North Carolina electronic duo Sylvan Esso open up to Pip Williams about their sophomore record What Now, and plenty more besides.
Ahead of today’s release, Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn explained - amongst other things - how making a record is like getting someone to date you, and why industry sexism doesn’t really bother them.
The release of What Now is swiftly approaching! How are you feeling about that?
Amelia Meath: It’s feeling really good so far! When you’re putting out a second record, you’re constantly proving [yourself], like “Don’t worry! We’re still good! We didn’t ruin it!” We [released] “Radio” first, as a high pop vibe, then we did “Kick Jump Twist”. So far it’s been received really beautifully, which I’m so happy about.
Have you got a favourite of the album tracks?
Meath: Our favourite is usually the last one we wrote. What is the last one we did on the record?
Nick Sanborn: “Song”
Meath: It’s probably “Song”.
Sanborn: We can’t help being biased!
We put “Radio” out before we were done with the record. We were really ready to put something out, and even though the record wasn’t done, we felt like that would be a good song to exist on its own. That’s always the question; what makes total sense on its own, and what makes more sense in context on the record?
Meath: I feel like each song on this record can stand pretty independently. You know, it’s like when you’re trying to get someone to date you, and you’re like “this is a really cool thing about me,” then “I have this really fantastic date planned!” It’s like, cookie crumbs.
Sanborn: The last one you tell them is “I am a crazy person,” so by the time they find out that you’re crazy, they’ve already seen all these lovely things.
Did the creation of this record overlap at all with touring your debut?
Meath: Not a tonne, but we started writing this record about halfway through the tour for the self-titled record. It’s almost impossible to write when you’re on the road.
Sanborn: It’s the coolest job in the world, but it’s also unbelievably exhausting and takes up your entire life. The two can coexist!
Meath: Once you decide to be a touring musician, you can pretty much wave goodbye to ever having a pet, or being in one place and having friends that aren’t also touring musicians.
Sanborn: That was one thing that was really cool about stopping touring; we started buying groceries, and cooking.
Meath: I got a plant!
How has the leadup to this release differed from that of your debut record?
Meath: It’s very different, in that we have fans now! Not very many over here, but we’re getting them! Writing for people was very different than writing for a pretend audience. In a way, it was much easier to do.
Is there an pressure that comes with writing for a known audience?
Sanborn: We were kind of paralysed at first, and the minute we stopped worrying what anyone was going to think about it was the minute we were able to write the whole thing. It weirdly made it harder, but it also helped us trust ourselves - depending on how mean we were feeling about ourselves on any given day!
Meath: People who like our band, really like our band! It’s the best.
Sanborn: It’s really cool, but also I feel like we get people who normally don’t openly have a good time at shows to openly have a good time at our shows. I’m not sure what that is - something about us being really open on stage maybe makes people feel like they have permission to do that?
Do you find there’s a big difference between how your songs come across on the record to how they come across live?
Meath: I think definitely for the first record that’s very true. On this record I think they’re on the same par. That being said, we haven’t played that many shows yet. The first record grew into a totally different animal as we toured around. It became more of a dance record.
Sanborn: We love stuff that can work in [multiple] settings. In your home, on headphones, you want this intimate experience - I want to feel like it’s just me in there. At a show, I want to be celebrating that, I want to turn it into a different thing. We try to make music that can do both of those things.
Meath: I’m interested in figuring out what this record’s all about, for the next couple of years.
Do you have any plans to take songs in totally different directions, like your Noisey session of “Hey Mami” with a live horn section?
Meath: People always want us to do an acoustic session, which is just crap. We’re a goddamn electronic band! People will be like “Could you just strip it down? Just put a guitar in there?” No, dude, those aren’t our instruments!
Do you write with electronic instruments straight away?
Meath: I write without any instruments in general. It’s kind of an unconventional way of writing lyrics and melody anyway. A lot of Nick’s stuff starts in the box. [Often] it’s like, “I have this one idea, will you just take it, I’ve run out of road.” That could be anywhere from a chorus to a line, and then we volleyball it back and forth.
In terms of writing, which of the songs on this record flowed most easily?
Sanborn: The first track happened really fast.
Meath: That happened in an afternoon.
