The pair that makes up Sylvan Esso — singer Amelia Meath and instrumentalist/producer Nick Sanborn — met at a gig in Milwaukee in 2011, while both were in other bands, and began collaborating on songs without really seeking to form a group. After a few months, Boston-bred Meath (who, with her band Mountain Man, previously had backed Feist for an 18-month tour) figured she’d join Sanborn in Durham, N.C., “for six months to write the album — and that was five years ago.”
Their self-titled debut came out fairly quietly in the spring of 2014 but quickly caught steam on the festival circuit; by the following summer, the pair had accumulated some minor radio hits and become a headliner instead of an opening act. By extension, their songs and onstage presence grew bigger and burlier to fill the bigger spaces and stages.
That experience set the stage for the duo’s second album, Now What?, which was released last week on Loma Vista. Whether loud or soft, the songs are bigger and more direct than the home-demo vibe of the debut: the bubbling “Radio” is a sly take on the formula behind hit songs that even includes the ideal song length (3:30) in its lyrics, while conversely, “Slackjaw” is equally fragile and performed almost a cappella by Meath.
The duo is fiercely self-guided — “We have our hands in everything, every ad layout and font choice,” Meath says with a self-deprecating eye roll. Meath and Sanborn are both, as they put it, “deep, deep music nerds,” but where he is a trained jazz bassist, she is completely self-taught. That complementary dynamic is one key factor that makes this duo’s partnership special.
You’ve got a radio song about radio songs called “Radio.” What’s going on there?
Meath: I was so mad the day we wrote that! That song was born out of the frustration of having to think about making a new record before I wanted to. I was all pissed because Nick and [manager Martin Anderson] had been talking to me about writing new songs, so —
Sanborn: [Jokingly] In a fit of independence …
Meath: I wrote this fucking song about writing songs for the radio —
Sanborn: Which is now getting on the radio! And the craziest thing to us is, radio pluggers love it. They agree! Sometimes the best songs are born out of frustration. Like with “Slackjaw,” Amelia had been [moping] and saying “I can’t write songs anymore,” and then walked into the kitchen, sat down and wrote that entire song. I just tried to stay out of its way. Most of the goal for us is figuring out what the song wants to be, not what we want it to be. That song is so fragile and vulnerable, so you try to follow what it’s telling you. Conversely, “Radio” wanted to be this other thing.
Meath: It wanted to be huge and bombastic and kind of annoying.
Sanborn: And it’s funny, at first I heard it as something much more vulnerable and I kept trying to force myself onto the song. To me, it spoke to a different emotional space from the one Amelia heard and ended up writing. It’s good when we hear something the other doesn’t.
Meath: Or sometimes it sucks! We have to pitch songs to each other. We’re always saying either “that sounds good” or “you can do better.”
Sanborn: There’s a lot of “you can do better.”
Nick, what are the musical-looking tattoos on your arms?
Sanborn: They’re flowcharts that spell out all the possible chord progressions in western music. [His left forearm] is major keys and [right] is minor.
Meath: He uses them all the time. We’ll be working on a song and he’ll be like [looks at forearms] …
Sanborn: It tells you all the possibilities, and by doing that it tells you all the ways to break the rules. I’ve learned all this stuff but Amelia’s a total natural. It’s frustrating!
So you don’t play any instruments?
Meath: No. Most of the time I write in the air. (Laughing) I’m just stumbling around in the darkness, writing pop songs.
Why does this record sound so much bigger?
Meath: With the first one we achieved everything we’d ever wanted, at least in terms of when I first started touring when I was 18, I never dreamed that in seven years I’d be playing to a thousand people. And in writing this record we needed to step up as hard as we possibly could in order to prove that we belong here. We had a pretty deep band existential crisis — that’s why it’s called What Now? The first part of making the record was like, can we still do this or did we lose it?
Sanborn: And we wrote the first one right after we decided to be a band — we didn’t really know each other that well — so this record feels much more lived-in and alive. We knew what we wanted a lot more.