KNITTING FACTORY PRESENTS
[SOLD OUT] Sylvan Esso, Phoebe Bridgers
Sylvan Esso’s Grammy nominated sophomore album What Now is out now on Loma Vista Recordings and available here.
Sylvan Esso began as a chance meeting, followed by a couple of risky cross-country relocations that coalesced into ten songs. It became very clear early on that these songs were the product of sheer alchemy; Amelia’s effortlessly acrobatic melodic reflections complimented Nick’s dynamic compositions in ways that were as unlikely as they were undeniable. When it started it was whisper quiet, a slight frame, something almost domestic but gleaming with excitement. Then it made contact with the air. The duo found themselves on a three-year worldwide swirl of planes, buses, vans, venues, festival stages, hotel rooms, radio stations and television studios. It’s difficult to draw distinctions. We frequently have to work as a group to remember the chronology and version of events, but the stories that make us howl with laughter or shake our heads in bewilderment are crystal clear. Throughout this process there was an underlying truth that remained this shred of creative excitement in what was at times a monotonous grind: that this is just the beginning. But what’s next? Surely it’s not just these ten songs? Then something happened on a summer afternoon in New York as Nick tuned a broken synthesizer to the pitch of Amelia’s voice while she sang a new mantra. It seemed fitting that Sylvan Esso’s first implementation of the process was for the human to tune the machine, not the other way around. The lines between instrument and voice, programmed and improvised, Amelia and Nick, began to blur. This reverse auto-tune created the sonic blueprint for new music and seemed to articulate something the band was searching for; a need to connect with the light of humanity in our overly stimulated world; seeking the signal amidst the noise. Over the next 18 months the band constructed and shaped these songs at their studio in Durham, North Carolina as well as extended stays in the paralyzing rural Wisconsin winter and the dry desert heat of downtown Los Angeles. What once sounded small and modest has grown to squall and surge without boundary, but never at the expense of its own intimacy or honesty. There’s been an awakening as to what a Sylvan Esso song can be. The whole thing still shifts and quakes as if the kinetic energy of its own making might send it skittering off but it stays right there perched on a busted flight case on a keyboard stand that’s been lost countless times yet somehow always recovered. The music pushes air. Sylvan Esso is a living breathing thing that exists in the real world. At its core, this is an album that was created against the backdrop of 2016, which means that it is inherently grappling with the chaos of a country seething inward on itself. Time in the lion’s den gave way to seared indictments of the music industry and narcissistic mass media culture. When the present seems unstable and the future is a pastiche of foreboding it can be natural to turn to the past, to search for some solace in the skipping CDs and rewinding VHS tapes of one’s childhood, but you can never go back again. Never one to shy away from duality, Amelia muses true love as an unavoidable deterrent for a death-wish; it’s a record about falling in love and learning that it won’t save you. It’s an album about meeting your own personal successes but feeling the fizzling embers of the afterglow rather than the roar of achievement; about the crushing realization that no progress may ever be permanent. There are no grand exits or Hollywood endings, life just goes on. Perhaps it is in this truth that we can begin to extend connectivity to one another, free from our own need for narrative. This isn’t just pop music that refuses to be dumb, anymore, this is protest music that refuses to not be personal. In the final moments of 2016, packed like sardines on the patio of our favorite neighborhood bar Nick and Amelia looked at me wide-eyed and said “it’s done”. They were referring to their new album, but I’m still not sure what punctuation they intended to conclude that statement. I think it was a decree. Or were they asking me? Whatever it was, we all clinked glasses and turned the page to a new year. Or did anything change at all? I think we look older than we did, but I don’t feel any different. They probably don’t feel any different, but I can see how they’ve grown and changed. It’s a family now, one that has a lot of miles under its belt- and it’s growing. When I drive through the grey slate winter light and listen to this album, this new fleet of ten songs, I hear the collections of moments that have led us, all of us, here- What Now.
Don’t let the somber tone of her music fool you: the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers has a sunny disposition.
“I’d hate for someone to think I’m sipping an espresso somewhere judging people or feeling sorry for myself. OK, I definitely do that once in a while, but I don’t consider myself an intense person.”
