Sylvan Esso look inward
When the Canadian singer-songwriter Feist was booked to perform at Coachella in 2012, she knew two things: first, she needed a full orchestra, and second, she needed to bring Sylvan Esso singer Amelia Meath with her.
Then 24, Meath was a member of Mountain Man, an all-female North Carolina trio who’d been enlisted by Feist as backup singers on her Metals tour. From the moment she met Meath and her group, “it was clear that we needed to spend a couple of years together,” Feist recalls. “It was this sort of instantaneous respect, and it felt reciprocal.”
But the partnership didn’t last long. After Coachella, Meath returned to Durham, N.C., where she’d moved after decamping from Brooklyn. Soon after, she told her boss that she had plans to record songs with the musician Nick Sanborn, who she had first met when she was 22. “She's like, ‘Yeah, I think I'm in love. And we're going to make a wicked record,’” Feist says with a laugh. “I remember her being like, ‘It's sort of electronic music and he's going to make beats and I'm going to sing and it's going to be massive and amazing.’ She just had a big grin on her face, overflowing with ideas. A few short years later, I was side stage at [Bon Iver’s festival] Eaux Claires watching her and Nick headline, watching thousands of people singing every word.”
In a pandemic-free world, Meath and Sanborn — the musical duo now beloved as Sylvan Esso — would soon be trotting out their third album, Free Love, to massive festival crowds around the world. Instead, they’re Zooming from Durham today (Meath from their home, Sanborn from his car in a parking lot several miles away, en route back from their studio) and plotting their most DIY rollout since 2014. “It feels like MySpace again,” Meath says. “It feels like what it used to be like when I would book Mountain Man shows by cold-calling venues.”
Free Love is somehow prescient and nostalgic in the same breath. It traffics in intimacy and self-preservation in the face of opening oneself up to love. “I feel like the record makes more sense now than it would have had this not happened,” Sanborn says. Jokes Meath, “So many of our songs have been about the collapse and/or ruination of society through excess, but talked about in a really fun way. It’s almost creepy how prevalent those themes are in the world now.”
Meath, 32, and Sanborn, 37, first began working together in 2013, when the former asked the latter, under his Made of Oak project, to remix a Mountain Man song called “Play It Right.” The two realized their styles meshed better than one lone track could express, so they teamed up as Sylvan Esso. The duo’s self-titled 2014 debut paired Meath’s “secretive, intimate” songwriting with Sanborn’s propulsive and sticky production, and they were soon selling out clubs around the country and booking major festivals like Bonnaroo, Firefly, and Austin City Limits.
Then, in between their first and second album, they got married — something the pair are only now comfortable discussing in public. “I was really, really protective of the information for years and years, mostly out of a mixture of fear of the patriarchy,” Meath says. “It's happened a couple of times where we'll be getting interviewed and I am only asked about what it's like to be in a relationship with my creative partner. Then we don't talk about my songs.”
She rolls her eyes and smiles. “That being said,” she adds. “Marriage rules.”
In 2017, they returned with their cheekily titled second album, What Now, led by the flippant lead single “Radio” (sample lyrics: “Singing I've got the moves of a TV queen/Folk girl hero in a magazine/Faking the truth in a new pop song”) that rejected any boxes people wanted to put them in while wrapping their message in deliciously synthy pop packaging. The rest of the record is blistering, honest, and deeply funny; songs touch on success (“Slack Jaw”), the versions of ourselves we choose to put on display every day (“Just Dancing”), and an album by the short-lived Washington rock band The Microphones (“The Glow”). Each song is equal parts surprising and delightful.
Free Love, out Sept. 25 via Loma Vista, expands Sylvan Esso’s expertly laid groundwork across ten intricate songs. “There are certain themes that the band has been dancing around for the six years that we've been putting out records,” Meath says. “It's still such a challenging and exciting thing to make intrinsically fun, catchy music that reaches towards deeper truths that aren't lizard brain.”
