Lunch With Sharon Van Etten: On Motherhood, The OA‘s Secretive New Season, and Moving Out West

Over lunch, the singer opens up about some big life changes.


On Monday night, Sharon Van Etten performed her new single “Comeback Kid” on The Tonight Show. The last time she appeared on Jimmy Fallon, it was 2012—and at that point still Late Night with Jimmy Fallon—and Van Etten, then 31, had just released her third studio album, the critically-acclaimed Tramp. “I remember that little kid being so nervous and my whole family was there. It felt like a lot at stake at the time,” she recalls. “I’m still nervous. It’s not like it’s an old shoe. I still get nervous and it’s still a lot of pressure.”

The nerves may be lingering, but pretty much everything else has changed for Van Etten over those seven years. In that time—and more specifically, over the last two years—the singer attempted to take a break from music to pursue a degree in psychology, and instead, by some steady stream of serendipity or fate or whatever you want to call it, ended up with her first acting job, a brilliant new record, a fiancé, and, most important of all, a baby boy.

All of this Van Etten recounts over lunch between sound checks for that evening’s taping of Fallon, at a midtown cocktail bar in the no man’s land between Times Square and Bryant Park that also happens to serve lunch. It’s mostly empty, save for a crowd of business types occupying an upstairs alcove, who erupt into bouts of laughter every so often, oblivious to fact that the brunette ordering a bowl of butternut squash soup just a few feet away from them will be rocking out on national television in a few hours. “I thought I was just going to be nerdy girl,” she continues, herself still a bit incredulous about the twists and turns of the past few years.“But it was great.”

Once her lunch arrives after some light confusion (I’ve only ordered a green tea, and the waiter asks if we’ll be sharing the soup; “Two straws,” Van Etten says; we all laugh), we dive in, starting with her role on Netflix’s sci-fi series The OA, the easiest topic to maneuver because Van Etten can’t say much for fear of spoiling anything. It’s also the wrench that sent Van Etten’s life plans into flux. “I went to school at the top of 2016, and I got the call [from The OA],” she said. “My partner is so supportive that he was like, ‘It’s an adventure, let’s do this.’ And I just thought, ‘Do I sound like a phony?’ Because it was a huge decision to stop touring and go to school. I was 35. I could have ridden that and maybe be bigger than I am… I don’t know. Everyone says ride the wave while you can, but I was like, ‘I can’t.’ I didn’t have a plan. So I took the role because the school allowed me to defer my enrollment for the next semester. That was my condition.”

Van Etten, who had never acted in anything prior to The OA, took the part primarily because she felt a deep connection with her character, Rachel, one of the fellow captives trapped alongside Brit Marling’s lead character Prairie Johnson. “The role I connect with on a personal level because she grew up in a choir, she ran away from home to pursue her passion, and then something really terrible happened on the way and it changed her life,” she said. “Broad strokes, that was my coming-of-age tale of eventually getting to New York and pursuing music. It wasn’t an easy path to get here. I think my voice is my superpower and my Achilles heel.”

Rachel sounds like Sharon Van Etten, and even performs an a capella version of her song “I Wish I Knew” in season 1. But other than that, the experience of acting—which Van Etten jokingly refers to as a “recurring fluke”—was a moment of learning for the singer. “I don’t know that world at all, so I didn’t know what to expect or what was going to happen. When I make a record, I have control over it. With the show, I had no expectations. I was pleasantly surprised, like, ‘Oh, we did good,’” she said, before redirecting the question: “Did you like the show?”

I did, and so did plenty of other people. On Friday, The OA will return to Netflix for its highly anticipated second season. And here is where Van Etten, otherwise a straight shooter, gets cagey. “Hours are insane,” she said. “The role is so complicated and unpredictable and there were different locations this time. Once you see the show, you’ll see why…. I think I’m being vague enough. There are things where I don’t even know until I get the script that happened to me. It’s a challenge. I didn’t even know what Reddit was into recently and my sister sent me a text like, ‘Is Rachel an FBI agent?’ And I’m like, ‘Honestly, I don’t know.’ There’s power in not knowing.”

The reprisal of her role for the second season meant, for the New York-based Van Etten, to essentially be “on call” for six months and able to shoot in California at a moments notice. Rather than wait around, Van Etten and her partner, music manager and drummer Zeke Hutchins, along with their then one-year old son, decided to relocate for those six months. That’s when some kind of fate struck again. “I only shot for eight days,” she said. “And I ended up making my record.”

