Sylvan Esso

Try to pinpoint the perfect occasion for Sylvan Esso’s music and you won’t find just one. If you haven’t already, you’ll discover the staying power of their songs that take residence from mood to mood, room to room.
So when it came time to work on their sophomore album What Now, Sylvan Esso made it a priority to bring even more variety and emotion into their music. The duo, consisting of singer Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn, debuted their second album in April of this year, doubling their footprint in the indie pop music genre.
“There are a lot of bands that only sound like one energy or one tempo and I don’t think we’re ever going to do that,” Sanborn said. “Our songs come out of the emotional experience of being home.”

Sylvan Esso explains that once listeners feel at home, they’re less likely to guard against emotion, the urge to dance, to sing along, and so on. Listeners know this to be true after latching onto their single “Coffee”, which has collected over 50 million streams between Spotify and SoundCloud collectively and served as the first introduction for many to Sylvan Esso’s light and electronic sound. The band’s first, self-titled album was released in 2014 and is referred to by Sylvan Esso as a collection of sounds on what it feels like to be young. From the complicated “Uncatena”, to the easy “H.S.K.T.”.

Their goal to trace higher highs and lower lows on emotional scales began with Meath’s songwriting process.

“Writing pop songs, in general, is one of the most satisfying puzzles to finish,” Meath said. “There are a lot of really finite rules about pop songs and I’m constantly thinking about how we can create something that is undeniably catchy, but remains about truthful things that aren’t simple or black-and-white.”

Without abandoning the sound they debuted in 2014, Sylvan Esso uses the interlude of “Sound” to not only start What Now, but to tie the time between their first and second albums together. In the first thirty seconds, static fades and instruments awake as if the needle of a record player is clearing a layer of dust on an album you’ve loved once before.

Between penning the lyrics and fitting them to instrumentals, the band comes across the occasional differing opinion. Just as any breakthrough is welcomed, so too are the creative disagreements.

“It’s a part of our process—the band is a fight,” Sanborn said. “I think by having to defend an artistic position, you really have to figure out why you believe what you believe. So if you’re on the flip side of that, you’re responsibility to anybody that you’re [working] with is to be open to the possibility that you’re completely wrong.”
The duo laughs as they agree that through two albums, two tours and the odd revisions along the way, they have reclaimed arguing as a positive force in their collaboration.

“At the end of the day, our main band rule is that if we both don’t love [an idea] then it isn’t a part of our band,” Sanborn said.

This dynamic is part of what gives way to projects like What Now, which, in the span of nine tracks, offers effervescent songs like “Die Young” and “Kick, Jump, Twist,” and, just as suddenly, provides songs that halt your dancing with introspective moments like in “Slack Jaw.”

After completing the album, which was recorded between travel commitments in six different studios around the country, it still felt unfinished to the band.

“We were looking for that cathartic moment to come upon us after writing the last two songs, but that doesn’t happen when you’re making something that’s meant to be shared,” Meath said. “For us, that cathartic moment started on tour.”

Currently midway through their What Now tour, Sylvan Esso will round out seven months on the road with a European leg in November.

“Last night was our second show at First Ave.,” Sanborn said recalling their back-to-back Minneapolis gigs, which sold out both nights. “Playing those two sets for the crowd and feeling the way everything interacts—the new and the old songs and where they each sit in a set—was an absolute joy. This tour is the first time I feel like I know what the record is and that it’s finished.”

In fact, Sylvan Esso’s dedication to touring is underscored time and time again when they discuss their work. It’s an energy that manifests at their shows through the duo’s simultaneous method of moving through a setlist: Sanborn bobbing over the sound board that buoys him just to the side of Meath who has become almost as recognizable by her platform shoes and corded-microphone choreography as her voice. Because none of their on-the-road experiences can be duplicated, each night feels new for Sylvan Esso.

“It reminds me of that Bruce Springsteen quote that says, ‘Amateurs ride the wave and professionals are the wave,’” Sanborn said. “It’s not about relying on the audience’s energy, but knowing that we, as artists, continue to create music that is the energy.”

Text Kyle Thornburg
Photography Shervin Lainezw