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Sylvan Esso is all grown-up now

Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn of Sylvan Esso.Shervin Lainez

As pop duo Sylvan Esso keeps getting bigger, vocalist-songwriter Amelia Meath has found room for some personal indulgences. When she takes the call for a phone interview one recent afternoon, she’s in the green room at a Dallas venue, scrolling through a selection of lawn ornaments online.

“I started to do this thing now where I realize I’m an adult and I can do things — like buy pink lawn flamingos if I want them. And in this case I decided that I do,” Meath says, with the good humor and down-to-earth earnestness that mark her affect.

If Meath’s lawn in Durham, N.C. — where the Cambridge native has relocated along with her musical partner in Sylvan Esso, Nick Sanborn — starts filling up with plastic flamingos, she will have earned it.


Sylvan Esso got its start a few years ago when Meath asked Sanborn — who at the time was playing in the Americana-flavored band Megafaun, alongside some former Bon Iver collaborators — to remix a track by Mountain Man, the vocals-forward folk trio she’d cofounded as an undergrad with fellow Bennington College students Molly Erin Sarlé and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig. The result came a few months too late for Mountain Man’s purposes, but it became the closing track on Sylvan Esso’s self-titled debut album, released in 2014.

The earthy sounds of Mountain Man evoke traditional images of the Green Mountain State and Meath’s upbringing in what she calls a “singing family,” whose members were annual participants in the solstice-themed Christmas Revels concerts in Cambridge. But Meath’s melodies are given context in Sylvan Esso with the electronic beats crafted by Sanborn.

If the duo’s debut was a bit more introspective, its 2017 follow-up, aptly titled “What Now,” is more densely packed with hooks and beats that pretty much insist you get out of your seat. It fueled a rapid ascent for the group. The record netted Sylvan Esso its first Grammy Award nomination (for best dance/electronica album) and other signifiers of mainstream success.


The duo’s triumphant performance on the first day of the Boston Calling festival last year felt like a big homecoming moment for Meath, but one senses there are greater milestones still in store. On its current tour, which brings the duo to Mass MoCA for a sold-out show Saturday, Sylvan Esso will headline shows at big-deal venues like the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, Calif., and Red Rocks Amphitheatre outside Denver. (Tickets remain for their April 4 date at the Strand in Providence.)

“Every time we’ve played a show somewhere it’s been twice as big as the last show we played there. It’s just been this constant linear progression,” Sanborn says, on a different phone call. “One of the cool things about this phase of our career is we’re getting to this point where all the opportunities we’re getting are big enough that our families really understand how big they are.”

Sylvan Esso is less than a year removed from the release of “What Now,” but its spring and summer touring is getting a boost from the release of a stand-alone single, “PARAD(w/m)E,” accompanied by an elaborate video for which Meath served as creative director and lead dancer.

Though packed with sticky melodies and propellant rhythms, the group’s aesthetic encompasses a sort of bespoke EDM in which the beats and sonic veneer are deliberately imperfect.


“When I hear an off-kilter drumbeat or something that sounds like it’s been mis-sliced,” Sanborn says, “those speak about intention to me, they speak about choices. I like being reminded that a human being was interacting with a machine to accomplish a goal.”

The “idea behind Sylvan Esso,” Meath says, is about “working with machinery to talk about the greater humanity of things.”

The defining example of this approach in the group’s catalog is “Radio,” a 3½-minute slice of perfect radio pop whose lyrics slash at the very idea of a hit single and whose sound reflects the physical imprint of the artists’ hands.

The song opens with two electronic patterns originally sculpted by Sanborn. To get the final version, Sanborn recorded these parts to a vintage Otari reel-to-reel tape recorder that had been used for years by Meath’s mom, a public radio reporter. They then recorded the results as Meath pressed on the reels with her hands during playback, altering the pitch and creating a watery, distorted effect.

The result lives between words — both digital and analog, exact and imprecise. The song’s lyrics reflect a similar state of ambivalence. Meath sings: “I’ve got the moves of a TV queen/ Folk girl hero in a magazine/ Faking the truth in a new pop song/ Don’t you wanna sing along?”

The listener can contemplate the tensions woven into the song’s lyrical and sonic fabric — or just dance.

“It’s mostly eviscerating me,” Meath says, “about my wish to be able to write a perfect pop song and to be on the radio.”


As the stakes continue to rise, Meath and Sanborn are conscious of their desire not to “ruin it,” she says, as new pressures come into play.

“The bigger things get, you have a lot more opinions being thrown at you all the time and you have to remember that the only reason you are where you are is because of the decisions you and your original team made,” she says. “But there’s no one around telling us to change who we are. And the only reason we got here is by being ourselves.”

That’s already proven enough to supply the plastic, pink flamingos of Meath’s choosing. And as Sylvan Esso makes itself even more comfortable in the pop-music firmament, there could be greater trophies still to come.

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.