Thursday, June 20, 2024

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    Sylvan Esso’s recording studio Betty’s fosters a musical community in North Carolina

    In the spring of 2018, Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn of the electro-pop band Sylvan Esso purchased a wooded property in North Carolina. They had a vision for the space, which they named Betty’s after Sanborn’s grandmother. It would become a recording studio, the kind they’d always wanted: a light-filled home base for the Triangle’s famously collaborative music scene and the friends they’d made along the way. And if you ask the right person, Betty’s also begins to sound like an aviary.

    “I’ve developed an intimate relationship with the very specific nature there,” the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jenn Wasner of Flock of Dimes tells WUNC. “The bird scene is very crucial.”

    “We have one bluebird,” Meath confirms, sitting in the backyard of the studio, one sunny morning in March. “And seven red male cardinals that have been hanging out, who I really like. We just got a pair of mourning doves, which I’m really excited about. And at nine in the morning, every day, crows arrive.”

    Meath and Sanborn first began looking for a studio property several years ago, following 2017’s What Now, the shining sequel to the duo’s 2014 self-titled debut. They cast a wide net, considering a church, office buildings and suburban McMansions in their search. Eventually, this hunt led them down a rural route outside Chapel Hill, N.C. to a house with a garage that they’ve since transformed into a recording studio. The space is secluded but capacious, and intentionally so.

    “It’s very light and open and bright and airy,” Wasner says. “There’s space to exist very comfortably. With a lot of recording studios, they’re dark and cavernous and there’s an attempt to control sound and usually that involves limiting glass.”

    At the main tracking studio, which occupies the stand alone garage space, tall windows stand in place of the former garage door. In its previous life, the building was used as a woodshop (“There used to be a John Deere tractor right there,” Sanborn says, gesturing at the sound booth) but these days the floor is overlaid with colorful Turkish rugs and a maze of cords. On an outrageously nice day in North Carolina, sunshine and a kinetic spring fever feeling flood the room. You can sense that things happen here, and how light, open, bright and airy music gets made.

    When we step outside and sit down, Meath unhooks her bird feeders and begins refilling them.

    “We wanted to build a place that feels connected to the outside, where you’re welcomed and encouraged, instead of a place where you can’t get outside of your own head,” she says, annotating her vision with its inverse: “The amount of times that I’ve been led down into a studio dungeon with an engineer that hates me …” she trails off. “No one should have to do that!”

    “The minute you remove making money from the top 10 list of priorities, a lot of possibilities open up,” Sanborn says. “If you want to rent a studio to make a record and you have all these specs, there are plenty of great studios in the area that you can go to. This place is supposed to be a retreat and private, to help make a thing happen and to be artist-forward.”

    Watchhouse’s Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin, who have done some casual recording at Betty’s as well as filming footage for a music video, echo the sentiment.

    “The giant glass door makes it feel like you’re not in a cavernous zone. It opens up your mind to why you’re there,” Marlin says. “Nick and Amelia are also very communal-minded and you feel that when you go to the studio and house. They’ve set it up so you do feel welcome and part of the community.”

    Sylvan Esso first broke the space in with rehearsals for WITH, its maximalist 10-piece band tour that traveled in 2019. Since then, more than two dozen artists have spent time recording at Betty’s. Some, like Wasner, are locals and longtime collaborators, while others have made their way south to record. The impressively stacked indie roster from the past year includes Superchunk, Samia, Indigo De Souza, The Muslims, The Mountain Goats, Caroline Rose, and The Tallest Man on Earth, among others. Between recording sessions, Meath says, bands crashing at Betty’s find plenty of ways to get outside their heads: group stretching, walks around the woods, morning discussions of the previous night’s dreams and evening “rose and thorn” roundtables.

    .Shervin Lainez/Shervin Lainez

    Wasner was the first artist to make an album at Betty’s. It was early in the COVID-19 pandemic — “Do you remember that really sad period when we were all just realizing, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to go away by July?'” Sanborn remembers — and Wasner, raw from a recent breakup and newfound isolation, found refuge at Betty’s.

    “It may sound a little corny but it chose me in that the only reason I was able to make a record when I did was because of that place,” Wasner says of Head of Roses, her sophomore album recorded in 2020 and released one year later. This kismet is stitched into Wasner’s experience of the area: In 2015, she moved from Baltimore to Durham, N.C. drawn by Sanborn, Meath and others she’d met through music. More than a decade ago, Sanborn and Meath were also drawn to the area by music — Sanborn from Milwaukee, Meath from New York: “I moved here because of Merge Records,” Meath says.

    Meath and Sanborn’s experimental, community-minded spirit also generated a label: Psychic Hotline, a partnership with the pair’s friend and longtime manager Martin Anderson, that launched in 2021.

    “We strive to ever-expand our musical community; to welcome more voices and more perspectives,” Meath wrote in the label’s first press release, which announced a slate of forthcoming collaborative singles. The first single, “Neon Blue,” was by Meath and Blake Mills, and since then Flock of Dimes has released two prismatic pop songs. A few months from now, too, Sylvan Esso will breathe music back into downtown Durham, N.C. with a three-night performance at Historic Durham Athletic Park on the field where their hometown baseball team the Durham Bulls used to play. They’ll share the bill with Moses Sumney, Little Brother, Yo La Tengo, Indigo De Souza and Mr Twin Sister. Two of the nights are already sold out.

    “[Betty’s] takes something that existed in the mind and gives it a physical place to be, which is really transformative,” Wasner says. “I think that a lot of people can conceive of a community, but Amelia and Nick are fortunate enough to have the resources to actually create the space and provide a center for all of those forces to kind of coalesce around.”

    The week after our conversation, too, another big act is set to begin recording a new album at the studio: Sylvan Esso. That’s all they’ll say on the subject of their own new music, for now, but it’s clear they’re excited about the future.

    “I thought we were going to have to really work to break it in, to [make it] feel authentic and real,” Meath says. “It’s immediately felt that way. The minute the WITH rehearsals began, I was like, ‘oh my God.’ We just fill this place with incredible people who are reaching beyond themselves and creativity all the time, and the place will continually renew itself.”


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