Published Apr 28, 2017Up until the making of their second album, What Now, things had gone pretty smoothly for Sylvan Esso.
In 2012, Amelia Meath, then lead singer in folk trio Mountain Man, asked electronic producer Nick Sanborn to remix the band's "Play It Right"; so happy were both with the results that they adopted a band name and released the song as a 12-inch in 2013. By 2014, they'd recorded a self-titled full-length of similarly spacious synth-pop songs with strong, folk-influenced melodies. Sylvan Esso garnered the duo both a cultish fan base and performance slots at festivals like Bonnaroo, Coachella and Osheaga.
Following it up, they knew, would be their most difficult task yet.
"The making of this record was a pretty fraught ordeal, if only to just get out of our own way and not be scared," admits Meath now. "We had to overcome pretty immense fear to be able to write songs again."
"We were apprehensive for a lot of reasons, but most of it was that we hadn't really written in a while," Sanborn adds. "It took us a minute to figure out that we weren't the same people that made the first record. The minute we let go and realized that we were different now, it opened up."
According to Sanborn, their breakthrough moment came in the form of "Sound," the glitchy, frequency-bending first song on What Now.
"The opening sound of the record [is] Amelia's voice being used as the thing that hard-sets the tuning of an old synthesizer. If you kind of imagine the reverse of Auto-Tune, her voice is forcing the synthesizer into pitch, rather than the other way around. When we found that sound, it instantly felt like a statement of intent for the next chapter of the band."
Sonically, What Now finds the duo perfecting the sound they established on their debut, albeit with some added sonic nuance. "The Glow" sounds beautifully broken, like a skipping record, until the beat comes in; "Die Young" starts sparsely, but is punctuated by a thick, gooey synth in the chorus; and the sparkling "Signal" is propelled by looped voice samples that weave in and out, as waves of sub-bass buoy Meath's layered vocals.
Lyrically, What Now touches on themes of youth, nostalgia, growing up and the roles that culture and technology have on them. That Meath uses the pronoun "I" more frequently gives even the more personal songs on What Now an emotional resonance, though she swears that was unintentional. "All you can do is write as honestly as you possibly can about what you're feeling in the moment. If you're lucky, that feels universal."
Sanborn agrees. "I think that title phrase, 'What now,' started very much about us, in a selfish way, but quickly became a broader lesson of growing — about being a human being. The idea that no goal achieved is going to save you from yourself, and at the same time, no defeat is ever permanent. Everything just goes on. That's really depressing, until you realize that it's really beautiful."
Order What Now on vinyl here.