Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn are contemplating a potentially huge step in their long, full relationship, which already includes eight years as Sylvan Esso, four years as a married couple, and just a few months as owners of a new recording studio and upcoming third album, Free Love. They might, later today, purchase a golf cart together. Its chief purpose will be hauling trash, but the way they discuss it — joyfully, whimsically, determinedly — speaks to their partnership. Life and work are fully intertwined for Sylvan Esso — make breakfast, make a song, make the bed, make a video, make out, make some calls — which suits them just fine. “It’s all one thing,” says Meath. “We’re Dr. Bronner-ing over here.”
“And every conversation we have,” agrees Sanborn, “is about all of the things.”
It’s all sorts of idyllic and adorable, though apparently the secret to finding happiness involves constant low-level conflict. But Sylvan Esso even manage to fight cute, referring to their electro-indie-folk-pop songs over the years as “small arguments.” It’s a feature of their creative partnership, they claim, not a bug. Without it, they’d never find the balance between strange and straight, simple and surprisingly complex, that defines their best songs, and that affords them adoring hordes from the mainstream fields of Coachella to the heady woods of the Eaux Claires Festival.
“Arguing is so underrated,” says Sanborn. “As a Midwesterner, I think I avoided confrontation. I really appreciate Amelia bringing it into my life. We have to say when we don’t like stuff, because it forces you to defend your idea. And on top of that, our original band goal was exclusively to make music that both of us liked. And that inherently means we’re going to argue about stupid shit.”
“I’m so thankful that we get to argue all the time and there’s no fear,” agrees Meath. “You almost have to prove it to yourself, instead of it being an intuition. You have to put into words what you’re reaching for. Everything that we’ve made when we weren’t arguing felt frictionless.”
“There was a point at the beginning of this new record where I had a little crisis of confidence, and the way I figured out what I was doing is that I had stopped arguing with her,” Sanborn says. “I had stopped saying if I didn’t like something. And it was just making everything bad.”
They sound like a couple who’ve graduated from therapy with such incredible results that I suggest they might find work during the pandemic as part-time counselors, to which Sanborn replies, “We would ruin so many lives.” Meath laughs and adds, “I’d just say, ‘You know what you should do? Start a fight. It sounds like your husband’s being a little bitch.’”
With their checks and balances fully in place after two albums, Sylvan Esso found themselves with a newly abundant sense of confidence heading into Free Love. The world had fully validated their colorful, layered 2017 album What Now with bigger, wilder audiences and even a Grammy nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album. But it was actually a smaller, six-date tour they dubbed WITH that fully pushed Meath and Sanborn into the comfort of their own skins. They recruited eight other players to flesh out their sound — heretofore Sanborn on electronics, Meath on vocals, and nothing else — into something familiar but boldly different.
“We actually got to the place that you always say about yourself: I just want to make something that I think is good. I feel like we actually got there this time,” says Sanborn. “The WITH tour was the final nail in the coffin. I was able to see our band from the outside, almost, for the first time. It gave me this huge sense of confidence in what we’re doing. If the two of us make something, it will be the band. The band is just this byproduct of how much we like hanging out.”
“I think I had an impostor syndrome thing, where I thought I had to maintain this vigilance around the band so that it didn’t lose its integrity,” Meath adds. “And of course that leads to the assumption that I’m faking it. The amazing thing that WITH gave us is like, oh, it’s not fragile. You can toss it to somebody and they understand what it is. You can’t break it.”
That confidence manifested fully in Free Love, which is weirder at times than anything they’ve done before — distorted vocals on “Train,” a noticeable reduction in drums overall — and decidedly more intimate. Slinky dancefloor bangers like “Ferris Wheel” butt up against catchy personal remembrances like “Ring,” which explicitly addresses Sylvan Esso’s real-life love story. It’s no coincidence that a song like that goes hand in hand with other personal revelations from this year: Meath and Sanborn’s marriage was an open secret until now, easily sussed out but never publicly acknowledged. Same goes for Meath’s bisexuality, which she announced via Twitter in typically enthusiastic fashion in June: “Happy pride everyone! I’m bisexual! … I’m queer as hell! I like everyone! Being bi is a joy!”
