Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn’s latest venture fosters community and artistic expression — which were just what I needed this year.
Words and photographs by Garrett Bethmann
Last Saturday, October 15, the second annual Psychic Hotline Block Party kicked out the jams in and around music venue Cat’s Cradle, highlighting the tight-knit musical threads that run through prominent Durham music label Psychic Hotline. Saturday’s one-day music and art festival was an intimate celebration of the “artist-led enterprise,” as self-described on its website, that continues to grow in artistic expression and influence with each release.
The company was founded in 2021 by Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn of Sylvan Esso, alongside their manager Martin Anderson. But Meath and Sanborn have been scene stalwarts for over a decade and are arguably the area’s preeminent ambassadors to the national music conversation. The duo’s status has been elevated by a cadre of Grammy nominations, headlining tours and collaborations with bands like Local Natives and Real Estate.
I’ve been following Meath and Sanborn — as well as their friends that weave through their art, like Phil Cook, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, Joe Westerlund and Jann Wesner — since their earliest days. 10 years ago, less than a year after I had graduated college in Virginia, I was a single man setting out for a new life on the West Coast. I blared the heady offerings of Sanborn’s past project, Megafaun, as I pondered the unknown paths that lay ahead of me. I returned this summer from the wayward coast with my wife, a married man looking to plant roots in the Piedmont. I sang the sweet stylings of Amelia Meath’s newest project, The A’s, to comfort us as we wondered how we were going to create a life in a place we’d never been.
I’ve always found a sense of spiritual direction in their art, like musical tarot cards pulled to help guide me through my current situation. So what guidance would the cards provide at Psychic Hotline?
Since the shelter-in-place shock of Covid, I hadn’t seen a live concert in over a year, and during that time my desire for the community had atrophied. What was once a foundational passion and part of my social identity had turned into something that felt unnecessary and exorbitant to my life. But as I walked into the mid-afternoon party, splashed by the thumping sound bath of house music ricocheting off the walls outside Cat’s Cradle, I began to feel an old, almost forgotten feeling: excitement for live music.
The first pour of melodic elixir to fill my empty spiritual cup came from the whiskey-tinged confessions of Durham’s Loamlands. I was then rapt to the fuzzy jazz scratches of Quetico and moved in harmony with its jangled beats. I had drawn an upright Star card and was experiencing an elevated sense of rejuvenation from the music moving through me.
Sanborn and Meath have touted Psychic Hotline as an artist-driven endeavor where creative liberty is a paramount and an open door policy of community invites collaboration. Even with a notable roster of national acts playing, like Bartees Strange, Lambchop and Hand Habits, there certainly wasn’t the usual separation of performer and fan that usually happens at events like this — and it underscored the low-key, block party vibe. The “green room” was just a table on the venue’s loading dock with artists mingling with friends and fans alike with relaxed ease.
I love watching artists vibe with live music as fans themselves. I watched as Sanborn was drawn to the percussive meditations of friend Joe Westerlund like a moth to a flame. Meath watched Meg Duffy of Hand Habits with hushed exuberance, intently listening with her head tilted to the side. I saw a woman rocking neon braids and orange moon boots dancing happily in the crowd before Asheville musician Indigo De Souza’s DJ set. Turns out, it was actually De Souza herself, basking happily in the communal energy like everyone else.
In the evening, Meath and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig took the stage as The A’s and performed the most beautiful set of avant-folk lullabies I’d ever heard. There was a warmth of support from the fans that was surpassed only by the duo’s friends and collaborators who lined the seats. These musicians have performed on the biggest stages for the biggest crowds around the world, though it seemed they were most fulfilled performing for their friends and community in this intimate setting. We had all pulled an upright Lovers card, our union with one another had been complete and supportive in beautiful moments of music throughout the day.
Psychic Hotline provided an incredibly earnest day of music that gave both artists and fans a space to commune and revel in artistic expression. That alone had overflowed my cup and I was thankful for the spiritual buzz.
But even more so, in the latest example of Sanborn and Meath’s music providing me a sense of guidance from their music, I was inspired to create a community for my wife and myself where live music and art are a unifying force. The next day, I started brainstorming and reached out to new friends to figure out how we could create our own concert experiences.
I needed that kind of spiritual direction as I’ve begun this new life in the Piedmont, and it’s exactly the kind of artistic guidance Psychic Hotline hopes to give to its community. Turns out, Psychic Hotline dealt me a pretty good hand Saturday, it was all right there in the cards.
Garrett Bethmann is a writer and educator who has recently settled into the Piedmont region. He’s spent the last 10 years writing about music and the outdoors. You can find some of his work on his blog Boogixote.com.