Sylvan Esso Break Free on ‘No Rules Sandy’

On August 12, 2022
Photo by Brian Karlsson

Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn didn’t set out to make their fourth studio album earlier this year. The duo drove from their home in North Carolina to Los Angeles for the 64th Annual Grammy Awards — their third album, Free Love, was nominated for Best Dance/Electronic Music Album — but the award show was postponed, which left them in a small rental house with a makeshift recording studio and unexpected time to make new music. 

The result, No Rules Sandy, is an album focused on connection, created with a freedom and looseness unlike any Sylvan Esso project before it. Fittingly, when I met with Meath and Sanborn to talk about the record, it worked out to do so in person, seated around a table in a dark leather- and oak-clad Lower East Side hotel lobby. Our meeting came just days after the band’s multiple performances at the Newport Folk Festival — including debuting the full new album live. Amid asides about salt-boiled potatoes and astrological compatibility, I spoke with the duo about writing and producing No Rules Sandy, surprising each other and breaking their own rules.

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With their first three records behind them — albums Sanborn described as a closed chapter in which they’d “kind of perfected the thing we wanted to do” — they were able to approach No Rules Sandy as something more personal, getting back to the roots of the band: making music for each other and for fun. “That’s always been the goal, to impress each other with something that we’ve made, to inspire the other one,” Meath said, “For so long, I feel like we were kind of trapped in the mire of accidentally trying to impress other people.” Then, with the Grammys canceled, she said, “We found ourselves in a place where there was nothing else to do, other than be in Los Angeles and be together … [and] it became easier to think about the creative pursuit of each other than the world.”

For No Rules Sandy, they returned to that original formula of inspiring each other and communicating in the moment through the music. Asked what they both find impressive, Meath said it’s a moving target: They know each other so well, as longtime musical partners and a married couple, that it takes something truly new to shake things up. Sanborn called their writing process a “ping-pong game,” adding, “I think it’s like any long-term relationship with anyone in your life — you want to keep surprising them. You have to keep doing different things.”

Meath explained the process around their early music as exploratory, just trying to figure out what it would look like for them to create songs together. From there, she said, they started asking the questions every band runs into: “Do you keep doing the thing that people like? Do you break out of it?” With their fourth record, they decided to get free: “I think the reason why we chose [the title] No Rules Sandy is because we just actually gave ourselves permission … to go where the joy is,” Meath said.

   Photo by Brian Karlsson

According to Sanborn, the shift in philosophy for the new record began with the second single, “Your Reality.” He said they made decisions about the track “so quickly and so effortlessly.” From that intuitive place, Meath wrote the background vocal that loops on the song: “No rules for me, no rules baby, no rules lately, no rules maybe, no rules Sandy.” 

Sanborn (the Sandy addressed here) explained, “That’s just an extremely silly thing to say that she never would have said on a previous record. That would have been a joke for me and then we would have erased it. And I think that the keeping of that, and that song’s existence, kind of became the mission statement of the whole rest of the writing process.”

Freed up by this ethos and moving fast — Meath said if something wasn’t written in 20 minutes, they’d move on — most of the record was written and demoed during that brief time in LA, except “Didn’t Care” and “Coming Back to You,” which she wrote in 2021. The album’s 10 tracks are tied together by themes of connecting and reconnecting (with the world, a partner, yourself or all at once) and also linked by interludes — a first for the band. “We wanted it to feel like the present moment was so important,” Meath said, “And we’ve always been incredibly intentional about the amount of silence between each track in all of our records, but for this one, I think because we knew that we were kind of throwing everything out, I didn’t want there to be silence.”

The inclusion of these interstitial moments is a textural choice that lends intimacy and continuity to the record, whether sourced from a voicemail or a process sneak peek (like the interlude before “Echo Party,” which is the vocal loop that forms the backbone of the track). Sanborn explained, “The more we started putting our stupid little voice memos and stuff in there, it was like we kept leaning into friendship and into intimacy.”

In line with embracing community, one factor that opened up the band’s process and led to the changes on No Rules Sandy — along with what they described as personal development, working on themselves artistically amid pandemic isolation — was their experience creating the concert and live albumWITH, in 2019. That project, which brought in many friends and collaborators to perform their songs live, expanded what the Sylvan Esso sound could be.