Part of Sylvan Esso’s draw is just that — uncompromising pop music presented as pop music, but pop music that doesn’t talk down to its listeners. The duo also willingly offer multiple points of entry. They beckon to fans who want to dance, and they warmly embrace folk devotees looking for contemplative and nuanced songwriting that doesn’t pander. At first glance, their songs could seem straightforward, with recurring themes of love, intimacy, friendship, solitude, and breaking conventions. Listeners who approach them on that level alone will find plenty to be thrilled with. But those looking to dig deeper will find Meath’s tongue-twisting choruses (“Sainted halo, underworld goth vibes/You'll do fine/For tonight,” Meath sings on “Ferris Wheel”), which walk hand-in-hand with Sanborn’s vibrant, supportive production.
The apex of that intersection comes halfway through the album in the form of “Free,” a song the band says served as the key that unlocked the rest of Free Love. “What Amelia was doing was reacting to this increasingly tense world around us,” Sanborn says. “She was looking inward and trying to remember all the times when loving other people was incredibly easy. There is that sense of almost guilty realization that when we love somebody else, a big chunk of that is loving the version of ourselves that we can tell that they see.”
“Free Love shows us embracing the complexity of being human, with pop music that doesn't undercut how complicated being a person is,” he adds.
Meath and Sanborn began working on Free Love in early 2019, two months after wrapping their tour in support of their critically acclaimed sophomore effort. They were in Los Angeles mixing the album this spring when the pandemic hit, forcing them to fly home to North Carolina (“mostly because we went to the Silver Lake Whole Foods and were like, ‘Oh, f--k, we’ve got to get out of here’”) before things took a turn. “Every day, we would look out the window and see less and less traffic,” Meath says. “It was like, ‘Oh no, this is bad.’”
Free Love was meant to accompany a massive tour, spanning multiple festival appearances (including Bonnaroo’s legendary SuperJam) that would’ve put the record’s most intimate moments into the hands of hundreds of thousands. “You plan out in your mind like, ‘Oh, this is going to be it. We're going to break through,’” Sanborn says. “So it's obviously, on our tiny little scale, a huge bummer that all of that went away.”
But both agree there’s an unexpected upside to being forced to scale things down. “Free Love is the first realization of a thing we've been shooting at for a long time, which is for Sylvan Esso to not feel like two people,” Sanborn says. [We wanted] it to feel like it was one expression. All of the walls that used to exist between us and divide our roles just slowly came down through the maturity of communication. It's something that you can't have with somebody that you haven't worked with for this long.”
Seven years into their creative partnership, Meath and Sanborn still find new joys in making music together. “She’s able to point out when I'm succeeding and when I'm failing in a way that doesn't ever feel like a put down or hyperbole,” Sanborn says. “It makes me want to be a better partner and a better producer. It inspires how much effort I want to put into improving my own craft so that I can hopefully be at the level that she's at someday.”
“Nick pushes me towards being as articulate as I can be in order to justify all of the beautiful spaces that he creates,” Meath says. “Because, really, so often what we're doing is just describing the thing that the other has made.”
Though Sylvan Esso have danced around their opinions on traditional success in their music for nearly a decade now, both say Free Love comes closest to what they’ve been told success should feel like. “It's the best thing we've ever made,” Meath says. “Every other time I've finished a record, I'm not interested in hearing it again. With this, I just f---ing love it. I want to hear it all the time. I'm so proud of it.”
For a band that’s leveled up with every release, it’d be too low-hanging a fruit to say the sky's the limit for Sylvan Esso. The arenas will (god-willing) still be there next year, though. For them, right now, success is in the small things. Success is in learning the other’s language and using it to grow. Success is building upon an expanding legacy. Success is never compromising for the sake of a win. Success is making one of the year’s most resonant, warm, necessary albums.
“The growth that we're actually interested in is just being a better band,” Sanborn says. “We each work endlessly at being better as individual artists and improving our creative relationship. Every time we've improved that, our audience has gotten bigger. To us, there's always this fear that the next step from where we're at now is one where you have to reduce it a little bit further, and we're just not interested in that. I'm over-the-moon thrilled at the size of our audience at this moment. How cool it is that we've made these weird songs and they resonated with that many people? I can't think of a better present.”
Meath interjects. “Give me a smash hit,” she says with a laugh. “Let me talk to America about how I don't shave my armpits. Put me in a thong, let me do a hit! I am down. Put me on the couch!”