Local artist Skylar Gudasz released her first full-length studio album, "Oleander," at Cat's Cradle last Friday. As a University of North Carolina Chapel Hill alum now living in Durham, Gudasz has hometown roots. She is best known for her smoky voice and distinctive sound. The Chronicle's Kirby Wilson spoke with Gudasz on the phone about her first album, the meaning behind her lyrics, and what it's like being a local artist.
The Chronicle: The thing that really stuck out to me about “Oleander” was your focus on travel. In song after song, you sing about transportation. Why was this theme so important to you?
Skylar Gudasz: I feel like distance and travel are definitely a huge part of the record. Partly that is because I was doing a lot of traveling. I was just starting to tour and really go around the world at the time I was writing those songs. That was weighing on my mind, what was so compelling about traveling and being as far as possible from everything you know and why that was something I wanted. So that was definitely something i wanted to explore. And that idea of exploration, to take the cue from the song “Ships,” I was very taken for a long time about the Antarctic explorers. What would make them want to go so far from home?
TC: It’s funny that you mention distance as well, because you depict some pretty brutal, yet very relatable relationships. I was particularly interested in how you focused on the non-romantic side of love in “I’ll Be Your Man” and “I Want To Be With You In The Darkness.” Why does that side of intimacy pique your curiosity?
SG: I think that relationships are multifaceted. I think it’s rare that you have a relationship that’s strictly platonic or exactly one thing or the other. And that [platonic] relationships are just as fulfilling and just as wrought with complexity as a romantic relationship can be. Especially living in the patriarchy, women especially, even though we are living in 2016, there is still this huge underlying pressure for women to get married and be defined—and it is true for men, too—by their relationship status. That’s really not a truthful depiction of what people’s complete lives are.
TC: You grew up in Virginia, went to UNC Chapel Hill and live in Durham. How has living in the South, and perhaps more specifically, the Triangle influenced your music? You sound like a feminist. Has it been hard to be a musical feminist in the South?
SG: I’d say definitely not in the Triangle. There are so many awesome outlets for the arts down here. I think it’s probably equally hard and easy to be a feminist anywhere. And like I said when I said patriarchy, those are things that are just ingrained in the way our society is. Institutional oppression is across the board. I don’t know if that’s specifically being in the South. I’m sure if I had more coffee, I could talk about it.
TC: Who are your biggest currently-recording influences?
SG: I really love Laura Marling. Kurt Vile I’m a fan of, though I sort of don’t know why. I’m very compelled by the tones on his last record, and I loved all the sounds that he captured. Lyrically, he’s not always there for me. Lucinda Williams is amazing and continues to do fantastic work. Gillian Welch is another current recording artist that leaves me floored every time she releases new work.
TC: Side note: are you a vinyl fan?
SG: Oh, absolutely! How about you?
TC: Yeah, definitely! And that’s big on the campus, so I think people will be interested to know that.
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SG: Definitely, definitely. Actually, my record player is in the back of my car right now. I need to go get it fixed. I’m a huge vinyl fan. “Oleander” isn’t out on vinyl yet, but it’s going to come out on vinyl.
TC: ...Speaking of genre, this record is sort of hard to pigeonhole into one genre. There are classical ballads, twangy beach bum overtones, and even on “I’m So Happy I Could Die,” there’s a little hip-hop percussion.
SG: Yep, that’s totally a drum machine.
TC: [Laughs]. Yeah, so when so many artists try to stick to one sound, why do you find that less appealing?
SG: That’s really interesting. I don’t really have an answer to your question, but that is something I think about a lot. Because you have artists who will make a record and people will totally get into that record, and then they’ll make the next record and people will get mad at them for sounding completely different. And I totally get that as a fan, but then I think about it from the musician’s perspective. They’re just on the artistic journey and they’re just trying to experiment with what sounds true to them.
TC: What kind of backing band can the Friday Cat's Cradle audience expect? When I hear “Oleander,” I picture...30 people standing with you onstage.
SG: I know! if it were financially viable, I would totally have 30 people onstage. We’ve got a pretty typical five piece rock band with bass, keyboard, organ, electric guitar and drums. And we’re gonna have a violinist and cellist, as well.
TC: Are you going to bust out the flute? I read that was your main instrument.
SG: Oh no, the secret is out! [Laughs] I think that the flute might make an appearance.
TC: Some of your songs, like “Kick out the Chair,” with its grand, dramatic piano and building instrumental section, have an almost theatrical cadence to them. I’m a theater kid.
SG: Oh really? Me, too! That was my major.
TC: Wow, cool! So has Broadway influenced your songs at all?
SG: Surely! I mean I did all kinds of theater and some musicals and definitely showtunes are a big part of my musical education.
TC: What was the first song on this record that you wrote? The last? Which did you find hardest to write?
SG: “Kick Out The Chair” was the first song. The last song was “I’ll Be Your Man.” “Kick Out The Chair” was the hardest to write. I struggled with the middle part. I think it can be easy to start a song and then reign it in. I, like many artists, I’m sure, can be good at starting songs, but committing to an ending is more difficult.
TC: If you could open for one artist, who would it be?
SG: Oh, man! That’s so tough! That’s a question I should definitely have an answer to. I don’t know because I’m caught between the artists I’d most like to hang out with backstage, and then there’s also the person who’s my biggest hero, but then I don’t want to meet my heroes...You know what? This is crazy and totally gonna mess up my indie rock cred, but I really think opening for Adele would be awesome. I feel like her fans would be totally insane and she would also be like a mom backstage.