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The Music Of Oak And Forest Sprite Blend In Sylvan Esso


MOUNTAIN MAN: (Singing) When the sounds come together so close to my face...


A few years ago, Amelia Meath's folksy group Mountain Man recorded this song, called "Play It Right." Then a chance encounter with an electronic music producer named Nick Sanborn led to this.


MOUNTAIN MAN: (Singing) Play it right. Play it right. Play it right. Play it right. Play it right. Play it right...

SIMON: Amelia Meath, from Massachusetts, and Nick Sanborn, from Wisconsin, felt they were onto something. They ended up in Durham, N.C., and created a musical duo, Sylvan Esso. They've been touring to promote their new, self-titled album, and we've reached them at the studios of NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Thanks so much for being with us.

NICK SANBORN: Thank you so much for having us.


SIMON: Nick Sanborn, let's begin with you, if we could. You had a solo project called Made Of Oak, and then you met Amelia. We were struck by the phrase, quote, "one of the most ill-fitting yet serendipitous concert bookings ever."

SANBORN: Well, yeah. I was booked to open for Mountain Man, and my solo project is mostly, you know, kind of loud, sad, instrumental hip-hop. So...

SIMON: Oh, of course, yeah - loud, sad instrumental hip-hop - we all know that. Yeah.

SANBORN: You know, but being booked to open for a - you know, mostly a cappella female vocal trio didn't really make any sense to me at the time. But I really needed the show, so I took it.

SIMON: Well, what made sparks fly between the two of you, or at least your music, at that point?

SANBORN: I don't know, so much. I mean...

MEATH: I knew we were pals immediately because Nick and I dance in the same way - like, total dorks. So the minute he started playing, I was like ah, we are friends. I see.

SIMON: Amelia Meath, what's it like going from the kind of group Mountain Man was to working with intricate electronics against your voice?

MEATH: It's a different way of intuiting sound. Usually, I know like, sort of the caliber of what sounds Nick is going to be making, but since a lot of the live set is actually improvisatory, I don't really know exactly - like, how he's feeling or like, whether my sampled voice is going to come back like, in a giant cave or not.

SANBORN: Also, imagine a certain - there's kind of a certain rigidity to pitch and things like that, that was I was a bit of an adjustment, I think, for both of us.

MEATH: Oh, super-duper.

SIMON: Rigidity to pitch?

SANBORN: Yeah. The computer doesn't like changing pitch to match Amelia. (Laughter)

MEATH: Yeah. It doesn't happen.

SIMON: They can be kind of brute and insensitive and rigid musicians, can't they - computers?

MEATH: Yeah.

SANBORN: They really can.

SIMON: Let's listen to another track on this album, if we could, called "Coffee."


SYLVAN ESSO: (Singing) Wrap me in your arms. I can't feel it but wrap me in your arms. I can't feel it but get up, get down. Get up. Get down. Feel the turn of rotation and stop. See the next one waiting. Get up. Get down...

SIMON: I think we have to jump in here and explain, if we can, Nick Sanborn, what you look like when you play the - do I call it the accompaniment? I guess the accompaniment where, I mean, there's no instrument whatsoever visible, that I have ever seen. And it looks like you're looking to open a particularly exciting e-mail. I mean, you're there just - you know, hunched over a keyboard.

SANBORN: Well, yeah, I mean - I think laptop music has come a long way. Hopefully, it doesn't look like I'm just checking an exciting e-mail, but there's a lot going on under the hood that allows me to make the song completely different night to night - do all sorts of things like sample Amelia's voice on the fly, and bring it back into the song.


SYLVAN ESSO: (Singing) She walking so fast, she walking so fast, she walking so fast. Oh, our lady - she don't know how she going. She walking so fast...

MEATH: Initially, I really didn't want Nick to do like, anything to my voice or - including like, production-wise stuff - of like, squishing it or doing anything. And I would get like, really kind of ornery and mean. It's a very different project.

SIMON: It sounds like the two of you have to pay attention to each other very closely.

MEATH: Oh, yes.

SANBORN: Very much so. Yeah. I think especially now with a live show, there's a lot more interaction between the two of us then I think you might expect, but that's part of it that makes it so much more fun for us.

MEATH: And makes the show actually feel live because it's really easy with electronic music to get - for the show itself to look disinterested or to look plastic-y.

SIMON: Yeah.

SANBORN: Yeah. I would hate for somebody who has the record to come to the show and feel like, oh well, it's kind of like she sang karaoke.

SIMON: So you actually are producing something in front of people.

SANBORN: Yeah. You know, I'm mixing all the different elements on the fly, and I can change the nature of any part of the song at a moment's notice.


SYLVAN ESSO: (Singing) She walking so fast, she walking so fast, so walking so fast...

SIMON: The name Sylvan Esso...


SIMON: ...No relation whatsoever to the oil company?



SIMON: Where's it come from? What does it mean?

MEATH: There is a beautiful video game called Swords And Sorcery. And in it, you'll touch a little tree and then a beautiful, little, white, kind of teeny Stay Puft marshmallow man will appear out of the tree. And you touch it, and it goes (Singing) oh-oh. And then you touch another tree, and another little guy floats out of of it. And you touch him, and he goes (Singing) oh-oh.

SIMON: That's the Sylvan part.

MEATH: That's the Sylvan part.

SIMON: Esso.

MEATH: Well, I chose Esso because Esso is a beautiful-sounding word.

SIMON: Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, and together, they are Sylvan Esso. Their self-titled album comes out on Tuesday. Thank you very much for being with us. Good luck.

SANBORN: Thank you so much for having us.

MEATH: Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: And for the next few days, you can stream the album at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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