Sylvan Esso, with Grammy nomination in hand, gets political
It doesn’t take much to get Amelia Meath singing. Asked if she had any sticky tape handy in the small house that serves as Sylvan Esso’s recording studio, she answered in a crooning, sing-song lilt as she left the room.
“It’s my favorite thing,” Meath said about singing, with a shrug and a smile. Of course. It’s how she processes the world, and relates to it.
The two Sylvan Esso albums that Meath has made with her producer/husband, Nick Sanborn, are both highly idiosyncratic and also wonderful. The combination of her campfire-sing-along voice and his atmospheric, elastic beats comes out as quirky electro-folk – maybe the warmest electronic pop anybody is making nowadays.
Improbably, they’ve also found commercial success on the charts. Both Sylvan Esso albums have cracked the Top 40 of the Billboard 200 sales chart, with last year’s “What Now” reaching No. 32. “What Now” earned the duo their first Grammy nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album, up against a field including Seattle’s ODESZA and the pioneering German ensemble Kraftwerk.
That’s impressive all the way around, and Sylvan Esso originally planned to dress up to attend Sunday’s Grammy ceremonies in New York. But they had to bow out because of prior touring commitments on the other side of the world, which was disappointing because, Meath said, the Grammys are “about the only thing that makes most of your relatives think you’re doing OK as a musician.”
“We can’t go to the Grammys, which is the worst,” Meath said. “But it’s because we’re going to be on this beautiful spring festival in Singapore with a bunch of our friends, which is the best.”
Even without the Grammy victory lap, however, Sylvan Esso is in the midst of a highlight-reel stretch. They have a terrific new single out, “PARAD(w/m)E,” which they debuted recently on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” And beyond Singapore, their tour schedule includes Bonnaroo, Governors Ball and other major music festivals, plus headlining shows in prestige venues like 9,500-seat Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado.
“It still feels crazy,” Sanborn said of seeing his group on the charts. “Although that feels like more of a litmus test than a goal reached. It’s not like, ‘Oh, we got it and now we’re done.’ It means we’ll probably sell a few more tickets. The only thing we really love doing is playing shows and writing songs and singing them for people. Finding people who get you and hear you and understand where you’re coming from, it’s just one of the coolest things about playing concerts.”
Sanborn, 34, and Meath, 29, have been married since June 2016, and they live in a state of near-constant banter that’s highly entertaining to watch. They first met about six years ago in his then-hometown of Milwaukee, where their respective bands shared a nightclub bill. They hit it off, and Meath asked Sanborn if he would remix a song of hers called “Play It Right.” Things went well enough for them to continue collaborating.
Sanborn moved to Durham in 2012 to join the folk-rock band Megafaun as bassist, and Meath followed him in early 2013 after a long stretch of touring as backup singer for Feist. They formalized their partnership as Sylvan Esso, taking the name from the computer game “Sword & Sorcery” – a small singing character that appears to tell players they’re on the right track.
The format of solo singer backed by accompanist at a keyboard conjures up sonic images of high-beats-per-minute songs for the dance floor. And while Sylvan Esso has plenty of songs that get crowds moving, they’ve always shown a wide range with electronic arrangements that frequently trend toward moody and down-tempo.
They made a great full-length debut with 2014’s “Sylvan Esso,” quickly growing into a live act capable of filling large spaces. By the 2016 Hopscotch Music Festival in downtown Raleigh, Sylvan Esso was headlining Fayetteville Street’s big City Plaza Main Stage with a revelatory performance. Meath was an incredible presence onstage, one you felt as well as heard – even when she was visually hidden in thick clouds of green and purple fog.
That energy carries over to “What Now,” with a darker overall feel than the debut. In particular, “Radio” sounds equal parts bewildered and cynical as Meath sings about “faking the truth in a new pop song” in a scenario that won’t end well: “Slave to the radio/Wait ’til they forget you, though.”
Then there’s “Die Young,” a love song both chilling and sweet on which Meath declares, “I was gonna die young, but now I gotta wait for you.”
