A significant amount of literal and figurative distance exists between Chapel Hill and dance music hubs like Las Vegas, Ibiza and Berlin. And yet the North Carolina college town is where Sylvan Esso made their 2020 album Free Love, which is nominated for the best dance/electronic album Grammy at this year’s awards.
Co-created by the duo’s Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, who’ve been married since 2016, the album is a tight 10 tracks of smart, artful, playful and emotionally resonant electronic music that — just like the duo’s geographical positioning outside the mainstream dance world — blurs lines between pop, indie and electronic. Exploring issues like learning to love despite being scared, to do so, sexual identity and the pleasure of switching your brain off while dancing, the album reached the top of the Hot 100 last October and hit No. 18 on Independent Albums that same month. This is Sylvan Esso’s second nomination in dance/electronic album category, with their 2017 album What Now also getting the nod.
Sylvan Esso’s spring and summer tour includes Wilco‘s Solid Sound Festival, Electric Forest in June, gigs opening for ODESZA in July and Las Vegas’ Life Is Beautiful festival this September. Here, Sanborn and Meath — the only woman nominated in either of the dance/electronic categories this year — discuss being nominated in the same category as sonically disparate artists, inclusivity in the dance categories and why, whether they win or lose, they’re going to see Magic Mike Live while in Las Vegas for the awards show.
Where was Free Love made?
Nick Sanborn: It was at our studio here in Chapel Hill.
How long did it take you to complete it?
NS: I think all of our albums end up being diary entries of a time, and yeah, it took about a year and a half.
Amelia Meath: Not solid though.
NS: Yeah, a year and half, off and on.
What non-album collaborator did you first play it for, and what was their reaction?
AM: We have a musical community here, so we were sort of slowly playing it for everybody. But I think we knew we were on to something when we played “Frequency” for our manager and best friend Marty, and he was really excited.
Did you know the album was special, or “a hit?”
AM: I knew that it’s my favorite thing that I’ve ever gotten to show people that we’ve made, so yes…
NS: It’s no longer our responsibility to have people react to it the way we react to it. Did you watch that Wilco documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart?
I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t!
NS: Oh my god, you have to watch it. Also it’s the 20th anniversary of that record, so it’s the perfect time. There’s a great part in it where their old manager is talking about how there’s two kinds of potential for any band, and one of them is artistic and the other one is marketability. Essentially Wilco has unlimited artistic potential, and marketability is something you can never control and is completely chaotic — so there’s no point in worrying about it. I feel like the more that we do this, the more I feel that way. I just want to make things that I think are the best thing we’ve ever made. And you hope that people will understand why you like and react to it that way.
AM: Yeah, I keep reiterating that my job is to just keep my head down and keep on doing my work.
Okay then maybe this is a tricky question, but why do you think the album appealed to Grammy voters?
AM: I don’t know!
NS: I’m a Grammy voter, and I thought it was good!
AM: It’s loud, and it makes me cry, and also it’s about being a queer person in a hetero relationship.
NS: I think it’s about a lot of the things that ended up happening during the pandemic. We wrote it before the pandemic, but it felt very timely in that it was kind of this longform talk about learning how to figure out how to love other people again, even when you’re terrified all the time, you know? [We released it early in the eligibility period] so we had the benefit of people having more time to absorb it, because I don’t think it was necessarily an immediate thing. When it came out, maybe it was the pandemic, but I didn’t feel people immediately resonating with it in the same way I feel that now.
What were you doing when you found out you were nominated?
A: I was in an audition for a cool project that I’m doing. I totally forgot that it was Grammy day. This nomination was a real, actual surprise. I knew something had happened, because I was on Zoom and my phone and laptop started blowing up, but I had to ignore everything to finish this audition. Then once I was done I just ran around the house screaming.
NS: I was with my parents when I got the call.
AM: Which is so cool, because the Grammys are a thing that parents understand.
NS: It was the first thing since like, being on The Tonight Show where they totally understand how big a deal it is.
The collection of albums nominated in the dance/electronic categories this year is really sonically diverse, from house to future bass to bass and beyond. What’s your take on disparate styles of dance music competing against each other in the same category?
NS: It’s the crazy part about electronic. The category is weirdly small, and so by necessity it encompasses a huge variety of genres of music, which is why you can have us up against Marshmello. There’s no show that we are both going to be on.
AM: And shout out to Marshmello!
NS: Especially with the massive rise of the EDM world, the fact that bands like us and artists from that world are smacked into one category makes for a lot of really weird comparisons.
How closely do you guys feel connected to the “dance scene”?
AM: I don’t know man. I’ve been debating this a lot lately. A lot of times we’re talked about as a pop band, and I’ve been noticing that a lot of other bands that are in our independent zone are also pop bands, but they’re never like, “we’re a pop band!” They’re just like, “yeah we’re a folk band, or a rock band.” Genres will be the end of us all.
