In the video game Sword & Sworcery, players solve various puzzles to reveal concealed “sylvan sprites,” which, once awakened, float slowly into the sky while singing an ethereal tune. The forest creatures are also the namesake of the first part of Sylvan Esso’s band name, while the “esso” portion is “a beautiful word to sing marking time,” says lead vocalist Amelia Meath.
Meath has a voice that’s as lovely as a sprite’s. Delicately smoky as well as prismatic, it’s a fascinating counterpart to the intricate arrangements of electronic beats and various synth effects created by Nick Sanborn, the other half of Sylvan Esso.
Formed in Durham, S.C., in 2013, Sylvan Esso is entirely unlike Meath and Sanborn’s other projects. Meath is one-third of the folksy female group Mountain Man—the defining element of which is three-part vocal harmonies sung a cappella. Sanborn is the bassist in psych-folk band Megafaun. “Together, we’re more than the sum of our parts,” Meath says. “For us, it was very unexpected. Like, oh wow, if we put our two sounds together, they make sense in a completely different way than they ever did before.”
Like the sprites waiting to be found in Sword & Sworcery, Sylvan Esso’s self-titled debut album—released earlier this month—is full of hidden secrets for the discerning listener. As a songwriter, Meath often alludes to other songs through various borrowed lyrical hooks and syllable schemes.
Peppering her lyrics with these references is a throwback to some of Meath’s earliest experiences with music. “I grew up in a very musical family,” she says. “And the thing that would make me most excited when I was listening to the radio was when I could hear someone reference another song in their own song … and that would get me so excited because I was like, ‘Oh, I know this history ... I’m in this special club.’ ”
One particularly striking instance where a borrowed lyric adds an additional level of meaning to a song is on “Coffee,” in which Meath uses the symbol of contra dancing—a cyclical style of group dancing with rotating partners and set movements—to illustrate the shifting romantic partners one has in life.
The song, Meath says, is about the love that comes after the “gigantic and huge” first love. “You realize that you’re having all the same feelings that you had with your first love, but they’re for someone else,” she says. “And that really makes you question, was the first time real? Is this time real? [Does] the fact that I’ve fallen in love before cheapen this love that I have right now?”
So in “Coffee,” when Meath sings, “My baby does the hanky panky”—from “Hanky Panky,” written in 1963 by The Raindrops—she seems to also be saying that when we begin to “dance” with someone, we’re falling in step with that person, romantic history and future included, but all that matters is the present moment.
“By referencing another song, you’re immediately shifting the viewpoints,” Meath says. “If you say a line from another song, it includes everything that that song once said.”
The Urban Lounge, 241 S. 500 East
Tuesday, May 27, 9 p.m.
$16 in advance, $18 day of show