Sylvan Esso, a duo that casts buoyant folk melodies over beds of skittering synthesizers, formed almost by accident. Singer Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn were in separate bands when Sanborn was tasked with creating a beat-forward remix of a song from Meath's folk group, Mountain Man. That remix proved so rewarding for them both that they decided to form their own band, continuing to meld Meath's playful yet commanding voice with Sanborn's minimalist beat textures. The collaboration yielded their self-titled album, Sylvan Esso, which debuted in March to critical acclaim.
The Week spoke to Sanborn via email about jazz, album themes, and discovering rap music. Below, six songs that were "game-changers" for him early in life:
1. Autechre, "Dropp"
"I first heard this when I was about 15, and it just completely changed how I thought about electronic music. There's this gigantic, distorted, aggressive drum part right up front in the mix, and you have to listen through it to hear the haunting melody beneath. Like most nerds in their teens, I was in a phase of listening to music for the virtuosity and technique instead of the emotional content, and Autechre's Ep7 was one of the records that reminded me it didn't have to be a choice — that virtuosity should be the thing that allows you to more fully express yourself, rather than a crutch to hold up lazy material."
2. They Might Be Giants, "Ana Ng"
"I got hooked on They Might Be Giants early, and Lincoln was actually the third cassette of theirs I bought. 'Ana Ng' remains one of my favorite songs to this day. John Linnell has such a great way of writing songs no one has ever written before, and he can pull emotional resonance out of almost anything. This song is such a perfect example of why he's so great: Who else could write a pop song that deals with the existentially terrifying possibility that your soulmate was born on the opposite side of the Earth?"
3. Prefuse 73, "Choking You"
"I was born in '83, I'm very white, and from Wisconsin, so I took kind of a different route into rap than most of my friends, coming to it way later than most, and through electronic music. Prefuse 73's first record, Vocal Studies & Uprock Narratives, was one of the records (along with Aesop Rock's Float, Mos Def's Black on Both Sides, Atmosphere's Lucy Ford EPs, and a couple others) that gave me a doorway into hip hop. I know it's weird, but he was my entry point into instrumental hip hop, starting a domino effect that led me to Dilla, Madlib and the rest. "Choking You" is maybe my favorite of his, off his breakup record One Word Extinguisher. A big idea I took from that record — that if you wrote an instrumental album with a specific, personal storyline in mind it would ultimately be something that other people could apply their own story to, even without details of your life — is one I still think about all the time today."
4. Thelonious Monk, "Body & Soul"
"I thought my future would be spent as a struggling jazz bassist when I was in high school. Then I graduated and realized in order to even have the possibility of staying competitive I'd have to practice an unthinkable number of hours a day, and as I was getting both lazier and more interested in other genres there was just no way that was going to happen. I'm still a huge listener though, and even had a weekly vinyl jazz spin for a few years (mostly to justify my record collection). Thelonious Monk has always been my favorite pianist, and his rendition of 'Body & Soul' off Monk's Dream has somehow surpassed most of his better-known hits in my personal life play count. It's just so personal and beautiful, I could listen to it over and over and over. If you haven't seen it, you should definitely check out the documentary on his tour of Europe, Straight, No Chaser."
5. Madvillain, "Accordion"
"Possibly my favorite hip hop track of all time. What can be said about it that hasn't been said? No hook, no bullshit, just a little less than two minutes of verses that no one but MF DOOM could have written or delivered, on top of one of the greatest Madlib beats of all time."
6. Four Tet, "Hands"
"This is the beautiful first track on Rounds, which was the first Kieran Hebden record to really hit me when I was young. Now his Four Tet albums on a whole are probably the electronic music I've listened to the most, and I've also gotten very into his work with the late Steve Reid. I'm always attracted to electronic music that feels undeniably human, and he's kind of the king of that. Such an inspiring dude in so many ways."
(This interview was condensed and edited by Samantha Rollins.)
Sylvan Esso is out now on Partisan.
Watch the video for "Coffee" below:
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