Sanborn: “Slack Jaw” was kind of quick.
Meath: Nothing was really quick, though. If one part showed up really fast and easily, the rest of the parts were very slow to take. There were some really amazing happy accidents; Nick had wanted me to use drum line on “Rewind” - the one that sounds so insane, like someone just fucked around - for a really long time. I just couldn’t figure out how to do it, and then one day he wrote the synth part for that song. I went out and immediately wrote something, then realised that if we overlaid the drum part on top of that, it would make perfect sense.
Sanborn: There’s a lot of stuff like that. “Glow” is another song that that happened on. We just realise that we’re working on the same thing.
Do you find that, with time, it’s getting easier to write together?
Meath: So much easier! We’re just getting better at making really stupid mistakes in front of each other, which I think is the most important part of collaboration.
Sanborn: It takes a while to get over that with each other.
Meath: It’s embarrassing to suck!
Sanborn: And stuff almost always sucks right when it starts!
Meath: Sometimes I record [my ideas] if I’m a little too embarrassed, and just play it to Nick. Other times I’m just there, singing at Nick. If it’s bad, it’s really bad, and you just have to be like, “Okay, well, there you go, I just sang about a feeling that I had at some point, and it was bad.”
Once you’ve toured together, there’s pretty much no emotional thing that you haven’t seen someone go through. You know where all the hot buttons are pretty fast, because you’re around somebody 24 hours a day.
Do you have any particular sources of lyrical inspiration?
Meath: There’s a lot of old musical references [in our music], from different genres and different pieces of music, but also I do just walk down the street and see a dog, then put the dog in a song. That actually happened in “Signal”! There was a shitty dog that was barking at me.
Who in music are you finding inspiring or exciting right now?
Sanborn: Jenny Hval! That last record of hers, I cannot stop listening to. It’s a totally unique and beautiful record.
Meath: I’m really into MUNA right now. I have a lot of feelings about the production on that record. I also just redownloaded She’s So Unusual, the Cyndi Lauper record. You should listen to it again - it’s so good!
Seeing as we’re here talking about women in pop, have you had any experiences where you’ve been pigeonholed as a band due to being a female frontwoman paired with a male producer?
Sanborn: Yeah, but less and less.
Meath: As we’ve proven that we’re not leaving, people have stopped doing that as much. We don’t have any time for that bullshit.
Sanborn: We will call them out on it. We even call out the latent stuff. I have a big thing about the term “female vocals”, which I just think is the most low-key, prevalent sexist thing that every does. When was the last time anyone used “male vocals” as a qualifier? Never! Somehow a gender is like a genre choice. It’s just so stupid!
In a similar vein, did you see Olly Alexander [of Years and Years] tweeted that he’d seen his album labelled under “Gay” in a record shop?
Sanborn: That’s amazing.
Meath: It would be an honour for our record to be in the gay section.
Sanborn: We definitely have things that we all struggle with, but right now I just feel like my life its so chill. There are people that have it so much worse - there are people in genuine danger! I get to be in a band.
Meath: Everyone’s feminism is all fucked up. That’s fine. Everyone makes mistakes with that sort of stuff. It’s just, more importantly, [for example] do you have enough food?
Sanborn: I’m just like, “eye on the ball everybody!” Maybe it’s why this stuff feels even more pesky.
What are the bigger causes that are most important to you right now?
Meath: We have so much in our state [North Carolina], and in our country.
Sanborn: I don’t know much has made it overseas, but our former governor was the first one to make it illegal for you to be in a restroom [for the gender] that wasn’t on your birth certificate. It’s called HB2. There are a bunch of great groups fighting against that, especially this group called Equality NC, who do great work in North Carolina, but also across the country.
Sanborn: It’s a group that finds and helps organise and fund queer youth groups in the south. It’s really cool.
The other great international network that I just found is groups of lawyers gathering in every city, intercepting children at airports. They pro bono figure out when these kids are getting in, and find them before immigration does, and defend them and get them in foster homes.
Meath: So when people only ask Nick about the lyrics that he writes for Sylvan Esso, it doesn’t really bum me out that much. I have a warm place to sleep. It pisses me off, but they know they’re fuckheads the minute I call them out for it.