File under: Poetic minimalist synth-pop with folk lyricism
For fans of: DIANA, Chvrches, Purity Ring, White Hinterland, Glasser, Magical Cloudz
From: Durham, North Carolina
Personae: Amelia Meath, Nick Sanborn
To anyone who’s ever heard indie-folk bands Mountain Man or Megafaun, the music made by Sylvan Esso — which was formed by a member of each band — may be surprising. Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn’s synth-driven songs merge the traditional structures and vocal harmonies of folk with ethereal and sultry electronica. The duo met when Meath asked Sanborn to do a remix of Mountain Man’s song “Play it Right,” and he responded by transforming the hymn-like choral tune into dancefloor-worthy pop. Describing Sylvan Esso as the sort of exploratory music project they always wanted to pursue, the band set to work on making a dance-pop record.
The songs on Sylvan Esso’s debut often have a kind of nursery-rhyme quality about them; they tell of predatory (but kind) “modern wolves,” and sample schoolyard classics like “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” for a song about socializing with a cell phone in hand. But throughout the album, Meath’s songbird voice is elegantly juxtaposed with the music’s warped, futuristic production.
Meath and Sanborn talked with Hazel Cills about the difference between writing folk and pop songs, leaving lyrical easter eggs, and the joy of making a complicated meal.
On when they first knew they wanted to be musicians:
Amelia Meath: I always wanted to write songs. The first song I ever wrote was a pop song called “I Don’t Want to be Arm Candy.” I was nine. The second song I ever wrote was “I’ll Be in the Kitchen” and that was when I was 19. That was when I realized that I should do this. But my family always sang around the dinner table. My dad and I used to do duets and just charm the pants off of people.
Nick Sanborn: It’s kind of always been in my family. I always wanted to do it but I thought you couldn’t, like [being in a band] was reserved for, I don’t know, cooler people? But if you want to you can just be in a band! That was a revelation to me in seventh grade. My student teacher got me to play bass in a rock band he was putting together and I was like, “Oh you can do this!”
On Durham, North Carolina’s surprisingly cool scene:
Meath: It’s more of a music town than you would think. Merge Records is there. Moving from [New York] to [Durham] was amazing. In New York, people are breaking themselves on three jobs and trying to rent a practice space and an apartment. That’s so hard. In Durham, if you want, you can live super cheap and have a job two days a week. People actually have the time to do creative things. But [the downside is] there’s one of everything, and that’s about it. We have a very limited hang zone. But bands like Hiss Golden Messenger live out there, and this amazing band called Canine Heart Sounds that nobody has heard of, but everyone should know.
On what they do when they’re not making music:
Meath: I make super work-intensive meals. I like to make dumplings a lot and ramen from scratch. Ramen takes like 48 hours. If you want to get the broth right, you need to get a bunch of chicken gizzards, a bunch of pork trotters, so you have to go to three grocery stores in Durham anyway.
Sanborn: I’m either playing in someone else’s band or, up until recently, bartending. Or I’m just hanging out with friends and gardening. I’m a huge fan of vegetable gardening. But I also love camping, hiking…gardening [laughs] oh, you know, rock ‘n’ roll shit.
Meath: We’ve recently been also having really long award-show parties. You arrive at our friend’s house in your pajamas at, like, 2 o’clock.
Sanborn: Then it’s all afternoon. Two to four of us will make a meal, some complicated recipe. We veg out in our pajamas and watch the Oscars or the Grammys.
On their karaoke game:
Meath: There’s this fantastically crazy gay bar called The Bar in Durham. They haven’t figured out their shit yet, but they have an incredible beach in the back, and they have a stripper pole, a pool and karaoke on Tuesday nights. My pick is always Fleetwood Mac. I did Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In the World)” and it was really hard. You can tell by the editing [that] she definitely did it one line at a time, but you have to sing that phrase five times in a row! That takes a lot of vocal power.
Sanborn: I usually roll either Fleetwood Mac or “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green, that’s kind of my go-to. Also “Cry Me a River” by Justin Timberlake.
Meath: The first time I did karaoke, I tried to do Sean Paul’s “Get Busy.” That is so hard. It’s in a weird range. Leslie Feist invited me out to karaoke, because I had been singing backup with her for a long time, and I walk in and fucking Peaches is there [laughs]. Then I picked Sean Paul just to show her how big my dick was and my seduction did not work.
On writing folk songs versus pop songs:
Meath: The subject matter isn’t really that different. You’re still talking about the same things, there’s just a different frame around it. When you write folk songs, there are a couple of “get out of jail free” passes in terms of writing. You can write about the sun, the moon and the stars, or hair, stuff like that. With pop, you can write about the sun, the moon and the stars, but you can also write stupid shit. You can have a really silly refrain and people are like, “Yeah!” You can write a lyric like in that U2 song “Elevation”: “A mole digging in a hole, digging up my soul.” Like, what? Why? But you totally buy it!
On leaving Easter eggs in songs:
Meath: The rewarding thing about being a music dork is that you can spot references [in songs] to other songs. I grew up listening to classic rock, and could see the references in there, like Led Zeppelin’s “Has anyone seen the bridge,” which is James Brown. Or listening to hip-hop, everyone’s talking about everyone else’s shit all the time! I was excited about putting tiny references into Sylvan Esso songs. Like, when I sing “Hanky Panky” or “get up, get down” — which is James Brown — in “Coffee.” Or in “Dreamy Bruises” when I sing, “Moon in the window, girls on the floor” instead of “Moon in the window, a bird on the pole,” which is Tom Waits. To me they’re fun little weirdo references. It’s so lost now, but I wrote a line in “Dress” based on Kendrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle.” He sings, “All my life I wanted money and power,” and I sing [in a similar cadence], “See that moon rise in the rear view.”
Sanborn: It’s fun to leave little Easter eggs for yourself. At the end of “Coffee,” there’s that door opening sound, and that’s my closet door opening at the end of her vocal take, because we did the recording in my closet. We’re acknowledging that we just did this in my bedroom and leaving a little tag for a time and place.
Meath: “Coffee” is based on the idea of contra dancing as a way of talking about relationships. What happens is, you do a series of movements that are called out at the beginning of the dance — everyone knows 25 movements — and then you string them together. You’ll do the same movements with your partner, then do a dance with another dude, then come back to your partner. Dancing is just really important. So many pop songs are about dancing, which is super strange to me, because it doesn’t feel like something many people do. There’s this stigma for people who don’t dance. There’s something magical about it, and I don’t think anyone knows what it is except that it’s about letting go.
Sanborn: Yeah why do we get in rooms and move around like that? It’s super weird when you think about it.
On choosing to write about the “gray area” of human relationships:
Meath: I don’t really like writing songs from the first-person perspective. I like talking about situations that are neither good nor bad. Like “Hey Mami” is definitely talking about cat-calling, but it’s also talking about cat-calling in this way that’s not, “You fuck!” Sometimes getting cat-called is lovely if it’s done right. Sometimes it makes me feel really shitty and threatened. So writing about that, writing songs that are questions and not statements, is much more interesting to me.