It takes about three notes, four words and five seconds for Skylar Gudasz to put you into another world on her astonishingly great debut album, “Oleander” (Daniel 13 Music). The lead-off track, “Kick Out the Chair,” opens with a surging wave of strings, Gudasz on piano and murmuring the title phrase – plus the admonition, “Tell the truth” to a “smog-eyed tragedy” of a hero.
It’s transporting, all the more so for its accompanying mystery. And now that the 12 songs of “Oleander” are out in the world, Gudasz can’t help but feel a little strange about opening up such deeply private feelings and thoughts.
“All of the songs are definitely intimate and intensely personal,” she says. “I was telling my friend recently how strange it feels to have shared the album now. Like suddenly everyone is in on a secret of mine, one that I didn’t realize how tender it would be to tell.”
Gudasz, a 28-year-old Virginia native who calls Durham home nowadays, has been one of the local music scene’s best-kept secrets for several years. Before the release of “Oleander,” she was best-known for a series of high-profile vocal cameos on projects including Lost in the Trees mastermind Ari Picker’s “Lion and the Lamb” (a 2015 Duke Performances commission) and local studio godfather Chris Stamey’s ongoing series of live “Big Star’s Third” performances.
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Invariably, her voice – smoky and expressive, with a penchant for singing “on the Southern side of the beat,” as Stamey puts it – makes jaws drop. That included Stamey, who was playing onstage with her in Barcelona, Spain, one night a few years back when she left an audience awestruck. Once they were back in North Carolina, he brought Gudasz into his Chapel Hill studio to make some demo recordings.
“I wanted to hear the songs she was writing, and they were not at all what I expected,” Stamey says. “These piano songs, and I thought they were wonderful. But life went on for another month or two until those songs of hers came up on my iTunes one day. ‘What am I doing?’ I thought. ‘This is what I want to do, make this record with Skylar.’ That was the process. But I want to fight the perception of me being her ‘Svengali.’ I was able to help her color in and realize some things, but she gets all the props.”
Falling into the scene
Gudasz grew up in the rural Virginia environs of Ashland, right next to Kings Dominion amusement park. And if you weren’t working on a farm, you were working at Kings Dominion. Among her jobs there were handling props for one of the park’s shows and selling candid pictures taken of people on a roller coaster.
Singing was a constant, mostly in choirs and the theater (she came to UNC-Chapel Hill to study dramatic art and creative writing). The discovery that she had cysts on her vocal chords closed off classical singing as an option, so Gudasz took a path closer to some of the confessional singer-songwriters she’d grown up admiring – Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Carly Simon.
In Chapel Hill, Gudasz fell in with a group of musicians including members of Mandolin Orange and The Old Ceremony. Local musician and studio owner Jeff Crawford was recording her six years ago for his “Music From the Gathering Church” series.
“Her voice just floored me, and her writing is incredible,” says Crawford, who still plays in Gudasz’s band. “I was blown away. She’s always had this Karen Carpenter thing going on, in a good way, and her writing recalls Joni Mitchell, Aimee Mann. But she puts her own spin on all of it, which is a really cool thing. No stage is too small or too big for her. She’s super-quick and also really creative and generous.”
Music for its own sake
As lush as the final version of “Oleander” turned out to be, it started out as more of a bare-bones project. Initial sessions consisted of Stamey recording Gudasz singing while playing piano or guitar (her primary instrument is actually flute). As the album progressed, they added strings, horns and other accoutrements – played by an all-star cast including Let’s Active mastermind Mitch Easter, The Old Ceremony’s Django Haskins, Megafaun’s Brad Cook, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and jazz man Ken Vandermark.
Gudasz remembers that while they were in the control room listening to Vandermark (a 1999 MacArthur Fellow) do his take on clarinet, Stamey turned to her and asked, “Can you believe this life that we’re living?”
But for all the star power involved, “Oleander” is still very much Gudasz’s record. One of the grabbier songs on it is “I’m So Happy I Could Die,” an acidic kiss-off on which Gudasz manages to sound numb and dangerously off-kilter all at once. Comments on the YouTube video range from, “Kanye West should be on the remix” to, “so psycho, love it!”
“Hasn’t everybody felt like that song?” Gudasz asks with a laugh. “Oftentimes songs get conflated with a songwriter’s particular personal experiences, and usually they are based in some bit of truth or specific moment. But that song was probably the most ‘songwriting exercise’ song of all the ones on this record. Not that it wasn’t personal at all, but I definitely set out with a mission on that one.”
Now that “Oleander” is out in the world, Gudasz will spend a good chunk of this year touring for it, coming off a stint opening for Mount Moriah. Good as it is, however, “Oleander” is still a long shot without an obvious slot on commercial radio. Unfortunately, music for its own sake isn’t much of a niche anymore.
“It’s hard to talk about to people who don’t live around here and aren’t in the scene,” Gudasz says. “You know, they’ll say things like, ‘You’re a musician, so what have you ever done? Why don’t you stop messing around and go on “The Voice” already?’ As if that’s a realistic plan. The music industry is such a changing sea right now, and no one knows what to make of any of it. People are just confounded by it. I’ll get, ‘So you play…what, weddings? You tour? Where?’ It’s all just very confusing.”
Actually, Gudasz DOES play the occasional wedding. When Crawford got married in 2013, she sang at his wedding – “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” – and by all accounts it was amazing.
She’s not going to stay the Triangle’s secret for much longer.
Who: Skylar Gudasz, Wild Fur, Vaughn Aed
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Cat’s Cradle Back Room, 300 E. Main St., Carrboro
Details: 919-967-9053 or catscradle.com