Skylar Gudasz’s deep voice is well suited to the gorgeous melancholy that pervades her songs.
By Brett Milano
As an experiment this morning I posted a clip of Skylar Gudasz’s song, “I’m So Happy I Could Die” on Facebook, with a small note praising her as a gifted songwriter and an artist about to happen. Among the people who chimed in to agree were: Chapel Hill pop legend and former dB’s/Continental Drifters member Peter Holsapple; Nashville music lawyer David Wykoff; Los Angeles music honcho and Los Lobos biographer Chris Morris; L.A. music producer David Jenkins, and ace New Orleans drummer Russ Broussard. In other words, folks who clearly know their stuff.
Chapel Hill native Gudasz is steeped in classic pop: She was the youngest member of the troupe that toured over the past two years performing on Big Star’s 3rd album (with R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, the dB’s’ Chris Stamey, and Big Star’s own Jody Stephens). She also worked with Stamey on his last two solo albums and he produced her recent debut, Oleander. Its single and video, “I’m So Happy I Could Die,” is a proud example of the kind of pop song that wears its misery as badge of honor. But most of the album is in subtler shades, with the kind of orchestrations that Van Dyke Parks might have done in the ‘60s. Her deep voice is well suited to the gorgeous melancholy that pervades her songs.
We caught up with her by phone during a drive from New York to Providence, on a tour that brings her (with Mount Moriah) to the Middle East in Cambridge, MA tomorrow (Tuesday) night.
Arts Fuse: Were you a fan of Big Star 3rd before you got involved with that tour?
Skylar Gudasz: Big Star did mean a lot to me — Not that album in particular, but the band in general. Okkervil River did a cover of “O Dana,” so that was my first introduction to them. The great thing about the Big Star shows is that everybody had such an appreciation of music, there wasn’t a lot of ego going on. It was like theater in that way, not that there isn’t any ego in theater.
AF: You studied theater before you started leading bands. Did that inform your writing, in terms of playing characters within the songs?
Gudasz: I don’t think I take on characters any more than anybody does, in the roles they play in their everyday life, being different parts of themselves. But I think it has informed the way I write music — more than anything else has, really. When a playwright puts something in the dialogue, they’re also deciding what to leave out. As an actress, people tell you there’s more behind the words you say, and it’s what you choose to not say. That comes in emotionally handy when you’re writing a lyric.
AF: “I’m So Happy I Could Die” is a good example of that. Did it come from a real experience or were you trying to send up a certain kind of romantic pop song?
Gudasz: Well, I’ve definitely been heartbroken multiple times. But at the time I wrote it, I was really fixated on the Rolling Stones — specifically on the way they did backing vocals, the way that puts a lot of my favorite songs of theirs over the top. Especially something like “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” those ba-ba-ba’s. So I set out to write a song that would have those kind of backing vocals in it — but the way it came out, there aren’t any background vocals at all, it turned into a guitar part instead.
AF: And the guitar part comes from the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine,” so you put it in a song about not feeling fine.
Gudasz: Absolutely, that’s what it wound up morphing into. On a purely business level I’m not surprised that song has caught on, since we pushed it and did the video for it — but I’m really glad it wound up resonating with people. When I first started writing songs, I tried to use very different chords and stay away from formula. And now I’m trying to flirt a little with formula and see what I can get away with. So I’m seeing how difficult it can be to write a quote-unquote “simple” song with fewer chords and an A/B/A/B structure. Finding the beauty in simplicity.
AF: My favorite track is “I Want to Be With You in the Darkness” which seems to be about helping someone through a hard time.
Gudasz: That’s absolutely in there and it’s about a few things — the actual darkness outside and the less easy parts of being alive and being with somebody in that space. I did a lot of writing on an artists’ residency in North Caroline, there was an old cabin with a beautiful piano in the auditorium. So I’d sit there and write, late into the night.
AF: You’ve worked with some pop heroes from a different generation — Big Star, the dB’s. Are young bands in Chapel Hill still inspired by those kinds of people?
Gudasz: There’s a huge awareness of them, even if the bands don’t necessarily sound like them. They’re definitely institutions in the scene and of course, Merge Records is out of Durham and the whole Superchunk legend lives on strong. The whole triangle is having a resurgence right now — Loads of studios and a lot of great places to play.
AF: What’s the last song you heard that you wish you’d written?
Gudasz: Hmm…There was a Sylvan Esso album two years ago that I loved, “Coffee” on there is really cool. And I really love Laura Marling’s work, the way she approaches songwriting has a lot of clever stuff going on.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat. His latest book is Don’t All Thank Me At Once (125 Records), a biography of the unsung pop genius Scott Miller, who led the bands Game Theory and The Loud Family.