By my count, Sylvan Esso's Amelia Meath is in the middle of reading seven books now. She's reading poetry, fiction, non-fiction, plays, a biography, and I'm sure some others she didn't mention in our interview. I was not surprised when she told me this. Follow Meath and her bandmate Nick Sandborn on any form of social media, and you'll see creativity everywhere. Meath is of course known for her work now in Sylvan Esso, but there's much more. She loves acting and even went to college to study it. (This is not a surprise if you've seen her lithe and theatrical stage moves). She loves to make collages. And she wants to start writing a tv pilot. Oh, and she once did a ton of freewriting about LeBron James.
Meath's songwriting process involves some routines, even though she does most of her writing "in the air." She eschews computers and prefers pen and paper for her lyrics. But not just any pen and not just any paper: for now it's a Poppin pen and college ruled composition notebooks. Part of her lyrical process involves writing the same verse over and over; in fact, some of her notebooks are filled with just one song. "I do this because I can recontextualize the words each time I write them," Meath told me. "The act of physically writing things down over and over helps me lead to another thought." Her process typically involves composing lyrics and melody at the same time, so there's a lot of singing while she writes. Meath's favorite place to compose is on her porch in North Carolina, but she also loves to walk around after shows. Either way, she needs to be outside.
Sylvan Esso's new and fantastic album What Now is due out April 28 on Loma Vista Recordings. Read my interview with Meath about her songwriting process after the video.
I normally don't say this, but I'm excited to talk to you. I've always gotten the sense, not just through your music but through everything I see on social media, that you are an incredibly creative person. What kind of writing do you do outside of songwriting?
I used to journal a whole lot, and I still write to think a lot. I've also been meaning to start writing pilots for television, but I haven't started that yet.
What do you mean when you say you "write to think"? How is that different from journaling?
It's more about brainstorming. It also takes on the form of me writing the same thing over and over. When I'm writing a song, instead of just going back to the page with a verse on it, I'll rewrite the same thing over and over. I have notebooks upon notebooks of the same song written up to a point.
So instead of writing a new verse, you just write the same thing again and again? Why?
I think it's because then I can recontextualize the words each time I write them. The act of physically writing things down over and over helps me lead to another thought.
Do you do this when you're stuck lyrically at a certain point in the song?
Yep, which is pretty much all the time. Laughs.
Do you do this at other points of the writing process too, not just when you are writing lyrics?
Absolutely. I freewrite like that too, like if I have a certain concept in mind that I want to write about and I need to flesh out the idea. I went through a period where I did a lot of freewriting about LeBron James. Laughs.
Haven't we all?
I got fascinated with writing a song about the car salesman in his town. For James' 16th birthday, his mom bought him a car on credit on just because of the mere fact that her son was LeBron James. That fact alone was oddly heartbreaking to me, so I wrote about it a lot.
Then how often do you sit down with the express idea of writing a song about a certain topic?
I try not to do that because if I do, there's a good chance I'm going to get stuck. I don't write with instruments; I write in the air. And because of that, I'm doing melody and lyrics at the same time. Or I'll improvise and find a song I like or something melodic that could be a hook, and then I'll gibberish over that. I keep on worrying away at those ideas until the words appear. If I've done it right, the words actually mean something.
When you say "write in the air," what do you mean?
There's nothing helping me with chords. I don't write with an instrument; I write while I'm walking.
So that's the exact opposite of sitting down and writing. When do these song ideas happen?
I'll usually come up with an idea while I'm walking, so then I'll sit down and write those ideas down in more concrete form.
Many of the songwriters I've interviewed have remarked on the role of motion in their creative process, even to the extent that the beat of the song ends up mirroring the cadence of the walk they were on at the time.
I think it's because you're not paying attention to the process. If you're paying attention and waiting for the moment when you reveal yourself to be a genius, it's not gonna come. When you're in the shower, it's a lot easier for your mind to wander.
Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz extolled the virtues of a good shower when I interviewed her. She talked about how many good ideas come to her when she's there. And Theresa Wayman of Warpaint told me that she uses the shower as a great creative reset. I also remember an essay by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, in which he talked about the benefits of boredom on creativity.
