Sylvan Esso Toss Out the Guidebook for New Album No Rules Sandy

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The post Sylvan Esso Toss Out the Guidebook for New Album No Rules Sandy appeared first on Consequence.

Sylvan Esso know exactly what they’re doing, even though they’ve never done it before. They’re about to release their fourth studio full-length, No Rules Sandy, after having just announced it a month ago by performing the full thing at Newport Folk Festival. Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn are no strangers to release cycles nor Newport – but both are different in 2022.

Speaking with the duo at the festival – where they also showcased their Psychic Hotline label and Meath debuted the full-band theatrics of her The A’s project with her Mountain Man bandmate Alexandra Sauser-Monnig – Sanborn describes the experience as “Wile E. Coyote-ing.” “If you just keep looking forward and believing that the cliff is underneath you and don’t look down, then you will keep running,” he says. “It’s a lot of stuff, but also we’re just in this phase where we and our big musical circle of friends are making a lot of things. It’s a very fertile time. There’s no way for us to not share all that.”

He’s talking specifically about their trio of slots at Newport, but he might as well be talking about Sylvan Esso’s second act. They’ve described their first three records as a trilogy, with No Rules Sandy (out Friday, August 12th) launching a new phase in their career. It’s a period that began with them running to the West Coast, and when the bridge dropped out beneath them, they just kept going.

At the start of 2022, the pair set out on what has become an annual cross-country journey. Driving from North Carolina, they headed to Los Angeles for the Grammys, where their 2020 LP, Free Love, was up for an award and they were scheduled as presenters. “Then right when we got there the Omicron spike happened,” Meath recalls in the lobby of New York’s Ludlow Hotel a few days after the Folk Fest. “All our [plans with] friends, the Grammys — canceled.”

They’d rented a house in LA, and found themselves unexpectedly isolated there alone – save for the recording gear they’d brought along. “Without thinking about it and without planning on it, we ended up not in our home with nothing else to do except hang out with each other and just try to make each other laugh and make music,” Sanborn says. “It wasn’t for anybody, it wasn’t about anything. There was no purpose beyond being together and that was the craziest greenlight I think we could’ve had.”

sylvan esso no rules sandy interview
sylvan esso no rules sandy interview

Sylvan Esso, photo by Ben Kaye

Meath describes it as “being on vacation except we had all of our work stuff.” Every day, they would sit down and see what music manifested; if something wasn’t revealing itself, Meath would simply “take a walk and just be nice to myself, and then something would appear.”

Sylvan Esso hadn’t written like this since the early days. Meath says their 2014 self-titled debut was them taking their “weird art project made kind of as a joke of being a pop band and making it a pop band.” Once that proved successful, they leaned into the cycle of creation that successful pop bands do, leading to the equally well-received What Now in 2017 and 2020’s Free Love. These lockdown sessions lacked that career-driven purpose, however, resulting in their most immediate and cathartic writing experience ever.

“I wasn’t thinking about radio or how something was going to sound at a club, I wasn’t thinking about a festival, I wasn’t thinking about any of that shit,” says Sanborn, reliving the excitement of that liberation. “I was thinking about making Amelia laugh, cry, or smile.”

“It’s coming back to remembering that the thing we’re doing is playing in a paddling pool of creativity,” adds Meath. “It’s my favorite thing and it’s better than all of the other stuff.”

sylvan esso no rules sandy interview
sylvan esso no rules sandy interview

Sylvan Esso, photo by Ben Kaye

When you hear them explain it, the sense of freedom in No Rules Sandy comes into gleaming, soothing focus. There is an intimacy in Sanborn’s production that, though long present in Sylvan Esso’s sound, gets elevated by a more reserved application of low-end. Songs like “Cloud Walker” and “Didn’t Care” could have conceivably become thumping club jams on past efforts, but they stand out here by remaining skittering and playful. Although “Alarm” and “Echo Party” closely align with an electro-pop party, the dissonant snapping of the former and nearly structureless flow of the latter show how comfortably unconcerned with hit-making the duo was this time around.

Breaking up the album with seconds-long interludes – voicemails set to toying beats, joyfully aimless harmonies, the sounds of nighttime outside Sylvan Esso’s Betty studio in North Carolina – further grounds the creative contiguity. It feels utterly present, utterly free, utterly of the artists making it. Meath’s lyrics, rich in metaphor and personality, bring it all home.

