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Talking closet recording, catcalls and genre A.D.D. with Sylvan Esso

Deborah Sengupta

Editor’s note: This article was originally published August 17, 2014

Sylvan Esso, the North Carolina-based duo made up of singer Amelia Meath of Mountain Man and producer Nick Sanborn of Megafaun is having a very big year. Even before their debut eponymous album dropped in May the group generated huge buzz at South By Southwest 2014. With a sound that combines Heath’s clear, haunting voice with sparse, trip hop beats from Sanborn, the group has broad cross genre appeal. For the last several months they’ve been playing sold out shows across the country and recently logged an excellent Tonight Show appearance.

The Austin show was originally slotted to go down at the Parish, but it moved to Emo’s and rapidly sold out the big room. “This is gonna be the biggest show we’ve ever played that’s, like ours,” Heath said before the show. “It’s wild,” she added. Heath and Sanborn both seem at bit amazed and genuinely humbled at the pace of the group’s rise. They took a break from setting up their merch table to chat briefly before the show.

Music Source: When you were working on this album did you know you had something special or has this been sort of a surprise to you that things have taken off in the way they have?

Sanborn: We felt really good about it the minute we started working together. But I think every time you do that you don’t really know. Just because you like something doesn’t mean a lot of people are going to like something. But I think from the beginning we were both really personally satisfied with what we were doing. We honestly hoped that it would translate. We didn’t think it was going to be like this. This is all very surprising. But we had faith, I think, that it would be at least a living.

I read that when you were recording this album you did some of your vocals in a closet.

Meath: Yeah, in Nick’s closet.

So this was totally a bedroom project.

Sanborn: One hundred percent. Well, bedroom and hallway, we also used the hallway. But yeah, we did the whole thing in my house. Almost all of it in my bedroom…. At the end of “Coffee” you can hear a closet door opening and that’s her finishing the take and being like (makes a thumbs up sign). I just left it on because the more we started recording the more that the house sort of became a character on the record.

Let’s talk about the song “Hey Mami,” how did that come about?

Meath: Mostly thinking about my personal, various different reactions that I have to catcalling and how the philosophy is. Like, a lot of people say, “Just don’t do it, ever.” You know, the “stop telling people to smile campaign,” all of that stuff. Which I think is totally valid, but at the same time, I totally catcall dudes.

You do? What do you say.

Meath: Like,”Woooo!” Or “Hey, babe,” or “Nice shorts.” Like that sort of thing, so I realize that I was being really hypocritical. Sometimes … “Man, bless you!” from a dude when you walk by, feels kind of good versus the kind of threatening catcall that sometimes happens as well.

I know that a lot of people think this project is a big musical departure for you, Amelia, considering your background in a capella folk music, but I understand that you have pretty varied musical tastes.

Meath: It’s funny. I’ve been trying to figure out why that annoys me that people are always saying. “This is a departure for you. How is that transition?” And I think it’s because I’ve always been involved with all sorts of music. The idea of only sticking to one thing seems quite silly to me and I don’t think anyone does that anymore. Like Liars, for example.

Sanborn: Just the idea that the dudes in Liars only listen to angular guitar music. I think it’s just frustrating as a musician to be like, you guys all think we just like only listen to one kind of thing, then make a band that’s also that one kind of thing. Like we’ve both been in so many bands and they’ve all been wildly different. We both have genre A.D.D.