What’s the distance across the musical spectrum between a cappella folksingers and electro-hip-hop producers?
For Durham, N.C. duo Sylvan Esso, the more relevant inquiry is exactly where and how those disparate musical traditions can converge.
The story of Sylvan Esso revolves around that very intersection, and how a chance meeting turned, step-by-step, into one-off collaboration and then blossomed into one of the year’s most buzzed-about debut records.
Sylvan Esso, released in May on Partisan Records, found a storm of immediate publicity, with first single “Hey Mami” featured as NPR Music’s song of the week, and has reached as high as 39 on the Billboard albums chart. Not bad for a band that proclaims at the top of its own bio that it wasn’t supposed to exist.
“It just sort of all fell into place,” says singer Amelia Meath, telling the Tucson Weekly how she and Nick Sanborn found themselves as one of 2014’s most heralded new bands. “Nick is great at the things I’m bad at and I’m good at the thing’s he’s bad at. Together we make a pretty good music-making machine.”
The story begins four years ago, in Milwaukee’s Cactus Club. Meath’s Vermont-based harmony trio Mountain Man performed, the stark, mostly a cappella band combined on a strange bill with Sanborn’s solo electronic project Made of Oak. Meath and Sanborn hit it off personally and kept in touch after that small club show. Eventually, she asked him to work on a remix of her song “Play It Right.”
“I was totally unfamiliar with what his work sounded like. I just remembered that live set that I liked and I hoped he would do something great with it and he did,” Meath says. “It was really just that Nick was good. It just seemed like he knew what he was doing as a producer and he was excited about it. I didn’t actually think about working with him until after he did the remix.”
That very version of “Play It Right” survived through the creation of Sylvan Esso and the recording sessions at Sanborn’s house, and along with the second song the duo made, “Hey Mami,” forms the captivating core of the album: slinky and catchy, electronic and oh-so-organic. And Meath says the more the duo works together, the happier they are with the results.
“I had never even thought of collaboration, because I was already with a band. I’d never thought of stepping out,” Meath says. “There are all sorts of bands I love, but I’d never thought of doing something like this.”
The shift from folk to pop – and from one of Feist’s back-up singers to fronting her own project – took a great deal of effort and study for Meath.
“With folk songs, you can get a way with a lot of different imagery. Pop songs are based around hooks,” she says. “Writing for Sylvan Esso is like playing a different game of charades.”
Meath sunk deep into pop music, listening extensively to contemporary hit-makers like Lady Gaga and Rihanna as well as all-time legends (she mention’s Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open The Door” specifically).
“I had to dig, but I have to dig whenever I write songs. With any creative endeavor, there’s a lot of digging involved. It’s different mode for sure and I had to study pop music,” she says. “You want it to leak into what you’re doing, and you maintain your artistic voice.”
The style they developed for Sylvan Esso’s – Sanborn’s synth-and-beat production on one side and Meath’s irrepressibly melodic vocals on the other – is just the right blend for the type of magnetic pop music that grabs and holds.
“When you think about making pop music, it’s kind of like making drugs. You want to make something that’s going to adhere to the listener’s brain and stay there for days and days,” Meath says.
After making a splash in March at SXSW in Austin, the duo has toured heavily, with a performance on the Tonight Show (joined by Questlove on drums) just one among many highlights.
“You sort of want to recreate what you’re like in a live environment but you’re playing to 75 people at 5 in the afternoon. You have to own that fact but also allude to the fact that you can play to many more people and you usually play at 10,” she says. “I could never have dreamed the reception would be as strong as it is. We’re surprised and thankful all the time about it. It’s been really lovely. But at the same time, we’ve been working our butts off and it feels really good to see a response.”
For now though, Meath says Sylvan Esso is still figuring things out, exploring a collaborative relationship that’s new and always changing.
“I hate using the world organic, but it feels effortless in a way,” she says. “Each song on the album is quite different from the others in some ways. They’re all from the same shelf, but we’re still exploring the sound. We’re not sure what Sylvan Esso is going to sound like on the second record.”
Sylvan Esso are scheduled to perform at Club Congress on Tuesday, August 19 at 7 p.m., with Dana Buoy opening. Tickets are $14 for the all ages show. More information at hotelcongress.com.