Under Pressure: Four Challenges Sylvan Esso Faced on Sophomore Album 'What Now'

Under Pressure: Four Challenges Sylvan Esso Faced on Sophomore Album 'What Now'
Photo: Shervin Lainez
This week, Sylvan Esso will release their long-awaited second album, What Now, courtesy of Loma Vista Recordings. We spoke with Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn about the challenges they faced following up the towering success of their 2014 self-titled debut.
 
1 They had to overcome fear and self-doubt to follow up their much-beloved debut…
 
Meath: "The first record was so easy to do, because there was nobody that was interested. Once we finished What Now, it felt infinitely more liberating than finishing the first one had. But the making of this record was a pretty fraught ordeal, if only to just get out of our own way and not be scared. We had to overcome pretty immense fear to be able to write songs again."
 
Sanborn: "When we first started working on the record, we were really apprehensive for a lot of reasons, but most of it was that we hadn't really written in a while. We were nervous we were gonna fuck it up. So it took us a minute to figure out that we weren't the same people that made the first record, that our lives and the world around us had completely changed since Sylvan Esso. The minute we let go and realized that we were different now, and we could write different music, it kind of opened up. We stopped worrying about it sounding like anything we'd done before. We wanted it to sound genuinely us, right now."
 
2 …but once they found the sound they wanted for opening song "Sound," it started falling into place.
 
Sanborn: "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.
 
"It all came out really quickly, in an afternoon, and that sound, and figuring out that that sound needed to start the record, it felt like a statement of intent for the next chapter. The last song on our first record felt like a lullaby to me, it was putting the album to bed. When we found that sound, instantly it felt like the next thing that should happen, like waking up in a new day, so that was a big moment."
 
3 The title What Now began as a personal question about making new music, but quickly came to mean much more.
 
Sanborn: "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.
 
"The fundamental thing for us was that idea: Realizing that you never get to ride off into the sunset, and that everything will just always be a beautiful fight until you're dead. I think that realization is more the central theme that the record speaks to, when I listen to it. We were at a personal precipice in a number of ways, and I think as the record went on, we started feeling like our species was at a precipice. Those things felt inextricably linked. I don't think there's a question we're trying to answer; I think art is supposed to ask questions, not answer them."
 
Meath: "I think the first idea of what we wanted to talk about for this record was technology and culture, and how they're mixing together right now to make something that I believe is kind of scary. But then that grew into the record that is What Now, which is about so many things on top of that; it's much more complex."
 
4 Amelia "gave herself permission" to write more using the pronoun "I," giving the songs a personal touch that resonates far beyond herself.
 
Meath: "I did give myself permission to do that, most because it was much more fun to write from a character's point of view or, like, characters that are very much influenced by my own life experiences. The 'I's in these songs are much more simple than me. And like, the 'I' in 'Just Dancing' isn't me. But I've definitely felt the feeling; I am in my late twenties. For me, definitely, these songs are a lot about being a kid and how you build yourself, how you build your character through social media and media in general. 'Rewind,' the last track on the record, is about doing that, about building yourself out of media, but it's about watching a VHS tape; how to be an adult."
 
Sanborn: "I think we were feeling restless. It's tough to try to take those things and make them about more people than us. We wrote them about us. I don't think anybody ever sets out to make the message that defines a generation, you know?
 
Meath: "All you can do is write as honestly as you possibly can about how you're feeling in the moment. If you're lucky, that feels universal."

Order What Now on vinyl here.