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Sylvan Esso is Done Following the Rules

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  • Posted on 23rd Aug, 2022 16:47 PM

The electro-pop duo's experimental new album is a testament to the power of creating outside of expectations.

When Sylvan Esso traveled from their home in Durham, North Carolina to Los Angeles earlier this year, they never expected to make an album—much less discover radical new possibilities for their sound. Having traveled cross-country predominantly to attend the Grammy’s, where they were nominated for Best Dance/Electronic Music album for their 2021 record Free Love, their plans outside the award ceremony were largely thwarted due to the rise of the Omicron Covid-19 variant. Stuck in their rental house, the electro-pop husband-and-wife duo, which consists of lyricist and singer Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn, found themselves free to write and create without any pressure or precedents in mind for the first time since releasing their eponymous debut record in 2014.

In three weeks, Meath and Sanborn composed enough songs to make an accidental album, and that project, No Rules Sandy, released earlier this month. Comprising 16 tracks, including the sweaty dance hit “Echo Party” and the tender love ballad “Coming Back To You,” it’s their most personal and experimental project to date and has opened up a new world of possibilities for their work together as Sylvan Esso.

To celebrate its release, Harper’s Bazaar spoke to Meath and Sanborn about artistic liberation, building a more equitable music industry, and the complex beauty of a creative life and partnership.

Harper's Bazaar: You founded a record label last year called Psychic Hotline. What was the impetus for that?

Nick Sanborn: We realized we were going to get the rights back to our first record and Mountain Man's first record at the same time and we needed a place to put them. We were tired of all of the normal things that we could do in that situation, so we started to imagine what a label would look like that we would want to do it on. And then we realized we could just start that. It’s been awesome. We just did a label showcase at the Newport Folk Festival where we put a band together with a bunch of people who are our friends and played each other's songs. It was just insane.

HB: Is the goal for it to set a different standard for labels and create something that allows artists to feel like they're in control of their own vision and music?

The way to improve things is to get rid of standards as we know them and begin looking at systems creatively again.

NS: The whole idea is about removing the label’s requirement to make money as the number one goal, which felt like the main thing for every other label I've been on. We were like, what can we do? What choices can we make that will help somebody take control of their own thing? How can we make sure that somebody has the resources to live the life they want and make the work they want to make? The minute you take the standard goals of a record label in a capitalist sense out of the equation, all sorts of weird, radical, interesting possibilities show up. And it's kind of just about exploring all of those right now.

Amelia Meath: I think one of the reasons why the music industry is so generally fucked is because the standard itself is being continually lowered. The way to improve things is to get rid of standards as we know them and begin looking at systems creatively again. How do we create a world that we want to live in?

HB: The fact that your contracts carry a standard line item that encourages white artists to donate 5% of their earnings towards reparations really speaks to that.

AM: I think it's important to try to reach towards healing, to try to figure out how to acknowledge the wrongs that have been done while still moving forward and continuing to survive. Trying to figure out how to both live with accountability and move forward—it's all a creative pursuit. This was our first effort at that. There's so much more to be done.

NS: At the very least, we’re starting a conversation. I think that's the whole goal of this thing is to increase opportunity, distribute resources to people who need them, and reorient the playing field in a more level way. A contract is representative of the values that you're trying to project. You can say all you want in a press release but at the end of the day, what did you make somebody sign? What does your agreement look like? Because if you're not bringing it there, then it's just lip service.

Shervin Lainez

HB: Before the pandemic, you also opened a studio and retreat called Betty's in Durham, North Carolina, near to where you live. What’s your vision for that space?

AM: Because of the pandy, we've had so much time to actually invest in Betty’s. So the house really feels like a house in a different way than it did before. Before it kind of felt like a summer camp, and it still does but it's a little more adult.

NS: Lowercase “A” on that adult, though.

AM: Yeah, it's true. Everyone's just big babies in adult outfits. The wildest part about Betty's is that the minute it started, it was the place I had dreamed of it being. There’s an energy in the air that I thought was going to take a long time to create. And somehow, it's already present.

NS: It’s just a testament to the people who come here. We're really lucky to be a part of such a crazy, talented, and emotionally open group of musicians and friends. It’s not really about the place. It's about the dynamic of all of the people who are there on any given day. And it's not a commercial studio, we’re not open to the public. We're not trying to make money, that's not the point. The point is to figure out how we can enable work to get made that might not otherwise have gotten made. By removing making money from the list of priorities, all this fun shit opens up.

Courtesy of Shorefire Media

HB: You just released No Rules Sandy, and you've said it represents a new era and starting point for Sylvan Esso. What makes it feel so different? What gives it that energy?

AM: This record was more about exploration and experimentation than our previous ones have been, mostly because Nick and I started making these songs without the intention of creating a body of work. We were just having fun. And then every time we went back to the pool to see if there was anything in there, there kept on being songs. And then because we wrote so many songs in a row, there were all of these songs that related to each other; they were all created in the same three weeks.

We started recording and we weren't thinking about anything beyond having fun and impressing each other.

HB: You wrote them all during a trip to Los Angeles—what was different that created that lightning-in-a-bottle moment?

NS: I think a lot of it was pandemic-related. We've both really been working on our craft for the last little while. We showed up in LA with all these other intentions. We intended to take some writing sessions and go to the Grammy's, but then Omicron hit and all that shit got canceled. So suddenly we're just on the other side of the country in this house with literally nothing to do except hang out together. We started recording and we weren't thinking about anything beyond having fun and impressing each other. I haven't felt that way since we made our first record, but that was 10 fucking years ago. I feel like a wildly different person. Somehow, we got back to that space, and it felt like a total breath of fresh air.

HB : This is also your most personal album yet. What makes it feel so intimate and precious in that way?

AM: Whenever we've put out a record before, it's something that we've made maybe eight or nine months prior. But we actually just made this. The way that we were writing in terms of both the speed and the lack of criticalness that we were employing means that the lyrics on it are unlike anything I've ever written before, they're so open. It’s all so unedited.

NS: On top of that, we started feeling that every time we tried to polish something we liked it less. We started leaning into anything that made it feel more intimate. That's where a lot of the interstitial bits then came into play. We were like, what if we start putting our friends' voice memos on here and our answering machine messages and all this different audio from this really short period of time? Every time we put more of it on, it felt like another doorway into that intimate space.

Bobby Strickland

HB: You guys are partners in life and in art, and while you obviously have a lot of the same creative visions, that closeness can probably also complicate things. How do you navigate that?

NS: Oh yes, it's very difficult all the time. We both just really give a shit. We argue constantly about stuff because we both are very convinced that we're right, and we both want it to be awesome; it's way more arguing than it is agreeing, in a very productive way.

The music is a natural extension of our relationship and vice versa.

AM: Yeah, that's true. And I think with anyone who decides to make their creative pursuit their life pursuit, your life also becomes a creation that you are performing and creating around you. The fact that Nick and I have decided to complicate things further by wrapping our partnership into it… Basically everything is an ouroborus, and it's crazy, but we can do it. The only way that we've figured out how to do it is we are talking about what's happening and how we feel all day long.

NS: We don't really know any other way to be around each other. As long as we're hanging out, we're probably going to be making things. The music is a natural extension of our relationship and vice versa; our relationship tends to be about the making of the things, just because it's so all-consuming.

HB: Coming off of this album and having that experience of writing it, do you foresee Sylvan Esso continuing in this direction and continuing to experiment? Has it changed how you view your trajectory as a band?

NS: I think if anything it just makes me confident that I have no idea what we're going to do next. I think before this, I felt like I really knew of what our music was going to sound like and what we were going to do and how our career was going to go. And now it just feels like there are way more possibilities.

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