Illustration: Iris Gottlieb
The Last Gig Pop-enabledCharlie Harding saw, the last real blowout, was a show at the Walt Disney Concert Hall by dance music duo Sylvan Esso. Performing songs like “Die Young” – “I was a firecracker, baby, with something to prove” – they brought a lot of funk to the normally buttoned-up room. It was the winter of 2019, and when the pandemic shut down live music and the world soon after, it was a great note to hang out.
And it seems the Recording Academy liked them too! The group’s 2020 album, free love, one of the bright spots of this dark year, is up for Best Dance/Electronic Album of this year’s Grammy cycle. It speaks to Sylvan Esso’s unique sound: intoxicating textures built on danceable electronic beats, mixed with the curiosity of folk lyrics. Coming full circle, Harding sat down with Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn to better understand the secrets of their musical chemistry.
You write songs – not just to dance. In fact, you write songs about the act of dancing; I feel like you treat bodily movement as a space for different kinds of emotional expression. For example, dance is not a monolith. It has all kinds of varieties. So why not start by listening to “Ferris Wheel”.
Amelie Meath: I wanted to write a song about that incredible feeling you get when you first step into your sexual power. Like, you’re 14 – you’re attracting attention. You do not know what it is.
You’re a bit scared and panicked, but you can also tell there’s magic to be used. This is how you discover yourself. And I wanted to write about the time when I was 15 or 16 and I got to be at the party that I saw on TV, where all the teenagers somehow go to a amusement park and their parents don’t come with them and they just have a sexy time.
There’s specificity to the lyrics “When I’m slamming in my dancing shoes / The asphalt is hot and my knees are all bruised.” It has no vague and universal refrain. He has a very specific type of imagery. It takes you there.
A M: One of my general modes is specificity when I’m really trying to hit a real hook. I’m going to try to write something really cinematic, which I was very proud of with this song. Also, being able to talk about bruised knees, talking about being like a weird, clumsy little kid.
Nick Sanborn: He puts it into reality. It’s something we always aim for. I think a lot of pop makes things vaguer and cooler than they were and more Following – and by being more, it ends up being almost less human, more simplistic or more ambitious. And personally, I like songs that lean the opposite way, that reinforce the celebration of ultimately human things.
Maybe it’s an appropriate transition to move on to another song about dancing which I think is kind of the emotional opposite: “Numb”.
A M: I have a weird and super silly obsession with procedural dance songs from the 1950s, like [Chubby Checker’s] “The Twist”, and I tried to figure out how to make one that kind of hides that idea. And so “shaking off the numbness” sort of came up as a way of being able to talk about it – but also being able to talk about getting back into your body after not feeling anything, or trying to shake yourself out of sadness or doom. apathy or all of those things.
“Numb” is the opposite of “The Twist”.
A M: Indeed. It’s kind of the opposite of “The Twist”, but it’s also the same thing. My favorite part of the song is the bridge where I talk about why you shake your body, why you help yourself to be more present in the moment for these myriad reasons. You shake yourself for the ocean and for the forest and for your family.
NOT. : It was also a crazy day. We were just having a really terrible day, and we kind of hit a wall in the studio that day.
We were about to leave, and I was like, ‘Let’s just stay about 30 more minutes and just do something and have it be bad. Let’s just, like, do something, just to bust the day’s fingers. And I think that’s why the pace is so frenetic and fast. It was a beating of anxiety for me. I was just trying to do something that felt really electric and cathartic in the moment. And then when Amelia had that line, “shaking the numbness,” it was immediately crazy.
A M: And then we added the bass oscillation. It’s a bass sound that’s actually based on a physical movement I was doing in the studio, like “it should sound like this”. And then once we figured that out…
NOT. : … It was amazing and came together. I feel like, even now, I’m waking up from a stressful dream, like before the sun comes up most mornings, where you’re, like, staring at your phone in the dark and, like, scrolling through the doom… when Amelia wrote this, it brought me to that time in the morning every day when the sun starts to come up, and I have to be like, Okay. Very well. Not productive.
I feel like the collective – we really should learn this dance.
A M: This is the dream.
I think you have to shake off the numbness.
A M: All the time.
NOT. : Literally every day – several times a day.
If you start doomscrolling, stand up.
NOT. : Put it down. Nothing is going to be better.