Sylvan Esso: “Collaboration Should Make you Aware of your Own Strengths and Weaknesses”

Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn formed Sylvan Esso in 2013 (Photo via sylvanesso.com)

Amelia Randall Meath and Nick Sanborn formed Sylvan Esso in 2013 (Photo via sylvanesso.com)

Here in Harrisville, New Hampshire, our general store is the center of community life—where locals go for a cup of coffee, to buy eggs, or to learn if the next Nor’easter will leave six or eighteen inches of snow. Occasionally, on quiet afternoons, I’ll find Amelia Meath there alone at one of the wooden tables scribbling at the New York Times crossword puzzle or engrossed in the Momofuku cookbook and pull up a chair for a chat. (Amelia’s sister, Laura Carden, and her mother, M’Lue Zahner—the store’s master baker—are both incredible cooks, so a love of good food runs in the family.)

My coffee-breaks with Amelia, though, have become rarer since she released the album Sylvan Esso last year in collaboration with her partner, Nick Sanborn. It didn’t take long for The Tonight Show, Conan O’Brien, and Interview magazine to come knocking, and now Amelia and Nick spend their days and nights touring around the world—an adventure that shows no signs of letting up any time soon.

(Photo via sylvanesso.com)

(Photo via sylvanesso.com)

The album had good buzz months before its official release, and when I finally got my hands on an advance copy I understood why: Sylvan Esso is easy to love. Indeed, friends from their 20s through their 60s have been sharing their enthusiasm about the record with me ever since.

The electro-pop duo’s album is a musical departure from Amelia’s last music project, the intimate, old-timey Made the Harbor by the female trio Mountain Man. While Made the Harbor is rich with Appalachian-flavored harmonies and nature imagery (animal tracks, loons, and moonlight), Sylvan Esso combines the organic, folk-like qualities of Meath’s vocals with electronic beats and found sounds engineered by Sanborn (bass player for currently-on-hiatus Megafaun). The resulting songs are a satisfying stew that is both rich and sparse.

Sylvan Esso is a project brimming with such contradictions: it is human and electronic, contemporary and traditional, dreamlike and danceable, organic and sleek, funny and serious, familiar and unexpected.

But this is the surprising beauty that can be born out of collaboration—two creative people putting their own egos aside and bringing out the best in each other. Sylvan Esso proves that one plus one sometimes equals much more than two. Or as Amelia says in our interview—

“I think collaboration should make you aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. Almost like a romantic relationship. If you have done your job well, and after you get over feeling horrible, you are usually able to see all of the things you learned from your partner. Nick and I are both good at what the other is miserable at.”

I asked Amelia and Nick to talk more about their creative process and to share some of their own favorite albums, books, and films. You can read more in the interview below.

 

Wall-For Web

Paste magazine named “Hey Mami” the 2014 Song of the Year: “A funky time signature is exactly what makes ‘Hey Mami’ so riveting…These are the beautiful and lasting moments in music, the ones you don’t expect, yet are everything you ever wanted.” (Photo via sylvanesso.com)

 

Sylvan Esso: The Gwarlingo Interview

Michelle: Sylvan Esso is a wonderful example of successful collaboration. I’m a big fan of Mountain Man, but it’s marvelous to hear this same lilting voice transformed by Nick’s remixes and beats. Can you tell me more about your collaborative process?

Amelia: Our collaboration shifts around all the time. Originally, we were writing songs together through email. Once we moved to the same place, we would work in the same room, or I would go to the porch and Nick would stay in his room with all his instruments and when one had a small bit of something we wanted to show the other, we would have a tiny meeting and then go back to our respective “offices” Sometimes Nick has a whole beat structure that he gives to me to write over (“Coffee”) and sometimes I have a whole song done for Nick to write to (“Wolf”). It changes all the time! I think our sounds simply compliment one another, and we were lucky to meet and be able to put them together. It feels very natural. The universe agrees.
 
 

Sylvan Esso (Photo by Maggie Famiglietti via Bandwidth)

“We wrote [‘Hey Mami’] through e-mail,” Amelia explained to Paste, “which was really lucky, ‘cause when I originally sent Nick the vocals, they got scrambled in…the software, so the timing was all off. Nick then remade the song from what he originally thought that it was and he gave it this wild time signature. Nick made that song.” (Photo by Maggie Famiglietti via Bandwidth)

Michelle: What do you most appreciate about each other’s skill set? How do you bring out the creative best in each other when working together?

I think collaboration should make you aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. Almost like a romantic relationship. If you have done your job well, and after you get over feeling horrible, you are usually able to see all of the things you learned from your partner. Nick and I are both good at what the other is miserable at. Nick is amazing with the technical and engineered aspects of our sound, and I am very good at being intuitive if not a little sloppy. We clean up after each other and make routes for our partner to walk down.

 

Michelle: I suspect I’ve listened to this record more than one hundred times, and I still hear surprises. I love the complexity of “found sounds” in these songs. Can you describe some of the more unusual sounds that appear on this record?

