“We realized that instead of it just being like a little house for just our records, we could regift other artists owning their own work,” says Meath. Current Psychic Hotline artists include Phil Cook, the Dead Tongues, Sanborn’s Made of Oak, and Meath’s folk trio Mountain Man.
That has led to an occasionally radical approach to commerce at the artist-owned label. Their contracts carry a standard line item that encourages white artists to pay 5% of their earnings as reparations.
“We’re basically building a capitalistic empire while trying to figure out how to make capitalism feel better,” says Meath, fully aware of the inherent conflict there. But after nearly a decade as recording artists, Sylvan Esso can at least set some of their own capitalistic terms—as Meath puts it, “taking the money that we’ve made and pushing it in this direction, just to see what that does.”
The past year was supposed to bring a much more traditional big leap forward for the band, with an ambitious new album, Free Love, and a tour to support it. They made the most of a pandemic album release in all kinds of ways, from a national TV appearance on CBS This Morning filmed from a Durham rooftop to a stay-at-home press tour. But it took a toll too. “Putting the record out during the pandemic was sadder than I thought it was going to be, but how could it not be?” says Meath. “I think I’ve been kind of healing from that.”
Getting back on the road has been cathartic, they say, and emotional for audience and performers alike. (“I cry pretty much every night,” says Meath) They don’t do backstage meet and greets, 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 has 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 a spotlight on a single audience member at a time while she sings.
After a year in which their audiences existed entirely on social media, there they are in person, illuminated and singing (and crying) along with them. “Seeing people react to that in a way that, at least to me, seems like they completely got where it was coming from, for a song that is inherently so specific and personal…that was awesome,” Sanborn says. “This is the whole thing I missed about playing shows in the first place.”
For Meath, the notion of whether …….