I reach Sharon Van Etten at her Brooklyn apartment during nap time.
Not her nap time, of course — her son’s. His daycare sent him home early. He’s a bit sick and now sleeping it off.
“Hopefully he makes it through this call,” she says. “I apologize in advance.”
Her son, who will be two this March, does, in fact, make it through the call. In that way, he’s a true professional, not unlike his mother, whose decade-plus career in the music industry kicked into gear with her sparse 2009 debut Because I Was in Love. In the years that followed, she amassed a critically lauded and remarkably consistent catalogue of deeply felt indie rock with lush folk sensibilities. A consummate chronicler of heartbreak and those momentary glimpses of bliss within turbulent love stories, she became indie fans’ go-to artist for post-breakup playlists.
“If I was pigeonholed, it was my own damn fault. I just kept writing about the same thing,” she says of her sad-girl legacy. “I dug my own hole. I wrote about breakups, I wrote about heartache. I write from a therapeutic place.”
She’s hardly alone there. The more she toured, the more Van Etten’s fans approached her at shows, unloading stories of heartbreak spanning from standard-issue breakups to the death of a friend to watching a family member struggle under the weight of addiction. She declined to give advice — "I like listening to people. Just allowing people the safe space to be able to talk about it, I think it makes them feel better,” she says — but those encounters inspired her to pursue a counseling certification. She’s currently squeezing in classes between touring obligations.
“I am giving myself until the age of fifty to get certified to be a therapist, so we’ll see,” she says. “That gives me twelve years to do all of it.”
Given Van Etten’s to-do list, her twelve-year estimate might be understated. For one thing, there’s the whole raising-a-son obligation. Then there’s the music and requisite touring, this time on the back of this year’s Remind Me Tomorrow. Then there’s her acting gig, the serendipitous result of a casting director who saw her open for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in 2013. Two years later, she got the call and landed a recurring guest role as Rachel in the twist-heavy Netflix mystery series The OA.
If Van Etten doesn’t strike you as someone who practiced her Oscar acceptance speech in the mirror as a little girl, that’s fine, but her late-blooming professional acting career is not wholly unprecedented. Prior to pursuing music, a teenage Van Etten had Broadway dreams, even if she admits she wasn’t a good actor in high school.
Nevertheless, she kicked off her high school theater career in Camelot. She followed her freshman debut up with Hello Dolly! (which she hated), Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story (her favorite of the four), in which she played the tomboyish Jets follower Anybody’s.
Following high school and a publicist gig at Ba Da Bing Records, a series of tumultuous relationships provided the raw material for her pre-Remind Me Tomorrow discography — “I wrote about three different relationships over the course of four records. They weren’t healthy. I kept reliving a similar thing,” she says. That changed with her current partner (and former drummer) Zeke Hutchins.
“I hadn’t been in a relationship where I thought about [motherhood] or cared about it,” she says. “I was focused on music. It didn’t cross my mind until I met this man.”
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Van Etten wrote the bulk of Remind Me Tomorrow between 2015 and 2017 with the exception of album opener “I Told You Everything,” a resonant and echoing piano ballad that “just came out” during recording sessions. She composed the ambient “Jupiter 9” using Michael Cera’s synthesizer in their shared studio space. She previewed the album with the unconventionally upbeat first single “Comeback Kid," a good-natured wink ending a five-year gap between records that sounds like Kate Bush left to her own devices at an LCD Soundsystem dance night. It’s unclear whether Van Etten is addressing herself or everyone else when she insists, “Don’t look back,” at the opening of each chorus.
Whomever it applies to, it’s indicative of Van Etten’s transformed mindset and life: a family, the start of an acting career, a counseling certification program, and her current project with comedy writer Brigid Ryan, conceptualizing a TV series about a formative relationship between a mother and a babysitter.
Which is all to say that she may be used to standing on the precipice, but she’s never before sounded so comfortable doing so.
Sharon Van Etten, 8 p.m. Monday, February 18, Gothic Theatre, 3263 South Broadway, Englewood, $22-$25.