On June 1, Lauren Denitzio of Brooklyn-based band Worriers tweeted “Ok, so when are we going to talk about the fact that the title of the new Sharon Van Etten record is a Sandlot reference.”
Denitzio made a good point, so SPIN reached out to Van Etten to have that talk.
That Sandlot reference, the line “We’ve been going about this all wrong” became the title of Van Etten’s sixth album — a beautiful, expansive and exploratory record that is both an honest dissection of the trauma of the last few years and an earnestly hopeful look forward.
Fresh off a recent tour of the UK, Van Etten had a lot to say about her new record, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, her line about using the bathroom after doing dishes and which character from The Sandlot she most identifies with.
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Or as she put it, “I know, it’s intense most of the time.”
SPIN: Can you tell me about the title of the record, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, by way of The Sandlot?
Sharon Van Etten: So, as a family, we moved to Los Angeles in September 2019 after I finished a tour with Bon Iver. We finished building the studio in my garage in January 2020 — and a few months later we’re locked in. When COVID hit, my son was 3, and here we are in LA nesting and unpacking and moving into a neighborhood where we don’t really know anyone. One of the things that I learned is that you just have to make it an adventure. I felt lucky that I was able to be home and help us be more present, because my partner works as a manager, so he has kept his Monday-Friday schedule. I was mostly home while we were figuring this out. He was working at home and I was working from home while also trying to raise this 3 year old. Needless to say, we were not strict with our schedule. It was very free-flowing. It was like “What do you want to do now? How can we make this exciting and fun for you?” We would have movie nights, and I remember this movie growing up. I was like 12 when it came out and my little brother was 8, and we watched together and he became obsessed. So I thought it’d be a fun movie to share with my son, knowing that it was something that I connected with and that his uncle connected with.
We watched it so many times. There’s a lot about it that he personally connected with, being the new kid in town and finding his circle. It was also this time where we had just gotten a dog, and he was learning how to deal with having a new buddy around. It was just one of those things that brought us closer together as a family. We would watch it and he could quote everything and he knew the soundtrack. He could tell you what scene was playing. He pays attention to detail in a way that the more and more we watched it, this movie became his friend. It was something that we could return to that would help recenter him, but also recenter us. We have probably watched that movie 100 times. One particular time I remember we were watching it, and there’s that scene where they’re trying to get the ball back from the neighbor’s yard. Then the vacuum cleaner explodes in his face, and he says to his friends “We’ve been going about this all wrong!”
I had seen that movie so many times, but on this particular day, whatever was going on with me, I was in the process of narrowing down all these new songs that I had written, about 20-25 songs, and I was just struck by this feeling. When you take it out of that context, about all the things that you wish you could change but can’t — and just watching the world outside the window, trying to figure out what it is, what is your place in it. I just got all choked up. I remember writing it down — I am a Post-It person — and I put it on my computer and I just kept returning to this idea. That’s around the time where I decided to lean into that feeling for the record. That title for some reason seemed to be the umbrella of all the feelings that I was experiencing. And that’s how it started.
Did landing on the title and theme give you a through line to start tethering everything to?
Yes, because there are definitely songs that were more experimental that were still finding themselves and there were songs that were maybe a bit more uptempo, and there’s some piano ballads that were more love songs. It helped me be able to whittle it down to the songs that went to that darker place. But one of the things that I wanted to make sure in choosing the songs was that I didn’t want them to feel hopeless, because there are definitely some songs that I had in there that had no silver lining in the song, but those were like ‘That’s just for me and that was a day.’ Sometimes I feel that responsibility of “If I share this, is this helpful to anyone?” So sometimes it was like “That was great for me that day, but that is not what I want to leave people with.” As I was picking the songs, I wanted to make sure there was always a glimmer of ‘That’s not it. There is something else and there is hope, even though it seems dark and lost and mysterious, or just out of arm’s reach. The greater picture is that there can be more and it can get better even though it doesn’t feel like it yet.”
I often wonder if people will sometimes misconstrue “sad songs.” It feels like you make a concerted effort to be like “This was hard, but we’re going ahead.”
That’s my goal, but I think the people that take away from my songs that it’s just darkness, they’re not listening to the words — which I know not all people listen to words and not all people like minor key songs. And not all people like songwriters. [Laughs.] I think hopefully the people that are listening for real, they get it. But I also know that I’m not talking about something easy and not everybody wants to go there. And that’s just their right.
I once made a playlist of songs that have one really great line and one of yours that stands out is, “I did the dishes and I shit in your bathroom” from “Everytime The Sun Comes Up.” I think of that line all the time, it’s the funniest line in the world to me and it’s in a minor key song.
It’s funny, because I have a social media team who’s trying to help me have a narrative in the social media world. I like posting things but they’re like “There is a time to do it and there’s certain things you need to post.” I like it to be in my own words. I don’t like just giving my accounts away. But when they saw that I didn’t have a TikTok, they asked me to sign up for an account and someone tagged me in that song. It was one of those ‘most unnecessary lyrics in the world’ videos, and this guy was so offended. He was like “Why does anyone like this song?” I mean, I’m just telling a story from something that actually happened, because when I was making that record, Are We There, the dish sink was in the bathroom. I was doing the dishes — I think I was a little stoned or something — and then I broke a dish in the sink and I thought it was really funny. But then again, I didn’t think we were going to keep that lyric. It was a placeholder while the band was performing live in one room, and I was stream-of-consciously singing about the day just so they could track the live part. It just came out and Stuart Lurman, who was tracking me, said “Well, I think that’s a keeper.” I was like “Wait a minute, that was just me messing around freestyling.” But we ended up keeping the line because it was a narrative of that day.
My last question is extremely important. Which Sandlot character do you most identify with?
I would say the dog
He’s so underestimated, and everyone’s kind of intimidated by him. But no one ever just went over to see what the deal was. Although I did feel like the new kid in town my whole entire life. But I kind of feel like the dog on the other side of the fence. It’s this unknown thing, but what were they really afraid of? The myth.
I just got some words of wisdom that are still ringing in my ears, and I’m still learning ways to apply it with decisions I need to make in my life. My friend Max said something along the lines of “If you make a decision based on love, instead of fear, you can’t go wrong.” When that scene happens, where the fence falls on the dog and the kid decides to try to save the dog and lift the dog up — even though he was a little afraid — he led with love and everyone kicked in. That feeling that you might be a little afraid, but if you lead from here [points to her chest], that message is something I need to remind myself of every day.
That’s such a perfect answer.
[Laughs.] “Sharon feels like the dog on the other side of the fence”