Released in January, Remind Me Tomorrow, is Van Etten’s biggest record to date, both sonically and thematically. The typically stripped down singer-songwriter has welcomed a new world of hazy synths (she even named one of the songs, “Jupiter-4, ” after one such instrument that inspired that sound). Her lyrics are both personal and universal, this time speaking to themes of confronting the past and future at once. It’s also garnered Van Etten some of the best reviews and reactions of her career, culminating in a largely sold-out tour around the world—that, in and of itself, is a brand new undertaking. “Before I didn’t really have an intention with the show, rather than song, song, song, song, song,” she said. “Now there’s more of a transition between every song, there’s a break, I have a section for old songs. It helps to get into the zone.” Before embarking on the U.S. tour, which wrapped at the beginning of the month, Van Etten worked with a lighting designer and picked venues “that have the vibes so that when you go in as an audience member you feel more involved.”

She also had to learn to maneuver the stage sans guitar, as many of this album’s songs see her focus solely on vocals. “I was overwhelmed because I’m used to having a guitar for most of those shows,” she said. “The intensity of most of those performances was mostly internal and rocking out on the guitar and turning inward. Whereas now, I’m standing with a mic and confronting the audience. It’s a lot more direct.” But she’s still having fun; at February’s hometown show at the Beacon Theater, she enlisted Fred Armisen to open for her, and when he couldn’t make it, his friend John Mulaney stepped in. “I know my set can be pretty serious, so it was a way to have people blow off some steam,” she said. “I think he had fun?”

Van Etten will continue touring throughout the spring and summer, including a few festival stops at Glastonbury and Lollapalooza, among others. It will Van Etten’s longest stint apart from her son, who turns two today. “He knows when I’m packing and leaving,” she said. “He even knows when my fiance and I are going out on a date. We Facetime him, and he’s still figuring out what that is, but sometimes he gets frustrated and we can’t get past it. I get the same way with other people on Facetime. Being away stinks. It’s hard.”

Sharon Van Etten, shot in New York City. March 2019.

The singer took him to some local venues on the last leg of the tour, and inadvertently, he’s become somewhat of a budding musician himself, she explained, taking out her phone to show me a picture of the toddler watching Springsteen on Broadway and holding a mini-guitar. His true love, however, is “Boom-boom-bah,” which Van Etten translates to “drumming.” “He started off with two pencils on the table, and we got him a little drum-kit,” she said. “I’m like, ‘We are screwed.’”

Van Etten and Hutchins also recently became engaged, which she announced on her Instagram page last week. “We make the joke that we did it backwards,” she said. “My mom was like, ‘Are you going to get married and have kids?’ I told my mom, ‘We’ll get married and have kids, but it might not be in the order you think.’ And she was like, ‘You always did do things your own way.’ But I still believe in it. I’m a romantic, goddamnit. I think there’s something beautiful in having everyone you love in the same room and saying, ‘This is our story, this is why we love each other, and this is our boy.’ And our boy can be in our wedding.”

Between touring and wedding planning (the pair already have the “when and where,” set, she said, noting the task “feels more fun than stressful”), Van Etten has a busy summer ahead of her, and yet the biggest change of all is coming this fall: in October, the lifelong East Coaster is moving West. “We made an offer on a house… and they liked us,” she said. “And now we’re like, ‘Shit, we’re not ready.’ We’re renting it out until we’re ready.” The plan is to let the lease on their Brooklyn apartment lapse in May, and stay with family this summer while Van Etten tours, and officially move in come October. It’s a big move, but an exciting one that feels inevitable at this point in her life. “All of a sudden, I have a kid who right now is in our closet, and we can’t afford anything more,” she said. “We rent, and I can’t afford to buy here. My partner is a manager and I’m a musician and we’re fairly successful at what we do and we can’t get beyond this one bedroom apartment where our baby is sleeping in our closet.”

Her future home is on the East Side of Los Angeles, near Highland Park. “It’s a quiet neighborhood with a cute little backyard in a good school district,” she said. “It’s just exactly where we are in our lives.” There’s also a studio attached to the home. “I’m nervous about being an East Coaster on the West Coast and being a cliche, but I’m a cliche anyways,” she continued. “We all are.”