Tuning to the Sylvan Esso Frequency

By Elena Vassilieva  

On Sylvan Esso’s feminism and activism, “Radio” and “Free Love.”

Photo: © Elena Vassilieva, The Playground Free Love, 2020

It’s March of 2015, and the Tiny Desk concert at NPR’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., has just begun. The young woman with a funny bun on the very top of her head seems to have no bones at all when she is making waves-like dance moves. I’m curious how on earth she is able to be so rhythmically precise and light as a feather while wearing her bulky white platform sneakers? “But if you, guys, want it to, like, do a little moving together, just imagine you are the seaweed in the Ursula’s cave,” she urges the audience to join her, making everyone laugh at once. Who is that whimsical beauty, the Moominvalley’s Little My-like character she is portraying, who can be affable and bold, smart and naughty, kind and subversive?

For a very long time, I thought Sylvan Esso equals Amelia Meath solely. Oddly enough, I could only hear her (en)chanting, with morning crispiness, voice that was singing about the everyday of a woman that is down-to-earth and yet full of daydreams: “I’m the song that you can’t get out of your head.” A woman that is yearning for the simplest pleasures on Earth, say, a warm embrace of the one she is in love, or a cup of very strong coffee brewed in a percolator in the middle of an ordinary and busy day. That level-headed woman would rather confront than break things and flee, or inflict self-harm. “Oh if my ears were as big as the ocean, I could hear all your devotion. Play it right!” She would run away in her imagination only, just for the sake of her self-indulgent playfulness, provided, she has a worthy company. She is a young woman of an independent spirit. At least, these are the clues I gathered from the raw, stream-of-consciousness-like lyrics on Sylvan Esso’s earlier albums.

When I discovered Sylvan Esso through that NPR Tiny Desk Concert series, I had been a passionate Wagnerian, but a novice in the territory of electronic music, let alone its subgenre of folktronica. Thanks to their introduction, I immediately became quite a devoted lover of that genre, expanding my cultural horizon further. Nearly right after I got acquainted with Sylvan Esso, I also dared to step inside the magical musical box of the celebrated and influential Australian electronica artists Cut Copy who have been on the musical scene since 2001. Only then, I began to see and hear Amelia’s partner, the talented Nicholas Sanborn, the man behind another music project, Made of Oak. Of course, one may find it perplexing, but the truth is that Sanborn’s sound arrived to my ears through the Cut Copy’s founder and adventurous talent, Dan Whitford. Nick and Dan share a very similar taste for rhythmic textures and beats, very often exotic in the best sense of the word, say, African and Aboriginal. Needless to say, what a delightful surprise and joy it was to have Cut Copy’s remix of Sylvan Esso’s Radio in the early June of 2018.

The song’s harsh critique of the political maneuvering inside the music industry resonated well with fans, fellow musicians, and, ironically, even radio DJs. The main idea of the song was to show the music industry’s demanding and very often unfair attitude towards musicians, and also to highlight the fact that the mainstream music is being played on radio stations much more often than independent music. Sylvan Esso protested strongly at the situation of injustice and inequality. Although Cut Copy didn’t say anywhere explicitly that they were driven by the same idea of unfairness, one still may interpret their willingness to make a remix of the song as their wish to join the protest. Moreover, the remix is anything but a mainstream piece, displaying a smart attire of attractive hooks and unexpected turns. Just recently, Dan Whitford continued the topic by questioning Spotify’s position towards the artists in terms of their economic wellbeing, let alone Spotify’s CEO’s reasoning behind it. Daniel Ek gave a surprisingly preposterous suggestion to musicians for improving the situation: Make more songs, and you’ll earn more money. It does sound nearly exactly as the first line and the chorus of Radio: “Gimme a new single! Make me a new baby! Slave to the radio!” The most brazen words in the song had to be bleeped/edited, of course, in order to be played by radio stations freely, without getting complaints from all the puritanical listeners. Should the artists take the ill-fitting advice from Spotify’s CEO, it is inevitable that the quality of their songwriting would suffer tremendously, argues Dan Whitford, and the platform will be flooded by the substandard or derivative product in no time at all.

Political or apolitical Cut Copy’s remix of Radio might be, at any rate, it succeeded in making me as a listener to have another fresh look at the original version of the song and Nick Sanborn as a dexterous and very engaging producer. His minimalism, combined with his feminism (in a similar way John Lennon famously declared that he was a feminist) and egalitarian philosophical outlook, is quite impressive. Yes, it is, once one realizes how careful and smart his production technique and style towards Amelia’s vocals and lyrics are. No wonder the naïve listener (at least, in myself) sees and hears only Amelia at first because Sanborn as a producer deliberately and fully focuses his attention on her, in order to highlight the conceptual side of their songs. Even when he opts for some experiments, e.g., making a track sound as if it were being played on an antique pathephone, he is approaching it with great care and consideration so that it wouldn’t interfere with the colorful palette of Amelia’s voice, but also with her rhythm, tone, and intonation. After all, it’s still a nonconformist frontwoman’s repertoire, nearly always showcasing its daring and anti-puritan aesthetics that stretches easily even to her own body image. The “folk girl” who would like you to take off guard with her unshaved armpits, a ring in her nose, Spice Girls’ shoes, sex-appealing dance moves, and the free spirit of Sylvan Esso.   

