Music & Nightlife

Pop music isn’t just bubblegum to breakout Durham duo Sylvan Esso

Sylvan Esso performs at The Fillmore on Sunday night.
Sylvan Esso performs at The Fillmore on Sunday night.

The idea behind Durham-based indie pop duo Sylvan Esso’s sophomore album “What Now” was born out of the band having to follow up its successful 2014 debut – which topped best-of lists, enjoyed heavy airplay, and helped book 22 prominent music festivals.

As they worked on the record, they began seeing that morning-after metaphor of a low point of uncertainty that follows a period of prosperity reflected in the outside world.

“Like with most things, a philosophical idea, when you’re really delving into it, you start to see it mirrored around you,” says vocalist Amelia Meath, who plays The Fillmore Sunday with bandmate Nick Sanborn.

What started as a personal question applied to society and politics.

“The end cap of 2016 – which in itself was troubled with so many drones killing people, so many shootings, hundreds of young African American men killed every day – Trump getting elected was the real capper. It opened the (theme of the) album out to the real world, partially by coincidence, but also by design.”

The parallels weren’t always obvious.

“I believe if you’re doing art, more meanings appear once you’re done with it,” she adds.

Meath grew up in a liberal household where singing at the dinner table was the norm. Her mother was an audio producer for NPR. Her dad worked in children’s television and became a professional Santa Claus appearing on Coca-Cola merchandise, TV, and in parades instead of retiring. (“It was his version of getting a dog when I left for college,” she says.)

As a kid, she sang along to Foreigner on the radio, but she also learned about spreading cultural diversity as part of the Cambridge Revels, a musical theater group founded in 1971 that celebrates cultures through song, dress and dance.

“There was the gypsy revels and the old English revels,” she notes. With her hippie-folk background, it wasn’t a big leap for her to view pop music as a catalyst for social change.

“Our goal with the band is not to make black and white or simplistic music,” she says of Sylvan Esso. “Pop songs have a delicious set of rules, which is like folk music. It’s what I was raised in and I believe in it as a vehicle for change because people pay attention to it. If it’s something catchy, they will sing it.”

There are layers to “What Now’s” strange synth and found sounds, Meath’s unique vocals and detailed lyrics, heady themes and self-reflection wrapped up in joyful dance music.

The electronic sound is quite different than Meath’s other band, the female vocal trio Mountain Man, but she and Sanborn share folk roots. He was in the Durham psych-folk band Megafaun when they met in Wisconsin (he’s from Milwaukee).

Meath joined Sanborn in Durham five years ago to focus on Sylvan Esso and for a more manageable existence.

“I was living in Brooklyn, had just gotten off tour singing backup for Feist, where I made more money than I’d made in my entire life and thought, ‘Where do I go that a martini doesn’t cost $15,’ ” she says. “I own a house now. I’m fully there.”

Sylvan Esso

When: 8 p.m. Sunday.

Where: The Fillmore, 1000 NC Music Factory Blvd.

Tickets: $25.

Details: 704-916-8970; www.livenation.com

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