s comforts during the lockdowns. For Van Etten it captured the feeling of defeat in the face of crisis after crisis. It made her consider the aspects of life we could approach differently, she said, reeling off a list: how we treat one another, how we deal with the environmental crisis (Californian wildfires burned nearby as she wrote the record), how we tackle racial injustice, homelessness — before she put her hands up in despair. “There are so many things that we have to reassess. Not that I have any answers, but everything is f***ed right now.” She put her hands to her mouth, as though shocked by her own language. “Sorry!”
Van Etten has a powerful contralto singing voice, which is, on her most recent songs, backed by bold and expansive instrumentation. But she is softly spoken in conversation, and deeply introspective. She is learning — again, or still — how to feel in control of the moment. “When I look back I get depressed,” she said. “When I look forward I get anxious. So I have to concentrate on the moment, and what I am in control of. Those are things that I’ve learnt through years of therapy.” She gave a little laugh, knowing it sounded like a cliché but was no less true for it. “And I know now that when I find myself spiralling in either direction, I have to practise mindfulness and remember the here and now, which is in my control.”
Van Etten left her New Jersey home when she was 18, to study at Middle Tennessee State University, but dropped out after a couple of terms and fell into an abusive relationship with a rock musician. At the time she believed it was love.
“I can’t believe I let myself do that, or that I let him do that. I let him tell me I couldn’t play music. I let him tell me who I could hang out with. Just because I thought he was everything: he was smarter than me, and more talented than me. It’s embarrassing, but that was the reality of the time. His love was everything. It took me a long time to realise: you’re an addict. You’re abusive. I’m scared of you. Even though I did fall, and the love was real, it got dark and became unsafe. He went on tour and I ran away. He didn’t know I was gone for like a month.”
In Tennessee, Van Etten sought professional support for her anxiety, but wasn’t taken seriously. “I used to be a cutter, so I had scars. Tattoos and scars and a shaved head and I’m coming in asking for help. Because of how I looked, they just thought I was there for drugs.”
After five years away, Van Etten returned to her family home in New Jersey. Her parents agreed that she could live with them so long as she returned to university, got a job and started therapy for the first time. It was the key to understanding that the relationship she had left had been abusive. She learnt to “de-programme” all she had believed to be true about love. “When you experience trauma, it doesn’t go away. You learn how to live with it. You learn how to move forward while it’s still a shadow in your life. When I fled I had to find myself again.”
It is fitting that an artist whose fans find such sanctuary in her songs now wants to train to be a therapist. Her aim is to have a licence to practise one-on-one talking therapy by the time she is 50. “Those that have a hard time talking and expressing themselves are the people I want to learn to help, and learn how to understand,” she said. She is interested in taking a role based in a school or college where she can help young people around the time they first leave home, when they are trying to find their place in the world without quite knowing who they are. “For me, that was the first time I got lost, the first of many.”
At the end of our conversation Van Etten offered to send me a playlist she had compiled to share with her band when they were recording the album, featuring songs by Public Image, Scott Walker, the Durutti Column and These Immortal Souls. Her email signature was a quote attributed to Patti Smith: “We go through life. We shed our skins. We become ourselves.”