Sylvan Esso's Amelia Meath on Touring Again and Playing Indoors at the Mission Ballroom

Sylvan Esso returns to Denver on Tuesday, September 14.
Sylvan Esso returns to Denver on Tuesday, September 14. Shervin Lainez
Electronic indie-pop sensation Sylvan Esso did not go into hibernation when the pandemic began in early 2020. In fact, from starting its own record label to launching a podcast, releasing a third full-length album last year and performing on just about every big-time late-night television show, the North Carolina-based duo arguably became even more famous post-pandemic.

Singer-songwriter Amelia Meath, who is also a third of the revered all-female vocal trio Mountain Man, spoke with Westword by phone recently before a gig at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles during Sylvan Esso's ongoing tour, which stops Tuesday at Denver's Mission Ballroom, where the group will play its first indoor show since before the pandemic began.

Westword: How have these first few shows been, getting back to performing for audiences instead of into cameras?

Amelia Meath: Oh, my gosh, I mean, just incredibly euphoric and wonderful. It just feels really wonderful to get to do my favorite thing and, because this job is so surreal anyway, my favorite thing during the pandemic was being like, “Live performance isn’t over, but people definitely don’t want to see you anymore.” [Laughs.] So it feels really wonderful to realize that I’d been fretting about this evil nightmare illusion over tricks that my brain was playing on me and not reality.

What’s it like in terms of just seeing all these faces and bodies of people who, you know, survived?

It is really, really beautiful to see everybody, and it’s also incredible how respectful our audience is being. Even though these shows are outside, most people are keeping their masks on, which makes us feel really safe. And it’s just incredible to get to commune with people again. I feel like that was the main thing that I missed, was just being able to all be together in the same space experiencing the same thing.

Instead of playing in front of a camera and assuming that people are connecting with you?

Yeah, and that’s so hard, because a part of interacting with a camera is…to me, at my lower moments during the pandemic, it felt like lying. It just feels really wonderful to be able to actually interact and revel in joy.

Do you feel like you’re "shaking out the numb"?

Yeah, definitely.

To me, that line sounds like dancing as therapy to move past all we went through in the Trump years and the lockdown and all that, so it’s the perfect name for a tour.

Indeed. That’s why we chose it: We wanted to be able to really revel in that, and it really does feel like that’s what we’re doing. We’re welcoming ourselves back into the world — a decidedly changed world, but many of us are lucky enough to still be here.

What are some hobbies that surprised you that you took up during the lockdown?

Birdwatching. I got really, really into birds — so much so that now when I’m in North Carolina, whenever I see a bird I say its name to myself, in my head, and I can identify some birds by their calls now. I had never expected to do that. And I’m really obsessed with, like, bird-feeder gear. I have three serious bird-feeder rigs now. I had to take them down because there’s actually a bird pandemic happening now — or there was one before we left. I’m really looking forward to getting home eventually and putting my bird feeders up. That being said, I think I might try to stay on tour until my body decides that I can’t do it anymore, because this is just my absolute favorite thing to do.

Living in Boulder, while some people were truly stuck inside during the lockdown in big cities, I felt lucky to be able to get outside during the pandemic and go into the mountains with no one around. Did you feel like that in North Carolina?

Absolutely. We had also just finished our new studio right when the pandemic began, so we had a serious swath of land that we were able to march around on. I was grateful for that, to be able to still feel like we could walk around. Remember at the beginning of the pandemic when you had to keep on reminding yourself that you could go outside?

Yeah. I had some friends who were afraid to even go for a hike, when we still thought the virus could live on surfaces.

I’m interested to see what actually begins happening when we start processing the last year and a half. I feel like we’re doing a lot of talking about it, but when we begin acknowledging what it actually felt like and processing what happened, we’re going to have to really talk about agoraphobia in a new and more casual manner.

We were all experiencing trauma together, and now we’re either in or soon to be in a post-traumatic state.

Yeah, that’s what it feels like. it’s really interesting to be welcoming people back to live music in what is a truly overwhelming environment, and trying to make people feel as safe as possible and also be able to be present. That’s the dream of all live music, even when we’re not post-pandemic. It’s a new and unique challenge.

I was looking at your Facebook page and the announcement that you’d be requiring either a test or proof of vaccine. There were some negative comments and a lot of positive ones, and even arguments. Do you look at that kind of stuff?

It’s such a complicated thing. I wanted to come out and say that that was what we were going to require, because I knew that there were going to be organized pushes for that to happen on a larger level, and I wanted to get out in front of it because it is something that I really believe in. If you want to be a member of a community in a communal space, you should do everything in your power to make your presence safe. That being said, there are a lot of people who I love who have not been able to get vaccinated, and that’s why we wanted to include the PCR test.

I feel like a way that a lot of people have been coping with the pandemic is spending a lot of time online, and I feel like an incredible amount of people through loneliness, delusion and boredom have been swallowed by QAnon and have been convinced of, or confused or have been searching for a community, and QAnon is a really easy community to get folded into.

