Free Love is Sylvan Esso come fully into focus. Easing between danceable numbers and softer songs that edge on lullaby, the pair’s elation has never been more contagious.
Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn’s journey as Sylvan Esso stretches far beyond the three albums they’ve released together. They’ve learned more about each other as artists, widening their creative common ground with each new record. Communication is key, Nick tells us.
The pair have also become married during their time as a band, a moment which plays into their new album Free Love frequently. Their joy is apparent in euphoric pop numbers such as Ferris Wheel or Runaway, and the album’s slower burning tracks are drenched in the warmth of new love – Ring in particular.
Before their album had dropped, we sat down over Zoom with Nick and Amelia to chat all things Free Love. Amelia spoke with exhilaration about the studio they’ve just finished building, and Nick took great pleasure in comparing his modular synth setup to a fridge. Magic: The Gathering came up too, somehow.
HAPPY: I hear you’ve built a studio in the woods, how new is that?
AMELIA: It’s brand new!
NICK: We’ve been working on it for a long time. But it’s finally done.
AMELIA: The day we approved the masters of Free Love was the day construction was done.
NICK: It’s been a long process and it feels serendipitous that it just got done now.
HAPPY: Was that a space you were able to use at all on Free Love?
AMELIA: We were able to use the B room, which is the chill zone that’ll always be our space. Then there’s a much bigger, beautiful and fancy A room which has the capacity to have a bunch of players in it.
NICK: The previous owners had built a weird dance studio on the side of their garage, for some reason. It’d be terrible for literally anyone else but when we saw it, it was perfect, that’s where we’ll put our little room! So we pretty much made the entire record there.
AMELIA: And you can hear the A room being built! On Rooftop Dancing where you hear the sounds of buzzsaws and other things, that’s the studio being built.
HAPPY: Amazing. Being out in the woods, how influential is that space you’re recording in?
NICK: I think it’s huge. I think if you’re making something in a really honest way, there’s no way for the environment it was made in to not be a crucial element of the recording, but when I listen to the record I hear so much more space than our other records. There’s so much more room for quiet, and I associate that as a direct result of looking up from the computer and looking out into the woods.
AMELIA: I also think for me… what I was hoping the studio would provide for us was not only a beautiful space in nature to be, but also some distance between where we live and where we make music. To create a gulf between where we live and where we create – that gulf had a giant influence on the record. I think we made braver, bolder, and more in-depth choices in the record because we knew we could put it down at the end of the day and zip on home.
HAPPY: Tell me about the space – you said you can actually see out? So the mixing room is windowed and you get a bit of the woods when you’re working?
AMELIA: Even the performance room has full windows, the whole idea was to make it the opposite of a bat cave. It’s really bright, the ceilings are super tall, it’s white, and one wall is just beautiful with columned windows in it. As the day moves, three beams of light move across the floor, it’s really beautiful.
NICK: You kind of feel like you’re outside.
HAPPY: That’s awesome. So the cabin-in-the-woods recording trope, it’s as great as everyone makes it out to be?
AMELIA: It’s not really a cabin in the woods.
NICK: We’re pretty close to town.
AMELIA: My rule was that it had to be 10 minutes away from a bar. That’s what I personally need.
NICK: It’s a best of both worlds, you feel like you’re out in the woods, but you’re actually pretty close to town.
AMELIA: We tried to do the last record in isolation – I think our music is the worst thing to try and write in isolation. We were talking about trying to relate to everybody, and getting sweaty, and having fun… doing that alone is not ideal.
HAPPY: In the album I noticed a nice blend of very natural textures and almost alien-sounding electronic sounds, was that a conscious choice?
AMELIA: Yes, we’ve always gone for that.
NICK: For us, we want to make music that really feels human. There’s a desire to present all sides of that, especially with synthesizers. I think there’s something about making synthesizers not sound perfect, inherently you notice that they don’t sound perfect and that they sound human. If a saxophone plays loosely you’re like ‘that’s a great saxophone player’, but if a synthesizer is played loosely, you’re forced to acknowledge the human energy of the object, and I think that’s a thing we’re really looking for in our recordings – having that friction of fake perfection up against humanity.
HAPPY: Are there any production tricks or little creative trails you follow to find a synth patch that has that quality?
AMELIA: So many, especially [Nick] who has fallen so deeply into the world of modular synthesis. The building blocks of most of these songs was you improvising on the rig that you’ve built out of so many different modular pieces. And because they’re modular, they’re broken from the start and they’re your opportunity to build a large machine.
NICK: With a lot of the stuff I did, we’d start with a lot of un-clocked improvisations and then we’d try to fit them into a format. You’re taking these rough-edged pieces and trying to make them work in a grid, which inherently won’t happen.
AMELIA: And because it won’t happen, that’s when all the exciting stuff occurs.
HAPPY: Explain to me the modular thing a little – is building a modular synth like building a guitar pedal chain, where you can mess with the order as much as you like? Like putting an oscillator at the end of the circuit, or putting anything somewhere it’s not classically meant to go.
