Interview: Nick Sanborn from Sylvan Esso

Nick Sanborn of Sylvan Esso (Photo: Peter Hutchins)
Nick Sanborn of Sylvan Esso
(Photo: Peter Hutchins)

In an age where the meaning of pop music is changing with the seasons, Sylvan Esso is putting an extraordinary spin on the style. The duo from Durham, NC, consisting of producer Nick Sanborn and vocalist Amelia Meath, bring complex beats and deep melodies to the table. It’s catchy music that will put you in a good mood once you start listening. With New York City beatmaker Suzi Analogue kicking off the night, Sanborn and Meath will be performing at The Strand Ballroom and Theatre on Apr 4. It seems like a prime time to check out a band that has caused a buzz since their latest album What Now came out last spring.

Sanborn and I had a chat ahead of their show about switching from folk to pop, the new music video Sylvan Esso put out, everything coming together at the right time and the difference between creating something new and imitating it.

Rob Duguay (Motif): Before Sylvan Esso started, both you and Amelia were in different folk bands. You were in Megafaun while Amelia was in Mountain Man, and you also had a solo project called Made of Oak. Sylvan Esso’s music is in the electro-pop style, so what made you and Amelia want to make the transition to a different kind of music?


Nick Sanborn: This is going to sound weird, but there wasn’t really a transition. We both have always loved pop music and, when we started making things together, it was the natural thing that made sense for us to create. We started cutting a remix of a song from Mountain Man and that came out as a combination of what the two of us were interested in. From that, it became the template for what we would make afterwards. Amelia was having a great time in Mountain Man and singing with Feist,s but she always wanted to do something that was a little bit more accessible.

She wanted to maintain the flexibility of the music she was doing before, but she also wanted to do it in a style where more people could find it. We’ve both been fans of all kinds of pop forever, but we’ve bonded over a shared love of Aaliyah, Rihanna and all sorts of music like that.

RD: Back in January, Sylvan Esso put out a music video for “PARAD(w/m)E.” The video takes place in a very rural backwoods town. Where’s the location where it was filmed?

NS: It was filmed in Vaughn, New Mexico.

RD: What made you and Amelia pick that location? Was it through whomever directed it, or was it both of your decision?

NS: Amelia was actually the creative director or the whole video. She’s done a bunch of our music video treatments, so that was all her idea. When she wrote the treatment for this video, it took place in the desert. We ended up having to change that because we don’t live in the desert and we didn’t have a ton of time to go somewhere that was like a desert. Our friend who directed it, Dan Huiting, was shooting something else out there in New Mexico and passed through that town and immediately thought that’s where we should shoot the video.

It was one of those magical things where everything just worked out. It perfectly fit the treatment that Amelia had written and the crew was available for this tiny window of days when we were also available. It all came together in less than two weeks.

RD: That’s awesome.

NS: Yeah, it happened really quickly.

RD: Did Amelia play a part in directing the choreography as well?

NS: She didn’t choreograph it. John Mark is a fantastic dancer and choreographer, and he handled that part of the video. The dancers were all local, which was really cool. We didn’t fly any dancers in, they were all from Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

RD: How did you get the word out locally to get the dancers involved?

NS: There’s an interesting arts collective there called “Meow Wolf” that is made up of a ton of different creative professionals. They have a gigantic installation in Santa Fe that’s their headquarters. They did a ton of outreach trying to find a crew of dancers, and it was all done through their network.

RD: You mentioned earlier how you and Amelia like a lot of pop music. From being in a pop duo, do you feel critical at all when it comes to mainstream pop music? Do you think a lot of pop is homogenized where a lot of it sounds the same, or do you think otherwise?

NS: I think both of those things. When any art form at any point in history that reaches a certain critical mass, which is “pop” by definition, you’re going to have a lot of great music and a lot of other music that’s kind of imitating things in the hopes of being noticed. Just like every other period of time, we’re living in one of those now. There’s obviously banal stuff you hear on the radio, but I also think radio is finally taking chances on cooler, interesting and less overt music. At the Grammys this year, they didn’t reflect my personal taste, but I thought the nominations were really exciting.

To see someone like SZA get so many nominations, even though she didn’t win, bodes well in the present tense for what people are actually listening to.

RD: SZA has been rising very fast.

NS: Yeah.

RD: I remember her playing small clubs all over the place, including Providence, and then all of a sudden she’s doing all of these big tours and stuff with Kendrick Lamar.

NS: Yeah, it’s incredible.

RD: Yes it is. Sylvan Esso are going to be touring a lot this year, so other than the upcoming show in Providence, which city are you most excited to perform at?

NS: There’s a bunch of places I’m excited to play. On the leg of this tour that we’re currently on, it’s exciting because it’s places like Providence. It’s cities that usually get stepped over in favor of a bigger city that’s an hour or two away. We’re doing only those cities this time so it really is the most rewarding as someone who grew up in one of those cities. I grew up in Madison, WI, and I moved to Milwaukee which got consistently passed over for Minneapolis and Chicago when I was a kid. This is our favorite kind of tour with doing these kinds of shows.

I’m really excited for our two-night stand in Milwaukee this summer, which sold out faster than I think any of our other shows did, which is really cool. We’re playing Mass MoCA in North Adams, MA, on Mar 31 and I’ve never been there before. We’re also playing [at the State Theatre] in Portland, ME, on April 2, and I’ve never played in Maine ever so I’m really excited about that. I have family up there so I’m really hyped. We’re going to be all over the place this year.

Tickets to Sylvan Esso with Suzi Analogue @ The Strand Ballroom and Theatre, Apr 4:

“PARAD(w/m)E” music video:

Web site: