Sylvan Esso: ‘Making music accessible but not simple is something we think about a lot’

Electronic pop duo Sylvan Esso make music that’s both intricate and accessible. Their new album, No Rules Sandy, takes this a step further, opening the door on their personal lives, with intimate recordings, voicemails and birdsong woven between Amelia Heath’s expansive vocals and Nick Sandborn’s frenetic production.

Sylvan Esso

Oh, and the pair are married – but that’s beside the point.

“How can I be moved when everything’s moving?” repeats Amelia Meath, one half of Grammy nominated Sylvan Esso, on the opening track of the American electronic pop duo’s new album. Considering the events of the last few years – or our timeless, primordial concerns – the line is both a poignant assessment of the state of the world, and our position in it, and one that makes you (ironically) pause, and reflect.

“I think it’s my favourite thing that I’ve written,” Amelia tells me, before her partner, Nick Sanborn, Sylvan Esso’s other half, hums a supportive, “Yeah, I love it.”

Sylvan Esso

Photo: Bobby Strickland

“I think the essence of my entire pop music education is in that line,” adds Amelia. “It’s the most to-the-point thing I’ve ever written. And, for me, it keeps on changing what it means.”

Moving meaning, moving lyrics. You’d be unsurprised to hear that much of Sylvan Esso’s new record, No Rules Sandy, indeed begin in a flurry of movement, as the pair set out on the road to L.A. for the Grammys and recording sessions. Upon arrival, as you can probably guess, a spike in Covid cases threw those plans off-course.

Instead, with the spare time available, Amelia and Nick would go their separate ways in the morning before reconvening around noon each day to try to write a song. “It kept on working,” Amelia says simply. “It was wild and strange. After that happened like three or four times, I think we figured out that it was time: that we were making a record.”

Such a natural development into the making of the album, falling into it on their own accord, makes it their most personal record yet – a statement that’s often used to promote albums, with artists hoping to give the impression they are increasingly revealing themselves, peeling back the layers to their fans. Yet when the album includes voicemails from loved ones, birdsong caught in the distance of their recordings and off-guard chatter between them, it’s a reasonable tag to bestow it with.

Sylvan Esso

Photo: Bobby Strickland

“I think the more we made this [album], the more we realised the whole thing felt like a scrapbook,” Nick says, “it felt very pasted together and rough around the edges. There’s an intimacy there that felt really palpable.”

“We wanted to have those interstitial moments baked into the vocal tracks. And the more we felt like we were letting people in, the more it felt like a diary of the moment, so we started to collect all our voicemails and memos from the period and put them all in a folder; then we just started throwing them in there to see if that increased that feeling.

“Every time we put one in, we were letting more listeners in. We’re always looking for that… Making something be very accessible without being simple is something we think about a lot.”

Certainly, it’s a thin line to tread: making something popular whilst maintaining enough of a compelling edge; being “accessible without sacrificing the depth,” as Nick puts it.

Sylvan Esso

Photo: Bobby Strickland

Now four albums into the project, Amelia says with at least a glimmer of pride that “that particular thing is the conceit of this art project: trying to make something that is both fun and also exploratory.”

Yet it’s a formula that Sylvan Esso have managed to crack. Indeed, as Nick shares, “We’ve found that the more personal we get, and the more specific we get, the more people find it… So we have an inverse relationship to what we think pop music is supposed to do.”

Their previous record, 2020’s ‘Free Love’, not only rounded off a trilogy of well-received albums which have raked in millions of streams, but also bagged them a prestigious Grammy nod for Best Dance/Electronic Album at the award’s 64th instalment earlier this year (where they also presented awards).

“It was cool, and weird,” says Amelia. “There’s a part of it where we’re like a baby DIY band, and we’ve muscled our way into these big rooms with people on major labels and people who–”

Sylvan Esso

Photo: Bobby Strickland

“I mean, I handed a Grammy to Stewart Copeland. Like, what the fuck am I doing?” Nick interjects with, emphasising Amelia’s point before she continues.

“It’s really strange that we somehow are in there because it was obviously a night for music. And we definitely make music. But sitting on the floor of the Grammys, and watching BTS literally descend from the ceiling, you think, ‘do we do the same thing? Because I don’t know.’

“Or you’re just completely in awe. It’s just such an honour to be in the same room with so many of those incredible creators, and also like: ‘How did this happen?’

I should emphasise at this point, Amelia and Nick aren’t just creative partners, they aren’t just Sylvan Esso. They’re also married. Something they were, however, initially coy about the world knowing.

Sylvan Esso

Photo: Bobby Strickland

“I think our concern, which we’ve watched play out with many other bands,” explains Nick, “is that it creates a reductivist narrative, especially around Amelia’s work. That wasn’t something we were interested in at all. We were much more interested in talking about the music we made together and our musical relationship.

“People still figured it out,” he chuckles. “I mean, we’ve been married a long time. But talking about it now feels like we’ll talk about it at the end of a 45-minute conversation about the music that we make.”

“I find that usually the minute people figured out that we’re married,” adds Amelia, “it becomes about stupid heterosexual dynamics. People are like, ‘Oh, so actually, instead of being a band, they’re a love story.’ Which is, frankly, boring, I think. Because it’s fucking cool, it’s a great love story, but we’re more than that.”

It’s a noble stance, but once known, in truth, it becomes difficult to divorce much of the lyricism and final compositions from the binding source of any strong marriage: love. Amelia’s words often tip-toe like a Frank O’Hara poem, suffused with romantic sensibility.

Sylvan Esso

Photo: Bobby Strickland

Take the nostalgia-filled song ‘Didn’t Care’, which looks back on their first encounters in Durham, North Carolina, beginning with Amelia singing, “I thought you were good and all / But I didn’t hold you in my mind / I was busy playing shows / You were busy wastin’ your time”, above Nick’s knowing, fluttering synth, before the added, “But I kept on wantin’ to call / And you kept pickin’ up”.

Or the softer, pitter-pattering ‘Your Reality’, which extends a loving lyrical arm, Let me help you, let me fight / Let me remember how to live my life”. There is a genuine warmth embedded in many of the tracks – even though they are so much more a mere love story.

‘Your Reality’, in fact, embodies much of the album, with Amelia’s free-spirited vocals rising and falling between Nick’s warbling, sometimes twinkling, electronic. It’s not unfounded to say they’re reminiscent of Broadcast, another electronic-vocal duo.

In fact, the album title is taken from a lyric off ‘Your Reality’ – a track which, Amelia explains, is “the kind of the philosophical centre of the record. ‘No Rules Sandy’ is a line in a very cyclical backup part that I wrote.”

Sylvan Esso

Photo: Bobby Strickland

“When we recorded vocals, particularly on this record, the first time either Nick or I heard them delivered was when we were recording. So, in some ways, it was like something I was saying to Sandy in the moment, as well as a mantra.

“I feel like the thing we resonated with most about it,” Nick adds, “was that it’s kind of inherently a silly thing to say. It’s not self-serious in any way. The choice of making that the record’s title also leaned into the entire feeling of the record, which is: get over yourself, stop worrying, it’s really now or never.”

No Rules Sandy was first forged in a state of flux; and will continue on the move, with its creators hitting the road on tour later this month, including supporting fellow electronic duo, ODESZA.

But just as those moments of birdsong or the voice of a loved one come seeping in, it reminds us every now and again to take pause; to, just for a moment, forget about the rules.

No Rules Sandy is out now.

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