The best way for me to get ideas is to be relaxed and without any pressure, which is annoying because songwriting is so hard and it's easy to feel pressure when you write. But I'd say what I described sounds a lot like boredom.
Other than that, there's no particular headspace I need to be in when I write. Some of my songs are autobiographical, but most are about trying to convey an idea that has a couple of different sides to it. The goal is about conveying that idea as simply as possible, and it takes quite a lot of thinking about an arrangement to do that.
Are you a disciplined writer?
Oh god no. I'm horrible at discipline. I wish I were more disciplined. I can't sit down for long stretches, and it's particularly difficult now that I quit smoking. That was how I was able to sit down for long stretches: with a cigarette. I'd go outside and sit down and smoke to think. But now I don't know what the hell I'm gonna do!
Is there a certain place or time of day when you are at your most creative?
I don't really have a routine because I pretty much live on tour. I can't afford to be picky about when and where I write. But I do need to be outside. That's the one thing I need. Or a big space like an empty venue. It just has to be a place where my voice can either carry or disappear so that I know that my voice can't be heard by other people.
You don't like to write inside?
Not really. Partially because indoors your voice bounces off things, so it's easy to get stuck on how you sound. Not in a negative way, but I'll get distracted by thinking about sound when that's not the part of the song I'm working on when I'm writing. I like the outdoors because my voice disappears into all the other natural sounds. Then I can think about cadence and rhythm because my process involves singing lyrics as I write them. It's lyrics and melody at the same time.
It's a conversation between singing and writing. I'll sing a little bit or improvise around something, then I write it down and look to see if it feels right. If it doesn't, I'll keep working at it. Sometimes when I'm lost I'll write a bunch of different lyrics and try them out by singing them. It's a great way to write pop songs since they need to fit together syllabically in such a particular way. Also, it's embarrassing to write down pop lyrics because they can be so simple. It's much easier just to sing them. When you sing them, it's much easier to commit and believe, whereas if you're writing something down and looking at it and judging it, it's easy to not believe in yourself and what you're writing.
Does seeing your words on the page make you more self-conscious?
Yeah, I think so. It's easy to get caught up in your own thought process instead of just committing to something. Lyrics do matter, of course, but you can get away with some pretty wild shit if you believe in it. And if you're saying something that's true, people believe it no matter how crazy it sounds. My favorite stupid lyric is in U2's "Elevation." One of the verses is "a mole, living in a hole/digging up my soul/now going down, elevation." It's a dumb thing to say, but it works!
I'm guessing you're a pen and paper person when you write lyrics, as opposed to a computer.
Oh god, always longhand. Never computer. I need to feel it. We were talking about how I rewrite every verse if I'm stuck, and writing longhand is almost like meditation to me. It's so much easier to feel the song if I'm writing it longhand.
Let's get even nerdier: is there a certain type of paper or pen?
Oh yeah, of course. I use the old black and white college ruled composition notebooks and I use ballpoint pens. Right now I'm using Poppin pens in sea foam, because I love how they feel. And they're pretty. I figured out that I need to use shitty paper because if I have pretty notebooks, I feel like I have to write prettily in it. And that's now how I write songs.
I'm assuming you save all these notebooks.
Of course! And I do a ton of revising. Some of my notebooks are devoted to just one song per notebook. I'm just writing the song over and over.
Back to where you write, you mentioned you like to write outside. Do you have a favorite place?
My favorite thing to do is go out walking after shows, when no one is out, I can sing however loud I want to. But when I'm writing at home, I like to write on the porch. Any porch, really. But my porch is my favorite. Laughs. But here's the thing: it's where I'm the most comfortable writing, yet I don't get much work done on my porch. Usually I have to get up and walk, and it can't be the same route. If I know the route, then I know what's going on too much so I try to find a different way around the neighborhood.
That seems kind of counterintuitive because if you follow the same route you don't have to use your brain to figure out where you're going. If you have the route memorized, you can focus purely on creating.
Yeah, but Oh am I going the right way? can often lead to a nice distraction. I know my town pretty well, but if I take a different road I still know what direction I'm going in. It's not like I'm getting lost.
