“We didn’t really know that we were making a record until we got home”
BY ELEANOR NOYCE, IMAGES BY BOBBY STRICKLAND AND BRIAN KARLSSON
Formed in 2013 in Durham, North Carolina, electronic duo Sylvan Esso is the lovechild of Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn. Producing serotonin-boosting, dopamine-inducing electropop for over 10 years, Sylvan Esso return today with their latest album, No Rules Sandy.
Their most personal endeavour yet, this instalment was spontaneously recorded in the back of a camper van mid-road trip with no soundproofing and no conventional studio comforts. The pair didn’t realise they’d recorded an album until it was finished, sending their work to their producer – shortly after the release of 2020 album Free Love – who told them to “finish it” and put it out as a record. In many ways, No Rules Sandy is both accidental and purposeful: accidental in the way that it was put together, but purposeful in the character behind it. Featuring voicemails from loved ones and the chirping birdsong from their home in Durham, this collection is a grounding insight into Meath and Sanborn’s private lives. Married since 2016, the pair have made a romance out of their artistic collaboration. Life imitates art, and this latest LP vacillates between Sylvan Esso as artists and Sylvan Esso as people.
Amelia had hinted at her own queerness for years in the notes of her songs, narrating her thoughts of wanting to sleep with women. Now married to a man – her bandmate and long-time musical collaborator – she felt the time was right to publicly disclose her bisexuality, having come out to family at 14 and to her close friends in her 20s. She didn’t want her identity to be dissolved within the heteronormative institution that is, historically, marriage.
In their droves, LGBTQI fans quickly congratulated Amelia not only on vocalising her truth but on opening up the discourse surrounding bisexuality. As a femme-presenting woman married to a man, Amelia was conscious that her experiences of and indeed identity as a bisexual woman were at risk of being erased. And that’s the last thing she wanted.
Ahead of the album release, I caught up with Amelia over a Zoom call. We discussed the bizarre thing that is fame and celebrity, channelling sadness in sonically happy tunes, and importantly, we fangirled over Kate Bush. No Rules Sandy is out now.
DIVA: Your new album – No Rules Sandy – is arriving on 12 August, which is fantastic! How are you feeling about it? Excited?
Amelia: This is the first time we’ve ever announced a record was coming out like two weeks before we put it out. And I love it. It’s so much better.
Because it’s my work, it’s difficult for me to have perception around it because it’s kind of like how the water feels to the fishes. For me, the thing that’s most exciting about it is because we made it in the span of three weeks in Los Angeles in an odd fit of massive creativity. There is an immediacy and a frenetic newness, and there’s a lot more permission and self-trust. And that presence feels much more candid and generous than before. It’s less presentational and more conversational.
DIVA: You’ve described the group as being an argument between the two of you with the pushing and pulling synths and hooks. How does this manifest in your music?
The sound of our music is Nick and I wrestling. The friction has to be there. Otherwise, it just gets too smooth. The couple of times we’ve reached an impasse or gotten really stumped, it’s because one of us doesn’t have the energy to fight for the thing that they want.
DIVA: This project is your most personal one yet, and you’ve used voicemails from your loved ones, birdsong from outside your home etc. between the tracks. What inspired you to add these personal elements?
What’s happening on the record is such a riot of sound and colour. Instead of thinking about each song as having a pause between songs, I wanted the record to continue to keep on growing to this wild crescendo. I didn’t want any moments of silence on the record. It’s such a nice portrait of the loves in my life.
DIVA: What’s it like to collaborate as a married couple?
I didn’t know when I was stepping into this life of being a professional musician that one of the main parts of my job was going to be presenting myself to the world. My life became a part of my artistic practice. The fact that I also wrapped my work in my partnership means that everything is the same. It’s the air that I breathe and every moment of my being. I wouldn’t recommend it because it’s very complicated. Like any radical act that’s outside of the norm, if you’re going to exist within it and be authentic and expressive, it’s an incredibly creative pursuit where you just have to be constantly articulating how you think and feel. It’s the most rewarding thing that’s ever happened to me.
DIVA: How did you land on the name Sylvan Esso? How was the band born?
I wanted something that was incredibly Googleable. I wanted to talk about the juxtaposition between the mechanical and chemical and the inorganic and organic.
We were a band before we were a couple. Nick opened for my band, Mountain Man, in Milwaukee in 2010, and when we needed a remix, I asked him for one. And it took him a year, so he totally blew the deadline, but when he sent it, it was very, very good. I was always curious about what he had to say musically and that slowly became being in love with him.
DIVA: You’re bisexual. Could you tell me a little bit about this journey?
When I look back on all of the things that I’ve done, I feel like I’ve been talking about my sexuality for the whole time. But when I started talking about how Nick and I are married, I also needed to talk about how I am bi. Marriage has been the destroyer of women and it felt like the braver thing to do. I needed to begin talking about how I’m queer. My participation in creating a life – a queer lifestyle – is such a creative act. It contributes to the creativity of the universe and the life that I lead.
On our second record, I’m talking about all the girls and how I wanted to have sex with them. I was never not talking about it. You can listen to the song or I can also say it, but if you actually say what they’re about you’d squish them and kill them or make them uninteresting.
DIVA: You’ve spoken previously about writing “sad songs that sound really happy”, which I think is sonically quite interesting.
Oddly, I think I might be less sad now. Maybe that’s why this is a happier record than I think we’ve ever made. Everything’s in it and because of that, there’s a lot of sadness. It’s less composed, but Echo Party is a dance song about how the dance floor is empty because so many people have died. I think sadness is the essence of pop music.
DIVA: You’re also a dancer. Movement is quite key to your self-expression, as we’ve seen in Ferris Wheel and Rooftop Dancing from Free Love. How does dance interact with your music?
I am a dancer, but I’ve embraced a true lack of excellence that I’m very proud of. When I’m dancing, I’m vulnerable – I’m not reaching for being impressive. I’m trying to live in the moment. It functions more as a signpost, or it’s definitely an expression, but the goal isn’t composition and composure.
DIVA: Kate Bush did the same. She was very into her dance, but she didn’t present herself as a dancer. It’s dancing in a loose, free-spirited way.
Thank you for saying that! I feel very akin to her. She’s a true creative spirit and her catalogue is so excellent, but also so shocking and so visceral. It’s very authentic.
DIVA: Finally, if you could have your fans take one thing, one feeling or sentiment from your music, what would it be and why?
I’d like for people to take away a sense of community. I think it’s really the most important thing that we have. It’s where joy comes from, and it’s the food that we live off. If we lose that, then we’re really fucked.
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