switched on pop

Enjoying Emotional Overload With Sylvan Esso

Illustration: Iris Gottlieb

The last concert Switched on Pop’s Charlie Harding saw, the last proper blowout, was a show at Walt Disney Concert Hall by the dance-music duo Sylvan Esso. Performing songs like “Die Young” — “I was a firecracker, baby, with something to prove” — they brought a whole lot of funk to the normally buttoned-up venue. That was back in the winter of 2019, and when the pandemic shut down live music, and the world, shortly thereafter, it was a great note to go out on.

And it looks like the Recording Academy loved them too! The group’s 2020 album, Free Love, one of the bright spots during that dark year, is up for Best Dance/Electronic Music Album in this year’s Grammy cycle. This is a testament to Sylvan Esso’s unique sound: intoxicating textures built on danceable electronic beats, blended with the inquisitiveness of folk lyrics. Coming full circle, Harding spoke to Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn to better understand the secrets of their musical alchemy.

You write songs — not just to dance to. You actually write songs about the act of dancing; I feel like you treat bodily movement as a space for different kinds of emotional expression. Like, dance is not a monolith. It has all kinds of varieties. So why don’t we start by listening to “Ferris Wheel.”

Amelia Meath: I wanted to write a song about that amazing feeling you have when you’re first coming into your sexual power. Like, you’re 14 — you’re getting some attention. You don’t know what the heck it is.

You’re kind of scared and freaked out, but also you can tell that there’s some magic there to be used. You’re discovering yourself in that way. And I wanted to write about when I was like 15 or 16 and was able to be at the party that I had seen on TV, where all the teens somehow go to an amusement park and their parents don’t come with them and they just have a sexy time.

There’s a specificity in the lyric “When I’m slamming in my dancing shoes / Asphalt’s hot and my knees all bruised.” It doesn’t have a vague, universal chorus. It has highly specific, imagistic kind of language. It takes you to that place.
A.M.: One of my general modes is specificity when I’m really trying to reach for a true hook. I’ll try to write something that’s really cinematic, which is what I was very proud of with this song. Also, to be able to talk about bruised knees, to talk about being like a weird, awkward little kid.

Nick Sanborn: It puts it into reality. That’s a thing that we’re always shooting for. I think a lot of pop makes things more vague and cooler than they were and more more — and by being more, it ends up being almost less human, more simplistic, or more aspirational. And I personally love songs that lean the opposite, that heighten the celebration of the ultimately human things.

Maybe it’s an appropriate segue to go to another song about dancing that is, I think, kind of an emotional opposite: “Numb.”

A.M.: I have a weird, super-dorky obsession with 1950s procedural dance songs, like [Chubby Checker’s] “The Twist,” and I’ve been trying to figure out how to make one that sort of hides that idea. And so “shaking out the numb” appeared kind of as a way of being able to talk about that — but also about being able to talk about dancing yourself back into your body after feeling nothing, or trying to shake yourself out of sadness or apathy or all those things.

“Numb” is the opposite of “The Twist.”
A.M.: Indeed. It is kind of the opposite of “The Twist,” but also it is the same. The part of the song that’s my favorite is the bridge where I’m talking about why you’re shaking your body around, why you’re helping yourself be more present in the moment for these myriad of reasons. You’re shaking yourself back for the ocean and for the forest and for your family.

N.S.: That was also a crazy day. We were just having a really terrible day, and we had kind of hit a wall in the studio that day.

We were about to leave, and I was like, “Let’s just stay for, like, 30 more minutes and just make a thing and just let it be bad.” Let’s just, like, make a thing, just to crack the knuckles of the day. And I think that’s why the beat is so frenetic and fast. It was an anxiety beat for me. I was just trying to make a thing that felt really electric and cathartic for me in the moment. And then when Amelia had that line, “shaking out the numb,” immediately it was crazy.

A.M.: And then we added the bass wobble. It’s a bass sound that is actually based off of a physical movement that I was doing in the studio, being like, “It should feel like this.” And then once we got that …

N.S.: … It was amazing and came together. I feel like, even now, I wake up from some stress dream, like before the sun comes up most mornings, where you’re, like, looking at your phone in the dark and, like, actually doomscrolling … when Amelia wrote that, it took me to that moment in the morning each day when the sun will start coming up, and I have to be like, Okay. All right. Not productive.

I feel like the collective — we really ought to learn this dance. 
A.M.: That’s the dream.

I think we need to shake out the numb.
A.M.: All the time.

N.S.: Literally every day — multiple times a day.

If you start to doomscroll, stand up.
N.S.: Put it down. Nothing is going to be better.

Enjoying Emotional Overload With Sylvan Esso