Sylvan Esso interview: Reaching Through the Static

Feature by Tallah Brash | 18 Apr 2017
  • Sylvan Esso

We catch up with North Carolina-based duo Sylvan Esso to talk anxieties, joys and annoying habits ahead of the release of sophomore album, What Now

“There’s nothing better than when you see someone playing where you can tell they really care about what they’re doing and it makes them feel things. It’s the best!" Amelia Meath is discussing her serendipitous first meeting with Nick Sanborn at a Cactus Club show in Milwaukee back in 2010.  She giggles, affectionately recalling, “I still have the handbill – the tiny copy of the poster – for that show.”

At the time, Meath was playing with her a cappella trio, Mountain Man, and Sanborn was embarking upon the second show by his glitch-pop electronic project Made of Oak, so it was a bit of an unusual billing. “The people who booked that show – their thing was bills where no bands sounded like any other band but that they felt shared a kinship. It was this whole time in Milwaukee where that was a pretty popular thing to do, which I still think is my favourite type of show to see,” Sanborn says. “[I was] excited about the idea of playing my loud, sad instrumental hip-hop before an a capella band; I thought it was a really weird, engaging thing.”

Following the show, the two went on to develop their relationship via good old social media: “It was the early days of Twitter. Nick and I both had accounts, so I followed him – we just tweeted jokes back and forth occasionally,” Meath remembers. “Then when Mountain Man needed a remix I asked Nick, and it took him a very long time, but when he eventually did send it – a year late for what I had wanted it for – it was really good and that essentially was impetus for me to say, ‘We should make more music together.’”

Sanborn jumps in: “And unlike everyone who’s ever said that to me, she sent me an idea the next day. It was cool! It was two years after we’d met and we were both at turning points in our lives – I was thinking about moving and she was wrapping up touring with Feist (Mountain Man regularly collaborated with the Canadian songwriter), and this just kept working out; the universe kept agreeing.”

The two then moved to Durham, North Carolina. Sanborn had moved there as he was playing in Durham-based Megafaun at the time, and Meath quickly followed suit so the duo could work on their self-titled debut. “I thought I’d give it a year, she thought she was gonna give it six months and here we [still] are five years later,” Sanborn explains. “It’s a lovely place full of really nice people and it has a brilliant music scene.” 

Sylvan Esso on working together

Five years on and the two appear closer than ever, bouncing off each other as we continue our chat down the line to them in a hotel suite somewhere in London. We caught them at Primavera Sound Festival in 2015 and their onstage chemistry was exemplary, but can the same be said for behind the scenes?

“At this point we’re pretty much fully committed, including to annoying habits,” says Meath. “Touring really – hopefully – teaches you how not to be an asshole,” adds Sanborn, “which is the main thing, but it also teaches you how to deal with things that somebody else you’re around cannot change.”

“In terms of pet peeves, Nick has no concept of time,” Meath interrupts, expressing her frustration towards Sanborn. “You lose time! Sometimes when he’s on the computer time just disappears so you have to remind him a bunch about leaving. ‘We’re gonna have to go in half an hour… we’re gonna have to go in 15 minutes!’”

“My retort would be that Amelia is easily annoyed about the time we’re supposed to leave,” Sanborn tickles himself into a fit of laughter, further annoying Meath who replies over the laughter with a disgruntled, “I’m a very punctual person!”

Fully aware that we may have just ruined one of the most beautiful musical partnerships of recent times, we swiftly move on to discuss their upcoming release, What Now, and how it compares to their self-titled debut. “That record, it was almost like we were constructing this vocabulary,” Sanborn tells us, “and this record feels much more like we’re using that vocabulary to tell stories.”

“Here’s the thing,” Meath admits. “We had to kind of remember how we wrote the first one, and even when we figured that out, we realised that we had to write it in a totally different way because we were such different people. Figuring out how we write was one of the hardest parts of it.”

“That realisation though – that the experience of the last record had just irreversibly changed both of us and we had both grown up a lot in the three years since it came out – really was liberating,” adds Sanborn.

The most upbeat, dance-fuelled track on the album comes in the form of Radio which Meath admits “was written completely out of frustration, mostly with the pressure that I was feeling from myself, and from Nick and Martin (Anderson, their manager), to write more songs. I had a frustrating conversation with Nick that morning, and then I was like, ‘fuck it!’ and I sat and wrote that song in an afternoon.”

When recording Sylvan Esso, the pair favoured a home set-up over a professional studio, and for What Now the same rules applied for the most part. “We tried to do some studio stuff, but honestly it’s so much nicer when you’re not watching dollar signs click by. When you can take a walk and lose half the day when you need to,” Meath enthuses.

“I think it’s so much easier for me to be creative,” Sanborn adds. “Home studios to me, or our home studio, I just feel like I really know it. I can hear something in my head and know exactly how to get it out without thinking about it too much... it just feels much more warm and comfortable to me.”

Politics, 2017 and What Now

As with a lot of music in 2017, there are unavoidable political references and the same can be said for What Now – because, let’s face it, what now? Trump is in power, Brexit means Brexit and Scotland’s journey for a second independence referendum is underway. It’s surely a question on everyone’s lips.

“The title was decided on after Trump got elected,” Sanborn confesses. “I woke up in the middle of the night with that phrase on my mind more than any other phrase the year we were making this record.”

“And throughout the course of 2016 and now,” Meath adds, “slowly being an empathetic person has become a more and more political act, so it is very political in that way.”

“I think we definitely write music about exactly how we’re feeling at any given moment,” Sanborn continues. “When I listen to it, I hear how anxious we were and I also hear how joyous we were. I hear the claustrophobia in the production of what we were working with, and even lyrically, I think I hear us looking around for meaning both to our own pasts and dealing with where we feel the present is going.”

What Now opener Sound – featuring a broken synthesiser being tuned to Meath’s voice – is the perfect metaphor for the anxieties and joy the two were facing when writing and recording the album. “We made it in an afternoon and the minute it was done we knew it had to be the first song on the record,” Sanborn excitedly tells us. “It so perfectly encapsulated a way that our two ideas could be intertwined, and became a mission statement for the rest of the record. But that only happened because we had been struggling with all of these things.

“I was having a pretty deep long-form anxiety attack about the ramifications of social media and children,” he continues. “The way that we’re all surrounded by all this noise and we’re just trying to find a connection in there, that all of our ideas are being translated poorly through something else and then heard by somebody else somewhere else. It was this sound that’s undeniably human, and yet it’s not. But I like that feeling of reaching through the static to find this message.”

With a busy time surely ahead for this hard-working duo, we strongly advice you reach through the static and bathe yourself in the warm pop-flooded waters of Sylvan Esso's latest offering. It might just make you feel things.

What Now is released on 28 Apr via Loma Vista