Bridgers grew up in the rose-colored city of Pasadena, attending the prestigious Los Angeles County High School for the Arts to study music. From an early age, she found encouragement from a close-knit artistic community of friends and family to follow her dreams, and at school she forged relationships that would teach her as much about her craft as her classes.
“I think most of my musical education had to do with being around a ton of teenagers who listened to music all the time,” she says. “At school I had classical training for my voice, but I think being surrounded by people who were really enthusiastic about art and going to concerts all the time was the real education.”
“I met Carla Azar of Autolux – and she showed me Elliott Smith for the first time, which was my first personal connection to music that one of my parents hadn’t showed me,” she says. “It seemed so different from anything I’d listened to before. It is so personal, so intense.” Bridgers’ work would be heavily influenced by Smith’s sparse lyrics and subdued emotional style, in addition to that of her other favored singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen.
“Los Angeles is interwoven into my music inherently,” she says. “I don’t necessarily try to reference it, but because I’m pulling from experience it just appears. A lot of shit goes down wherever you may grow up.” After graduating from high school, Bridgers spent a year gigging around the city, playing as often as she could, making mistakes and learning while on her feet. “I’ve always been very appreciative of the LA thing,” she says.
But of course the truth is that the unique ingredient at play, the calling card that has drawn all this interest and intrigue, is simply Bridgers’ music itself. Her powerful, lilting voice and her haunting, introspective songs light the torch that shows the way, and are what have inspired artists like Ryan Adams to produce her 2015 single, or Julien Baker to bring her on tour in 2016, as well as John Doe and Conor Oberst to sing with her on her debut album. There is a delicate balance to her work, a dance between veiled narratives and earnest emotions, between whispers and shouts. And according to Bridgers, everything you hear has arrived by feeling; her music is what comes when she is at her most honest, without specific intention, and she aims to be in her songs the person she is in the world.
Stranger in the Alps opens with the one-two punch of “Smoke Signals” and “Motion Sickness,” a pair of songs that highlight Bridgers’ abilities. The former, a gorgeous, ethereal tune guided by sparse electric guitar and sweeping strings, toes the line between weary and wistful, using specific anecdotes from its singer to tell its tale. The style highlights the strengths of Bridgers’ unique lyric writing perspective: there are overt references to lost idols, canonical pop songs and actual incidents, but her stories unfold through precise, evocative imagery sung in her subtle, confessional style. The latter is perhaps the most upbeat moment on the album and was written on her baritone guitar and discusses a problematic relationship from her past. “I feel like I’m getting more focused when I write,” she says. “My songs are super personal.”
“Scott Street” is a song inspired by East Los Angeles where Bridgers now lives. “Killer” is a song originally appearing on her Adams-produced single but is re-recorded here by the album’s producer, Tony Berg, with John Doe singing alongside Bridgers. That song in particular inspired her to be more honest in her approach. “I wanted to be more genuine with my lyrics, and to me that meant being self-deprecating or a little more self-aware, and not using words that just sounded pretty,” she says. “I had an epiphany that I can be honest with myself and with other people when I’m writing.”
Elsewhere, Conor Oberst joins her for the duet “Would You Rather,” a singer chosen for his unmistakable voice. A Mark Kozelek cover, “You Missed My Heart,” ends the album. As with any singer’s debut, the songs here comprise a wide swath of Bridgers’ life, dating from the oldest, “Georgia,” which she calls the most different-sounding on the LP, to the opening pair, which were written after the recording process had already begun. Berg and co-producer Ethan Gruska worked with Bridgers to record in on-and-off stretches in between tours over 2016 at Berg’s studio in Brentwood. She went into the studio with the majority of the material written, however “Smoke Signals” and “Motion Sickness” were written in a cabin in Idaho, while Bridgers was waiting for a tour to begin. The pair were the last songs written for the LP.
“I wasn’t trying to be too lo-fi, too hi-fi, too self-serious, too disingenuous…I feel pretty confident that I’m finding my voice,” she says. “I wanted the album to completely represent who I am and these songs are representative of what I set out to do.”