Hotstar: Sharon Van Etten Takes The Road Less Traveled To Find Her Voice

Sharon Van Etten
Robin Little / Redferns
– Sharon Van Etten
cover of Pollstar’s May 27, 2019 issue.

It would be easy to say that Sharon Van Etten is having a moment. She released her fifth album, Remind Me Tomorrow, in January to critical praise and she’s sold out the vast majority of her shows since launching her 2019 tour soon after. Changes in her musical style, and in her life, have contributed to her development into an artist with a career built to last.

Her earliest box office reports to Pollstar show her playing in 250- to 500-capacity clubs with mixed success. Her current tour, however, shows a slew of sold-out dates in the U.S. in the 1,000-1,500 range but also includes a 2,776-ticket sellout at New York’s Beacon Theater Feb. 6 which was a pivotal show.

It’s been five years since her last album,  Are We There, but in between releases she has been having way more than just a moment. In addition to landing a regular role over several episodes of Netflix’s “The OA,” she appeared in an episode of director David Lynch’s reboot of “Twin Peaks.” Beyond her foray into acting, she went back to school to study psychology. And she had her first child in 2017.

Van Etten has been performing and recording since 2006, but she’d been forging relationships in the industry long before that. From her roots in high school theater, she’d imagined a career on Broadway until she began writing her own songs. She took a record label internship doing publicity. She began and performing with a guitar and booking her own shows. She even tour managed for a time.

She says she was terrible at all of it, save for creating and performing music. But the process of learning those different jobs also allowed her to meet people in the industry and also to develop a strong appreciation for their jobs. She also met people who introduced her to other musicians in unorthodox ways.

“I was just driving my own car [to gigs]; I was saying yes to everything,” Van Etten tells Pollstar about the early days. “It  was the MySpace days and I met a lot of musicians and made friends that way. I met this woman who was a [fashion] designer in London … after a year of being pen pals she reached out to friend of hers and asked  if I could be added to a show. I met another bass player, Greg Weeks, who recorded my next record. I’d been recording my own. I realized that I cared a bit music more than I cared about anything else and continued to tour and try new things.”

She moved from recording her own “girl with a guitar” songs to playing with a band and developed more of a country sound. Taking those songs in front of live audiences helped Van Etten develop an early fan base. Eventually, her team grew from one or two people to more than 40, including label and publishing reps.

Admittedly, it took time to get there, including something of a self-imposed hiatus in 2015.

Sharon Van Etten
Robin Little / Redferns
– Sharon Van Etten
Sharon Van Etten performs on stage at The Roundhouse on March 26, in London.

“I started on my own path and never looked back until l was asked to audition on “The OA” in 2016. I had just started to take a break from the road because I could tell I was starting to go into a dark place and all the songs I was writing were about an ex,” Van Etten explains. “It was unhealthy and I was reliving it every night.”

She decided to go back to school and study psychology. Two weeks into classes she was invited to audition for “The OA.”

“My partner, who is incredibly amazing, encouraged me to take it and I thought it was ridiculous. I’d just come off the road and was going back to school and now I’m going to audition for a Netflix thing? Are you crazy? And I think the exact thing he said was ‘it’s an adventure’ and he was right.”

Her partner, now her fiance, is Zeke Hutchins of Mick Management,  tells Pollstar, “Sometimes you let the art lead. Sometimes it doesn’t connect to that skill you have … Sharon has sort of shaped her career in a way that’s been comfortable for her. She’s let us push her here and there when we felt it was necessary or we should at least have a conversation about moving forward or upward, but It’s always been a conversation. It’s been a very healthy career path.”

Van Etten and Hutchins are fans of the slow build. But even they admit that taking five years between recordings is a move fraught with risk. But it also allowed Van Etten to hit the reset button from that dark place.

“Sonically, there was a pretty significant pivot in her sound,” says Paradigm agent Erik Selz. “These days, when any of my artists takes  a five-year break, you hope that they resume at least where they left off, and sometimes that doesn’t happen. Sometimes absence just makes the heart forget.”

Selz has been with Van Etten for much of the journey. He came over to The Windish Agency with her from Red Ryder Entertainment,  and eventually they all joined Paradigm.

“I really think that this new record is resonating with a lot of people and inspiring a lot of women.”

With a new producer, John Congleton, on board and batch of songs Van Etten says are influenced by other artists she likes, like Portishead and Suicide, Remind Me Tomorrow marks a new direction and has been praised as the best album of her career and one of the best, period, in the first half of 2019.

She recognizes that her longtime fans may be surprised by the new direction, but insists that she won’t be bound by genre and that her growth is intentional.

“I think [genre] is relative and we are influenced by so many things now and what we take in every day in this life,” Van Etten says. “I was in folk as a girl with a guitar and then I got a band so I got labeled Americana, so whatever label people need to identify with I guess I belonged to.l have no idea what genre I’m in.

“For me, there’s no expectations and I feel like I have a handful of fans who have said they are let down because the last record has such a different sound. I want to challenge people. I don’t want my fans to be let down but at the same time I want to be encouraged to expand and grow as an artist,” she explains.

Van Etten needn’t have worried. Her longtime fans appear to be along for the ride and her audiences have grown along with her.

“You put an album out in January, and everybody’s saying it’s already on their year-end list but there’s 11 months to go!” Paradigm’s Kevin French tells Pollstar. “It’s going to be there. The Beacon show was a proud moment to watch. It was amazing. It was a special show.  She played [at the Ace Hotel] in Los Angeles, which is not her home turf, and people were going crazy. It was wonderful.”

Van Etten just wrapped a European leg and returned Stateside in early May, where she was booked for one of the early re-opening shows for New York’s Webster Hall, and performed at Atlanta’s Shaky Knees festival. After a run through Australia, Selz and French say her summer itinerary will focus on European and North American festival circuits, including appearances at Glastonbury, two Mad Cool fests in Spain, Osheaga in Canada and Lollapalooza in the U.S. But that’s just the beginning.

For someone who is said to be “having a moment,” Van Etten’s moment is being built to last. She’ll be touring well into 2020 and beyond, while finishing school, caring for a baby and continuing to pursue acting opportunities. But it will be on her own very strategic schedule.

“It may be support, it may be just festivals through the rest of this year, and a hard- ticket run next year that we are already deep into plotting,” Selz says. “A lot of it is trying to be respectful of a lot of the commitments she’s got. Not just music, but being a mom, getting her degree, and giving her the space to just live her life in these many different lanes that she’s developed.

“There’s some maturity and some humility and I think a lot of gratitude on her part that, at this point of her career, she’s been able to accelerate the ways she has. Sharon is very humble and a great pleasure to work with because of that. She doesn’t take any of her success for granted.”