Does she ever worry about putting too many of her feelings and vulnerabilities on public display?
“I only feel like I expose too much emotionally when people think they can engage with me on that level,” she said. “When they feel entitled to poke and prod into my more intimate feelings. But I always feel in control in terms of my vulnerability and being able to reveal exactly what I wish to. It’s also fun. It’s a gift when you let people see how you actually feel.”
Expanding their range
Sylvan Esso’s latest two recordings also show a lot of musical and emotional range. “There Are Many Ways to Say I Love You” is a cover of a song written by the late Fred Rogers for his long-running PBS series “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
Sylvan Esso covered it as part of a tribute project called “Make Believe Neighborhood” – just voice and an acoustic guitar Sanborn borrowed, played and sang somewhat haltingly.
“It’s my favorite song of his because Mr. Rogers figured out a way of distilling and talking about really complicated things very easily,” Meath said. “It’s so real. And that line at the end, ‘You’ll find many ways to understand what love is’ – it crushes you. As a songwriter, I find his economy of words truly inspiring.”
Their other new song is the single “PARAD(w/m)E,” which sounds like a very simple, peppy and upbeat dance tune. There’s even a food fight in the video. Pay attention to the words, however, and it’s anything but lighthearted.
“It’s one of the more political songs we’ve ever put out,” Meath said. “It makes me really excited because now is the time. Gosh darn it, the evil empire is upon us. It’s basically a children’s song about a post-apocalyptic search for food, and it’s really fun and very bouncy. We’re always going to need biting pop songs that are truthful.”
“We’re very political people, but we’re not super-interested in being an overtly political band,” added Sanborn. “But I think this is a good example of a song that came from a very emotional place about a very real feeling. If you’re writing truthfully about your emotional experience, there’s almost no way to separate that from the world around you. I think that is the way politics tends to make its way into our music, and probably will continue to in the future.”
Keep an eye on these Grammy nominees
We size up North Carolina’s Grammy nominees and their prospects.
Sylvan Esso (Durham)
Nominated for: Best Dance/Electronic Album alongside Bonobo, Kraftwerk, Mura Masa and ODESZA.
Prospects: You can almost never go wrong predicting the act with the highest mainstream profile, and right now that would be ODESZA. But historical legacy counts, too, which points toward Kraftwerk. One of those two will probably win.
▪ Best Rap Album (“Laila’s Wisdom”) alongside Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Migos and Tyler, The Creator.
▪ Best Rap Song (“Sassy”) alongside Cardi B, Danger Mouse featuring Run the Jewels and Big Boi, Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z.
Prospects: Given the field Rapsody (born Marlanna Evans in Snow Hill) is up against, she is the longest of longshots in both categories, which look to be tossups between Jay-Z (whose label she is on) and Lamar (with whom she has collaborated). Consider these nominations to be a major acknowledgment of her future potential. Her day will come.
Iron & Wine (Chapel Hill)
Nominated for: Best Americana album alongside Gregg Allman, Brent Cobb, Jason Isbell and The Mavericks.
Prospects: This is the first nomination for Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, a worthy accomplishment. But the Grammy will most likely go to either Isbell, whose last two albums have both cracked the Top 10, or the late Allman, who died last year and is a posthumous nominee.
Anthony Hamilton (Charlotte)
Nominated for: Best Traditional R&B Performance alongside The Baylor Project, Childish Gambino, Ledisi, Mali Music.
Prospects: It’s hard to imagine that Childish Gambino (also known by his real name, Donald Glover), who is in the midst of a breakout stretch, won’t win this one.
Christopher Jacobson (Durham)
Nominated for: Best Choral Performance in a field that includes PRISM Quartet, Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Nigel Short.
Prospects: This first Grammy nomination for the Duke Chapel organist is for his contribution to the South Dakota Chorale’s “Tyberg: Masses.” Former Duke Chapel assistant conductor Brian Schmidt, now an associate professor at Baylor University, conducted. “Tyberg: Masses” is also up for best-engineered classical album and best surround-sound album. And it’s part of Blanton Alspaugh’s nomination for classical producer of the year.