A bunch of grapes, one banana, two strawberries and a pineapple made out of papier-mâché; noises created by shoes, gravel, string, a shoelace, nylon shorts and a water bottle; yodeling, covers, traditionals and one original song: These are the main components, big and small, that went into The A’s debut, Fruit.
The A’s in question — Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath and Daughter of Swords’ Alexandra Sauser-Monnig — are longtime friends and members of Mountain Man (alongside Molly Sarlé). They first performed as a duo in 2013, but the project got its start even before then; when I spoke with Meath and Sauser-Monnig on the phone, they both traced The A’s beginnings back to those early Mountain Man days.
Circa 2011, while touring for Mountain Man’s debut, Made the Harbor, Meath explained that she and Sauser-Monnig would get really into a band, song or certain sound — whether Foreigner or yodeling — “that Molly didn’t like or wasn’t interested in.” A clear example was a country compilation CD with several yodeling songs; Meath said, “Alex and I would listen to it over and over, obsessively trying to get the yodels down, much to Molly’s chagrin.”
It wasn’t until the lockdown during spring 2020 that The A’s finally had time to dedicate to yodeling again. As Sauser-Monnig put it, “When there was kind of a dearth of joy in the world, it felt like a fun time to work on the project.” Instead of singing along in the car, to prepare for the hardest yodeling parts (namely the section of “Why I’m Grieving” with all the hiccups) on the new project, Sauser-Monnig would listen to small fragments of yodels on repeat and then write them out phonetically before they’d rehearse together. “We have a high tolerance for sitting and staring at each other and singing, like, a three second yodel, over and over and over again, until we’re happy with how we’re doing it,” they said.
The A’s planned for two weeks of recording in June 2021 (a “fruit-forward season,” according to Meath) at Sylvan Esso’s Chapel Hill studio, Betty’s, rehearsing to get their yodels in sync during the day and recording each track on Fruit in a single take at night — which was a challenge, while recording in one large room with collaborators who had to keep quiet and still. Holding firm to one take each, the version of “Why I’m Grieving” on the record modulates a half-step down by the end, but Meath said it was the best take and they liked the character of it, so they kept it.
Sauser-Monnig and Meath co-produced Fruit with Nick Sanborn (Meath’s husband and partner in Sylvan Esso) and consider everyone involved with the project “all our dear friends.” “It was a really kind of magical recording experience,” Meath said. “I’ve never had anything like it. It was so fun. We did so much laughing. I’ve never laughed so much in my life.”
When The A’s first conceptualized Fruit, yodels were supposed to be the focus the whole way through, Meath explained. “It was going to be a stunt yodeling record originally and then slowly morphed into something [else],” she said. “The aesthetic of the band was, like, mysteriously present, immediately — which is kind of rare, I find — and that really lent itself to the music in a way that I wasn’t expecting. Like, pretty much immediately once we sat down at Betty’s to do the record, we knew that we wanted a strange, weird little ghostly band. And we wanted the songs to be both funny and slightly creepy. And also to make you cry.”
The tracklist came together organically, resulting in a collection of 10 songs: traditionals like the single “Wedding Dress” and the ballad “Swing and Turn Jubilee”; covers of the DeZurik Sisters, Burl Ives and Harry Nilsson; and one original: the Meath-penned “When I Die.” There are moments of sweet folk harmonic bliss throughout, and complex yodeling that will make your head spin, but the lightness is shot through with enough darkness or weirdness to prevent Fruit from ever feeling saccharine.
“We quickly kind of realized that there was sort of an unspoken lane of what was an A’s song and what wasn’t,” Meath said, “[And ‘When I Die’] mysteriously just fit right in there.” The song’s lyrics balance on the line between morbid and loving, addressing death head-on; at the close of the track, The A’s sing, “But when I die, I’ll need to you remind you / That I’m sorry I left you behind / And I’m kissing you through this song.” Meath said of the original, “It was a pandemic song that I’d written, and it fit. I realized that there were so many kind of strange, dark themes on the record. I wanted to have something to talk about [those themes]. It’s such a bold song in a lot of ways.”
As Meath said, it fits — and the entirety of Fruit is held together by the almost unearthly ability the duo have to understand each other, and what they want to communicate to an audience. “These are all songs that we love singing — that we both love — that kind of all share an undercurrent of whimsy and silliness,” Sauser-Monnig said, “The spirit of yodeling being, like, a silly, fun thing sort of extended outward into other songs that held hands with that spirit.”
That whimsy and silliness is evident from the album credits alone: aside from instruments, objects like hair, shoes, ice chunk, gravel, string, shoelace, nylon shorts and water bottle are listed. This creative instrumentation came from considering what they had available to make sounds “evocative of an actual band, but it’s not a band.” Sauser-Monnig explained, “We sort of had this idea of the vocals being front and center, and then having, like, this little ghost band behind us. It felt exciting to be like, ‘What in this room could kind of sound like a snare, but it’s not a snare?’ And that was Nick [Sanborn] rubbing his hand on his nylon shorts. And we’re like, ‘That sounds amazing, let’s mic your shorts.’”
The “string” played by Sauser-Monnig was sourced from a grocery bag crochet project in progress, and the “ice chunk” percussion by Meath came from hitting a waterbottle. Guest instrumentation from Gabriel Kahane (string arrangements on “He Needs Me”) and Sam Gendel (saxophone on “Copper Kettle”) was recorded remotely. Combined with the more traditional instrumentation (guitar, piano, kalimba, bass) recorded in the room with the vocals, the “ghost band” and remote contributions give Fruit a wholly unique texture and warmth.
While The A’s were making the record, it popped into Sauser-Monnig’s head that they should call it Fruit, and from there, the name opened up “a broad world of visual possibilities.” Sauser-Monnig, who studied visual art, began working on the large-scale papier-mâché fruit — seen in the album art and music video for “He Needs Me.” (If the record had to be characterized as a single fruit, “I think it might be a pineapple,” Sauser-Monnig said. “It’s delicious, and juicy, but it’s also poke-y and funny looking.”)
From the album name to the visuals, “The first ideas that pop into our heads are sort of the ones we’ve been rolling with,” Sauser-Monnig said. “And so we were spitballing weird visual ideas [for ‘He Needs Me’] and I made all these flower heads for the photo shoot for our record cover, and that sort of expanded into, like, ‘What if we had a bunch of friends dressed up like flower heads prancing around us? And what if we were monsters made of crepe paper? What if we were in a fort? Let’s make all this stuff.’”
Asked what’s next for the duo, Meath said, “Your guess is as good as mine. The A’s is a creature unto itself. She’s as wild as the wind. She does whatever the fuck she wants. So, I’m just really excited for people to get to meet The A’s and get familiar.”
Theda Berry is a Brooklyn-based writer and the former Editor of VMP. If she had to be a different kind of berry, she’d pick strawberry.