“We realized that instead of being like a little house for our records, we could offer other artists their own work,” says Meath. Current Psychic Hotline artists include Phil Cook, Sanborn’s Dead Tongues, Made of Oak, and Meath Mountain Man’s folk trio.
This has led to a sometimes radical approach to trade within the label owned by the artist. Their contracts feature a standard line that encourages white artists to pay 5% of their income as repairs.
“We’re essentially building a capitalist empire while trying to figure out how to make capitalism feel better,” says Meath, fully aware of the conflict inherent there. But after nearly a decade as a recording artist, Sylvan Esso can at least define some of his own capitalist terms – as Meath puts it, “take the money we’ve made and push it in that direction, just to see what it does. “
Last year was meant to bring a much more traditional big step forward for the band, with an ambitious new album, Free love, and a tour to support it. They’ve made the most of a pandemic album release in all kinds of ways, from a national television appearance to CBS this morning filmed from a Durham rooftop to a home press tour. But it also took its toll. “Releasing the record during the pandemic was sadder than I thought, but how could it not be? Meath said. “I think I was sort of healing from that.”
Getting back on the road was cathartic, they say, and moving for audiences and artists alike. (“I cry pretty much every night,” Meath says) They don’t meet backstage, trying to avoid that kind of transactional interaction with their fans, but there’s still a connection. It’s especially easy to see when they perform “Free,” which Meath called the best song she’s ever written; Meath holds a small mirror in her hand and catches the stage lights with it, effectively shining the spotlight on just one audience member at a time as she sings.
After a year in which their audience existed entirely on social media, here they are in person, enlightened and singing (and crying) with them. “Seeing people react to it in a way that, at least to me, seems to have completely understood where it was coming from, for a song that is inherently so specific and personal… that was awesome,” said Sanborn. “That’s all I missed about playing shows in the first place.”
For Meath, the notion of whether or not people really understand their songs becomes complicated; she jokes that she is part of the “legion of little bitters,” artists who get frustrated when their lyrics are misinterpreted or read at a superficial level. “Maybe the group’s vanity is too successful,” she suggests. “What is, like, these are fun, light songs that are about really sad shit.” As a married couple making music together, Sylvan Esso would be an easy target for romantic dream projections between us and the world, or, as Meath puts it, “a cute, lovable band who loves life.” The reality, as with any marriage, is more complicated. Go to the right Durham restaurant on the right evening and you might find them in the middle of an argument (although, Meath adds, they usually resolve it by the time the entrees arrive).
But as they hit the road again to end their tour, it’s hard to deny the power of their creative partnership. “When it’s just the two of us, and there are no other variables, beyond audience, that’s our sweet spot,” Sanborn says of their current shows. And it is from this ideal point that they will continue to develop. Next May, they’ll make a year-long dream come true and perform for two nights in historic Durham Athletic Park, bringing Yo La Tengo and Little Brother, among others, to perform on the field where Durham Bull was filmed.
And as The Psychic Hotline and Betty grow older, there isn’t so much a plan for the future as there are generous hopes, which they talk about how you might do it for your child. “You put all these rules and ideas in place, and then you think you know what the outcome will be, but you’re usually not quite right,” says Sanborn. “With this place, we kind of saw it become what it wanted to be.”
Meath adds: “The thing that I have learned over and over again, being a creative person who works together, you cannot try to control her too hard because you end up crushing the creative impulses of people who are not you. . You create the environment, then you react to what grows.
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