Sylvan Esso turns pop music inside out. The group's electronic loops complement a sound that smashes up folk and electronica, sounding like little else out there. The group's self-titled debut album, released in 2014, is a spare, lovely treat, 10 whimsical, swirling songs that are slowly garnering a passionate, growing fan base.
The group's minimalism extends to its stage show, where the only flashing lights sit behind the duo. Though lead singer Amelia Meath does her share of dancing, there aren't any costume changes, backup dancers, or guitars beings switched out. This isn't a big show. The focus is on the music.
Fortunately, the music can hold its own. On one side of the stage, Meath sings, harmonizing with electronic versions of herself, as on the other side of the stage her co-creator, Nick Sanborn, pushes myriad buttons and toggles to create magical, unbelievably catchy loops that stick in listeners' minds for days afterward.
This is a band worth paying attention to. But it's also a band that has thought about the future of music — and just where it will fit into that future.
Pop music matters
Before becoming part of Sylvan Esso, Meath was a member of the folk band Mountain Man. While on tour, she met Sanborn, who was part of what she calls a "sad electronic hip-hop band." The two hit it off, became quick friends, and joined forces a few years later.
"I always wanted to make pop music, just because it’s a really fun genre to make, and it’s a genre that’s supposed to both be catchy and have an artistic value," Meath told me.
Indeed, Sylvan Esso (the album) isn't bubblegum pop. It's a mashup of everything Sanborn and Meath once were. It's synth beats and looping sounds calling back to Sanborn's electronic work. And it's also Meath's twanging voice murmuring lyrics like, "I have a phone that beeps/lets me know I'm not alone," harking back to her folk work.
Some purists might call making a pop album selling out, especially in an era when pop so utterly dominates the musical world. But Meath doesn't see pop the way many categorize it.
"People don't actually define pop music in the way it was meant to be defined. When you look at the root of pop music, it's popular," Meath explains. "The original popular music was rock 'n' roll. For some reason now, pop has a really dumbed-down definition, and I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s music that was meant to be listened to by a large group of people."
Sylvan Esso definitely hits that mark. At the band's Washington, DC, concert, the crowd danced and sang along to every word — just like at a typical pop concert.
Consumption of music is changing, but creation isn't
Meath's savvy extends to the uncertain future of her industry. She knows how many albums she's sold. And she knows how many times "Coffee" — the group's breakout single — has been played on Spotify (just under 15 million).
"A lot of people listen to our album through Spotify. It’s cool, because they do come to shows. It also means the only song they know is 'Coffee,' because someone they have a crush on put it on a playlist for them," she says. "The only thing that bums me out about it is that there’s a new kind of entitlement. I don’t think people understand that’s a pretty significant monetary sacrifice, if you think about it."
She went on to explain exactly how big of a financial hit she feels like she's taking for putting their work on Spotify. "The album is 10 tracks long. For every 10 tracks that are being played I should be getting 10 dollars, and that’s on the iTunes cheap side of things. In reality, I think I’ve made about $10k off of all our streaming stuff."
Meath says she understands that the consequences of putting her music on streaming platforms go both ways. The band has garnered far more of a fan base than it ever expected to in a very short period of time, and part of that is due to streaming.
Taking a financial hit to build that following may not be ideal, but Meath seems to think it's worth it. "My business is to determine how I want my music to be consumed without hurting people’s feelings or agreeing to a subpar situation."
But part of her comfort comes from the fact that to her, the money and the music are separate entities. "There are two very different things," she says. "There’s the industry, and then there’s art. From what I can see, everyone’s going to keep making art."
And Sylvan Esso is nothing if not artful. The album works from the first song to the last. It's constructed like an old-school album, gaining momentum as it goes, every song perfectly positioned. Sylvan Esso may be proving that pop can be smart, but it's also making catchy cool again.