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Poised to break big after a lifetime of getting to this point

Sylvan Esso's wonderful electro-pop debut stems from two lifetimes spent in training 

Amelia Meath won't be able to enjoy her front porch very often this summer. Actually, if her career continues its current meteoric ascent, this may be one of the last afternoons she spends here for the better part of the next year. For now, she's savoring it.

In early May, Sylvan Esso, Meath's sophisticated electronic pop duo with Nick Sanborn, will release its self-titled debut LP on New York's Partisan Records. After issuing two singles, the band has earned high praise from NPR and Stereogum, Spin and BrooklynVegan. Their second music video premiered through one of the country's biggest music websites, and national television appearances hover on the horizon.

They've just returned from one European tour, and in a matter of days, they'll ship off for another overseas sprint. And when that's done, they'll play a sold-out show at Cat's Cradle and begin a trek with tUnE-yArDs, which includes consecutive nights at New York's massive Webster Hall.

But for now, on this late April morning, Meath relaxes on the porch, eating a salad and enjoying the relatively still life of Durham from her side-street view. In this quiet neighborhood, schoolkids play nearby on the sidewalk. The traffic is light, but in the distance, she can hear the buzz of busier thoroughfares—Mangum and Roxboro streets, which slice through the city, and Interstate 85.

"It's so wonderful to be in a place where there's so much going on, but not that much going on," says Meath, several months shy of her second anniversary in Durham. "There's enough space to disappear and to not get distracted by drinking martinis all the time."

In Sylvan Esso, Sanborn makes the beats for Meath's voice. He leans on a porch column, sporting the sort of well-worn green sweatshirt reserved for days at home. He laughs at the martinis bit.

Meath and Sanborn—25 and 31, respectively—seem like they could be any young Durham couple sharing a day off from work. In essence, though, they have been in training for the sudden if surprising success most of their lives. From the band's slick, stylized logo, which splits the difference between a graceful graffiti tag and a fashion designer's insignia, to the aura of pleasantness that seems to surround the pair, there is a distinct biographical link to everything they do. Meath, for instance, learned about marketing from her father, a television producer, as a child. She learned how to turn her voice into a litany of charms in her post-collegiate vocal folk trio, Mountain Man. Sanborn, an inveterate sideman who finally has an act of his own, has worked in a half-dozen bands during the last decade. Even the porch plays a pivotal role in the duo's development.

"Most of Sylvan Esso's really important meetings have taken place on this porch, including when we were recording the album," Meath says. "Every time we needed a break, we would come and sit on the porch."

The house serves as a character on the LP: Meath used Sanborn's closet as a vocal booth, for instance, and they even included the sound of her opening the door on one track. Much of the reverb on Meath's layered vocals comes from takes she'd sing down the house's high-ceilinged hallway. And in the middle of irrepressible single, "Coffee," there's a knocking sound, like a drumstick tapping a woodblock. That's just Sanborn, beating on his doorframe.

Indeed, the house and the duo's move to Durham are inextricably linked to the formation of the band. Years ago, Sanborn and Meath met by accident, when his solo electronics project, Made of Oak, opened for Mountain Man during a tour stop in Milwaukee. She liked the beats he played and asked him if he'd like to remix a new Mountain Man song.

"There's always somebody who's all, 'Dude, we should do something together,'" Sanborn says. But usually, there's no follow-up. Not only did Meath send him a tune called "Play it Right," but when he shipped it back to her in December 2011, they both loved the result. Nearly two years later, his take on "Play it Right" became the flip side of Sylvan Esso's debut single. "Amelia was the first person who was like, 'We should do more of that.'"

click to enlarge Goodbye, Durham: Sylvan Esso's Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, preparing for departure at Raleigh-Durham International Airport - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • Goodbye, Durham: Sylvan Esso's Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, preparing for departure at Raleigh-Durham International Airport

She kept sending him material, little voice memos of melodies she'd capture with her cell phone, though they were both on the road with their respective bands—Meath with Mountain Man, Sanborn as a touring member of Megafaun. Just as Megafaun went on hiatus in September 2012, Sanborn moved to Durham. Within a matter of months, Meath had moved to Durham, too.

