Sylvan Esso finds the click with the machines

Sylvan Esso singer Amelia Meath calls from the road about rejecting the electropop duo’s folk reputation.

Jared Hemming

With the buzz surrounding Sylvan Esso’s eponymous debut, singer Amelia Meath makes it clear that ‘folk’ is not a part of the band’s vocabulary.

”I understand the impulse to talk about how I have a folk vocal,” Meath said. “But honestly, there’s no such thing.”

The success of the electronic-glitzed “Sylvan Esso,” released on Partisan Records in May, brought the indie electropop duo to No. 39 on the Billboard charts last spring. Meath and producer/bandmate Nick Sanborn grew tired of comparisons in music media to their efforts in previous folk bands.

“People are like, ‘Oh, it’s folk-tronic,’” Meath said. “It’s all dumb. Folk is music of the people, so it’s any sound a person can make.”

The sounds made on Sylvan Esso’s album range from gliding harmonies by Meath to Sanborn’s tight, punchy beats. The collaboration results in sparse, untouched vocals breezing a listener through unexpected rhythms and subtle drops.

“I write the lyrics and melody; sometimes the melody is informed by Nick’s beats,” Meath said about the band’s songwriting process. “Sometimes we have little bits of each thing. It’s not formulaic in any way.”

Though Sanborn and Meath each got their start touring in other bands (Sanborn in Megafaun and Made of Oak, Meath in the women-vocal trio Mountain Man), their performances as Sylvan Esso have continued to evolve over time.

Live, the band is delivering a more sonically diverse palette, using combinations of live samples and, occasionally, real drums. They brought that experiment to Minneapolis’ First Avenue on Wednesday night.

“It started in the studio, and then we transitioned into playing live,” Meath said of Sylvan Esso’s performance style. “The main difference is that I went from singing with two women to singing to a click. It’s weird to start singing with a machine.”

Meath, a 26-year-old originally from Cambridge, Mass., met Sanborn, 31, when their bands shared a bill at the Cactus Club in Sanborn’s native Milwaukee in 2010.

After asking Sanborn to remix a Mountain Man song, Meath said it became clear that the two were musically compatible.

“[With] collaboration, you have to find someone you can hang out with all the time,” Meath said. “I could tell that we were friends pretty immediately.”

After relocating to Durham, N.C., between 2012 and 2013, the duo set to work on the dizzying blend of spare, cinematic production styles and airy, siren-esque harmonies that became Sylvan Esso.

In fact, the ‘Sylvan’ in their name comes from a certain enchanting fairy.

“There’s a game called Sword and Sworcery,” Meath said. “You run into this thing called a Sylvan Sprite. When you’re doing everything right, it comes out of a tree and sings at you.”

According to Meath, the name Sylvan Esso sounded memorable and plays into their buzz.

“It makes people frustrated because they don’t know what it means, so they think about it a lot, which is helpful,” she said.

While Meath and Sanborn worked on their debut from late-winter 2013 into early 2014, each fragment of their poly-genre sound pieced together into something more.

“Part of the intention was to make songs that are both weird and strange sounding but also fit into the pop sensibility,” Meath said. “It feels similar to a puzzle, when you solve it.”

The puzzle is complete on the single “Hey Mami,” a tune about cat-calling bros that affixes warm harmonies with handclaps and resolves with a crisp, beat-heavy groove.

“It’s like making a meal, just watching everything get created,” Meath said.

Meath and Sanborn made their debut self-titled to serve as an introduction to the band’s polished sound.

“Our first record, it’s our coming out party,” Meath said. “Our name’s Sylvan Esso, hello, nice to meet you.”