“I’ve always been interested in breaking binaries,” said Amelia in the recent conversation with Bob Boilen during presentation of their new album Free Love at NPR. She also not that long ago bravely made her bisexuality publicly known, the fact that gives an additional meaning to their, as they stated themselves, polysemic Free Love which is about “the anxiety of being in the world and how to love freer,” echoes Sanborn supportively. “But it can mean so many things depending on your mood,” adds Amelia. Each out of the ten songs composed under the conceptual umbrella of Free Love has its own message, be it a social or environmental one, such as a speculative vision of the fragile and cruel world in What If or complicated human relations in Free, the lifestyle of an artist in Train. Or a message about one’s emotional state, where one is flirtatiously encouraging the other to open the heart in “the unapologetically hooky and catchy” (Nick) Ferris Wheel or about the uncertainty and anxiousness of the falling and being in love in Ring when the relationship turns out to be a trap. Or another, this time amorous, nod to radio in Frequency where the character, while being in the woods and among flowers, in the middle of nowhere, is romantically longing for the other who is thousands miles away and with whom she isn’t acquainted at all, but who excites her imagination so much that she happily lives fully immersed in that desirous fantasy. Sylvan Esso’s long-time friend and a true renaissance man, Moses Sumney, directed a video for the song, in which he beautifully translated the relationship into the interracial and same-gender interplay. Or the message can simply be a contemplative state of being with a good dose of silliness, such as the mischievous heroine in Runaway, Make It Easy, and in the joyous ode to NYC Rooftop Dancing.

Although both Amelia and Nick admitted that they have matured over the years, especially in how they make choices for encrypting different messages in their songs, they are still very fond of the youthfulness and bashfulness of the character they are creating. It has that feel to it of the “Victorian teenage, letter writing, romance”, says Amelia self-deprecatingly. It’s a character that is interested in the daily life, its societal, political, and emotional experiences, and is exhibiting an “emotional range of our lives,” as Nick succinctly describes it during their conversation with TJ Morgan on KEXP. “We are feeling the rhythm of the day,” he continues, even “the mood of the weather is influencing our songwriting, but we also inspire each other.” “It’s like that with us,” says Amelia, putting her hands one into another, showing how intimate their creative process in the studio is. “Feelings first,” she laughs. “We have developed our own language in the studio,” adds Nick, “right to the point when it may appear completely incomprehensible to the outsider, but we understand each other just by looking at each other.” “It’s a lot of back and forth about what’s working and what’s not working. And if something is not working, it’s us arguing and then figuring out why it’s not working, and what the song actually wants. It’s almost like the song becomes its own other person in the room that we are trying to discover.” Aside to their close creative partnership, they are inspired by their newly built studio in the North Carolina woods filled with toads and blue-tailed skinks, but also by as “simple” an instrument as Nick’s modular synthesizer, which never stops surprising him.

No wonder the production on Free Love is a splendid and curious piece of boldly crafted work that gives you an impression of one long and venturesome day in the character’s life. The admirable thing is that the lyrics, melody, and production don’t divorce here at all at any instance, but instead coincide in their purpose to illustrate the heroine’s feelings and thoughts. All songs contain tiny different quotes, references or discursive fragments, be it from a (sub)genre of the House music or just a short dialogue such as in Train, or a monologic declaration “I love you” in Free, the song that is very evocative of Joni Mitchell’s aesthetic. The vocal style in the sparkling and bubbly “Look at – look at – look at – I can see everything” line in Rooftop Dancing is a gracious nod to an Australian artist Elle Graham from Woodes, who was supporting Sylvan Esso on their tour in Melbourne in January of 2018. The children’s laughter and rhyming in the song, a sample taken from the archives at the Smithsonian, reminds the listener of the future to which we as a society strive, where there is a chance for everyone to have a happy childhood and equal rights. “Sunlight beaming out over the bridge / We’re all running, outrunning death.” The Sylvan Esso’s character is a rebellious and justice seeking American girl who finds it utterly unbearable to stand at the side. It isn’t therefore surprising at all that today’s problems in American society are being reflected in their songwriting. Like their character, Amelia and Nick aren’t shy to join public protests to support equal rights for LGBTQ community or to encourage people to vote for change. As it happened this year, on October 31, when they took part in the “I Am Change” march in Graham, NC, where, to their horror and dismay, the police pepper-sprayed the peaceful rally that included small children. They also expressed their skepticism about digital platforms, e.g., Spotify, “owned by terrifying conglomerates” (Amelia) that are exploiting artists and their fans. “I’m rethinking my relationship to capitalism right now,” she sighs. The keynote that will probably find place in the everyday of their fearless and freethinking American girl on their next album.

(written on October 4, 2020 in the middle of Atlantic, on my way to Martha’s Vineyard)

© Copyright 2020 Elena Vassilieva. All Rights Reserved.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s