Don’t ask them what the album is “about,” though. (“The minute you say, ‘It’s about this,’ then you crush it and it’s dead,” says Meath.) They’ll tell you it simply captures “the present moment that we were in,” which could mean a dozen things when you look at the time period in which it arose. Perhaps it’s best to say it’s about Sylvan Esso; the title No Rules Sandy comes from a repeated line on “Your Reality,” a mantra Meath delivers to Sanborn (“Sandy”) that sums up the duo’s approach to making the collection itself.

“The more I talk about it, I realize that the record is about myself and my relationship with Nick as a collaborator,” Meath confesses, “but mainly as a viewer of the things we make together, as a consumer of my own art. Because of that, it means that I wrote the first love song that I’ve ever written to myself. It’s just about marveling at the ability and what a good job I’ve done taking care of myself thus far.”

She’s talking about “How Did You Know,” a song Meath says “freaks me out every time I play it because it’s so close to my heart.” She wrote the lyrics immediately after hearing Sanborn’s production and sang them on the spot: “I did not like it and I did not want to put it on the record, and in fact, I wrote a whole different thing.”

“And I was like ‘This isn’t as good,” and she got really mad,” smiles Sanborn, noting he loves the final version “because it sounds like you’re talking to yourself. You can’t get any more revealing.”

“Yeah, and I don’t let him see that, so it’s very vulnerable.”

Despite that unfamiliar vulnerability, Meath proclaims “How Did You Know” was her favorite track to perform at Newport Folk Festival. It would be, considering what a uniquely risky move announcing and debuting No Rules Sandy at the country’s premiere folk event was. The record opens with “Moving” (a track which almost lent its title to the full LP), far and away the most industrial, cacophonous track in the set, making it a statement of an opener during the performance.

Sylvan Esso Newport folk festival 2022
Sylvan Esso Newport folk festival 2022

Sylvan Esso, photo by Ben Kaye

True, NFF has evolved since the days of Dylan plugging in: An electro-pop dance party on the main stage is no more odd than Dinosaur Jr.’s mountain of stacks in the quad, but presenting a completely unheard collection of synth-based tunes to an audience that had just been wowed by Valerie Junes’ bluesy Americana was a choice — a good one, it turns out.

“It never made me nervous just because the basis of folk music is good songwriting,” Meath says with a chuckle the day before Sylvan Esso take the Newport stage. “I have a lot of faith in our songs. Also, the root in the way that we write songs together is by being together in the same room and coming up with things that feel authentic and true – and that’s what folk music is about.”

Sylvan Esso had actually been booked for the 2020 Newport Folk Fest, back when No Rules Sandy wasn’t even a seed. They confirmed their slot on the ‘22 lineup at the end of ‘21, and then serendipitously found themselves with a new album in January. “I feel like this festival is really about the unexpected and collaboration and seeing things you did not expect to see,” Sanborn says. “In that way, it felt like the perfect place to do this.”

It also made it the most fitting place to put together the Psychic Hotline showcase. They brought together a number of artists from their homegrown label – Anjimile, tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus, Time Bernardes, Sam Gendel, Uwade, Flock of Dimes’ Jenn Wasner, and many others – to perform each other’s songs in a celebration of music that was Newport Folk distilled.

“It’s so much better than we thought it was going to be,” Meath says after three days rehearsing the showcase set. “The thing that’s happening is like… we have a new band, and the band is the Psychic Hotline Band, and it… it fucks. It’s so much fun.”

sylvan esso no rules sandy interview
sylvan esso no rules sandy interview

Sylvan Esso, photo by Ben Kaye

Reflecting on the performance a few days later, both Meath and Sanborn gush that the rehearsals held over eight- to 10-hour days in a local church basement were their favorite part of Folk Fest weekend. “We taped the live show, but I’m more excited to listen to the rehearsal tapes,” beams Sanborn. “It’s more about the journey than the real thing and I can’t wait to listen back to those because that will take me to the thing that was most fulfilling: sitting in a church with those people.”

That collaborative sentiment has led them throughout No Rules Sandy. Whether in the immediacy of the recording, working with each other and their Psychic Hotline cohorts, or the catharsis in performing the album in full before anyone else knew it existed, they’ve followed a sense of unguided creativity. It’s an adventure that’s formed naturally and purely, Sylvan Esso solidified.

Freeing though the process has been, their abundance of work at the festival left them “so exhausted I feel like I’m about to melt into an Alex Mack-style puddle of goo,” says Sanborn.

Meath interjects, “But it’s worth the goo.”

Get tickets to see Sylvan Esso perform their No Rules Sandy tracks live on their upcoming tour via Ticketmaster.

Sylvan Esso Toss Out the Guidebook for New Album No Rules Sandy
Ben Kaye

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