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Sylvan Esso ditches its guiding principles of pop for its new album 'No Rules Sandy'

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Fort Adams State Park sits on the coast of Rhode Island. It looks out onto the Narragansett Bay and, by extension, the Atlantic Ocean.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNBURN")

SYLVAN ESSO: (Singing) I love the ocean. I love the air. I love the feeling that I get out there.

SUMMERS: And on a sunny Sunday afternoon in July, the band Sylvan Esso announced to the crowd gathered there for the Newport Folk Festival that they had a new album coming out. And then they proceeded to perform it.

(CHEERING)

AMELIA MEATH: It was a high unlike any other, honestly. It was so - very rarely do you get to play a new record from start to finish anyway, but to get to debut it that way was so fun.

Take care of each other.

NICK SANBORN: Usually when any band, I think, is kind of doing the old, here's a new one, it's always a little bit of a crapshoot as to whether or not people are going to follow you along on a bunch of songs that they don't already know the chorus to.

SUMMERS: Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath are Sylvan Esso. Their new album is "No Rules Sandy," and it's out today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNBURN")

SYLVAN ESSO: (Singing) Sunburn blistering, the heat under your skin.

SUMMERS: Nick and Amelia are married and live together at a home studio they built outside Durham, N.C., where they also run a record label. But this album was mostly not made there.

MEATH: This is the fastest record we've ever made from start to finish. We began it on, like, January 5 after our yearly road trip from North Carolina to Los Angeles. We got to LA with - assuming that we were going to go to the Grammys and that we were going to do a lot of writing sessions. But then the omicron spike happened. So all of a sudden, we were in this rental house with a surplus of time, and every day we would just go into our little studio, which was the living room, and see if we could write a song. And because of that, this is a more frenetic and vulnerable and open and weird record than we've made in a long time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIDN'T CARE")

SYLVAN ESSO: (Singing) I thought you were good and all, but I didn't hold you in my mind.

SANBORN: I think that, for us, the last few years there's been a lot of woodshedding, working on our craft. All of that work kind of just started to pay off. It was just about sitting down and trying to surprise the other one, the easier it came and the more we trusted it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIDN'T CARE")

SYLVAN ESSO: (Singing) I didn't know when I met you how it would go.

SUMMERS: That idea of trying to surprise the other one as you're collaborating, as you're creating together, is that new for you?

MEATH: No, it's kind of always been the basis of how we figure out what we're going to do next is we follow the things that make the other one excited. When you've been working together for as long as Nick and I have, the real joy is in the surprise.

SUMMERS: Give us an example of how that surprise shows up in "No Rules Sandy."

MEATH: Oh, well, like, usually whenever I do a vocal take, I do melody and lyrics at the same time, and I write them out in my notebook. And then when I do a vocal take, it's the first time that Nick has heard the words that I've written or the melody that I created. So to me, that's always present, which is actually how we got the name for the record 'cause in a backup line in the song "Your Reality," I say, no rules for me, no rules lately, no rules Sandy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR REALITY")

SYLVAN ESSO: (Singing) No rules lately. No rules Sandy. No rules, no rules.

SUMMERS: What does no rules Sandy - what does that mean to you? I - "Your Reality" is one of my favorite songs on the album.

MEATH: Thank you. That's nice to hear you say that 'cause so many people have been - we're in Los Angeles, so it's been a lot of, like, sweet, delicate guys in hats being like, yeah, that's what we heard.

SANBORN: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR REALITY")

SYLVAN ESSO: (Singing) Were there rules originally, or are we learning how to be surreal but free? It's your reality.

MEATH: Hold on. Sorry. I got distracted by making fun of men, and I forgot what you were going to - what you were asking me.

SUMMERS: That happens to me often. It really does.

(LAUGHTER)

SUMMERS: I want to talk to you about the name of the album, "No Rules Sandy." What does that mean?

MEATH: It became kind of a mantra for us where all of the guiding principles that we had used that were about making a pop record, we kind of threw away.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ECHO PARTY")

SYLVAN ESSO: (Singing) There's a lot of people dancing downtown. Yeah, we all fall down, but some stay where they got dropped. It's an echo party ringing all around. Yeah, you can't play it down, but you want it to feel right now.

MEATH: Pop is such a study in, like, form and sound. And we feel like we learned the rules and figured out how to write pop songs in the way that we write them. So we threw all those things away and began again.

SANBORN: On especially our last two records, there was always this other - these other elements in the room of, like, you know, how is this going to play on a stage? How is this going to feel at a festival? How is radio going to feel about this? How's so on - you know, all of these other things were kind of hanging there in the air. And I think for this one, just none of that was, you know? I was - we were truly just thinking about, you know, our own and each other's, like, delight and feeling confident in making stranger and stranger choices. I think after the last couple records, we felt like we said what we wanted to say with that. And now we're kind of in our own strange musical space that is only defined by what the two of us like.

SUMMERS: As a listener, one of the songs that I was - I found myself sort of mesmerized by when I was listening to the album is "Coming Back To You" because it is so different than everything else on the album. It's intense, and it's timeless.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMING BACK TO YOU")

SYLVAN ESSO: (Singing) I'm 85. I'm 16. I am a mother - a baby.

SUMMERS: Tell us about the song.

MEATH: I learned how to play guitar during the pandemic, like so many of us did, and it was one of the first songs I wrote on the guitar, I think - right, Sandy? Yeah.

SANBORN: Yeah. To me, this song is interesting 'cause it's one of the only ones that was actually written apart. Amelia wrote this and sent it to me when we weren't together. And immediately I was like, this has to be on the next record that we make. And when we were making this, it just felt like, you know, there's themes of all of the - you know, all of the tumultuous changes we've all dealt with in the last two years really feel apparent to me on the record. And closing it with this moment where, you know, she's singing to me as we're reuniting felt like that was the only way it could go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMING BACK TO YOU")

SYLVAN ESSO: (Singing) Coming back to you.

SUMMERS: Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, thank you so much for talking with us today.

MEATH: Thank you.

SANBORN: Yeah, thanks so much for having us back.

SUMMERS: Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath are Sylvan Esso. Their new album is called "No Rules Sandy," and it's out today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMING BACK TO YOU")

SYLVAN ESSO: (Singing) Coming back to you. I'm on an airplane. I'm in a boat. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.