“… imagine how you would feel if you were invited to be the live act on The Tonight Show? It’s not any less bizarre just because we’re in a band. That overwhelming feeling still factors in, big time.”
‘So, where did you two meet?’
It’s a tacky, obvious lead-in when talking to a couple. Then again, it’s not every day that the couple in question is Sylvan Esso: a bright, innovative electronica duo featuring the vocals of former Mountain Man member Amelia Meath, trading in her earthy harmonies and plucked acoustic guitar for processed beats and spiralling synths, and producer/multi-instrumentalist Nick Sanborn.
“I had just started playing solo sets, and I was opening for Mountain Man in Milwaukee,” explains Sanborn of Sylvan Esso’s origins. “We just hit it off – we loved each other’s music, and we kept in touch. It wasn’t until a few years later that we actually tried making music together. She had originally gotten in touch so that I could remix a song she had done with Mountain Man. It worked really well, and we started working together in that direction. Within six months, we had the studio booked. It all came together really quickly and really naturally.”
The end result was the duo’s eponymous debut, released back in May. It’s one of the year’s more left-field explorations of pop, taking in the artists’ earlier influence of traditional folk and introducing it to new contexts and far more intrinsic surroundings. Despite the notable difference between Sylvan Esso and their previous projects (he was also previously in the outfit Megafaun), Sanborn explains that the recording process was more or less the same as it ever was.
“It wasn’t as if I was making beats by myself and then emailing them over so Amelia could just sing over them in her room,” he says. “We were almost always in the same place, working together on these songs. It was much more organic. Our songs would often start by just happening onto something that we liked, whether that was a snare sound or a chord progression or something like that. We’d build on it from that, trying to get to that point of knowing where we wanted a song to be, rather than trying to force any ideas into it that wouldn’t fit.”
He is quick to note, however, that there were one or two particular differences that served as a definitive trait of writing the Sylvan Esso record. “I’ve been in a bunch of different bands, and I was usually the guy that would come in with the songs, show them to the band and then we’d take it from there. With this, we were recording the songs as we were writing them. The recording became just as much a part of the writing itself as anything. It was a peculiar sensation, to be hearing something as opposed to playing it. You’re constantly hearing what you’re doing as opposed to physically re-enacting it. The writing happens in a physical way, and then this added a really cerebral element to our creating. I think that really helped for this band in particular.”
Even the origins of many of the songs on the record came in a manner that may seem normal to some, but was practically alien to Sanborn. “We weren’t in the same cities a lot of the time, so we used to just send each other voice memos,” he says. “I’d be on tour while Amelia was on tour, and then out of the blue I’d get an email with her singing into the microphone on her laptop. Already, that was incredibly different to how I’d worked previously – and then I had to start reassembling the files that were sent as GarageBand demos because sometimes they’d arrive in my inbox out of sync.”
If the name Sylvan Esso doesn’t immediately ring a bell, perhaps the song, Coffee, will be more familiar. With its unmistakable marimba samples and its simple yet incredibly effective ‘Get up, get down‘ refrain, it’s safe to say Coffee has been one of the year’s true sleeper hits. Its status was confirmed with a performance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, with the show’s bandleader and The Roots mastermind Questlove joining the duo to play drums. Even now, Sanborn sees the performance as an ultimate ‘pinch me’ moment.
“It was crazy – it was beyond crazy,” he says emphatically. “I mean, imagine how you would feel if you were invited to be the live act on The Tonight Show? It’s not any less bizarre just because we’re in a band. That overwhelming feeling still factors in, big time. It was our first time on network TV, and we were playing the song in a way that we’d never played it before. It’s funny, because we’re normally super-comfortable with performing and the way we perform our music, but that really kept us on our toes. Questlove had it right away, though; he was straight in the pocket. It’s Questlove!”
After extensively touring in support of the record, Sanborn and Meath will be ending their year and starting the next with a visit to Australia (East Coast only) for a festival date as well as two of their own headlining shows. “This will be my first time,” says Sanborn. “I’m so excited to come down. I’m really honoured that we get to do this on an international scale – especially when it means we’re escaping our winter and coming into your summer. That’s a double bonus for me.”