Sharon Van Etten Is Going About Things All Right

The indie heroine discusses overcoming anxiety, her ‘roller coaster’ emotions and the unlikely inspiration for her new album

Sharon Van Etten. Photo / Supplied

In 1993 a movie called The Sandlot was released. It was a small-budget coming-of-age comedy about a group of baseball-loving kids who mistakenly hit an incredibly valuable and irreplaceable ball signed by American sporting legend Babe Ruth into a junkyard guarded by a snarling, vicious dog. The film follows their increasingly inventive/desperate attempts to recover the ball.

As well as being a warmly regarded family favourite, The Sandlot also serves as the unlikely inspiration for the title of indie heroine Sharon Van Etten’s new record, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong.

The Sandlot is one of these comfort films that my partner, my son and I gravitated towards during lockdown,” Sharon says.

“At a certain point they try to suck the ball up with this crazy vacuum cleaner and they almost get it and just as they’re about to get it over the fence the dog bites it and it explodes in this kid’s face,” she laughs.

“He’s covered in dirt and he just looks at his friends and says, ‘We’ve been going about this all wrong.’”

As she sat there in her “little bubble” the line hit hard. She was in a new city having only just moved from New York to LA a few months earlier and had already been shaken by earthquakes, experienced what locals call “fire season”, and was trying to protect her then 3-year-old from the frightening unknowns of the Covid pandemic.

“It was the height of Covid when we watched it and I simultaneously laughed and teared up at that sentiment,” she says, thinking back.

“Every time we’d get over one hump something else would happen and every time we started seeing a silver lining it’d be right back down to the dirt. I felt like there were so many angles to that line. Whether it be with the virus, the fires, the earthquakes, the violence, the protests or the racism.”

There was a lot for her to take in, process and deal with. She says she didn’t find it easy.

“The challenge was being in a bubble but also trying to make my son feel safe and make him believe all day long that everything’s fine until he went to bed,” she says. “Then my partner and I would just hold hands and share a whisky and cry quietly.”

She smiles softly and says, “I’m exaggerating, but it’s that balance when you have to be brave for somebody else. Our kid can’t know that this exists yet. I struggled with ups and downs.”

She says she tried to handle her emotions, “the roller coaster that they were”, and be as productive as she could. It didn’t come easy. She struggled to find inspiration. Struggled with feeling that what she was doing was trite and of little use when she looked out the window at the world with its diseased and infectious air, the burning trees, shaking ground and a negligent president who got off on stoking the worst instincts in humanity.

She tried to cut herself some slack when she felt like that. She watched children’s films with her family. She cried quietly.

“But I realised it’s the only thing that I’m really good at. If I’m going to make a difference at all, it’s to help people feel connected to each other and to help them not feel so alone,” she says. “On the hard days that’s one of the things that got me through.”

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Like its title, the album is multi-layered, a lockdown album that’s not specifically about lockdown but does “honour that time”. The songs revel in Sharon’s signature brand of universal vulnerability that pulls you, almost hypnotically, into her world while still leaving enough space between her words, melodies and music to allow you to imprint your own meaning and experience on to her songs.

We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong is everything all at once, a stunning, often startlingly beautiful exploration into relationships and love — long-term and long gone — anxieties, mistakes, motherhood and the messy side of life.

“I have this glitch in me; whenever I’m feeling emotion I can’t address it right away. I need to step away and process it, write about it, analyse it and then look at it. Then I have a better understanding of what I’m feeling,” she explains.

“Then I can find words but the words always come later. It takes me a very long time to actually understand what it is I’m feeling. I’ve learned how to have that part of myself in different aspects of my life.

“I’m learning what brings me anxiety and to control those things better or acknowledge them when they’re happening. What being mindful actually is and what that means to me,” she continues.

“I feel like the more that I’m able to write about feelings the more I’m a better communicator in my life and better at processing things.”

Grief hangs heavy on the album, grief for what could have been, the life that Covid stole both literally and figuratively, and that feeling of being suspended in air, floating hopelessly, waiting — hoping — for the turmoil to pass.

“I feel like with lockdown a lot of people have reflected on things. Anyone who’s experienced trauma in their life prior to this, it comes up even more during another time of trauma. Trauma can trigger trauma,” she says.

“For me, mourning this past life of me that I thought I had got past, and learning how to live in the moment while knowing that something entirely different is happening on a larger scale, it’s hard to come to terms with that when you feel isolated. But obviously the whole entire world was going through a mental health crisis. It’s harder to deal with it and to get help or even acknowledge it when you’re not around people and feel isolated.”

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She says these feelings led her to reach out more, to friends and family, and she feels lucky she had the support of those that knew what she was going through.

“It helps you not feel alone when you’re going through those moments,” she says.

Despite the heavy topics, Sharon has been a joy to chat with, warm and open and sincere. With the record nearing release she smiles and says she feels “anxious, giddy, excited, nervous… scared of how it will be received”.

She needn’t worry. She has We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong absolutely right.

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