Sylvan Esso released their self-titled album back in 2014, and “Coffee” – one of its most popular tracks — holds up as an incredibly effective pop song. Put it on today and you’ll still feel an irrepressible urge to dance out your feelings: in your bedroom, in public, at a concert, at a party, wherever.
Three years after that release, everything is different for the duo, says lead singer Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn. “My life in 2016 was a lot more complicated,” says Sanborn. “It was more rich and more anxiety-prone in all different ways than when we made the first record.” The good news for fans is that while Meath and Sanborn may have changed the message on their sophomore album, What Now, the medium remains the same: pop songs that will soundtrack your catharsis. After three years of waiting (“We like the tease,” Meath jokes), Sylvan Esso is back with a collection of songs that will whip anyone into a dance-it-out frenzy.
The Cut sat down with Meath and Sanborn over snacks at New York’s Nomad to talk What Now (out today), why Taylor Swift’s break-up songs fall short, and why this album should make you uncomfortable.
Do you feel like who you’re writing for has changed? Have your fans changed?
Meath: Well, I know they are people who tip well — that’s what we hear from bartenders from our show. It’s such a joy to know. The first people we got were music lovers, and then we got the gay kids, which was really great. If you get the gay kids you’re doing something. And then we got teenagers and frat boys then NPR.
Wait, frat boys?
Meath: Yeah, we hit some weird mix when the frat boys show up to our shows!
What is it they like?
Meath: It’s the song “Coffee.” I don’t know what it did, but the frat boys were like, YES, this is for me. Bless them.
Was that unexpected?
Meath: Totally. We pretty much exclusively make music for dorks and queer kids. People who are going to understand a deep uncomfortable emotional effort. That’s who we are.
Speaking of deep emotional effort, why did you call the album What Now?
Sanborn: When we thought of calling it that [it] was a sad joke. But I realized that it was the phrase I woke up with in my head, more than any other. I think it was the mantra of this year of realizing that nothing is ever really over. I started out thinking we got everything we wanted on paper.
Meath: And then it doesn’t end. We made an album; now we have to do it again. And it needs to mean something again.
Sanborn: … That was where it started, and then it moved through our personal lives and our species in general — and how we all thought November was going to go a different way, and then the realization that we need to wake the fuck up. I think that this energy pervades every song.
How do the songs answer the question “What now”? Is it political now?
Meath: So many of the songs they are emotional and personal, which in some ways can be seen as not political — but politics reach into everyone’s lives and touch them emotionally, especially right now. I cry every day in general, but now? I’m just a weeper. It sucks. I do a lot of crying in Whole Foods.
Sanborn: We will never be interested in overt political writing. We’re so much more interested in talking in a very real, non-simplified way about how uncomfortable being a human being is. I hear that anxiety and stress when I listen to this album. We could write songs that say “fuck you!” But somebody already wrote fuck Donald Trump and that’s as good as it’s going to get.
Why is it more interesting stop before the “fuck you”?
Meath: Everybody, including me, naturally goes to the fuck you. But things are more complicated than that. Like when I wrote “Hey Mami,” which is just about my experience talking a walk, I could have just said “Fuck you.” But it’s complicated. I wrote that song when I was living in Red Hook and there were these dudes who would hang out at bodegas. There were a pack of 62-year-old men, and a pack of young guys, and the 62-year-old men would just lean in say, “Bless you.” It was wonderful. Then there are the guys that are like, “Let me fuck you in the ass.” It was so specific. Always with the anal. But what I felt was far more complicated than just a “fuck you fuck you.”
Sanborn: Also, when you say “fuck you” you’re always absolving yourself, like I love Taylor Swift’s break-up songs, but they never acknowledge that it might be tough and complicated to date Taylor Swift. Maybe it’s a logistical nightmare. But every song is sort of like “you’re the worst” and it feels good, but when is any break-up ever that cut-and-dry. That’s not very real.
Anybody looking to the album for catharsis should expect to work for it, is what you’re saying?
Meath: This album is a choose-your-own-adventure of catharsis. We’re not really an instant-gratification kind of band.
What songs are your favorites?
Sanborn: “Slack Jaw”? [To Meath] I think it’s the best song you’ve ever written.
Meath: Thank you. I like the last song I wrote best, “Song.” We tried to change that title so many times. It was so embarrassing. But “Rewind” is my favorite because there’s like five different themes to the record, but the most important theme to me is the public performance of self and I think that song does a great job talking about that.
Meath: It’s about how you spend a long time learning how to be a person, namely a woman, through television. You start out as a small person like trying to be the thing that you see on the television and you get punished for it. Almost immediately. [Laughs.] It’s hard to figure out how to be a female-identified person in the world, in general. The song is about figuring out how to build yourself and figuring out what the rules are and why you’re modeling yourself after what you’re modeling yourself after. For me, it was Janet Jackson in the “What’s It Gonna Be” music video, with the rings in her nails. That video made me cry so many times because I was like … where do you get those outfits?
Sanborn: You’re going to cry right now!
Meath: I am!