“This is what I remember: two twin beds covered in my grandmother’s quilts, four windows opening out to the ghosts in the dark green Virginia forest, and a wooden crate of my parents’ vinyl one room away from my father’s decaying, prized, ancient Steinway upright.”
Skylar Gudasz offered up this childhood memory recently to D.C. blog The Vinyl District. It’s a splendidly intimate window into the enchanting work of a singer-songwriter whose balance of musical talent and artistic vision comes along only once in a very blue moon.
A native of Ashland, Va., Gudasz started playing flute at age 5. Her brother taught her to play guitar in elementary school, and she began learning piano on her own a few years later. “With guitar and piano, I was too impatient with authority to listen long enough to learn how to properly play, so I worked my own way through them.” Such individualism helped shape her distinctiveness as a songwriter from the outset.
Gudasz studied theater and creative writing at the University of North Carolina, then stuck around in Chapel Hill and Durham post-college after connecting with some of the area’s most promising young musicians. Early work with the likes of producer Jeff Crawford (Old Ceremony) and bassist Casey Toll (Mount Moriah) resulted in the 2011 EP “Two Headed Monster” and a follow-up of B-sides. Together, they served notice of a major new voice in the N.C. Triangle’s music community.
It didn’t take long for renowned Chapel Hill producer Chris Stamey to also be drawn to Gudasz’s flame. Shortly after his ambitious Big Star Third collective began playing tribute concerts to the legendary Southern pop band at special events around the country and overseas, he brought Gudasz aboard, introducing her to a cast that included Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and the Posies’ Ken Stringfellow.
From Barcelona to Sydney to London, audiences flocked to hear marquee cameos from the likes of Jeff Tweedy, Cat Power and Ray Davies, but they often came away wowed by Gudasz’s turns in the spotlight. “Although she was unknown to the Big Star Third’s audiences, she’d sing a song such as ‘Thirteen’ or ‘Dream Lover,’ and her wonderful voice and unique phrasing quickly captured their attention,” Stamey remembers.
Back home in North Carolina, Gudasz began recording new material that would become “Oleander.” From bare-bones demos of songs written mostly on piano, she and Stamey gradually added strings, horns, winds, guitars and percussion to many tracks, tailoring the arrangements to the material while taking great care to leave the emotional core intact.
Sometimes the impact is immediate, as on the sardonically humorous “I’m So Happy,” which sets Gudasz’s naturally sweet vocals against stinging, bitter electric guitar textures. Elsewhere, the songs sneak up on you: The tender “I Want to Be With You in the Darkness” leans on minimal piano-and-vocal passages that ebb and flow between full-band crescendos. On “Kick Out the Chair,” grand orchestral swirls in the bridge give way to hushed drama in the final verse: “Every word you wrestled to the page I keep as company in quiet hours listening to the boards creak,” Gudasz sings.
If her previous EPs were early indicators of a young artist with a singular style and personality, “Oleander” is a full flowering of that potential, informed by the invaluable experiences she’s had since then. “Playing with Big Star’s Third gave me so many opportunities, gave me confidence,” she says. “It made me think bigger.”
A key figure in that leap forward was Stamey, who describes Gudasz as “a triple threat — a skilled singer, composer, and lyricist — with a background in both classical and pop music.” In the studio, he sought to capture her performances as directly as possible: “She took a deep breath, then played and sang her heart out.”
The result is “a very honest portrayal” of the artist, Stamey says. “This record doesn’t shout at you, like those radio divas; it reveals itself best in the wee small hours of the morning. If you make a space for it, it will reach out to you.”