NICK: Yeah! The whole idea is that the whole part of the circuit can be rewired for every time you turn it on. With a pedalboard, different pedals can go in different orders or whatever, but this is like you could take the envelope from one pedal and apply it to another. Every piece of electricity can go wherever you want, so it’s this fundamental opening up of the circuit board in the first place… it allows pretty infinite freedom in that way. I always think of it like… imagine a refrigerator! Can you see our refrigerator?
[Nick points to the refrigerator, their chosen Zoom background for the day]
HAPPY: I can see it. I like this analogy already.
NICK: We just bought this fridge, and it’s wired the way it’s wired. You can change the temperature and a few other things but it all does what the designer wanted it to do. Now instead, if I was like ‘I’d rather get a compressor and a water filter’, or ‘I want my own power supply’, or ‘let’s build our own doors’ or ‘the freezer could look like this’… and then I want to be able to change that every time I plug it in. I want all these things to work in a completely different way every time, and it can have nothing to do with the original intention of the fridge.
AMELIA: It turns into something different.
NICK: Yeah, you’re using things other people have built, they’re modules, they’re pieces of another whole, so you can bend them to your desire for what the machine can do on any given day.
AMELIA: 100 percent. I always relate it to building a deck in Magic: The Gathering.
NICK: Totally, it’s exactly like Magic: The Gathering.
HAPPY: It sounds like you’d have that old problem of losing a sound forever – unless you recorded it.
NICK: That’s kind of the beauty. Going from the laptop DAW world where there’s this irrational desire to be slowly perfecting a thing over the course of a long time, there was something freeing about getting into modular synthesis. It’s one time, it’s this way today. The ephemeral nature of each piece is inherent in the medium itself, and there’s something meditative about that. You have to let go a little bit, it feels like this whole new world in a cool way.
HAPPY: Love it, thanks for talking shop.
NICK: If you do want to get into it, there’s VCV rack. It’s a free modular learning environment, and it’ll definitely tell you out the gate if it’s something you’ll enjoy or not enjoy.
HAPPY: Thanks for the tip! One more thing I wanted to ask was about the album title itself, where did that come from?
AMELIA: So we had about half of the record, we had Frequency, What If, and Ferris Wheel I think, and then I wrote Free. After I’d written Free – which I think is the best song that I’ve ever written – when I wrote that I sang it to Nick. I alway know what the cover image of a record should be and Nick always knows the title. Nick said we should call it Free Love.
NICK: We’d been writing all these songs – Amelia writes all the lyrics, so part of my role is keeping a macro perspective on all of these things that she’s writing and trying to find what I perceive to be the thread of this moment that we’re working on.
AMELIA: He’s on the outside, and also a collector of all the sounds.
NICK: Yeah, I feel like you’re more in the moment of all the songs. When she wrote Free, that song put into perspective this thing I’d been thinking about which was… from my perspective, what she was doing was reacting to this increasingly anxiety-ridden world around her and looking back in her past to think about all the times when loving people seemed really easy. All the ways that had happened. And especially once she wrote Free, which to me was this beautiful song thinking about the nature of what it means when you think you love somebody, and how you might just be loving an idealised version of yourself. That’s what firmed up the direction the album was moving. It just came out, it seemed like the natural thing to call it. But also, then the overtones started coming out – we loved the idea of subverting this term that we hated the original connotation of, we liked the idea of more of a self-actualisation verb.
AMELIA: And also, most people do listen to music for free… so.
HAPPY: Nice. Free will be the last single released before the album, right?
HAPPY: In terms of the order you released singles ahead of the album, what was your strategy?
AMELIA: Well you’re pushing for radio play, right? So Ferris Wheel, which is the most bubble gummy and fun song on the record… I mean, there are a lot of bubble gummy, fun songs. But we decided we were going to put out Ferris Wheel for radio and then actually show people the different dimensions of what they’re going to be experiencing if they buy the record, or if they listen to it fully in order, like a vinyl record – which is always what we want when we make a collection of songs. So then we decided we were just going to release our favourites.
NICK: For us there was something about using What If. We were hesitant about putting out Ferris Wheel without any other context, because I think there’s an easy way to interpret that song as less than what I feel it is, personally. In the context of the record it doesn’t read in the same way as without that context. So the idea of releasing What If and that video days before Ferris Wheel was really attractive to us, so people knew it wouldn’t be one thing or another, that there was a range happening – a bigger and deeper story than this one thing. We’re always trying to show people the edges of a frame, you know?
AMELIA: And we’ve never released a ballad before a record. Is What If a ballad?
NICK: I guess?
AMELIA: It’s slow and quiet.
NICK: I can’t imagine people dancing to it.
AMELIA: A People don’t dance to ballads, though.
NICK: Sure you do! At a wedding.
NICK: It’s definitely not a wedding song.
HAPPY: Well when’s the wedding song coming out, guys?
[Nick and Amelia laugh]
Free Love is out now via Loma Vista Recordings / Caroline Australia. Stream or purchase your copy here.