She Changed The Sound: Amelia Meath

March 25, 2019

When most people think of electronic-pop music, they probably don’t associate it with folk music. 

That is not the case for Amelia Meath. The singer-songwriter behind the internationally acclaimed synth-pop duo Sylvan Esso, Meath cut her musical teeth writing and performing sparse, tightly harmonized ballads in the band Mountain Man. In 2011 she offered musician and producer Nick Sanborn of Made of Oak the opportunity to remix the Mountain Man song “Play it Right” with an electronic flair. Three years later, that song, along with nine others penned and recorded as a duo in Sanborn’s Durham apartment, made up Sylvan Esso’s eponymous debut. 

Meath writes her songs “in the air,” while on walks around her neighborhood. She chooses not to limit her melody building with accompaniment or an existing beat, instead writing hooks and choruses with her voice and building in the instrumentation with Sanborn as the final step – a technique that harkens back to Western North Carolina’s ballad singing tradition. The appetite for the band’s sound is big, and Sylvan Esso has risen to fame with hit songs like “Hey Mami”, “Coffee”, and “Radio.” 

“Radio” is perhaps the greatest example of Meath's skill as a melody writer and thoughtful lyricist. The melody sounds conventional, but a closer listen reveals intricate melodic intervals accompanied by a driving and repetitive synth backdrop. The song’s lyrics serve up a harsh criticism of the music industry – attacking consumerism and mocking dated song-length guidelines for pop success in the chorus’ lyrics, “Slave to the radio, three point three oh (3:30).” Her roots in folk music – long recognized as a powerful tool for marginalized voices – are made most apparent when she criticizes the very genre she’s found success in. One can only imagine what Durham’s Amelia Meath has in store for us next.