The synth-pop duo makes "pedestrian pop music" that finds common ground between the dance hall and confusing catcalls.
Sylvan Esso is a band well-versed in opposites. Amelia Meath, former member of the a cappella folk trio Mountain Man, and electronic producer Nick Sanborn met after his solo project Made of Oak was asked to open for her band. What began as someone's perhaps-questionable gig billing led to an unlikely friendship, and Meath asked Sanborn to remix the Mountain Man song "Play It Right." The result was a take that grounded the song's ethereal vocals in techno-ready synths. The pair were so surprised by their well-matched musicianship that, over grilled cheeses, they decided to collaborate. Four years later, Sylvan Esso was born, and will play a sold-out show in New Orleans Aug. 16 at Gasa Gasa.
Sylvan Esso's origin story isn't a fairy tale of dreamy synth-pop that begins with quirky delis and ends with the perfect spark of sonic love at first sight, though. The pair are much more practical about their relationship and acknowledge that conflict plays a key creative role.
"Truthfully, Nick and I are really good at arguing and at being honest at each other, which is the main hurdle in collaboration," says Meath. "You need to be brave and not gently step around issues that you think can be compromised on."
The duo is unafraid of conflict when it comes to its songs, as well. They address the problem of gender roles and stereotypes head-on, and they aren't afraid to let the discussion get messy. The album begins with lead single "Hey Mami" which sets the tone by discussing catcalls. It's reasonable for the audience to expect the song to mention how catcalls objectify women. It's bold, however, that the song also posits the receipt of a catcall to be empowering.
"I know I look good, and I don't need your confirmation, but I see that you and I are on the same page, and that feels good sometimes," says Meath. "That's so frustrating because sometimes when someone catcalls you, you feel threatened. And you're also dealing with that dichotomy of stereotypical masculinity."
The idea of a masculine ideal mythologized by society is revisited on sweetly melancholy "Wolf" when she sings that the modern wolf has "been bending notes / just like his father." Her characters can't seem to escape the versions of themselves they're "supposed" to be or expect to be modeled after, and the idea that the stereotypes make everyone a victim is a powerful one.
The thematic questions make an impression due to the urban soundscape Sanborn plays against it. He never overshoots his production, making Sylvan Esso truly sound like a duet. Likewise, Meath has exceptional phrasing that skitters between hymnal and hip-hop, unexpectedly elongating phrases or finding a syllabic sleight of hand in a way that is never showy. On "Coffee," a gentle synth throbs like a heartbeat under dreamlike bells, and just when it seems like the song is going to spin away from you, it circles back into orbit.
Their songs seem conflicted between dragging listeners towards the club door or back out onto the pavement, and according to Meath it's intentional. "[Our music] is definitely a dialogue between high pop and pedestrian pop music. One of Sylvan Esso's main conceits is making pop music from a normal person's standpoint. When you look at Beyoncé, she's an amazing being from the planet Mars that you aspire to be, but that you could never be. If you saw Beyoncé or Lady Gaga, it's like seeing an alien, [they're] so high above me, and we're not interested in that. We're interested in being dudes that hang out and also write music."
Sylvan Esso isn't interested in meeting expectations on stage or in the street. It's when Meath and Sanborn are being honest with themselves and their audience's everyday experiences that their conflicts play out naturally, and they begin to create something exciting.