Since pop duo Sylvan Esso made its debut last summer, music bloggers have applauded singer Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn for making the difficult leap from their humble folk and alt-rock backgrounds. And Meath is getting sick of it.
“People really like to be like, ‘Oh, the folkies went electronic!’ ” the 26-year-old singer says. “Folk means music of the people, right? So the ‘genre’ of folk music is very silly to me. Folk music can be the pygmies of the Ituri Forest — and also Mumford & Sons.”
Meath and Sanborn started collaborating while on breaks from their respective bands, Meath from the acoustic trio Mountain Man and Sanborn from the rock outfit Megafaun. Sylvan Esso’s music is at times moody and dark, and at others bright and bouncy, grounded by dense, hypnotic beats. But just because they plugged in doesn’t mean they’re making dance music.
“Compared to the music we are making now, [Mountain Man and Megafaun] can be seen as quiet,” Meath concedes. “I think people like to say that electronic music is loud just because it has an element that is meant to … make you move your body around.”
The beats aren’t the only reason Sylvan Esso’s self-titled debut was named one of last year’s best albums by NPR, Spin, Billboard and Paste magazine. Critics have also praised Meath’s lyrics on the album, which opens with a sly takedown of catcall culture (“Hey Mami”) and builds to a tale of a search for love (“Coffee”). The acclaim surprised Meath, who says she was never trying to please the musical elite.
“These songs were meant very specifically to be catchy, to appeal to a wide audience,” Meath says. “All of my personal goals that I’ve ever had have been met, which is wild.”
Like most pop music, Sylvan Esso’s mostly lives on a complex system that includes a computer and an interface (which Sanborn plays onstage like “a wizard,” according to Meath). And yet, Meath’s earthy voice interacts with Sanborn’s beats so naturally that it’s hard to separate the music from the lyrics.
“We were both really interested in the idea of voice as instrument as well as narrator,” she says.
Meath and Sanborn probably won’t get to writing Sylvan Esso’s second album until they get off the road and away from the media.
“You gotta live a little bit so you can have something to write about,” Meath says. “Because at the end of the day, you’re really providing another narrative of the human experience. Which people find really comforting.”
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