There’s an effect that pops up toward the end of Sharon Van Etten’s song “Jupiter 4” that sounds like a sort of dry squeak, only spookier, like a haunted windshield wiper. It’s not quite a horror-movie noise, but nor does it sound like it emanated through the Roland synthesizer that gave the song its name. Van Etten doesn’t know what it is, but she knows who’s responsible for it.
“That was Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu,” she tells SF Weekly. “We performed that song live in the studio and he had a crazy setup of modular synths. Sometimes he scraped a magnet on a cymbal, sometimes he had a pencil on a live wire of a pedal or something — he was so fun to watch perform. We just did live take after live take of me singing and him playing, and I don’t know what it was exactly, just all these little boxes and doodads. He was just a wizard.”
There’s a duck call somewhere on the record, too, she adds. The record in question is Remind Me Tomorrow, which was released in January and which Van Etten will perform several selections off of when she and her new band play the Fillmore on her 38th birthday, Tuesday, Feb. 26. From the almost hesitant opening chords of “I Told You Everything” to the Beck-like “No One’s Easy to Love” to the thumping ambivalence of “Seventeen,” it’s an impressive return and a development for a contemporary master of harmonics.
Starting in 2014, Van Etten took about four years off from music, and gave birth to her first child in 2017. The fact that she never completed a four-year degree had nagged at her, so she re-enrolled. As a psychology student at Brooklyn College, Van Etten got a couple of A-minuses during the fall semester. She seems happy about the good grades, but happier still that she was able to matriculate discreetly.
“Nobody knows who I am, which is really refreshing,” she says of her commute to Flatbush on the 2 train or the 5 train. “I feel like I look like a normal person. The only person that’s recognized me in my neighborhood is a guy that runs the gym — and he didn’t know that I played music.”
He’d recognized her from her guest role on Netflix’s supernatural-mystery drama The OA, it turned out. She’s glad her fellow students have no idea who she is, because she’s older than they are and (by her own admission) also kind of a nerd who doesn’t have time for friends beyond “study-buddies.” But based on the song “Seventeen” and its field-trip-to-iconic-NYC-hipster-sites video, Van Etten is at least mindful of what it was like to be that age. With a pouty young woman playing her late-adolescent self, “Seventeen” throws some raw guitar licks against some searing vocals to show that, however gentle and soft-spoken Sharon Van Etten may be, she has an iron core.
Overall, Remind Me Tomorrow’s mood isn’t so much dark as twilit, a descriptor its creator ponders for a moment before accepting.
“It is definitely night owl-like, kind of,” she says after a considerable pause.
The video’s use of a double is straightforward enough, but it brings to mind an aesthetic obsession of filmmaker David Lynch — and Van Etten’s acting career has brought her to him, on an episode of Twin Peaks: The Return. She recalls the incident with an almost mystic reverence.
“It was like walking into a dream,” she says. “It was an out-of-body experience, just upon entry. Upon walking through the crowd to the back of the room, you pass a line of director’s chairs where David was sitting with his megaphone and his cigarette. I couldn’t even make eye contact with him: ‘I can’t, I can’t do that! You’re not supposed to do that!’ ”
His direction basically consisted of telling her to be herself, which she greeted with relief because “I don’t know how to be anybody else.” She performed her song only twice, and then Lynch asked if she was happy with how it had turned out.
“I just looked at him and said, ‘I trust you.’ And he thanked us and we walked off stage,” she adds. “I don’t think I peed myself, but he shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you.’ ”
She describes the encounter as “so psychedelic, I can’t even tell you,” but an element of Remind Me Tomorrow might have it beat. The cover art, designed by music video director Katherine Dieckmann, shows her own children at play in a very messy room, with a little girl who’s wearing only costume jewelry wedged in a suitcase.
“Everyone is messaging me that the photograph is getting flagged by Facebook and Instagram as inappropriate,” Van Etten says. “It’s so funny because I just think it’s so beautiful. The kids are at peace and they’re not being exploited. Nothing is revealed.”
The two of them are in their own little world amid a sea of chaos, she says. But the innocence is not innocent enough for the nonhuman censors of the internet. Having scored her film Strange Weather, Van Etten befriended Dieckmann, and they grew closer after Dieckmann shared stories of what it takes to stay creative after rearing children in New York. They shared a cry at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Strange Weather premiered. It was then that Dieckmann “pulled out this photograph of her kids in the playroom, and at that moment she looked me right in the eye, like ‘You’ll fucking figure it out.’ ”
Van Etten shared the image with her producer, John Congleton, and had a laughing fit once it all made sense.
“Once I knew I was going to call it Remind Me Tomorrow, I knew it had to be the album cover,” she says. “It all happened out of order.”
For what it’s worth, that too, is another Lynchian motif.
Sharon Van Etten, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 7:30 p.m., at the Fillmore 1805 Geary Blvd. $32.50, thefillmore.com