"The universe agreed," Meath says. "It was so fast.'"

Meath had been living in Brooklyn, and she found Durham to be a welcome change. "The first thing I noticed is when you're at a social gathering, and people asked you what you did, they actually listened," she says. "Coming from Brooklyn, it was so different. It was, 'What do you do? Who do you know?'"

And in this new sort of band, she also had to relearn how to write songs.

"In folk songs, you can get away with certain things," she offers. "Without making a song cheesy, you can write about the moon and the stars and the sunshine and feeling your limbs ache because you're working."

But pop music goes to different extremes—having a party, getting wasted, loving someone so much you can die, she says with a smirk. Each approach takes artistic liberties with reality, but learning how to move from one distortion to the other presented several unique challenges. In folk music, for instance, the premise of a song can serve as the hook, while pop hinges on a discrete melody. The debut's gliding third track, "Could I Be," began as a never-finished Mountain Man number called "Railroad Man," about falling in love with a Frankenstein-like beast. She sings a few of the old lilting lines about sleeping with Railroad Man: "Get on the train/Get on the train/and ride it 'til you come."

Sanborn loved the song and the conceit, but turning it into the vocoder-coated pop number it is now required trimming the narrative and condensing the song's lengthy chorus into a radio-sized kernel. They tried a slow, rambling iteration but settled on the understated, addictive album version. Its mix of clinical electronica, clubland thump and kaleidoscopic vocals represents a collaborative nexus for Sanborn and Meath. Her voice is guileless but magnetic, his production restless and momentous. At once, you can hear the folk and the remix, an exact synthesis of two musicians' distinct pasts.

"Mountain Man was a folk band because we were all just listening to a lot of folk music. We were living in Vermont, and we were in college," Meath says. "I learned how to use my voice because of that band—and because of my dad."

One of Meath's earliest memories is sitting in a car seat as a toddler and listening to The Who's "Behind Blue Eyes" while her dad drove. Her earliest music education, she recalls, involved going into a Strawberries record store every two weeks and buying two tapes—her father would pick one, and she'd pick the other. They listened to the pair on repeat for the next two weeks. There were business lessons, too: Jonathan Meath, her father, is a children's television producer whose credits include the '90s game show Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. He's also one of the most in-demand Santa Clauses in America. Those childhood lessons included not only music but also exercises in branding and marketing.

"Talking about business models was one of our favorite things to do. On planes, dad and I would come up with ..." she says, trailing off and shaking her head. One of their ideas, she remembers, was a camouflage T-shirt that said "You don't see me." She developed the concept at age 7, and she jokes that she's still bitter someone else sold it first.

"My dad was really good at that with music, too," Sanborn echoes. His childhood game involved listening as his dad played guitar. He had to point out the moment the chord needed to change. "That's an interesting thing to do as a parent—to get your kid to do creative analysis of a situation."

Today, as a beat-maker, he counts on that awareness and precision; it's evident in the seamless motion of Sylvan Esso's songs, where verses empty into choruses at just the perfect point, tension giving way to euphoria. Between Sylvan Esso's striking logo and meticulously developed band image, Meath's childhood brand lessons seem to have come into focus, too.

Maybe that's why the stress levels are low, despite the gathering buzz for their LP or the string of tour dates that keep lining up. Or maybe it's the quiet that a New England and Midwest native have found on this sleepy Durham street. They're edging toward an almost Southern-style politeness; even their tour vehicle, a red Prius, issues a running apology in large blue letters: "SORRY."

"For my driving," Meath says, laughing.

"Or whatever you need it to be," Sanborn says. "The magic part of it is everybody interprets it as an apology for something different."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Beat connection"

  • Poised to break big after a lifetime of getting to this point

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