I don’t interact with Facebook, because Facebook is the most violent form of social media for me, so I just look at all of our comments on Instagram, and I’m really tired of people pretending that they were not vaccinated for the measles when they were a baby and getting upset about this new vaccine. Practically, I do understand. There have been friends who have been like, “This does feel weird to me.” And I’m like, “Totally; I really get that, but there is science and modern medicine.”

I don’t like capitalism, and I don’t like Big Pharma. I think they’re part of the thing that’s ruining the world. But I do believe in trying to create an environment where people are as safe as possible, and that includes vaccines at this moment. I’m sure there is some white privilege mixed into that choice that I can examine. I understand that the history of vaccinations for [some] folks has to do with trauma that I cannot own. I can learn about it, and those are circumstances that have so much pain mixed into them that I can’t even begin to pretend that I understand or be like, "Yeah, but you still should get vaccinated." People’s trauma is their trauma. That being said, don’t go on to my Facebook page and talk shit. And white people act like being required to get a vaccine is oppression, and it’s not. It makes me so mad when people say that, because it’s so disrespectful to people who actually deal with oppression all the time.

How do you feel about returning to indoor shows?

The Mission is going to be the first one. I try not to get sucked into fear about it, but the wildest thing about it is that there is actually no data about how the Delta variant moves or does things. I don’t know what doing indoor shows is going to feel like. We’ll see. If I had the time and the ability, all of our shows would be outdoors, but it also seems like a really gigantic shift that would probably result in the capitalism part of the tour not succeeding, in that we wouldn’t make any money if we had to change [venues]. So many of the venues that we’ve been looking at to change into outdoor venues are state-run, and they’re in states where there has been a mandate that you cannot require masks, so if you move to a state-run venue, vaccinations and masks are out the door. It’s really oddly complicated.

What did you write on the Free Love album that was informed by the pandemic experience?

It’s interesting, because we actually wrote most of it before the lockdown happened. We were in mixing when lockdown came down. I do think, oddly, the record is so much about isolation. Like so much of what we’ve written, it’s as if there’s some strange telegraphing happening. Like, why did I write a song about dancing on rooftops before the pandemic happened, when the only thing you could do was dance on a rooftop? I feel like what I was talking about was isolation, which we all feel all the time and which the pandemic kind of gave a stamp of approval. Everybody was like, “I feel isolated in a new way, and not just in my soul-vehicle that I move around.” Because of that, I felt and feel that it’s oddly applicable. But I tell you what: I am never going to put a record out in isolation ever again. That was really, really hard, just because the thing that fuels creativity for me is the feedback loop, and not having that just felt indulgent in a way that was really lonely and sad.

Do you feel like the songs come alive and become what they will be after you performed them, and with this experience they didn’t, or couldn’t, until this tour started?

Totally. Yeah, I really do, because that’s the best part about a song, is that you write it about your experiences, or the things that you’ve observed, and then once you let them out of your strong curatorial grab, which never works at all, you give the songs to the world and people connect to them and imbue life into them in a way that you just can’t do as a songwriter.

I wondered whether “Ferris Wheel” was written before the lockdown, because it was instantly popular, and it was basically listing all the fun summer things that we couldn’t do at that time.

I know, it was so sad. [Laughs.] I wanted to write a weird, sexy summertime jam, and it was really fun to write and so strange to put it out at that time. I was so pleased with how people still connected to it, and shooting the video was magical because we shot overnight in a tiny town in North Carolina [at an amusement park] with, like, five people.

Did your friendships with the other women in Mountain Man help you get through the lockdown?

Absolutely. We hosted a lot of Manhattan people that were needing to get out of the city at our studio, and after the two-week requirement of quarantine at that time, we would start having wine time outside every day, so Molly and Alexandra would appear there every now and then, and that really grounded us, I think. Having a place to go and one social engagement with a pod was incredibly helpful.

The last thing I wanted to ask you is about my daughter, who is eleven and goes by “they.” They have really grown up with your music, from me singing the first Mountain Man record to them when they were a year old and taking them to a Sylvan Esso show at five to now being eleven and having Janelle Monáe and you as queer role models. It seemed to mean a lot to some people that you came out as bisexual. Did you have someone like that as a kid?

Thank you so much for telling me about them. It’s so nice, and also so amazing to know that they were one when the Mountain Man record came out. For me, that’s a mix of, like, Cyndi Lauper, Le Tigre, Prince and Missy Elliott. Just the people who were really pushing on ideas of what femininity could look like or what queerness was, in a way that just blew my mind and still does. In some ways, what it felt like was a siren call of ‘There is a place that you can go to where you get to be this,’ or whatever it is, and ‘It’s time. The mountains are calling, and you gotta go.’ To know that there was a world, a scene where that existed made me wanna go adventuring and find it for myself.”

Sylvan Esso plays with opener Samia at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, September 14, at the Mission Ballroom, 4242 Wynkoop Street. Tickets are $39.95 to $75 and available at the Mission website
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Pittsburgh native Adam Perry is a cyclist, drummer and University of Pittsburgh and Naropa University alum. He lives in Boulder and has written for Westword since 2008.
Contact: Adam Perry