Sylvan Esso’s third album came, its frontwoman Amelia Meath tells Apple Music, from acknowledging “the darkness and truly terrifying things that are happening right now.” Free Love, she says, "feels like a contribution, which makes me feel like I’m doing something.” On an album recorded and completed before 2020’s global pandemic took hold, Meath and bandmate/husband Nick Sanborn face their anxieties about everything from politics to climate change and gun control head on—and then will themselves to let go. “It’s funny,” says Meath. “Talking about this record is making me realize how much of a commitment Sylvan Esso has to pointing out the joy in the world in the midst of darkness. Our shit is sad. Or really intense. Or aggressive. But we’re nice about it.” On Free Love, the North Carolina duo also pulls back the heavy bass and shuddering beats of its predecessors (2014’s self-titled debut and What Now, released three years later) to reveal something altogether softer and more intricate—but no less bold. It is, both band members say, their favorite record to date, and the moment at which they finally feel they’ve taken Sylvan Esso to where they wanted it to be all along. “I think for a while our arm was only so long,” says Meath. “The extent of our imagination would end, and then we’d be like, ‘Okay, then I guess we’ll put a fun little blipping bloop on it.’ Now we have a landscape, and the whole thing feels like a culmination of the things we’ve been trying to do since starting the band. For the first records, we were just really nervous about what was and wasn't Sylvan Esso, like it was fragile or like we could accidentally wander too far away from it and then it would be lost forever. But now we’ve realized that we can’t break it.” Read on as Meath and Sanborn guide you through their powerful third album, track by track.
What If Nick Sanborn: “The minute Amelia wrote this song, we knew it had to be the first thing on the album. On a nerdy level, I loved the fact that the title of our last record was What Now, and that this record opened with a song called ‘What If.’ What Now feels like it's coming from a place of fear and it's reacting, whereas ‘What If’ is inherently a progressive thing to ask. And I think that underscored a shift within the two of us between the two records. Sonically, we wanted it to feel like some kind of refined chaos was slowly surrounding Amelia’s voice, but that she was making the decision to leave it behind.” Amelia Meath: “The lyric at the end of this song—‘Open wide, she’s coming out’—is something I wanted to have as a small, strange announcement that the record was beginning. But I also wanted to be able to talk about how this record is better than the other records. It just is for me. The song did such a good job of really describing where we start emotionally, which is that I’m so overwhelmed by the destruction of the world and the destruction of the things that I love. But I know that I must keep going.”
Ring AM: “I’d been trying to figure out how to write about tinnitus—the ringing that happens in almost all musicians' ears because we listen to such loud music. And as I was beginning to write that, I just began having a lot of fun with stupid punny jokes about rings. Like being on the tour cycle and how your life becomes very simple. You're on tour for nine months doing pretty much the same thing every day. And then you go into hibernation for three, you write a record, and then you're back out. We were in that for five years." NS: “This song also feels like the next step from ‘Die Young’ in a way. It’s about a lot of things—realizing your mortality and dying and being born, but also marriage and commitment.”
Ferris Wheel AM: “I have a weird fascination with creating the catchiest song possible that has meaning, but which isn’t just like, ‘I like you and it's the summertime and that's that.’ There are so few songs written about the time period between being 13 and 17, when all of a sudden you start getting weird sexual attention. And then you realize that instead of reacting to it, it's a power and you can take control of that if you want to. For me, that was like, ‘Oh my god, this is incredible. I am getting attention and it's new and different.’ Sometimes it's scary, sometimes it's fun. It’s such a weird and strange time in young people's lives that we just don't talk about.”
Train NS: “You can hear us talking at the start of this track—Amelia is making a clever joke just as I'm trying to start recording her voice. Sometimes, we keep stuff like that in because the energy of whatever we were doing feels like it leans into the energy of the song. And we love anything that lets someone in. We want our music to be accessible and we want people to feel like you're in the room with us. It also takes the pomp and circumstance of the moment down a notch, which is something that's really attractive to us.” AM: “I was so excited when I wrote the lyrics to this—I was hopping up and down and ran and sang it to Nick. Sometimes, when I'm having trouble writing a song and then I have a small breakthrough, there's a danger that I think to myself, ‘You can rest now because you almost got an idea out.’ I had been wanting to write kind of a takedown or diss track towards somebody who I feel is jacking my style. But I can't really do that—it’s not my personal philosophy. With Sylvan Esso, it's taken us a long time to either convince people that the music is good, because at first glance it feels very poppy. It’s struggling to be understood.”
