Sylvan Esso

Interview

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Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn’s collaborative debut as Sylvan Esso was far and away one of our favorite albums of 2014, so we were delighted to speak to them ahead of the release of the ambiguously-titled follow-up, What Now. Here, the North Carolina-based electro-pop duo talk fear, politics and difficult second albums.

The success of your debut must have surpassed your expectations? From the outside looking in it felt like you blew up over night.

Amelia Meath: It was slower [for us] but also if you spend enough time making a record and getting a record label, you have to kind-of pretend that you’re going to be successful. Because if you don’t then why wouldn’t you just record [the album] and then keep it?

Nick Sanborn: And it depends on whatever your version of success is. There are so many different ways that a record can be successful, I think.

AM: Exactly. But since this was a pop record, and engineered to be fun to listen to, we had to lay groundwork just in case

How conscious were you of audience expectations writing this second album?

AM: There was definitely a new level of expectation. You know, you’re fighting to not be influenced by the fans but also you have to pay attention to it, but you also don’t want to do that thing where you over-cater because you’re self-conscious, because then your record doesn’t have any soul, because you’re just trying to recreate the first record. So half of the battle of writing the record was us getting in our own way.

NS: And us realising that what the people who like our band actually like is when we just honestly write songs, however those come out. And the minute you realize, like, “Oh, it’s just this musical connection we have,” there’s no way for your connection with any other person to ever be a static thing that never changes. We realized that we have both grown up and the way we make music has changed, and that’s the thing that anybody who already likes us wants to hear, so let’s just write the things that make sense for us to write now.

Is there any truth in the “difficult second album” cliché?

NS: Oh absolutely.

AM: Yeah, it’s so scary. And here’s the thing: it’s not as if we were fearful of losing fame; what we were fearful of was losing our career. Because the second album is when you prove it, like, I can do it again.

NS: And I’m going to be there for a while. The cement is wet up until that second album has a reaction.

AM: Like, I have shown you consistency: be my real fan.

Were you seeking to explore different avenues on this album?

NS: Not consciously.

AM: When we were making the first record we were sending out feelers to figure out what the parameters of our band were, like, what’s our vocabulary? How are we going to talk about all of these different things?

NS: What different sounds can we use? How wide can the palette be?

AM: What’s the mission statement? And we figured that out with the first record, and because of that now it sounds very self-aware, to us anyway. It’s like when you look back at a photo of yourself when you were 16. With this record we knew how we communicated.

NS: And we really knew what the band was. And, again, that realisation that it’s always going to change was a really comforting one.

When did you begin work on What Now, then? Did you write on the road?

AM: We tried. Working on the road is hard. Also, you have to live to be able to write songs and when you’re on tour your life shrinks to the size of a postage stamp, you know? You go back to lizard brain, where it’s like, “Do I need food?” (Nick laughs) “Time to go to sleep.”

NS: And it feels very disconnected from most other reality. It feels like you exist within this travelling bubble.

AM: So you need to recharge, and live again...

NS: ...If you don’t want to write a record about that bubble. Because those are usually pretty boring records. (Laughs)

AM: We could never write while we were actually on the road, but we started having little breaks, like a year into touring [the first album] and that’s when we wrote “Kick Jump Twist”. And then we actively had to just kick ourselves off the road, which was great because we were so fucking sick of the songs from the first record that it started to hurt to play shows. So we did that and then sank into the abyss of panic and fear. (Nick laughs) ONLY TO RISE OUT OF IT WRITING SONGS! (Laughs)

How has the creative process evolved between the two of you?

AM: For the majority of this record we spent so much more time together than we did before. Before, it was really embarrassing to fall flat on your face in front of somebody, particularly when you’re being creative and talking about feelings. And when I’m checking with Nick to get his opinion on an idea, I have to sing it. Which is a crazy thing to do. (Laughs) It’s very embarrassing. Particularly if it sucks, which most of the time it does, you know? So we got really good at being looking really silly in front of each other.

NS: Now, with the path the songs travel from zygote idea to finished thing, I feel like we were making that together more often than we were making it separately. Listening back to [songs] now, it’s tough to figure out which parts were whose ideas.

AM: We puzzle-piece it together. And the hardest part about pop songs is the art of the chorus. Pop songs in particular are a real art. You have to hit it at the right points or else it doesn’t work.

In what tone of voice should we be reading the album title? Or is that the point?

AM: Aha... Yes, that’s why there’s no punctuation.

NS: I think it’s said in all tenses. I think that was the overarching through line for me of when we were writing the record. It was the phrase that I woke up thinking, in the middle of the night, more than anything else. But I think I was thinking that for entirely different reasons and in entirely different ways throughout the entire year that we were making the record; it started in one place and went to a totally different place.

How so?

NS: I think it was really self-involved in the beginning, about what we were going to do next, and the idea that our lives didn’t end after we got this thing that we’d been trying to get our whole lives. We still woke up the next day and didn’t know what we wanted to do. There was almost a sh*tty kind of “woe is us” quality to it, and we were trying to get out of our own paralysis about we could possibly do next since the movie didn’t end.

AM: So self-indulgent. But also [it was] really easy to go there – it was just fear.

NS: But then it kept changing shape and it became about our personal lives, and zoomed outward and became about our country and the world. A theme of a lot of these songs is that nothing’s ever over: no goal you achieve is going to save you, no romance is gonna prevent you from hurting yourself. On the flip side, no great defeat is the end of that battle either; no fight is ever really over. Everything moves on again and that’s really tough to deal with until you realize it’s a really beautiful thing.

And the American Presidential election was playing out while you were writing the album, right?

AM: Yeah, during the election cycle...

NS: ...Which lasted for a bazillion years.

AM: And then we named the album after that happened.

NS: Because it’s almost like that event snapped that lesson into focus. It made a lot of the other stuff make sense.

AM: Also 2016 in general, people were getting f***ing shot; usually brown people, and usually by cops. And drones. There was a f*** tonne of horrible shit happening for the entirety of the year.

NS: It just felt like a pressure cooker.

AM: Yeah, exactly. And then the election came in and everyone got really excited because they were excited about some breath of fresh air and then we got presented with these two candidates. So, what now?

You also talk about the invasive nature of social media and technology on “Kick Jump Twist”, right?

AM: “Kick Jump Twist” is about the ability to create who you are on the internet, and how weird that is. Something is happening where we’re losing honesty right now because people are spending a lot less time actually in front of each other’s faces. Like, you get to know a person when you know how they sneeze, you know? There’s a loss of tenderness that’s happening. And also [you have] the ability to delude yourself and others of what kind of person you are.

NS: And then those others reinforce that back to you and you think, “They’re right, and I’m right – I am this person.”

AM: And it leads to a lack of accountability.

What’s been the biggest challenge in making What Now?

AM: Mostly getting over ourselves. Or not being scared. I think that was the biggest one. That’s something you deal with anyway when you’re writing in general.

NS: And just in life. That took an absurd amount of mental gymnastics for the both of us, I think.

And what now?

AM: Touring forever!

Abril 2017