Very Symbiotic: A Conversation with Sylvan Esso
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly
The lovable electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso, based in North Carolina and featuring talented young Mountain Man singer Amelia Meath, plays the Gothic Theatre in Denver on Saturday night. The show has been sold out for a while, as Sylvan Esso – which juxtaposes the sweet-voiced Meath’s playful sensuality and profound femininity with producer Nick Sanborn’s infectious, bouncy soundscapes – has been on a critical and commercial roll since its infectious self-titled 2014 debut.
Recently Meath, resting in Durham after the band’s first Australian tour, spoke with Boulder Weekly by phone about her deep songwriting partnerships and her musical evolution from mellow, poignant indie folk singer to energetic pop savant.
Adam Perry: I saw Mountain Man here at the Boulder Theater in 2010 and remember you saying you ate at Lucille’s.
Amelia Meath: Oh yeah. Like, all the time. (Laughs)
AP: And then a few weeks later I heard the live album and you said you’d eaten at Canter’s in Los Angeles. So I was wondering, “Does she tell the audience where she had dinner every night?”
AM: (Laughs) Sometimes I like to. I think it’s really important. It’s also a really good way of telling people that you appreciate their city.
AP: What’s it like to be on tour now with just one other person? Do you miss all the female energy from Mountain Man on the road?
AM: It’s just a totally different thing, you know? I miss that band. It’s not necessarily that I’m missing the female energy; I’m missing Molly and Alexandra. At the same time…that time was that time, and now I hang out with Nick [Sanborn] all the time, and our tour manager, Rusty.
AP: Is Mountain Man defunct?
AM: Oh, no. Imagine Mountain Man as a sleeping bear. A very cozy, sleeping bear.
AP: How did “Play It Right” evolve? I saw Mountain Man playing it in a video and it was a gentle thing; now it’s a dance anthem.
AM: I asked Nick to do a remix of it. In my mind, there was always music behind “Play It Right.” Mountain Man was just discussing it in a different way. Once Nick remixed it, it matched what was always in my brain. And it inspired our band.
AP: I remember meeting you when you played Boulder with Mountain Man, and you had what you called a “Tank Girl” haircut. You definitely stood out. Do you get to be more yourself with Sylvan Esso?
AM: No, not really. Whatever you make is who you are, if you’re making an artistic expression. It’s impossible, if you’re spending time trying to distill what you think into story, for it to not reflect some part of you.
AP: Mountain Man always had such a sense of place, musically. I remember first hearing the album when we were living in Maine…
AM: Oh yeah. Totally.
AP: …and feeling transported to a farmhouse in Vermont. How does place – maybe North Carolina – inform Sylvan Esso’s music?
AM: I am totally sure that [place] has informed it, but quite honestly I can’t necessarily pinpoint that for you. If that were true I would probably be singing the blues, you know? But I’m sure that it does influence some of the sound. I know that Mountain Man did sound like Vermont to me, and it did sound like what we sounded like when we were 18 to 26 years old.
AP: Being in a band with just one other person now, what’s the musical relationship like? Has it become almost symbiotic?
AM: Yes, that’s the truth. It’s very symbiotic. And it’s also quite organic in that we both switch back and forth roles regularly.
AP: I’ve seen Nick say in interviews what a great writer of melodies and lyrics you are. What’s it like to destroy stereotypes for people who wrongly think that male/female duo is just a Wizard of Oz guy and a fun frontwoman?
AM: It feels really nice; at the same time, Nick really is the Wizard of Oz in a lot of ways. (Laughs) He’s able to take my lyrics and melodies and lend a new, different kind of emotional landscape under it that maybe I hadn’t detected, or expand on the things I’m talking about through sound. It does feel really good to be able to share the role of writing equally. I know that together we’re much better than the sum of our parts. And also part of being in a duo is constantly bending and changing and taking on different roles and giving other roles back. It’s wonderful that I’ve been able to find so many writing partners in my life. I mean, I’ve found three incredible writing partners already and I’m only 26. That’s wild. Most people don’t find one.
AP: My daughter is five and she’s been singing along with “Hey Mami,” probably thinking more along the lines of “Hey, mommy.” Do you think, when you’re writing and recording, that kids might be listening? And are you conscious that your lyrics, which sometimes have a feminist message, might make you a role model in some way?
AM: I am conscious that I’m a female role model. It’s such an honor in general. And I also really like that a lot of kids seem to have attached to “Hey Mami” as a song for their moms. It’s so great. And so not what I intended when I was writing the song. (Laughs). But I love it. And the Sylvan Esso album begins and ends on a note about moms. There’s “Come Down,” which is also about saying goodbye to your mother.
AP: When you played “Coffee” with Questlove on The Tonight Show it looked like a blast, but I was also wondering what goes into that, what kind of rehearsal.
AM: 15 minutes of rehearsal went into that. (Laughs)
AP: He’s a genius.
AM: Yeah, he really is. He’s such a wizard, and we were so honored when he asked. He asked to play on it, which I think was a really generous bid on it, because it made sure that people would watch. Or it might have been, in part, the Fallon team. But I don’t know; I mean, he seemed to know the album. It was great to meet him, if just for such a short period of time. Also, when Questlove asks if he can play with you, there’s only one answer. You can’t say, “Thanks anyway.” I’m so happy we got to play with him. It’s also really scary to play with another musician for the first time, on live television.
AP: He’s like a drum machine, though, so there was nothing to worry about.
AM: Oh yeah, and his concept of swing is insane. Wow. What a wizard.
AP: Will you have any new songs for the show in Denver?
AM: I think so.
AP: You’ve been writing together on the road?
AM: We’ve been working, but we can’t write on the road. We had three weeks off, the first three weeks since the album cycle started, and we’ve been able to get a couple of new ideas out. So hopefully some of those will take shape and we’ll be able to play them when we’re in Denver.