Electronic dance music usually reverberates with thick production and bone-rattling beats. But Sylvan Esso—the North Carolina duo of singer Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn—exists in a dimension ruled by lightness and finesse.
“We were really interested in making human music that was electronic,” Meath says. “Not accidentally letting machines we were working with write the music.”
Part of that approach may stem from the duo’s background, which stands apart from DJ culture. Sanborn played bass for psychedelic folk-rockers Megafaun, while Meath sang with Vermont’s Appalachian-shaded female a cappella trio Mountain Man. Both groups are on hiatus while the two explore Sylvan Esso, a name inspired by the sylvan sprites in the video game Sword & Sworcery.
“Just because you dabble in one genre doesn’t mean you can’t necessarily go in any other different directions,” says Meath, who grew up in Melrose and Cambridge. “I always wanted to make pop music, and write pop songs, and do something electronic—and mainly something that would make people dance.”
The seeds of Sylvan Esso were sown in Sanborn’s native Milwaukee when he opened for Mountain Man with his solo electro project Made of Oak in 2010. Meath asked him to remix her song “Play It Right,” and it all clicked. She compares it to the feeling “when you hear a song on the radio and all of a sudden your hair is standing on end, and your heart is full, and everything is beautiful at the same time, like ‘Oh, we should work together ’cause it feels right.’ ”
After Mountain Man toured as Feist’s backup singers, Meath relocated to Sanborn’s current base of Durham, N.C., where they recorded Sylvan Esso’s eponymous May debut. Meath, however, was hesitant to let him sample and loop her vocals. “You’re so in control of your voice when you’re a singer, and then all of a sudden, here’s this f—ing upstart who’s hooked you up to a machine and can make you sound different,” she says. “So initially, my reaction was to freak out and be very protective of what was going on. And that lasted about 10 minutes.”
Her trust was well-founded, as Sanborn wields a sympathetic hand at his outpost of synthesized knobs and buttons, connected to a laptop and drum machine. He touches on both dubstep and electro-pop while letting Meath fly as a mostly organic foil to balance the duo’s airy dynamics with empathy and emotion.
“We’re a very intuitive band,” Meath says from an Arizona tour stop. “Luckily we were able to find each other, because it’s quite easy for us to just riff off of what the other is doing.”
That’s immediately clear on Sylvan Esso’s enchanting debut, where looped vocals and handclaps give way to elastic electro-bass pulses that drop in opening track “Hey Mami.” One can sense Meath levitating to the nursery-rhyme bounce of “H.S.K.T.,” an acronym for “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” Likewise, dancing inspired “Coffee,” where dreamy ricochets float into the “My baby does the hanky panky” chorus of the ’60s pop gem popularized by Tommy James and the Shondells. “Just by mentioning a song that’s already established in people’s canon,” she says, “you’re including all the different meanings of that into the song you’re singing.”
The standards that first drew Meath to singing came from the Who, Foreigner and ABBA during car rides with her father, Jonathan, a children’s television producer (Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?) and professional Santa Claus.
“We had a big purple Mazda with an oddly good sound system for the late ’80s and early ’90s,” she says. “That’s how I learned to sing, singing along to the radio, ’cause that’s what my dad would do.”
Meath studied theater at Bennington College, where she launched Mountain Man in her junior year, only to see it take off on the Internet. And things have moved even faster for Sylvan Esso, who quickly sold out their Sept. 10 show at the Sinclair.
“I am very surprised by how it’s moving,” Meath says. “At the same time, we made a record that we wanted to be really accessible.”
Sylvan Esso play the Sinclair on Sept. 10.