Story by Sandra Davidson
There’s something special about Durham’s arts scene. If you’ve followed our 50 for 50 project, you know that by now. Sylvan Esso, the Durham-based electronic pop duo, knows that too.
Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, who make music as Sylvan Esso, moved to North Carolina five years ago. Back then, Sylvan Esso was just beginning. Today they are arguably the Bull City’s most widely known band. Their songs and music videos have been streamed millions of times online, and last November their sophomore album “What Now” received a Grammy nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album. Two days before they debuted a new single on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Amelia and Nick met me at their studio for a conversation about why they choose to make North Carolina their home.
Where did you each grow up?
Amelia Meath: I grew up in Cambridge, MA.
Nick Sanborn: I grew up in Madison, WI.
What brought you both down here?
Nick: I have been touring for most of my adult life, and this was the only place I’d ever been where I immediately felt like it was a place that I could live. I’ve never thought that about any other place I’ve been on tour. I immediately liked it. I think it’s because it’s so much like Wisconsin. The people are very similar.
I started playing with the band Megafaun because we knew each other from Wisconsin, so I started coming down here four or five times a year for work, and then eventually just decided I wanted to stop flying here all the time and moved.
Amelia: I had just gotten done playing backup for Feist and was living in Brooklyn. We had just started the band, and I came to visit and liked it and moved here for six months. That was five years ago.
Why is this a good place to do your work?
Nick: A lot of things make North Carolina a perfect place for a musician. The cost of living being low and service jobs being a-plenty is the crucial bedrock. I try to imagine if I had grown up somewhere else where it wasn’t possible to have a job that you left all the time and a place that you lived and a practice space. Being able to get a practice space is so crucial and so impossible in other places on a bartender’s or a delivery driver’s earnings. In that way this place is kind of perfect. That’s all really doable. But it’s more than that.
Amelia: The scene in the Triangle and in North Carolina is really, really supportive. I think everyone’s just deeply excited about what everyone else is doing and whenever anyone has a show usually at least half of us show up.
Nick: [All of] that has drawn this insane group of musicians here, all of whom are working together all of the time, so there’s this bed of inspiration that keeps bouncing back and forth and careening off the walls. Then the other part [is] the average person here goes to a lot of events a year and wants to! That’s super rare [and] I don’t think people who have grown up here get how rare [it] is, but that’s just a part of what everybody does. If something sounds like a good idea people will pay and go to it, which sounds like a low bar but—
Amelia: —It’s rare.
Nick: So rare and so wonderful and it means all of these things can happen that otherwise wouldn’t be able to happen. It means that the birth of a thing is so much easier, that it doesn’t have to go through these stages of pulling teeth…of dragging people out to things. There’s this great element to the culture here where everybody wants to help something good happen and does so non-competitively.
Amelia: And there’s a lot of other stuff going on as well as music. We’ve got ADF. We’ve got Full Frame. We’ve got a number of theatre companies. There’s a plethora of different artistic pursuits happening which is so refreshing, and I know all the people that do those things. It’s very different when the scene is so small that you can see everyone at the farmers market and say, “Hey! Hi!”
Amelia: Here’s the thing...if we’re home and someone asks us to do something, we’re going to do it. It’s so fun to be involved. I wrote a song on Phil [Cook]’s record with him that’s coming out soon. I got to sing with Hiss Golden Messenger a bunch. It’s just a different way of hanging out with friends.
Nick: I think there’s this magical thing where that stuff’s just all happening all the time, which is a thing people associate with much larger cities, but it’s constant here. We started this weird little studio house like a year ago, and it’s been full pretty much since we first set up a microphone in it.
Amelia: And people have started coming here to make records from out of town and working with musicians that are here, which is also really exciting.
Nick: It just feels like this constantly stirring thing. It’s always feeding us. Right when we moved here I put on this show at Duke Performances. It was a show [with] all my friends who tended to be musicians in other people’s bands. We did this entirely collaborative show where we each backed up each other [and] rotated the front man. I can’t imagine having done that in any other place that I’ve lived and having it be that easy. Aaron Greenwald from Duke Performances it the only reason that show happened!
Amelia: We love you Aaron Greenwald!
Nick: Yeah thanks Aaron! I wouldn’t have even thought to do that had he not sought me out and demanded that I put a show together. I think that set a tone for my relationship with the entire creative community here. It felt like I was stepping into a place where not only did everybody want cool things to happen, but they wanted to be a part of them, and if they weren’t happening they came and knocked on your door and made sure you came out and did something. That’s just not the case everywhere.
How can North Carolina better support artists?
Nick: I know this isn’t you guys but those film subsidies going away were a huge deal. Like most musicians, I’ve worked in a lot of film myself and have a ton of friends who work in film. It’s just one of those no-brainers. It pays for itself so many times over. I never understand why states take them away because they bring in so much business for a creative class and all that does is generate income for everybody. That would be a gigantic win for North Carolina’s creative force. Look at other states where that’s happening right now! New Mexico is having a film renaissance because their film subsidy [went] up. They gave film companies tax breaks and [had] the arrival of Meow Wolf. All it took was these two pieces to get in motion to enable an entire group of creative people to bring back entire sections of a town.
Amelia: And [it involved] people who wouldn’t have necessarily been creative in the first place, and I think that’s the thing that makes me really excited when I think of a utopian North Carolina. Art is created by people who have time, and time is only available to those who can afford to have it. The more people we can give time to, the more art we’ll create.
Nick: Which trickles into everything. It’s all-intersectional. The affordability of real estate and the cost of living affects the creative class anywhere. [In] Durham right now the rents are going up like crazy. If I moved here now, it’s not a place that I would be able to do the thing that I’m talking about.
Why do you believe public funding for the arts is important?
Nick: Why do you think Google is here? I think a thriving arts scene makes a city a desirable place to go and live and start a business. Where do you want to live? What do you want to be happening in the place that you live? Do you want everybody just to wake up and go to work and go home? What would be the purpose of living in a city? Why do I want to tell people that this is a great place?
Amelia: It’s the food. It’s the music. It’s the people.
Nick: It’s the things that are happening. It’s the energy of the city.
Amelia: Art is enriching [and] Durham has always been full of amazing art makers.