The Music Of Oak And Forest Sprite Blend In Sylvan Esso

Delicate folk vocals combine with thumping electronics in Sylvan Esso's debut album. NPR's Scott Simon speaks with the duo of Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLAY IT RIGHT")

MOUNTAIN MAN: (Singing) When the sounds come together so close to my face...

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A few years ago, Amelia Meath's folksy group Mountain Man recorded this song, called "Play It Right." Then a chance encounter with an electronic music producer named Nick Sanborn led to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLAY IT RIGHT")

MOUNTAIN MAN: (Singing) Play it right. Play it right. Play it right. Play it right. Play it right. Play it right...

SIMON: Amelia Meath, from Massachusetts, and Nick Sanborn, from Wisconsin, felt they were onto something. They ended up in Durham, N.C., and created a musical duo, Sylvan Esso. They've been touring to promote their new, self-titled album, and we've reached them at the studios of NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Thanks so much for being with us.

NICK SANBORN: Thank you so much for having us.

AMELIA MEATH: Yeah.

SIMON: Nick Sanborn, let's begin with you, if we could. You had a solo project called Made Of Oak, and then you met Amelia. We were struck by the phrase, quote, "one of the most ill-fitting yet serendipitous concert bookings ever."

SANBORN: Well, yeah. I was booked to open for Mountain Man, and my solo project is mostly, you know, kind of loud, sad, instrumental hip-hop. So...

SIMON: Oh, of course, yeah - loud, sad instrumental hip-hop - we all know that. Yeah.

SANBORN: You know, but being booked to open for a - you know, mostly a cappella female vocal trio didn't really make any sense to me at the time. But I really needed the show, so I took it.

SIMON: Well, what made sparks fly between the two of you, or at least your music, at that point?

SANBORN: I don't know, so much. I mean...

MEATH: I knew we were pals immediately because Nick and I dance in the same way - like, total dorks. So the minute he started playing, I was like ah, we are friends. I see.

SIMON: Amelia Meath, what's it like going from the kind of group Mountain Man was to working with intricate electronics against your voice?

MEATH: It's a different way of intuiting sound. Usually, I know like, sort of the caliber of what sounds Nick is going to be making, but since a lot of the live set is actually improvisatory, I don't really know exactly - like, how he's feeling or like, whether my sampled voice is going to come back like, in a giant cave or not.

SANBORN: Also, imagine a certain - there's kind of a certain rigidity to pitch and things like that, that was I was a bit of an adjustment, I think, for both of us.

MEATH: Oh, super-duper.

SIMON: Rigidity to pitch?

SANBORN: Yeah. The computer doesn't like changing pitch to match Amelia. (Laughter)

MEATH: Yeah. It doesn't happen.

SIMON: They can be kind of brute and insensitive and rigid musicians, can't they - computers?

MEATH: Yeah.

SANBORN: They really can.

SIMON: Let's listen to another track on this album, if we could, called "Coffee."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COFFEE")

SYLVAN ESSO: (Singing) Wrap me in your arms. I can't feel it but wrap me in your arms. I can't feel it but get up, get down. Get up. Get down. Feel the turn of rotation and stop. See the next one waiting. Get up. Get down...

SIMON: I think we have to jump in here and explain, if we can, Nick Sanborn, what you look like when you play the - do I call it the accompaniment? I guess the accompaniment where, I mean, there's no instrument whatsoever visible, that I have ever seen. And it looks like you're looking to open a particularly exciting e-mail. I mean, you're there just - you know, hunched over a keyboard.

SANBORN: Well, yeah, I mean - I think laptop music has come a long way. Hopefully, it doesn't look like I'm just checking an exciting e-mail, but there's a lot going on under the hood that allows me to make the song completely different night to night - do all sorts of things like sample Amelia's voice on the fly, and bring it back into the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY MAMI")

SYLVAN ESSO: (Singing) She walking so fast, she walking so fast, she walking so fast. Oh, our lady - she don't know how she going. She walking so fast...

MEATH: Initially, I really didn't want Nick to do like, anything to my voice or - including like, production-wise stuff - of like, squishing it or doing anything. And I would get like, really kind of ornery and mean. It's a very different project.

SIMON: It sounds like the two of you have to pay attention to each other very closely.

MEATH: Oh, yes.

SANBORN: Very much so. Yeah. I think especially now with a live show, there's a lot more interaction between the two of us then I think you might expect, but that's part of it that makes it so much more fun for us.

MEATH: And makes the show actually feel live because it's really easy with electronic music to get - for the show itself to look disinterested or to look plastic-y.

SIMON: Yeah.

SANBORN: Yeah. I would hate for somebody who has the record to come to the show and feel like, oh well, it's kind of like she sang karaoke.

SIMON: So you actually are producing something in front of people.

SANBORN: Yeah. You know, I'm mixing all the different elements on the fly, and I can change the nature of any part of the song at a moment's notice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY MAMI")

SYLVAN ESSO: (Singing) She walking so fast, she walking so fast, so walking so fast...

SIMON: The name Sylvan Esso...

MEATH: Yes.

SIMON: ...No relation whatsoever to the oil company?

SANBORN: No.

MEATH: No.

SIMON: Where's it come from? What does it mean?

MEATH: There is a beautiful video game called Swords And Sorcery. And in it, you'll touch a little tree and then a beautiful, little, white, kind of teeny Stay Puft marshmallow man will appear out of the tree. And you touch it, and it goes (Singing) oh-oh. And then you touch another tree, and another little guy floats out of of it. And you touch him, and he goes (Singing) oh-oh.

SIMON: That's the Sylvan part.

MEATH: That's the Sylvan part.

SIMON: Esso.

MEATH: Well, I chose Esso because Esso is a beautiful-sounding word.

SIMON: Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, and together, they are Sylvan Esso. Their self-titled album comes out on Tuesday. Thank you very much for being with us. Good luck.

SANBORN: Thank you so much for having us.

MEATH: Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: And for the next few days, you can stream the album at npr.org.

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