Keeping Up with Sylvan Esso: The Indie-Pop Duo Talks Pandemic, Bonnaroo Cancelation, & Ongoing Tour

“[I]t was really, really sad to put a record out during the pandemic,” Amelia Meath tells American Songwriter.

As one half of the electro-indie duo, Sylvan Esso—who’ve been innovating indie-pop since their monumental self-titled debut dropped in 2014—Meath has always felt a little bittersweet when it comes to releasing music. “Have you ever read E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web?” she asked. “You remember the last part where all of the spiders hatch and they just say goodbye and Wilbur cries? I’m Wilbur.”

So, when the COVID-19 pandemic curbed the momentum for their 2020 album, Free Love, Meath found herself in an extra-weird headspace. “Honestly, every other time we’ve put out a record, I was also very sad,” she explained. “But this was especially hard and weird. Usually, when we’re putting out a record, we’re running all over the world promoting it—this time, having to do that from a computer was… well, now everybody knows the fatigue that comes from being on a computer forever. “

While an unnuanced reading of Meath’s disappointment might suggest that she was let down simply by the lack of fanfare around the album release, the thing that was really getting under her skin was a much larger, more universal phenomenon. Like many musicians throughout the pandemic, Meath and her Sylvan Esso partner, Nick Sanborn, came face-to-face with the harrowing realities of an economy not designed to truly support artists… or people.

“It’s the most luxurious whine in the world to complain about releasing a record during this time—especially compared to all of those who lost so much—but what makes me so mad about it is the fact that the magnitude of the pandemic was preventable,” Meath said. “I’m not talking about American citizens ruining it or anything like that—it was the government and capitalism. In fact, I’d say that two of the worst ideas humans have ever had were motors and capitalism… but I guess the motors probably stemmed from capitalism to begin with.” 

Even with the unideal global circumstance, Free Love hit DSPs last September, and—despite never getting the same promotional opportunities as their previous work—it’s become celebrated among Sylvan Esso fans. The lead single, “Ferris Wheel,” has racked up somewhere north of 12 million streams on Spotify alone.

So, when Meath and Sanborn finally saw the first inkling of light at the end of the proverbial pandemic tunnel, they were overjoyed. The light? They were chosen to host the annual Superjam at Bonnaroo 2021. But then, Bonnaroo got canceled due to unsurmountable weather conditions. 

“It was an emotional roller coaster for sure—that can’t be understated,” Sanborn said. “It was going to be the same show that we were supposed to do a year earlier, in 2020. We got to the site and everything, but in the middle of a rehearsal, we found out that it wasn’t going to happen. It was crazy. We had spent months coordinating all the guests that were going to come out for the Superjam and everything.”

Ultimately, the ‘Sylvan Esso Superjam’ will go down in Bonnaroo lore and indie lore alike as one of the greatest shows that never happened. “Isn’t it cooler to let it live on in infamy?” Meath cooly replied when asked about what the planned set entailed. “It was going to be an ecstatic celebration of life. But what Superjam isn’t?”

In lieu of Bonnaroo, Sylvan Esso got to take part in a memorable make-up concert—they, along with Phoebe Bridgers and Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, went up to Nashville and threw together a dazzling, three-set show with nothing but a few days to get everything aligned. 

“That was really amazing,” Meath reflected. “With camps as big as ours, Brittany Howard’s or Phoebe Bridgers’, it’s rare that something like this can happen—that everyone can come together and plan an evening with COVID safety protocols and everything in the span of 24 hours. It was truly an amazing feat by all of our teams.”

At the show, Meath and Sanborn got to team up with the WITH band, a large ensemble first put together in 2019 that occasionally helps bring Sylvan Esso songs to life in a whole different way—that night in Nashville, they got to bust out some pretty exciting covers too, like Steely Dan’s “Peg,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere” and more. 

“The WITH band is a totally different animal than Sylvan Esso itself,” Meath explained. “Getting to be welcomed back to playing music with everyone we love so much was amazing—they’re our friends, but they’re also incredible performers and we’re such fans of them.” 

The Bonnaroo make-up show was Sylvan Esso’s first performance since everything began to shut down in Spring 2020—shortly after that gig, they embarked on a currently-ongoing tour featuring the “Sylvan Esso itself” arrangement Meath referred to. Stripped back but with more energy and gusto than ever, the duo is spreading their uplifting vibes with the world on an unparalleled level. 

“The last real thing we did was tour with the full band, then we came back and did Fake Bonnaroo—so I think I was a little concerned that going back to playing shows with just the two of us was going to feel limiting,” Sanborn said. “But really, I think the WITH tour only expanded the palette of what our duo can be, so this tour has been crazy. We rebuilt the show from the bottom up, which we never would’ve had time to do beforehand. It’s just so fun right now. We’re reaching out in all these directions, feeling loose and weird—our dynamics are bigger than ever. It feels like we’re making a true connection.” 

Reflecting on all they’ve been through since the end of 2019 and all the exciting things that are yet to come, Sanborn concluded: “For me, it feels like we’re in this cool moment where it’s starting to feel like anything is possible.” Then Meath added: “In a way, I guess that’s always how it’s felt, but it keeps on feeling truer and truer.”


Check out the info on Sylvan Esso’s tour HERE and watch the video for their 2014 hit “Coffee” below:

Photo by Shervin Lainez.

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