Nick: I love odd sounds and field recordings so they’re all over the place, but the most obvious example is probably the collage of found sounds in “Hey Mami,” which is a field recording of boats on the Milwaukee River underneath a looped car passing and my foot scraping along a wood floor. One of my favorite parts about using field recordings is that so many happy accidents occur (the tugboat in the break of the song, for example, just happened to be there when I pasted the sound down), and those accidents inspire other new musical ideas. Sometimes you just get a specific sound in your head and figure out whatever way you can to get it, like the sound of me knocking on my door frame with my knuckle in the break of “Coffee” (a sampled rimshot was too sharp, using a stick on the floor was too treble-y, but the side of my knuckle on the door frame was Goldilocks-style Just Right). Other than that, I really tried to use far-off mic placements to get the reverb of the house we were recording in. I always love it when the recording environment colors the record, and the house itself really became an important character in the sound of this one. “Come Down,” for example, wouldn’t feel nearly the same to me if Amelia hadn’t recorded her takes in our long hallway.

 

Michelle: Mountain Man’s music has a strong sense of place—the imagery is rural and the a cappella harmonies are an intriguing mix of shape note singing, New England folk, and Southern hymns. You have deep New England roots (between Bennington, Harrisville, Boston, etc.), spent many months on the road touring the world with Feist, and are now living in North Carolina. How has geography affected you and your work as an artist? Do certain locations inspire you more?

Amelia: I am sure that geography affects the way I write, particularly where Mountain Man is concerned, but pop music seems to be a wild thing that can be plunked down any old place and thrive. It is oddly similar to drugs in that way, or an invasive species. I am not very good at being productive at all, BUT in North Carolina, because I sang back up for Feist I was able to support myself for a year and wring these songs out of myself. Lots of frustration, lots of taking breaks and then realizing that the day’s project was NOT to make Tonkotsu Ramen from scratch. New York was even worse. I would get home, drop my bags, and then I was out the door again. The pace of the south agrees with me in a way I could not have predicted. Though I sure do miss New England.

 

Sylvan Esso (Photo by Elizabeth Weinberg)

Sylvan Esso’s self-titled debut was a 2014 top-ten pick at NPR Music (Photo by Elizabeth Weinberg via sylvanesso.com)

 

Michelle: What are some of the biggest rewards and challenges of being a musical artist?

Amelia and Nick:

Rewards

Getting to do what you like to do for a living
Work only feels like work every now and then
Friends everywhere!
Traveling all over the world
Infinite posi-vibe Trades
I mean, c’mon, this rules
You get to make your ideas come to life in videos, and sometimes people like them

Challenges

Schmoozing
Getting sick and having to play in front of people when you want to yak
You have to be nice when you don’t want to be
Sitting in the car forever
Stuff like this happens, and your mom reads it
Sometimes people forget you are a person and they want to collect you for their social media and they tug on you (literally)
People decide they know what your songs are about, and they are about them, and they want to tell you about it

 

A still from the "Coffee" video shoot (Photo via vinyllarecords)

A still from the “Coffee” video shoot (Photo via vinyllarecords)

 

Michelle: Creating a list of “ favorites” is always hard, I know, but I’d love to hear some of the musicians, records, artists, books, films that have impacted and influenced you most as artists.

Nick: I love reading, and for the past several years John D. MacDonald’s “Travis McGee” series has been a big thing for me. Formulaic and serial, but beautifully written. He finds such an interesting way to use the trappings of that genre in a positive way. Musically, it’s all over the place. I’ve always been a big fan of jazz, specifically Elvin Jones, Ornette Coleman, and Coltrane. They Might Be Giants have always been two of my favorite songwriters, even since I was a kid. Discovering Autechre was a huge thing for me when I was in my teens. I could go on forever.

Amelia: Books: Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, Richard Brautigans poems (“Lovers” and “Widow’s Lament” are among my current favorites), as well as the poems of Zachary Schomburg. For music, Stina Nordenstam’s This is Stina Nordenstam, as well as M.I.A.’s first couple of albums, Kendrick Lamar, Tom Waits among SO MANY ALBUMS. Currently re-living my new found love for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. For films, I love The Wild Ones, Tampopo, Earth Girls are Easy, and Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth (which everyone needs to see)

Check out the Sylvan Esso tour schedule, media appearances, merchandise, blog and more at Amelia and Nick’s website. You can watch a collection of their videos and performances right here…
 


 

Further Exploration

Check out the Gwarlingo Store–a handpicked selection of books, movies, etc. of interest to writers, artists, teachers, art lovers, and other creative individuals. A portion of all your purchases made through the Gwarlingo Store portal, benefits Gwarlingo. Prefer to shop online from an independent? Visit the IndieBound Gwarlingo portal here.
 

 

Join the Gwarlingo Community

Gwarlingo Donation Button

Gwarlingo is member supported and relies on contributions from readers like yourself to remain ad-free. Thanks to all of the readers who have contributed to the Gwarlingo Membership Drive so far. Instead of selling out to advertisers, I’m “selling out” to my readers instead! More than 260 Gwarlingo readers have contributed so far. If you haven’t donated yet, you can check out my video and member rewards, including some limited-edition artwork, here on the Gwarlingo site. Donors who give $50 or more get an interactive profile on the Gwarlingo Member page. Members are also featured regularly in the Gwarlingo email newsletter.

 

From the Gwarlingo Archive

By | 2016-11-11T21:48:39+00:00 02.15.15|Interviews, Sounds|1 Comment

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.

One Comment

  1. […] Sylvan Esso: The Gwarlingo Interview […]

Leave A Comment