Photo by Jen Rosenstein
In the back of Sharon Van Etten’s “Edward Scissorhands” yard sits a studio dappled in California light. The artist, who spent years living in New York, decamped to Los Angeles in the fall of 2019. She needed more space. Living in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn with a small child was challenging. The dream of a backyard called to her. When she came to the West Coast to visit musician friends, she noticed how they all had enough room to spread out and make art. So, she decided to try it out for herself.
When we speak on the phone in early March, it is chilly in Los Angeles. The night before, the rain and lightning came down in sheets, so Van Etten is wearing a sweater as she drinks her coffee. The door to the house is open. Across from her are two sheds, one is her studio, the other belongs to her partner, Zeke Hutchins. When the windows are open, they can hear each other working. She’s been going into her little oasis in the backyard almost every day for the past year that they’ve lived in the house. Van Etten has been going in to write music. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s helped her heal and helped unravel the insides of her brain in such a complicated, scary and strange time.
“On good days,” she said, “I turn on the drum machine, I sit at the piano or with the guitar or an organ or my synth or whatever the instrument is and I’ll just play until I feel a melody in there.” And on bad days, she tries to take the pressure off by having a policy that “No one will ever have to hear this but in order for me to keep honing my voice and my words I have to keep doing this or I will go dormant.” This policy and process lead Van Etten, who has released gorgeous, heartbreaking and meaty records since the twilight of the aughts, to put together her latest record, which isn’t done yet, but is on the precipice of being born.
Right now, she’s in more of a reflective mood. Her breakthrough record, Epic, which was released in 2010, is now over a decade old. To celebrate, she decided to get many of her friends and heroes together to cover each of the album’s seven crystalline songs. The result is a collection of songs that plays like a victory loop, like a mixtape, like a well-loved antique quilt. On the record, there are contributions from people ranging from St. Panther, whom Van Etten found out about from listening to the radio in her car, to Fiona Apple, an artist she has been listening to since her teenage years.
“I’m all over the place emotionally when I hear the covers,” she said. “When I heard Aaron [Dessner] and Justin [Vernon] covering ‘A Crime’ I felt like they were high-fiving me from cross-country. And then with hearing IDLES covering ‘Peace Signs,’ I felt like again it was the inner voice that I didn’t have then, they found. I felt like they were trying to get me to crowd surf from across the Atlantic,” she continued. There’s also a Lucinda Williams cover of her song, “Save Yourself.” That one felt particularly surreal and special. Van Etten cites Williams as someone who brought her closer to her mother. Someone who has made music that has deeply resonated with her on an almost spiritual level for much of her life.
Epic represents a lot for Van Etten. It represents making it as an artist, and it also represents a period of Van Etten’s life where she learned to be confident, where she embraced being young and living in New York, where she would drive thousands of miles in her Subaru to be the person playing a solo acoustic set at a metal festival. When she first moved to New York, she told me that she was so shy that she, “Would literally cut my hair so it would cover my eyes so I didn’t have to look people in the eyes.” Friends at the venue Zebulon helped her get out of her shell. She had a residency there. It made her into the artist she is today. This rerelease of Epic is, in part, dedicated to that venue, that place in New York that was her community, her chosen family.
Ten years into the future, Van Etten has just turned 40 and has a four-year-old son. Her Zebulon days are behind her, but they’ll live inside of her, forever. “I think that the artists that were open to doing it really represent all the little voices in my head, all the influences over the years until now, and I’m excited for it to be shared with everybody,” she said.
For her 40th birthday, she went to Joshua Tree for a few days, alone. Her partner gifted her a typewriter, and she went off into the luminous, arid desert to sit in silence and write lyrics without music. She would write, and then she would read what she had written. As she did this, she got closer to her truth, of what she wanted to say, of how she wanted to sound on this latest iteration of her art. She decided what she needed was time, so she gave it to herself. Time, and lots of it, after all, is a form of grace, a form of love.
Sophie Frances Kemp is a Brooklyn-based writer, originally from Schenectady, New York. Her work has previously appeared in American Vogue, Pitchfork, GARAGE and NPR.