NS: With the dance community, I think I feel more a part of it than I ever have. I DJ a lot, but I mostly DJ here in North Carolina. I feel really connected to the dance community here where we live, but I feel like I’m just starting to feel like I might be part of the broader dance community.
How are you feeling that?
NS: Honestly part of it is just the people that randomly reach out now. You start to feel it through the ways we all connect through the kind of mycelial network of artists knowing artists and friends knowing friends. I just feel like our umbrella is getting big enough at this point that the fact we’re not in one of the hubs of dance or pop is starting to become more irrelevant. But it kind of took getting to this point in order for that to feel like it was becoming that way.
What do you think the collection of nominated albums says about where the Academy’s tastes currently lie?
A: Electronic and dance music is a historically Black genre that was also pioneered by a bunch of trans women. There’s so much diversity in the genre itself, the ability to represent it — like Kraftwerk just got their first Grammy two years ago — it’s a brand new baby we’re dealing with and trying to show.
NS: And I think we’re still in the phase where historic name recognition goes furthest, because it’s just a big group of people who work in all different kinds of music. I think the Grammys in the post-committee world are doing a great job of trying to make sure that the people who vote know what they’re talking about, but that’s a complicated thing. This is why I just feel like my hope for the Grammys is that more people join the Academy and more people vote, because that’s the way everything will become more representative.
AM: That’s why I get salty now particularly when people get snubbed or feel angry, like, “you’re a member of the Academy,” or if you’re not, you should be.
NS: I don’t want to turn this into a horrible “go vote” conversation, but I hope the Grammys continue the efforts they’re already making to get everyone involved and have more people understand that their voices are wanted and needed.
Amelia, you are the only woman present in either of the electronic categories this year. What’s your take on that and the way women are represented generally in these categories?
AM: Well, women are here. I know so many women who make electronic music. I think some of it comes down to name recognition and submitting. I am always honored to be here, and I can’t wait to see more women present. I think it’s a matter of time. For me, one of the main things was realizing I was a producer, which took a long time. Oddly, that was some misogyny that I had to address within myself to realize “Oh yeah, that’s what I’m doing.”
We’re all learning and growing all the time. I don’t know how to answer about more women needing to being represented in the category, because they obviously do, but I have no idea how to begin.
NS: I will say if Arca isn’t sitting where we’re sitting next year –
AM: Right?! I’ll be f–king pissed.
NS: She put out four perfect records this year. Come on.
It’s not your first time being nominated in this category, so having sort of done this already in 2017, is there anything you would like to see the Grammys change, evolve or expand in the way they handle electronic music?
NS: No. 1, Shannon Herber, who’s worked with electronic music at the Grammy for a long time, has done a great job with outreach. Really the whole problem to me with the category is that there aren’t enough people submitting to it. It’s a massive scene, and we’re one of the smallest categories, which doesn’t make any sense. I think that has a lot to do with how the Grammys has positioned themselves historically, who has felt invited and included in that group of people, and who has not.
AM: I from those people who feel included, I think there’s a televised problem in that category, where people apply to categories that they know are televised.
NS: At the end of the day it’s like any group of people, the more people that join and become a part of it and help change the conversation, the better inherently it’s going to be. The more diverse and more interesting it’s going to be and the more it will be actually representative of the scene it’s trying to describe. To me, that’s the biggest thing, getting more people to lend their voices to the Academy. If it isn’t actually a representative picture of the people recording and releasing music, then it inherently can’t describe us.
Are you two going to Las Vegas for the show?
AM: Oh my god, are you kidding me! I love Vegas. I really do. I’m going play some Zedd, I’m going take everybody to Magic Mike XXL. I’m excited about going to Cirque Du Soleil. Oh my god my favorite steak place is at the MGM; I’m gonna go there.
NS: We’re gonna pull off a heist of some kind! [Laughs.] We didn’t get to go last time because we were on tour in Australia.
AM: What I really want is a DJ gig in Las Vegas, because I love Las Vegas.
NS: You’re saying that now, but smash cut to two and a half months from now when you’re playing the weirdest show of all time.
AM: Whatever man, I love weird.
If you win, how will you celebrate?
NS: Well, definitely go see Magic Mike Live, but we’re also going to do that if we lose.
AM: I’ll probably be incredibly graceful in our acceptance speech. I’m going to be beautifully poised! Everyone will say “My god, look at her go.” That’s what the Billboard headline will say: “Graceful Amelia Meath, Poised as Ever.” And then I’ll just ugly cry somewhere hidden and drink a boatload of champagne. And go dancing.
NS: We’re going to figure out which show has the most cryo effects and go see that.
It could be Marshmello.
AM: Oh my god! I’ve never seen Marshmello. I’m really excited.