Pic by Chris Frisina
In Durham, North Carolina, Skylar Gudasz was practising social distancing before it was cool. Before it even had a name.
In the video for her 2019 single Play Nice, which is on her new album of seductively rhythmic southern soul and sophisticated west coast pop, Cinema, Gudasz is alone at home engaging in normal household activities such as watering the plants, throwing guitar-playing shapes, swinging in a hanging wicker seat, and dressing up in a slinky blue evening dress.
The only other human is a compliant bearded man who pops up unexpectedly (such as under the dirt of the potplant, inside the wardrobe – you know, usual stuff). We now see that in the Great Confinement, at least as an aid to lockdown living, there actually is a use for a bearded man. Which is nice.
“Yes, that is definitely a way to get through,” says Gudasz. “In Brooklyn I feel like they’ve been bearded men trying to be useful parts of society for a long time, but in North Carolina where I live that’s sort of like mountain chic and it’s hard to know whether someone is a hippie or a hipster.”
And before you say anything, yes, while North Carolina is a pretty conservative state – it sent the anti-abortionist and arch segregationist Jesse Helms to the US senate for 30 years - the university “triangle” of Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh is like a radical socialist enclave by comparison. So yeah, they do have hipsters. And thinkers.
“I’m from Virginia, which is not that far away, and also from a very conservative area, and when I came to school down here, a mentor of mine said ‘are you going to that communist university?’,” Gudasz says with a laugh. “There is a long history of resistance and a long history of conservatism in North Carolina, and a long history in the South of being former slave states and a long history tied up in the wealth and the identity of any economy that continues to play out to this day.
“A lot of the time people want to pretend that they’ve moved on, although there’s not exactly the case. And that [contradiction] continues to play out in Virginia and North Carolina.”
There is a link between this complicated past of shame, denial and façade hoping for renewal, and Gudasz’s album which incidentally confirms a comment from R.E.M.’s Mike Mills (another southerner, from neighbouring Georgia, who played with her in a Big Star tribute show) that she has “the kind of voice that will quiet and command a room”.
Another single from Cinema is Actress which deals in part with the façe we create to present to the world - as Gudasz sings, “practice your acceptance speech/in the stockroom/next to the peaches” - the secret world of success, failure, aspiration and, especially, fear. Fear of being caught out, of being revealed as less than what we show while we wait and hope we can make it real.
Not for nothing I suspect is that in the arrangement for Actress the voice is soothing while the guitar says run. Which message do you take? Maybe both.
“I think it’s very true: fear is the other side of hope really isn’t it?” she says. “They are going on at the same time and the album is very much about circumstances that you are in, perhaps beyond your control, and having to live through the reality of that, and at the same time dreaming for something else.
“With that internal conversation in mind, fear versus hope and dreams versus reality, you have to live within both. I don’t know where that leaves the present exactly but there is that idea of time and how do you make right the duality.”
Quoting Whitman rather than Dylan (whose single of a similar name came out a day after our conversation) Gudasz argues that since we “contain multitudes” the conflict “within that can feel like a trap, it can feel limiting but it’s also about finding a place in which that is empowering and personally liberating.”
Because the truth is, it’s not always a bad thing to have a façade that you present to the world. Yes, sometimes it can be fake it til you make it, sometimes you reveal more of yourself and that façade anyway, but in any case, why should we present everything about our inner lives to the outer world?
We are not one fixed thing, there isn’t only one truth, and it’s not like the world wants it or cares anyway.
“No, I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all,” says Gudasz. “Maybe the only thing true about it is there is no one truth. You can be these things to different people and within that it’s figuring out who you are and not lying to yourself. And then having a handle on that within all of the movements around you.
“Cinema comes from the ancient Greek word for movement and that’s what’s absolutely happening in these changing roles: actors acting out different things in these movements, externally and internally.”
It’s about being adaptable isn’t it? So, pushing this analogy a little wider to encompass more of Gudasz’ own experience, one of the aspects of being a backing singer or a contributing singer - which she was for some time for fellow North Carolinans Superchunk and Hiss Golden Messenger, and as part of the Big Star tribute show which toured Australia three years ago - is the willingness to step back from the front, to be a contributor happy to stand, as the documentary on backing singers put it, 6 feet from stardom.
However, to move from background to the foreground, from contributor to leader, is a bigger adjustment than merely moving those 6 feet. Has Gudasz, who waited four years since her debut, Oleander, to produce this follow-up, found that a comfortable move, did she have to present a façade for some time, until she did? And is she a better front person for having been behind?
“I hope so. There was a book I was reading about [film] directing which said the best way to learn to be director was to be an actor. I think observing people doing things teaches you about what you can and what you might and might not want to bring to anything.”
The detail in Gudasz’ lyrics suggest she is not just a casual observer, bringing the detail to her words that she has in her music. In Animal, a song about being a performer, about thoughts running through the mind of a singer just before she steps up on stage, it’s as if she has pulled a camera scanning a scene down and pointed it to a close-up saying, look at this small gesture, this little detail.
As you understand at regular points in the album, this is not someone who assumes that she dominates the space. And maybe doesn’t want to.
“In order to observe you have to be able to remove yourself in some capacity from things that are going on,” she says. “I think that the experience of being on tour, which feels like you are on a ride, you are trying to grab onto whatever sort of grounding you can.
“Something that struck me to about what you are saying is that, regardless of front person or side person, there is also the relationship to the audience that regardless of what role you are in, you are always in relation to. To the front person, to the audience, to each other. Action or reaction, to be present is to be receiving at the same time as you are giving.”
Even at a distance. During lockdown. With or without bearded men.
Skylar Gudasz’s Cinema is out now.