Sylvan Esso: The Sad, Deep History Of Pop

Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn avoid the sophomore slump

On second album What Now (Loma Vista), Sylvan Esso expands the sonic palette of its electronically altered folk, but the band never loses the human touch. Even when they’re riding a crisp, discofied rock beat, singer Amelia Meath and producer/keyboard player Nick Sanborn make warm, intimate music.

“We want our songs to be full of genuine emotion,” says Sanborn. “Every choice we make in an arrangement points back to the original inspiration of the song, an investigation into how hard it is to be a person faced with our inherent contradictions.”

The songs on What Now are optimistic but measured. “Die Young” looks back on the hedonism of youth from an adult perspective that sees the folly in excess and the comfort of a lasting relationship. “Kick Jump Twist” is a bubbly number that considers the sadness lurking behind the narcissistic moves on the dance floor, while “Song” has traces of ’60s R&B as it recalls the bittersweet happiness generated when you listen to the hits of yesteryear.

“As we were making this record, we kept thinking, ‘What now?’” says Sanborn. “We had success with our first CD and didn’t want to repeat ourselves. We were thinking about growing as a band, and as individuals, coming to terms with the idea that nothing is ever really over, no relationship is going to save you, and no solution is ever going to be eternal.”

Meath agrees: “We found ourselves wanting to be more realistic. Singing about sadness has a deep history in pop music. There was a spate of flowers and sunshine from the ’50s to the ’70s, but pop music, in general, is sad. A good pop song has a feeling that, within the majesty of happiness, there’s always a bit of ennui lurking.”

The duo got together when Meath asked Sanborn to remix “Play It Right,” a song she wrote for her all-female folk trio, Mountain Man. “Everything I added seemed to subtract from the song,” says Sanborn. “When I started using the texture of the three voices as the main instrument, I saw how I could serve the song and have the electronic effects amplify the emotions. You want people to focus on the song first and hear all the interesting layers after.” Meath liked what she heard. They began writing songs together, letting the vocals determine the direction of the arrangements, with the electronic sounds kept to a minimum. “I love pop, but the sound of the human voice is disappearing,” says Meath. “I learned how to sing by listening to the radio, but you’re hearing fewer and fewer voices that aren’t crammed into key with Auto-Tune. Young people today are trying to sing like they’re Auto-Tuned, but the goal of music, and singing, is to access real emotion. You have to feel the breath of the singer. I still love the hits, but on most records today, you don’t really  hear the singer breathing.”

—j. poet