The Song of the Year should be one that makes you remember exactly where you were and how you felt when it first graced your senses. It should conjure up even the smallest details of that original moment. For me, the first time I heard Sylvan Esso’s “Hey Mami” was on a cross-country drive on Highway 10, in that dreary stretch of Texas that has absolutely nothing to look at for eight hours. I popped in a pre-release stream of Sylvan Esso’s self-titled debut and was greeted to singer Amelia Meath’s gentle coo singing “Hey Mami, I know what you want Mami…Hey Mami, I know what you want Mami…” Her comfortably settling vocal intro felt similar to the album’s first single, “Coffee,” but about a minute and a half later, something happened. Producer Nick Sanborn dropped an explosive bass-boom to accompany Meath’s voice, and everything I thought I knew about Sylvan Esso up to that point was thrown out the window as my energy was rattled into motion and elation.
These are the beautiful and lasting moments in music, the ones you don’t expect, yet are everything you ever wanted—especially when considering that our Song of the Year almost didn’t come to fruition. Meath explains that “we wrote the song through e-mail, which was really lucky, ‘cause when I originally sent Nick the vocals, they got scrambled in different versions of the [GarageBand] software, so the timing was all off. Nick then remade the song from what he originally thought that it was and he gave it this wild time signature. Nick made that song.”
A funky time signature is exactly what makes “Hey Mami” so riveting. It’s an ambitious melding of bass-heavy electronica with layered vocal harmonies that manages to get both rockers and folk fans excited about an electronic sound. This is no easy task, considering that Meath and Sanborn were on the heels of more traditional folk rock acts themselves in Mountain Man and Megafaun, respectively. But Meath says that “simply stated, I was really excited about making people dance, and I always wanted to write songs that are catchy and poppy.”
Their hearts are certainly in the right place regarding their unique conversion from mountain-folk musicians to this new electro-pop hybrid.
“We’re putting electronic hearts in people and creating organic matter that’s electronic,” Meath says poetically, much like her lyrics on “Hey Mami” are a tongue-in-cheek diatribe on cat-calling—a two-sided one at that, where she explains that it’s “a discussion with myself about how sometimes a cat-call can feel really wonderful, and sometimes it feels really bad…and sometimes you just want to tell people on the street that YOU think that they’re beautiful.” This is like the Girl from Ipanema finally getting her chance to chime in.
Sylvan Esso’s music comes with a certain digital reality. It’s devoid of the oft-shallow feel of some electro-pop songs that are just about parties or typical relationship fodder. This maintains an earthiness that it takes a band from North Carolina to possess. The electronic production breathes along with Meath’s ranging vocals.
“Nick is a master of making humanity ring through his style and making it feel as if it’s human. You could always feel his hands on the electronic sounds,” Meath says.
Meath and Sanborn have a reverence for each other, and it makes Sylvan Esso’s music cohesive. Whether it’s on the soft and smooth lullabies of “Coffee” or on the explosive confluence of sonic elements that make “Hey Mami” our Song of the Year, they’ve found a formula for something more than just that “catchy and poppy” music Meath mentioned earlier. They’ve tastefully expanded their traditional musical repertoires by embracing the prevalence of electronica, and the result is bold and beautiful music.