By Melissa Rodman
It should be no surprise that Sawyer seeks and finds new sounds on Less Than More Than. The EP is a deep dive into synth-driven pop that expands on the band’s philosophy.
One year ago today, the band Sawyer released their EP Less Than More Than. This commentary, though, begins in Scotland a few years before, when I was a junior in college.
Alluring guitar riffs wafted through the thin dorm walls, and hunting them down led me to singer-songwriter Kel Taylor, then a senior at Belmont University in Nashville, who was studying abroad, too. Taylor and bandmate Emma Harvey — who was also an undergrad at Belmont, though she was not in Scotland — had formed Sawyer in 2014 when both were sophomores. The soft bounce of their music and the easy, compelling patter of their lyrics, which mused on relationships and self-awareness, spoke to my assertion of independence in a new place, time zones away from home. I was embracing collegiate possibility 2.0, clear of the growing pains of a freshman year, and Sawyer’s songs stirred that feeling.
When Less Than More Than debuted last fall, the duo set out on a national tour with fellow indie pop bands Nightly and THE WLDLFE. I met up with Sawyer in Cambridge, MA, in late January 2020, and the three of us zigzagged around the loose and icy bricks of Central Square’s sidewalks, as we made our way to a café a few blocks away from their rehearsal space to talk about the band’s history, their new EP, and their tour in progress. (Another tour the band had planned was canceled by the pandemic.)
What lingers from that conversation is their encouraging outlook on life and faith. Their perspective offers a different way into both the glass-half-fullness of their music and their enduring interest in inclusivity and open-mindedness. Even when the band’s storytelling strikes a note of doubt, hope follows, the result of their gentle confidence: “There’s a light at the end of letting go,” they sing over the lilting notes of “Letting Go,” released as a single in 2015. And later on that track, “You make turning back easy, but I’ll / Keep looking forward / Keep looking forward.”
Belmont, where Harvey and Taylor met in 2013 during orientation week, is a Christian university. Harvey graduated from the university’s songwriting program; Taylor switched her major from songwriting to theology. Both can pinpoint where material from their philosophy, history, literature, and religion courses appears in their songs. “All the classes that get at human nature are always really inspiring to me in a songwriting sense,” Harvey said.
Through Taylor’s theology courses they discovered an all-inclusive, holistic perspective on faith, rejecting stark divisions. “I think it was a big part of both of our lives, so I think our going through that together honestly was really helpful as a band,” Taylor reflected. “It’s just special to share that experience of fear — a little bit — of losing your grounding that you were given and then finding it again.”
So it should be no surprise that Harvey and Taylor seek and find new sounds on Less Than More Than. The EP is a deep dive into synth-driven pop that expands on the band’s philosophy. “You feel like a sound explorer out there in the wilderness, especially with synths. There’s so much you can do,” Taylor said. Harvey added, “I like to explore all of the options and come back to it and say, ‘Okay. What’s adding to the feeling, or what’s conflicting with the feeling of the song?’”
“Emotional Girls,” the EP’s opener, was inspired by a failed matchmaking attempt, which Taylor recalled onstage during the band’s evening performance in January. The melody brings an upbeat, empowering anthem to the ex-boyfriend’s perspective, and the lyrics address relationship apathy, dating via screens, and the struggle to find meaningful connections: “It’s not me, it’s all these emotional girls,” the chorus posits.
Harvey’s rich voice guides “Know Me” and “I Don’t Know How To,” a pair of reflective yet buoyant tracks that pinpoint what it is like to be an introvert in a relationship, at times so tangled up in one’s own brain that communication becomes difficult. “Older Now” slows down the tempo, as Taylor’s leading vocals reminisce about growing up and growing apart. And the EP’s electric closer, “Mean Something,” leaves the listener with some hope that the gray area Sawyer characterizes as “a little bit less than more than friends” might, in fact, be navigable.
Listening to Less Than More Than a year ago, and now, I continue to be awash in the band’s honest, earnest sounds and words — songs that excavate resonant, vulnerable thoughts and radiate a careful optimism. As Taylor said, “The biggest things since college that I’ve learned — as far as continuing to choose this job — are how to deal with disappointment, how to manage expectations, and also how to accept the gift when it comes.”
Melissa Rodman writes on the arts, and her work has appeared in Public Books and The Harvard Crimson among others.