Play It Right: An Interview with Sylvan Esso

They were backup singers for Feist. A remix project happened between them. Now, Sylvan Esso's debut album is a thing to behold.
Sylvan Esso
Sylvan Esso

“I got a phone it beeps/Makes me know I’m not alone,” sings Amelia Meath on Sylvan Esso’s eponymous debut album. She could be singing about Nick Sanborn. After performing in Milwaukee on the same bill with separate acts — Meath with her a cappella folk group Mountain Man (who also sang backup for Feist on tour); Sanborn as his solo electronic persona Made of Oak — the two struck up a rapport that eventually led to the attempted fusion of their seemingly disparate styles. As it turned out, this experiment didn’t sound experimental at all.

Sylvan Esso‘s blend of circular folk melodies and lurching dubstep loops sounds like a curiosity on paper, yet it has struck a gentle chord with everyone from Grantland critic Steven Hyden to our own Matthew Fiander and New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman, who perhaps best described the record’s sneaky charms when he called it “a side venture that is strange but has that spark, that edge, that sense that this is the real thing that I’m always looking for.”

As the debut video from the album, “Coffee”, has been the entry point for most listeners, something that Sanborn expressed some puzzlement about in our interview. While its prevailing moodiness might not make for an ideal example of Sylvan Esso’s somewhat playful sound, it’s a stirring, chilling bit of electro-pop nonetheless. Sanborn’s shaker-laden Portishead groove provides ideal ballast for Meath’s sprightly, serpentine melody, which soars through the bleeps like a kite held by a raver. “Get up / get down,” she sings on the chorus, describing the yo-yoing arc of a doomed relationship while simultaneously inviting us to dance.

PopMatters chatted with Sanborn before the duo’s opening set for Tune-Yards in Los Angeles. He used pretty much every cliché he could think of about things working out all right, and you can’t really blame him.

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Pardon me, but I’m going to ask you to tell a story that you’ve probably told a million times by now.

I’m happy with one million and one.

Alright. The serendipitous story of how you and Amelia sort of hooked up musically … go.

I mean, completely at random. I had started doing solo shows, and I guy I knew who booked shows in Milwaukee was like, “Hey, you should get on this show.” I look it up, and I was like, “I’m pretty sure that’s is an a cappella female trio and a psychedelic soft pop band, but I guess I’ll go play loud, sad, instrumental hip hop.” I really needed a show, so. We just really had a great time, really had fun. And it was like six or eight months later that she randomly emailed me and was like “Hey, would you want to remix this?” And I took another six or eight months after that to do it. [laughs] We hadn’t talked about it, but we were really stoked with how it turned out.

Then her group got the Feist gig?

Me and my mom went to see the Feist show, and literally the next morning, she sent me a couple voice memos of hook ideas, unlike everyone else who ever says they want to work with you. And we just started exchanging emails right away and it kind of slowly got more and more serious. It was all really natural and random and the universe kept agreeing.

When she sent you that first song to remix [“Play It Right”], what was it that made you feel it could be more than just a one off?

It was a difficult remix for me to do. It took me a long time to get going on it. Usually when you do a remix, you get an a cappella or stems from a band, but it’s an a cappella that already has music written to it. And with Mountain Man, the a cappella was the song. So I think every time I added something to it, I felt like I was subtracting by addition. But then all of the sudden, it was like the end of The Matrix, you know he has a really tough time the whole movie and then he figures it out and he’s kind of like “no” to the bullets?

I know.

I just kind of saw the light and the whole thing just happened in an afternoon. I just knew exactly what I wanted to emphasize; it felt like I could hear what it was going to be before I was doing it. Does that make sense? It’s a tough thing to talk about.

I think artists refer to that as their “Keanu” moment.

Yeah! It showed me what of the kind of stuff I’d already been doing, it showed me how I could apply that in a totally different way. It was just kind of a light turning on in the attic.

Maybe I’m just ignorant when it comes to remixes, but there’s I think a connotation where it’s meant to be a one-off thing, just to be played in the clubs — something where Diddy says “This is the remix” over it.

Right! [laughs] The song’s only downside is that Diddy isn’t on it.

You said it, not me. But the fact that you remixing this song opened up a whole new artistic path for both of you, it’s interesting.

I think I saw a glimmer of that when I saw the light on how to work the song. I didn’t just feel like I was doing my interpretation of it. I was really adding something to make this what it wanted to be in the first place. I had never felt like that before. I’ve done 20 remixes for people since then and I still have never had that same feeling. I’ll always get done and think “I did a good job, that’s a dope track.” But it’s never been the same kind of thing as when I work with Amelia.

The melodies that she writes are so intricate, they swirl around and draw you in. That must have something to do with her being part of an a cappella group?

Also, because of that background, she’s a very rhythmic singer. She’s used to providing all of the rhythmic emphasis with just voices. I think that gives her a different angle on it, and makes her really think about melodies that need to be good enough that it could be unsupported. It can’t just be like “oh that kick drum sounds cool and the synth is really big, and the girl sings over it.” She’s very good at writing something that’s like, if we strip everything else away, it could really stand on its own.

Not to focus too much on genre, but as an a cappella singer, her style is solitary, and as an electronic artist, so is yours. It just adds to this celebratory feeling in your songs; “we found each other!”

I think that’s definitely part of it. I also think that alone we would have niche audiences. But we have this lucky weird thing where I’m a huge fan of hers and she’s a huge fan of mine. When she sings something, I, as a fan of hers, immediately understand what there is to love about it. When I go to write to that, it’s almost like showing somebody a way to like what she wrote. And I think she does the same thing for me. We contextualize each other, which makes us inevitably greater than what we could do alone. It’s better than the sum of its parts.

“Coffee” is the song that everyone seems to be gravitating towards.

That’s so weird to us. We really like songs like that, but it’s such a bummer. We wrote all these other up-tempo pop jams, and everyone latches on to the song about how love is cyclical and kind of depressing!

But then that chorus comes in, and she sings “Get up, get down” over that descending keyboard line, and it doesn’t matter.

Thanks! Yeah. I’m just glad people are getting where we’re coming from.

Given the origin of the group, do you think that you’ve struck upon something that you’re going to continue for a long time?

This is the thing now. This is “’93 Til Infinity” for us. We kind of started working as the other bands we’d been touring with decided to take an indefinite break.


Again, the universe just agreed. It turned from “Oh fuck, what am I gonna do now” to “Oh, this is obviously what I’m gonna do now.” We’re just out now. This is the thing.


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