Numb NS: “We were having a terrible day in the studio where we were just not getting anywhere and arguing a lot—and not in a fun way. We were just about to go home when we made an emotional breakthrough. And I was like, ‘Let's just stay here for like five more minutes, let me just try and really quickly make a beat.’ I sat down, and I think it was the energy of our argument, but I wanted to make a fast, uncomfortable dance thing. And so I started making the chorus and the drum and that piano jitter right away. And Amelia sat and pretty much wrote the lyric right away. That all came out in a cathartic 45 minutes. And then it took us six months to figure out how to arrange the rest of it. I think that’s how anxiety feels to me—it’s like a tunnel is growing outwards from my head and the world is getting slowly farther and farther away from me. And I wanted to figure out a way to make that feeling happen in the recording.”
Free AM: “I’m so proud of this song. I’m always really fascinated by the exchange of loving and being loved. Because there's a certain amount of release that you have to do. You have to just accept that someone is going to love you as they see you and you can't really control how you are seen. Sometimes for me that feels very sad and lonely. You're being simplified in some way. Or you're having to show them the entirety of yourself and they're loving that. And that's just a kind of a nightmare. I started this song talking about being a public personality, because there's a strange exchange that you have with fans, too. People really want to touch you and hug you. I’m a touchy-feely kind of person, but I’m also protective of my boundaries. The weirdest part is that sometimes when I do hug people, I can feel them almost hugging an idea of who I am in their head. And the best thing to do to not ruin that illusion is to make myself blank, so that they can keep the thing that they think is true.”
Frequency AM: “This one was one of those weird, magical songwriting things where it all came out. Sometimes I write strange little novellas in my head about what a song is about. And then write from there. This one is about like a little girl who lives in flat farmlands in the 1950s or ’60s. And she has a portable radio. And the only way that she can hear this lady DJ that she's enamored with is by climbing to the top of an oak tree in the back of her yard and holding a radio in the air. I really love the idea of like longing for someone and then realizing that they are completely surrounding you through radio waves.”
Runaway NS: “One of the first songs we wrote for this record. It was right after the Las Vegas shooting at a country music festival in October 2017, and then there had also been the Ariana Grande concert attack. Especially here in the States, there’s this omnipresent, constant anxiety and dread of when you’re in a crowd, there’s something in the back of your mind warning you that someone might try and kill everybody. The song came about when we were really in the thick of being extremely anxious about that.” AM: “There was a month-long period where we would be playing shows and one of us would see somebody in the crowd and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, is that person a shooter?’ And there was a point when we were talking about it and I was like, ‘We just can't worry about it.’ And so we wrote this really fun pop song about it. It was also about how the situation with guns in America is just so terrifying to me. And getting more and more extreme right now in a way that's beyond the NRA and reaching into this very strange militia-minded thing that I am just truly, actively terrified of.”
Rooftop Dancing AM: “I am so happy at how well-framed summertime in New York feels in this song. We were using old playground songs as a way of thinking about time signature for this one. So deep in the background, you can hear me counting off in kind of a strange meter. This was another one that took a really long time. We did the exact same thing where we wrote the first verse and the chorus and they were like, ‘Oh, excellent, we’re done.’ And then it took six months until I found the ‘Pizza, Pizza Daddy-O’ sample, which grounded it in a world.” NS: “We wanted everything about it to feel very warm and inviting. There was the thing that happened right away where I was just recording and there was one microphone in the room while we were sketching this out. And I was just recording Amelia, trying vocal melodies. So there's all this off-mic, deep-in-the-room talking and singing that I just tried to turn into bloops that surrounded the entire back of it.”
Make It Easy NS: “The beat in this references ‘Could I Be’ from our first album. I wanted to reference a lot of our early songs because, to me, a lot of the lyrics that Amelia wrote referenced some of the early songs. This was one of the last things that we made for the record, so we could feel that it was the culmination. And with an album that's so much about these cycles and loops and dying and being born, I wanted to make something that emphasized her lyric, but which also referenced our first music. Even when you say, ‘In the heat and the snow,’ that to me felt like a very direct reference to ‘Coffee.’ Which is also something about the cycle—the year-in, year-out loop of life. I just wanted to lean in to all of those things so that if somebody was listening for it, they could find it. It's really easy to hear the awful, but the good is always there in the undercurrent of everything. I think that was a really important note to end on.”
Make It Easy
10 SONGS, 29 MINUTES
SEPTEMBER 25, 2020
℗ 2020 LOMA VISTA RECORDINGS., DISTRIBUTED BY CONCORD.