On the Beat

May 8, 2014

Sylvan Esso plays it right

Sylvan Esso, an electronic-music duo from Durham, breaks out with an impressive debut album. They play a sold-out show at the Cat’s Cradle on Friday.

Based on how its opening song unfolds, you might think that Durham duo Sylvan Esso’s self-titled debut album is a collection of children’s lullabies. “Hey Mami” commences with handclaps and Amelia Meath’s sing-song chanting. Then about 90 seconds in, Nick Sanborn’s electronic rhythms kick in, and that lullaby suddenly sounds otherworldly – warm in some ways, chilly in others, a little threatening but also strangely uplifting. Which doesn’t seem quite as out-there when you consider how many nursery rhymes weren’t exactly kids’ stuff.

“What really interests me is pop songs about real-life experiences in the gray area,” says Meath. “Practically everything important happens in there rather than the simple black or white places, and it’s where you’ll spend time figuring out how to live well and just be a good human. Writing songs about that is so much more interesting to me than, ‘WE’RE GONNA LIVE FOREVER AND I LOVE YOU.’”

Meath and Sanborn first met a few years back in Sanborn’s former hometown of Milwaukee, where their respective folk bands shared a bill. They hit it off well enough that Meath asked him to remix a recording of one of her songs, “Play It Right.”

Encouraged by the results, they continued their collaboration after Sanborn moved to Durham in 2012 to play bass in the band Megafaun. After spending a year and a half on the road as Feist’s backup singer, Meath moved to Durham in early 2013 and Sylvan Esso was born – a name from a computer game called Sword & Sworcery.

“If you’re doing the game right, you get to a point where you touch a tree and a beautiful little sylvan sprite pops out,” says Meath. “This teeny marshmallow ghosty that sings. Keep doing it and get to the next one, and the first sylvan’s friend pops out, singing a little higher.”

“It’s just this little thing to know you’re going in the right direction,” adds Sanborn. “But it’s just about impossible to name your band anymore, there’s so little that isn’t already taken.”

“And we didn’t want to do that thing where you change or add letters in a word,” she says.

“We hated to go with Sylvan Esso just because we knew we’d have to explain it so often,” he says.

“But we got used to it,” she concludes with a smile.

A fine balance

Meath and Sanborn pass conversation this way, finishing each other’s thoughts, and their songs play out the same way in balancing Meath’s voice and Sanborn’s arrangements. For all its high-tech electronic ambience, “Sylvan Esso” (Partisan Records) is a truly organic-sounding work in that not a thing on it sounds the least bit forced or unnatural.

“Some individual songs were extremely labor-intensive, but the main reason we’re a band is that we find it very easy to work together,” Sanborn says. “Songs happen very quickly, they just kind of pop out. Now the back-end work of mixing and getting every little sound right, that’s work. The easy part is writing.”

That said, there’s still some trial and error to the process. Meath likens it to finding one’s way through a dark maze in a blindfold.

“You’ll keep accidentally walking into closets, which can happen over and over,” she says. “But then you’ll find the path and it all comes together so perfectly, you wonder why you didn’t figure it out sooner. You just have to create the space for it to happen. What I figured out works for me is to sit on the porch sitting and thinking. I don’t play an instrument, so I sing in the air and scribble in my notebook. Sometimes that ends up with me getting super-super-mad and having to walk around. That intuitive wandering around can take hours.”

“Walking around in the dark is frustrating,” Sanborn says sympathetically.

‘Remarkably mature’

“Play It Right,” Meath and Sanborn’s first collaboration, is on “Sylvan Esso” alongside nine other songs recorded at home with a studio mix by Love Language producer/guitarist BJ Burton. It’s remarkably mature and fully realized, especially for a first album, some of the warmest and least-mechanical-sounding electronic music you’ll ever hear.

The album’s “official” release date isn’t until next week, but “Sylvan Esso” is already resonating far beyond the Triangle. After playing a sold-out Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro on Friday, the group will head to Europe for a series of dates opening for Tune-Yards. Except for a few weeks this summer, they’ll be on the road almost continuously until late fall. “Sylvan Esso” won’t be easy to top, and it’s going to be a while before they’ll have time to work on a followup album.

“We’ve always got a bunch of ideas, which aren’t songs so much as nuggets of them,” says Sanborn. “Once we had 10 actual songs come together with a flow we liked, that felt like this album.”

“We’ll have a bunch of little seedlings,” says Meath. “Like the hook for ‘Could I Be,’ that was one of the first songs we did after ‘Play It Right.’ Then we have to work to figure out what each one will be – that one took about a year to write – and what the whole group of them will look like.”

“It’s pretty intense and all-consuming,” says Sanborn. “When you’re writing, you have to figure out that the song isn’t about you, and to get out of the way and let it figure out what it wants to be.”

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On The Beat

David Menconi
News & Observer music critic David Menconi's random (and we do mean random) musings about all things related to music and culture of the popular variety.

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