Nick And Amelia Tell The Sylvan Esso Story

May 18, 2020

The WITH tour wrapped up at the Durham Performing Arts Center.
Credit Graham Tolbert

They are a Grammy-nominated duo of musical magpies. The shared nest of Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn is woven with treasures from ambient, Appalachian gospel, EDM, post-rock, folk-pop and trap music. Yet Sylvan Esso is anything but patchwork. 

While they have characterized their collaboration as an argument, Meath and Sanborn clearly have no trouble dissolving tension between genres. "It was kind of like opening a pomegranate when all the seeds fall out,” muses Meath. “When you break open our songs, you realize that there are so many different elements that we've been stacking on top of each other to create the feeling."

The concoction, while crowd-pleasing, challenges genre-zealots to reconsider. Bluegrass fans may appreciate Sanborn’s jerky interpretations of the ballad form. Meanwhile, Meath invites dancehall crowds to follow her sometimes-lagging rhythms and try out some new choreography.

Beyond Sylvan Esso: Listen to a sampling of Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath's other work

Because of all these outside influences, Sylvan Esso was always a marriage grounded in community. (And yes, the duo is also a sanctified couple). This year, however, Meath and Sanborn invited their respective collaborators to join together. The product is WITH, a symphonic re-imagining of Sylvan Esso.


Playing live with eight friends, including some local favorites, Sanborn describes the collaboration as a rediscovery of their own music. Meath describes the process of that rediscovery simply, “The song remains the same in that it’s talking about the same things, but it’s getting up the hill in a different way.”

Sanborn is on display behind-the-scenes of the concert film of WITH. He moves from conductor to collaborator without hesitation. He enthusiastically relinquishes catchy bass lines to a bass clarinet. Meanwhile, Meath gives feedback through movement — on stage she commands the band and audience in slicked-back hair and dressed in a semi-transparent pink marshmallow suit. She admits, "I’ve tried to choreograph things, but I find it's more exciting if you just let it flow."

Meath and Sanborn moved to Durham in 2013
Credit Elizabeth Weinberg

In talking with host Frank Stasio, the duo explore their individual origin stories. Meath remembers her struggles with dyslexia and learning to move in order to think.

Sanborn reflects on learning the piano from his father and the magnetism of live performance. He went on to shuffle between instruments in his first bands, "I was like a really dull Swiss Army knife. There were a lot of things I could do, and none of them were that great." He goes on to consider the way ego and performance figured into the development of his art, “I felt like I needed to have something where I was in control of its destiny, where I was responsible if it didn’t work out. And, if it did work out, I was also responsible. That’s what drew me back to performing electronic music.” 

Now building their own studio in Chapel Hill, Meath and Sanborn consider their shared visions and ways to offer each other room to grow. Looking back on their years together, Meath realizes that the dynamic has changed from when they first started making music: “We’re both doing all jobs at the same time.”
 

The whole WITH band includes (not in order) Meg Duffy, Dev Gupta, Matt McCaughan, Molly Sarlé, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, Adam Schatz, Jenn Wasner and Joe Westerlund
Credit Graham Tolbert