Skylar Gudasz didn't give up when record labels didn't respond to her songs. Instead, she used the extra time to make them better, to finish one of the most exquisite local records in recent memory.
In the summer of 2013, the renowned producer Chris Stamey, with whom Gudasz had worked on another songwriter's project, approached her while she was working at Chapel Hill's Caffé Driade. Though Gudasz had been involved in other projects aplenty, including her own Spooky Woods and the Stamey-helmed tribute to Big Star's Third, she'd never put out a full-length album under her own name. Stamey wanted to fix that.
They recorded the songs and waited for a response. As Gudasz looked for a home for her album, she found herself returning to the tunes with Stamey, adding literal strings and other metaphorical bells and whistles to once-bare arrangements. At last, Gudasz released the result, Oleander, in February through Daniel 13. It is a stunning and deeply emotional collection. Anchored by piano, guitar, and Gudasz's captivating voice, the songs are spacious and rich. The flower for which Oleander is named is poisonous, but Gudasz's ruminations are a remarkable mix of pleasure and pain.
On a balmy spring morning, Gudasz discussed songwriting, Oleander's slow arc, and why she once took umbrage with the notion that she writes love songs.
INDY: What made you want to return to the songs on Oleander and keep adding to them?
SKYLAR GUDASZ: In my original conversation with Chris Stamey, we did talk about a few string arrangements. Thinking back to it, that was definitely part of the initial idea—piano, voice, some small orchestral arrangements. For the most part, that is still what happened. It's just that there were a lot of other small things that were added along the way, too, over time, which comes from working with Chris. He is such a perfectionist and so interested in so many different things. He's making potions, or something—"Let's put a little of this here, and this here." He was always searching, always asking me about the lyrics and what they meant. He wanted to make sure that what I was feeling about the song was getting communicated in the actual arrangements.
There's not a start-to-finish narrative to the record, but these songs have an arc. Between "Just Friends," "I Want to Be with You in the Darkness," and "I'm So Happy I Could Die," you have all of the pieces to a relationship. Was that intentional?
There's a lot of songs about relationships on the record. I remember sending it to someone early on, and they were like, "Oh, it's love songs." And I was like "Love songs? What the fuck does that mean?" I guess some of them are about love, sort of. In sequencing the record, there wasn't a specific emotional arc. It was, "This feels like it should come next"—starting it off sunnier, then going into the darker places. Certain songs felt more like day songs, and other ones more like night songs. That translates also to arcs of how you feel about somebody at any given moment, even if that arc is twenty-five minutes.
There are gray areas in what we consider love songs. During "I Want to Be with You in the Darkness," you sing that you don't want to say you'll be together forever, because that's not true. Where did that come from?
I was talking to my friend yesterday about writing songs and how do you know when a song is done. We arrived at the idea that maybe you know a song is done when you believe everything you're saying in the song, when you can actually believe the stuff you're saying. If I ever start to write a song that feels too happy or one-dimensional or even one-dimensional sad, it's not quite honest. Humans feel so many different things that, all the time, you can be having so many different conflicting emotions. There is no love that makes everything perfect forever and you ride away and are happy and are completely fulfilled forever, and it's super easy. There's an honesty in acknowledging that.
Did you necessarily set out to write mostly about relationships?
No, because I still feel like they're not really about relationships. But maybe I'm not seeing something. Most of the relationships that they're about aren't necessarily romantic relationships. Some of them are friends or family, and my relationship to myself. A lot of the songs, I wrote to myself, maybe.
Writing about your relationship with yourself seems difficult, because we're really good at getting in the way of our own feelings. How do you approach writing that?
We're never going to get away from ourselves. When I was little, I used to be afraid of things. We had this downstairs, and we lived in the woods. It was really dark, and I'd be afraid to go to those places. If I was ever afraid, I would sing to myself to scare away "whoever was there." I suppose maybe it comes from that. Sitting down to write a song, no one else is in the room with you sometimes. Like writing in a journal, you're saying things that you need to say to yourself, to commit outside of your brain. That's where the making sure you don't say too many nice things part comes from, because when you are being honest with yourself, you do have to give yourself both sides of that coin. You can't let yourself off the hook.
How did you feel you got in your own way in making Oleander?
Finishing writing songs. Being afraid to ask for what I want, or being afraid to acknowledge what it is that I want. I feel like I didn't know what to do in a lot of ways. I probably wrung my hands about it a fair bit and was very lucky that Chris helped talk me out of that feeling. I can just do things. It doesn't have to be perfect. It doesn't have to be what anybody else would want. It can just be what I want to do. That's hard, as women especially.
You're conditioned to put other people's needs first. Was there anything in particular you did to help overcome that struggle?
I don't think I've necessarily overcome that struggle, by any means, but I definitely tried and am still trying. I got better acquainted with knowing, "Oh, OK, this is how it feels. I'm going to feel like that, and I have to ask for it, anyway," and recognize that that's part of the process. It's not necessarily easy, but that's OK that you can fight against that in yourself—knowing what it feels like, practicing, and getting better at it.
In this whole process of putting out Oleander, what was biggest lesson you've learned?
I've learned to be patient. Well, I don't know if I've learned that, but I've gotten some good practice at being patient. I learned the different ways to make a record and all the different ways it can go. And like you said, oftentimes, we are the people who get in our own way. I was totally in my own way about recording these songs for a lot of different reasons. I took myself out of the equation and said, "I can just put it down, and it's as important and nonimportant as anything." That's freeing.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Slow Growth"