Sylvan Esso’s Recording Studio, Betty’s, Encourages Music Community in North Carolina : NPR
Shervin Lainez/Shervin Lainez
In the spring of 2018, Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn of electro-pop band Sylvan Esso bought a wooded property in North Carolina. They had a vision of space, which they named Betty’s after Sanborn’s grandmother. It would become a recording studio, the kind they had always wanted: a bright base for the Triangle’s famous collaborative music scene and the friends they had made along the way. And if you ask the right person, Betty also starts to look like an aviary.
“I developed an intimate relationship with the very specific nature there,” songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jenn Wasner of Flock of Dimes told WUNC. “The bird scene is very crucial.”
“We have a bluebird,” confirms Meath, sitting in the backyard of the studio one sunny March morning. “And seven male red cardinals hanging around, which I really like. We just had a pair of mourning doves, which really excites me. And at nine in the morning, everyday, crows come in.”
Meath and Sanborn started looking for a studio several years ago, after 2017 And now, the brilliant sequel to the duo’s 2014 self-titled debut album. They cast a wide net, considering a church, office buildings and suburban McMansions in their search. Eventually, this hunt led them down a rural road outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina to a house with a garage that they have since turned into a recording studio. The space is secluded yet spacious, and by design.
“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 the sound and that usually involves limiting the glass.”
At the main follow-up studio, which occupies the free-standing garage space, tall windows replace the old garage door. In its previous life, the building was used as a carpentry shop (“There was a John Deere tractor right there,” Sanborn says, pointing to the sound booth) but today the floor is covered in colorful Turkish rugs and carpets. a maze of ropes. On an incredibly pleasant day in North Carolina, sunshine and a feeling of kinetic spring fever flood the room. You can feel things happening here and how light, open, bright and airy music is created.
When we go outside and sit down, Meath unhooks his bird feeders and begins to fill 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 out of your own head,” she says, annotating her vision with her inverse. “The number of times I’ve been taken to a studio dungeon with an engineer who hates me…” she trails off. “Nobody should have to do that!”
“As soon as you remove making money from the top 10 list, a lot of possibilities open up,” says Sanborn. “If you want to rent a studio to make a record and you have all those specs, there are a lot of great studios in the area you can go to. This place is supposed to be a retreat and private, to help do something happen and be avant-garde as an artist.”
Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin of Watchhouse, who made occasional check-ins at Betty’s and filmed footage for a music video, echo that sentiment.
“The giant glass door makes it look like you’re not in a cavernous area. It opens your mind to why you’re there,” says Marlin. “Nick and Amelia are also very community minded and you feel that when you go to the studio and home. They have set it up to make you feel welcome and part of the community.”
Sylvan Esso burst into space for the first time with rehearsals for WITH, his 10-piece maximalist tour that traveled in 2019. Since then, more than two dozen artists have spent time recording at Betty’s. Some, like Wasner, are longtime locals and collaborators, while others have headed south to record. Last year’s impressive indie roster 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 that come to Betty’s find plenty of ways to get out of their heads: group stretches, walks in the woods, morning chats about the night before’s dreams, and evening roundtables.” rose and thorn”.
Shervin Lainez/Shervin Lainez
Wasner was the first artist to make an album at Betty. It was at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic – “Do you remember that really sad time when we were all realizing, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to go away by July? ‘” Sanborn recalled – and Wasner, raw from a recent breakup and newfound isolation, found refuge with Betty.
“It might sound a little corny, but it chose me in that the only reason I could make a record when I did was because of this place,” Wasner said of Head of Roses, his second album recorded in 2020 and released a year later. This kismet is sewn into Wasner’s experience of the area: In 2015, she moved from Baltimore to Durham, North Carolina, drawn to Sanborn, Meath and others she had met through music. More than a decade ago, Sanborn and Meath were also drawn to the area by the music – Sanborn from Milwaukee, Meath from New York: “I moved here because of Merge Records,” says Meath.
Meath and Sanborn’s experimental and community spirit also spawned a record label: Psychic Hotline, a partnership with the couple’s longtime friend and manager, Martin Anderson, which launched in 2021.
“We strive to always 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 upcoming collaborative singles. The first single, “Neon Blue”, was by Meath and Blake Mills, and since then Flock of Dimes have released two prismatic pop songs. Also in a few months, Sylvan Esso will be bringing music to downtown Durham, NC with a three-night performance at Historic Durham Athletic Park on the grounds where his hometown baseball team played, the Durham Bulls. They will share the poster with Moses Sumney, Little Brother, Yo La Tengo, Indigo De Souza and Mr Twin Sister. Two of the evenings are already sold out.
“[Betty’s] takes something that existed in the mind and gives it a physical place, which is really transformative,” Wasner says. “I think a lot of people can design a community, but Amelia and Nick are blessed to have the resources to really create the space and provide a hub for all of those forces to come together.”
Also the week after our conversation, another great band is about to start recording a new album in the studio: Sylvan Esso. That’s all they’ll say about 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,” says Meath. “It immediately felt that way. As soon as rehearsals for WITH started, I was like “oh my God”. We fill this place with amazing people who go beyond themselves and creativity all the time, and the place will continually renew itself.”