If you're working on a song and it's just not falling into place, what do you do? Do you set it aside or try to finish what you started?
I can't force myself to do that, to finish. It makes me hate myself. Laughs. I try to do as little of that as possible. I usually abandon it. There aren't that many of those, to be honest. Usually every song is based on a line that I think is clever, so I'll abandon the song but take the line and put it somewhere else. Or I'll take the idea and rewrite it. It feels like all the songs I write are really collages of other ideas.
Where do you hear or see these lines?
In some ways it's specific lines, but I pay attention to ideas and feelings more than I pay attention to specific lines or words that I hear or see. It's more the stories that attract me, like the LeBron story. Tom Waits wrote a bunch of songs about New York Times articles, and he has one about shipping. There's a chorus in that song about the boats in canals. I think that's more of what I'm aiming for: ideas and stories, not necessarily lines, and these stories often come from the news.
You mentioned earlier about periods when you write and periods when you don't. Songwriters often call these periods of non-writing "filling the well." Do you have times like these, when you make a conscious decision not to write?
Oh I do that all the time. I call it "sponging." Laughs.
I love that. When do these sponging periods take place?
Pretty much all the time. I try to do it whenever possible. Mostly because I have to sponge on the go these days.
Do you have other creative outlets besides songwriting?
Not so much anymore because this band has claimed all of my life, but my favorite activity is to sit quietly and cut things out of magazines, often based on their colors. Then I sort them into little dossiers. I haven't done it for years, but I used to have folders full of different shades of, say, blue and folders full of fruit, for example. Then I'd make elaborate collages out of them. I went to college for acting and visual arts, and acting is something I also love to do. I would love to act again, if I could.
Well, then we have a lot to talk about because my PhD is in twentieth century American theatre, Who are some of your favorite playwrights?
I'm currently rereading all of Tennessee Williams' plays. I also love Paula Vogel; I just got a subscription to the New Yorker so it's been fun to read about all the plays in New York City right now. I've been wanting to get my hands on Vogel's How I Learned to Drive (ed. note: INCREDIBLE PLAY).
Tennessee Williams was one of my dissertation subject, so I'm a huge fan. What about his writing appeals to you so much?
His incredible ability to capture the heartbroken human spirit. Especially In Camino Real, one of my favorite plays, which just breaks my heart.
Oh, and I'm very excited now because I just got shelves for my house for the first time. I finally can put my books on shelves and see all of them. I found Pullman Car Hiawatha, which I hadn't read in a long time. I love that play. I also discovered my copy of Wit, which I hadn't read in while. It's been great to rediscover all these books that I forgot I had!
I'm also reading other books, like right now I'm reading The Collected Short Stories of Amy Hempel, which I'm actually kind of always reading. That's one of my favorite collections of all time. I'm also reading The Once and Future King. As a pretty dedicated fantasy and sci-fi nerd, I realized that I had to read it. I'm also reading a collection of poems by Billy Collins. My favorite poet is Richard Brautigan, but Collins is really doing something for me now. I'm also reading The Hidden Life of Trees. It's one of those things that you were told when you were a kid: trees are one big family and when you cut one down, all the others become heartbroken. I'm reading My Life in France by Julia Child, and also a really wild one by Justin Torres called We the Animals. It's really upsetting and beautifully written. It's about a pack of boys who live in an abusive household.
I'm impressed that you can read all those things at the same time. How often does what you read find its way into a song somehow?
All the time, but in little tiny ways. I realized the other day when I was listening our record that I had worked in the title of the book Ready Player One into one of my songs. And I never realized I did it until I listened to the record. It's always subconsciously done when it happens. It feels weird to it consciously because it almost feels like you're taking someone else's ideas. It's like taking a picture of someone else's painting and saying it's your art.
I'm so glad you said that. I've never understood people who take pictures of painting at museums.
Ooooh I hate that. But I just can't stand how people take pictures of everything now. It makes me mad because I just want to ask people who take those pictures at museums, "What poor bastard are you going to make sit down and look at your pictures?"