Sharon Van Etten Isn’t Afraid of Not Knowing

The indie folk-rock singer-songwriter discusses her new album and the Wild Hearts tour.

During the pandemic, the ‘90s coming-of-age film The Sandlot became a regular fixture in Sharon Van Etten’s home. Since she had recently moved with her family to Los Angeles, her young son saw the film’s heroes not just as characters, but as friends—and spent many nights watching their wild attempts to retrieve a Babe Ruth-signed baseball.

One scene particularly struck Van Etten: when the kids suck the ball into a vacuum cleaner, which then explodes after being bitten by a dog. Shaking himself off and looking at his friends, one of the boys admits, “We’ve been going about this all wrong.”

“I’ve seen that movie so many times…but at this particular scene, whatever was going on in the world, I teared up, then wrote it down and put it on a Post-it note,” Van Etten tells WW.

Looking at the Post-it note on her computer each day as she got to work writing, Van Etten realized, “all of my songs fell under this category of not really having answers, not knowing what to do, but sitting with these feelings and ruminating on them and trying to think about how I can be better.”

Van Etten jokingly says the origin of her most recent album’s name, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, isn’t much deeper than that. But her self-deprecation belies the fact that all the songs on the album (which was released last May on Jagjaguwar) are more breathlessly powerful than almost anything she has produced in the past.

Unlike with typical records, Van Etten chose not to release any singles off We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong. Her intention was that listeners would play the tracks from the beginning so they could experience the album’s undulating story, which doesn’t shy away from the realities of pandemic life.

“I know a lot of people tried to make records that avoided talking about COVID…but everybody that made records during this time made COVID records,” she says. “I’m just gonna lean into this feeling and talk about other things that nobody wants to talk about. Because it’s still happening and we’re all holding in all these feelings because we don’t want to go there again.”

The album quietly opens with the heartbreaking “Darkness Fades,” a song about the strain on Van Etten’s marriage while she tours and the incredible contrast of quarantining together (“It’s been a while since I held you close/Been a while since we’ve touched/All the doors close/I’ve seen the fall”).

Next is “Home to Me,” which talks about the daunting question that many mothers face: How do I balance my job with my family? The song speaks to Van Etten’s son, begging him to not hold it against her that she’s often on the road (“You’re on my mind/Do you not see?”).

The album reaches a dramatic climax with “Born,” which feels like an awakening into a new headspace. And the next two tracks, “Headspace” and “Come Back,” speak of redemption and a recognition of the anguish the past two years have brought upon us.

We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong is fueled by warmth and energy that Van Etten is sure to bring to the Wild Hearts Tour with Angel Olson and Julien Baker (for more information, see Shows of the Week).

“With the bottleneck of artists all booking tours at the same time, I realized that many artists were inadvertently competing with each other,” Van Etten says. “Instead of doing our own tour and being competitive with other people, why not take some of my favorite artists and create a tour where fans don’t have to debate over which show to go to?”

Van Etten is excited for the opportunity to play at mostly outdoor venues this summer—and as her new album suggests, she’s feeling optimistic. We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong reminds us that despite all the pain in the world and our inner lives, it’s not all darkness. And while it’s unclear how we can move forward, at least there’s recognition—and hope—that we can.

SEE IT: Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen, and Julien Baker play at McMenamins Edgefield Amphitheater, 2126 SW Halsey St., Troutdale, 800-669-8610, 6 pm Tuesday, Aug. 2. $50.50. All ages.