Happy pride everyone! I’m bisexual! I came out in highschool and then went back in when I felt self conscious about liking a bunch of cis dudes in a row-it was shame! I was scared I wasn’t queer enough! I’m queer as hell! I like everyone! Being bi is a joy! 💗
— randy is at home (@arandallm) June 23, 2020
The tweet, while spur of the moment, was a long time coming, and what pushed her over the edge was a confidence-boosting picture: “You know you have a photo that’s taken of you every six months where you’re like, ‘I look like a monster!’ This was the opposite. I looked like an amazing goddess with the ass of a beautiful pony,” she laughs. “The photo with the beautiful rainbow background… It was Pride, and I’d been talking about it with Nick and my friends. Any hesitation, honestly, was being like, if I come out, will I be claiming space where other people’s voices are more necessary to be heard? And I might be wrong, but I made the decision to do it because I hadn’t heard about somebody who was in an outwardly heteronormative situation talking about how they’re queer. Bisexuality disappears the minute you’re with any partner. What I’m trying not to do is just relax into vagary and silence, which is where I feel safest. Vagary and silence is what led us into the terrifying situation we’re in right now, so I’m trying to be articulate all the time.”
On her reticence to publicize their relationship, Meath and Sanborn worried that “married band Sylvan Esso” would dominate the narrative, and they were probably right. The cliché of a genius producer and his talented singer-muse is nearly as well worn as the idea of a “girl band,” and usually just as wrong. It would have been an easy hook, but Sylvan Esso has never been about easy hooks, personally or musically.
“The minute you see women who write songs and work with their partners talk about it, all of a sudden every time they do an interview it’s only about what it’s like to be in love with the person that you work with,” Meath says. “It was a fight against my own misogyny in that I was so fearful of having to deal with it that I just wanted to skip right over it. In interviews, it would make me so upset because it made me feel like something had been stolen from me, which is strange, because Nick and I are together, and that’s the truth. I didn’t want to interact with the grey area of the fact that I’m a queer person in a heteronormative situation, and I sing and write the lyrics to the songs and Nick started predominantly as the producer and arranger, which is so fucking storybook that it’s annoying.”
Hand in hand with that admission, Meath has asserted her position in Sylvan Esso as not just co-songwriter with Sanborn, but also co-producer. Sanborn has been telling her all along that she’s a producer, but it took a conversation with Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards to convince Meath that her contributions — “sitting and thinking and listening,” as she puts it, more than the direct twiddling of knobs — was, in fact, producing. Now, instead of bringing each other finished halves of songs — him the beats, her the vocals and melody — everything is done together. “Alone time has pretty much disappeared,” says Sanborn.
It shows in the songs of Free Love, which are more intimate and cohesive than ever before. It’s only a half-hour, but lends itself to repeated listens — and not just because it starts with the words “What if end was begin?” and ends with the admonition to “Play it again.” It’s paced perfectly, pulling back into its quieter shell before bounding out again. At the center is “Free,” which Meath describes as “the best song I’ve ever written, lyrically.” In it, she wrestles with the illusion of self accompanied by almost no instrumentation, whisper-singing in your ear like some sort of ASMR confession. If that weren’t naked enough, it starts with an off-the-cuff “I love you,” the kind of studio chatter usually excised from the finished product. But here, it makes sense.
“It’s part of the song,” she says. “It’s exactly what the song is about. You can kind of hear me say it to Nick and know that what I’m actually saying is, ‘Shut up.’ It’s about being a public personality in some ways, but it applies to anyone who has ever let themselves love or be loved. There’s a part of you that, even in the depths of true intimacy, can never be touched. And that’s so sad, that you’re still alone, but also amazing that no matter what you can keep smooshing and smooshing your face against someone else’s face, and you’re just you.”
Meath and Sanborn can’t wait to bring their lonely songs to huge groups of sweaty dancers, but like everyone else, they’re stuck inside. In their case, it’s a town — Durham, North Carolina — filled with like-minded bands (Wye Oak, Landlady, Young Bull, Hiss Golden Messenger, the list goes on), some of whom have been stopping over for socially distanced “wine time” on the acreage that houses Sylvan Esso’s new studio. They’ve got distant gigs booked but don’t feel right announcing them with the world still in flux.
“Believe me, there is nothing I want more than to be in a room full of thousands of people playing our music on a gigantic sound system,” says Sanborn.
“Dude, playing ‘Make it Easy’?” answers Meath, referring to the cyborg anthem that closes Free Love. “We’re going to be able to get the audience to sing ‘It’s playing now’ with me? At which point I’m going to fucking cry so hard. I’m gonna cry so hard I’m gonna turn into a water mutant. I’m gonna Alex Mack.”
Free Love is out on September 25 via Loma Vista. Get it here.