20 Jan 2018

Sylvan Esso: the purpose is joy

From RNZ Music, 3:40 pm on 20 January 2018

Laneway visitors Sylvan Esso are trying to keep the human imperfections in their electro-pop music.

Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn are Sylvan Esso.

Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn are Sylvan Esso. Photo: supplied

Last time Amelia Meath was in New Zealand was with Mountain Man, a three-woman vocal trio who, at the time, were lending their keening folk-style harmonies to Laneway headliner Feist.

That was six years ago and the act that’s bringing her back to Laneway this year is a rather different proposition.

Sylvan Esso is a duo combining Amelia Meath’s vocals with the electronics of producer Nick Sandborn.

Sylvan Esso

Sylvan Esso Photo: supplied

Formed in 2012, at the end of Mountain Man’s eighteen-month stint with Feist, the Durham, North Carolina-based pair have made two albums so far. The latest, What Now, was released last year and is full of bright beats, bubbling electronic backings and memorable pop melodies.

It might seem like a stylistic leap from neo-folk to poptronica, yet Amelia Meath says her impulse remains the same.

“In both bands, I was just trying to express myself in whatever way I could figure out. So I don’t really feel like I’ve changed what I’m bringing. My goal is to try to be as truthful as possible about the human experience and Sylvan Esso is just a new way of talking about that.”

Nick Sandborn adds: “The reason we decided to become a band was because Amelia asked me to do a remix of a song that she’d written for Mountain Man. So there was this song that works equally well in both worlds, and a bunch of our songs have worked in both worlds.”

But didn’t it require an adjustment for Amelia, moving between those worlds? Not at all, she insists.

“The only thing I didn’t like at first was having my voice changed in any way I couldn’t control. It made me really mad at first, which is understandable because it’s my instrument and all of a sudden I’d sing into a microphone and Nick would have it and could cut it up and make it into different things. But then I got used to it and more trusting and felt less like he was Ursula the Sea Witch.”

One thing electronica makes possible is for every beat to be perfectly in time, every note perfectly in tune. And yet it sometimes feels as though Sylvan Esso are deliberately working against this perfection.

A track on What Now like ‘Kick Jump Twist’ has a wonderfully stumbling, falling-over-itself rhythm, almost as though the machines are having trouble keeping up with themselves.

Nick explains: “I’m very excited by electronic music that feels like human beings made it. I think that that friction, or cognitive dissonance, is a really interesting thing to push on. Because a lot of people associate this music or a lot of music that’s made on computers, with this very rigid perfection, but I mean those machines – we made them with the idea that there was a possibility of perfection. We invented what perfect was, and then made a machine to make that.

“But to me, I really love it when you can tell that something was not played live in a room but it also sounds like it’s about to fall apart at any moment. I think exposing the human flaws within the machines that we’ve made – there’s a lot to find there.”

Amelia adds: “It’s not very easy to make something perfect. People imagine that electronic music is very easy to make very formulaic, but it’s humans that are making it that formulaic. You choose where every bar hits. And I think it’s actually unfortunate that a lot of people have gotten really obsessed with trying to make everything perfect so we purposely try to keep a little dirtiness and grit and imperfection in our songs.”

As they spend a lot of time thinking about the mechanics of song-making, it’s perhaps not surprising that Sylvan Esso’s songs quite often seem to be about music itself.

There’s ‘Radio’, which takes a somewhat cynical view of the business of making pop music and the machinery that drives it. And they even have a song called ‘Song’, which seems to be about the effect music can have on people.

“You know, honestly I can’t help it,” says Amelia. “I always write about songs and I always write about dancing, unfortunately. Those are my two things that I write about pretty exclusively, and they are usually related in some way to feeling secretly sad.”

Secret sadness notwithstanding, to see Amelia and Nick dance around the stage as they deliver their quirky, hooky electronica pop is an uplifting experience. It looks like fun and sounds like fun.

“Thank you,” says Amelia. “That’s the goal. The purpose is joy, as my mother likes to say.”

Sylvan Esso perform at Laneway Festival, Albert Park,. Auckland on 29 January