With contributions from Sam Gendel (saxophone on “How Did You Know” and “Coming Back to You”), TJ Maiani (drums on “Your Reality” and “Alarm”) and a string arrangement from Gabriel Kahane on “Your Reality,” No Rules Sandy is their most collaborative studio album yet. (And that community spirit extends beyond Sylvan Esso, as Meath and Sanborn launched their own record label in 2021, Psychic Hotline, and are both releasing projects with others this year — Fruit for Meath, as The A’s with her Mountain Man bandmate Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, and an upcoming EP from Sanborn under his Made of Oak moniker in collaboration with GRRL.)

Looking outward and connecting to the world, both “Your Reality” and album-opener “Moving” (the latter driven by Meath hypnotically repeating, “How can I be moved, when everything is moving?”) speak to the disillusionment of rejoining society post-lockdown. The repeated lyrics in “Moving” could describe paralyzing anxiety, or feeling apathy amid change, but for Meath, they originated from the “strange conundrum” she experiences as an artist: “When the thing that you do for a living is make your art, it becomes impossible to separate yourself from your work. And because of that, it’s led to me … trying to find some sort of break from work, which then immediately transitions to a break from life, and that is impossible.” That concept is at the center of the song, she said, along with the idea that if “you’re in motion at the same rate as everybody else around you, you are at a standstill.”

“Moving” makes it clear from the beginning that No Rules Sandy has a different feel and sound than their previous work. Both Sanborn and Meath produced the record, and for this track, Sanborn said he wanted to find a way to make the production match the lyrics, capturing the energetic disorientation inherent to the song. He ran the demo through a Stereo Field touch plate synthesizer, reverb and a Microcosm granular sampler, layering distortion over the mix, and said after that, “It felt like it finally matched what she was singing about to me, it was like the whole thing was bursting out of itself. And I track that, thinking, ‘Well, surely I’ll redo this in a better way.’” But they got “demo-itis,” and that’s the same version of “Moving” on the record.

Narrowing from that broader theme of relating (or not relating) to the outside world, “How Did You Know” pivots to self-understanding and love — in its repeat-it-until-you-believe-it outro: “Now I can see, how it’s meant to be, taking care of me” — while tracks like “Echo Party,” “Sunburn” and “Look at Me” act as a bridge to the duo’s past pop explorations and focus on the present through simple pleasures: a dance party, the summer sun and being seen.

The two tracks that feel the most personal on the record are “Didn’t Care” and “Coming Back to You.” “Didn’t Care” tells the story of how Meath and Sanborn met and fell in love, operating as an anti-love-at-first-sight anthem, with Meath singing at the chorus: “I didn’t care / and I couldn’t feel it in the air / I didn’t know / when I met you how it would go.”

I asked about “Didn’t Care” and “Coming Back to You” in tandem, as the two love songs on the record, and Meath said, “To me, ‘Coming Back to You’ is about dying.” Like on “Moving,” there’s something in the contradictory specificity and broad appeal of the lyrics on “Coming Back to You” that allow for this range of interpretation, for it to be about death and love and both at once. One of the two tracks written ahead of their LA session, Sanborn first heard it driving back to Meath from a camping trip in Utah. 

“‘Coming Back to You’ is a song she wrote and I immediately was, like, obsessed with it. And I kept being, like, ‘I think this should be a Sylvan Esso song,’ even though it doesn’t sound like it should be,” he said. Meath interjected that it was written about dying, before he continued, “But she also sent it to me … as I was literally coming back to her. And I was just, like, trying not to cry [in front of] this guy I didn’t know very well who was driving.”

With acoustic guitar and Meath’s voice in the forefront, and light layers of saxophone and vocoder, “Coming Back to You” is undeniably touching, and one of the most stripped back songs in their catalog. Asked why they chose to present the song this way, at the close of the record, Sanborn said, “It just felt right,” and Meath added, “No rules Sandy.”

The day after we spoke, around sunset in the garden of an art gallery in Red Hook, Brooklyn, Meath and Sanborn grooved their way through a DJ set, and then asked if they could play their new album, beaming. The duo left the stage to let the record speak for itself, and the first distorted notes of “Moving” took over. Meath’s question — “How can I be moved, when everything is moving?” — hung in the humid air with the heavy synths, and the crowd answered: In a blur of motion, we danced.

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Theda Berry

Theda Berry is a Brooklyn-based writer and the Assistant Editor of VMP. If she had to be a different kind of berry, she’d pick strawberry.

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