IT WAS a strange pairing. Dark hiphop beatmaker Nick Sanborn was on the bill for a Milwaukee show with Mountain Man, whose light, acapella, all-female harmonies were on opposite ends of the spectrum. The night was clearly hodgepodge, but it led to the meeting of Sanborn and Mountain Man's Amelia Meath. The two exchanged info, and Sanborn began remixing Mountain Man's song "Play It Right."
"It started me thinking about the idea of doing a band like that, that I could work in the way I was working with that song," Sanborn says.
The two began emailing sounds back and forth, and Meath eventually relocated to Sanborn's home of Durham, North Carolina, where they could focus on the collaboration that eventually became Sylvan Esso. With limited resources and infinite time, the duo made something that's perked up the masses' ears.
The songs have a two-in-one quality: The vocal melodies easily stand alone as vibrant hymns, while the beats cast their own dark web, spreading and shifting to create the sense of nighttime flights over a lit-up city grid.
"The cool thing about working with [Meath]," Sanborn says, "is that every song that's done seems to be whatever that song seems to want to sound like. Not really having acoustic instruments that we're locked into, any song can sound like anything. The songs being written this way, where we're recording them as we're writing them, feels a lot different than writing them in a practice room in front of other people—which has its own benefits, but with this, we're able to hear as the third person what's happening instead of hearing it as someone playing."
Sylvan Esso's self-titled debut is pop-forward, but has mystery—much like the name, derived from the game Sword and Sworcery.
"You know the comic strip Dilbert? I've heard that guy who drew that had a contest amongst his friends to name the character, and he says that when he saw the name 'Dilbert,' it was like finding out the name of the character instead of having to choose one," Sanborn says. "It was kind of like that: Realizing that was just it, and we had to deal with it."