It was just supposed to be a request to remix a song. But sometimes, there are greater things at work beyond just an immediate endeavor. That’s the simple origin of Sylvan Esso, a new Durham, North Carolina-based duo.
Singer Amelia Meath was fronting Mountain Men, an acoustic folk trio, when she asked Nick Sanborn of the band Megafaun, to remix one of her songs. The result was magical, and Nick knew there was much more to be found in the combination of their varied talents and sensibilities.
Fast forward a few years and the duo, under the moniker of Sylvan Esso, is releasing their debut self-titled album. Ten songs filled with Nick’s loops, beats and synth production woven with Amelia’s temperate, sincere vocals.
We caught up with Nick to hear his take on Sylvan Esso, their creative process and what’s on the horizon for this promising band.
How, exactly, did Sylvan Esso come together?
We met when we were booked together at a show in Milwaukee, where I was living at the time. We really liked each other’s music and about a year later, Amelia asked me to remix a song she had written for [the band] Mountain Man called “Play It Right.” We both ended up being surprised by the result and the next time we saw each other, decided we should make more music together. We exchanged a bunch of ideas over email. and shortly afterwards I moved to Durham to continue working with Megafaun. (I had been their touring bass player for a couple of years.) The Sylvan Esso stuff just got more and more serious, and when Amelia finished her tour, singing backup for Feist, she decided to move there too, so we could work together more easily.
How would you describe your approach to creating music?
Both of us like to work as intuitively as possible, so we tend to try following whatever each song seems to want to be and just try to get out of its way. Sometimes we start with one of us having completed half of a song entirely before the other writes to it. But most times we have a little seed of something that we like – a hook, a lyric, a progression – and then we slowly build on it until we’re happy. Usually there’s a lot of pacing and grumbling from me while I try out many ideas that aren’t quite right, followed by a contented sigh when I find the right one. Sometimes the grumbling lasts five minutes, other times five months.
Talk about the process of making your debut album.
We recorded the whole thing over the course of about a year at my house in Durham, mostly in my bedroom and the adjacent hallway. Recording at home is great for me; I love the combination of limited technical resources and infinite time. The house really became a defining character in the record – I can hear it all over every song. Most of it was recorded while I was working 40 to 50 hours a week bussing tables, so the hardest parts all revolved around getting back to work on the record and trying not to lose the plot.
Is there a track from the album that especially resonates with you?
It changes all the time. Right now it’s the last song on the album, “Come Down.” We recorded it so quickly – Amelia went out in the hallway and sang four stacking improvised harmony parts one after another. Then I did the same with a guitar. To me it feels like a distillation of something that’s present over the rest of the record, but never focused on until the end.
What’s next for Sylvan Esso?
Well, we just wrapped up our (amazing) E.U. tour with (amazing) Tune-Yards, and now we head back to the States for four more weeks with them. Then a ton more exciting stuff will happen that we don’t get to talk about yet, and then back out for a full U.S./E.U. headlining tour, which will probably be followed by even more touring. We’re so lucky.