Blue Cactus: Stranger Again | [Sleepy Cat Records; May 7]

“We’ll pretend we’re lovers / Something more than friends / Right beside you, but I wanna be closer than this,” Steph Stewart sings with mournful levity. She’s climbing into “Stranger Again,” the title track of her upcoming album with Mario Arnez as Blue Cactus.

The Chapel Hill-based duo’s sophomore LP, Stranger Again, out May 7 on Sleepy Cat Records, is anchored with a titular sentiment that resonates with cohabiters everywhere, especially after weathering the past year at home. Though penned pre-pandemic, the yearning lamentations speak directly to weary lovers, repeating, “Let me keep you wondering / I wanna be strangers again.”

Before there was Blue Cactus, there was Steph Stewart & the Boyfriends. Arnez, a South Florida native who picked up the guitar in his mid-teens, was one of the backing string players and co-writers before he became Stewart’s suitor. In the new band, Stewart drew on the early influences of her grandfather’s Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline records, back home in Catawba County, and expanded upon his knowledge of the country sound.

After a second record (Nobody’s Darlin’) with the Boyfriends in 2015, Stewart and Arnez made their eponymous debut in 2017 as Blue Cactus, expanding upon regional bluegrass traditions into a mid-century, classic country sound.

Following their debut release, the duo spent a week at the Wildacres residency in Little Switzerland, North Carolina. Up in the mountains, they found ample space for creativity and headed home with a few songs that, they humbly offer, “wrote themselves.”

Between the 2017 retreat and recording their second album in 2019, the two penned an entire tracklist. Stewart, who was on the closing end of a divorce, and in the early phases of her relationship with Arnez, feels she derived the songs from emotional contusions and healing.

“It’s a lot about relationships—growing apart from people when you’re with them all the time, and having to maintain a relationship even more so when it’s long-term,” Stewart says over the phone on a Friday afternoon, in reference to the new record. “Sometimes, to be who you want to be, you’re not going to make everyone happy, and I had to come to terms with that.”

Stranger Again was recorded with their bass player and co-producer Alex Bingham (Hiss Golden Messenger) at his lake house-turned-second-site of his Hillsborough-based Bedtown Studios.

The lakeside set-up in the mountains of Virginia has become a recording retreat of sorts for Triangle artists. Over eight days, Blue Cactus tracked the album almost entirely live, backed by Bingham on bass, drummer and creative collaborator Gabe Anderson (Sleepy Cat Records), and Nashville-based pedal steel player Whit Wright (Joshua Hedley, Elizabeth Cook) and engineered with Ryan Johnson and Saman Khoujinian.

Blue Cactus first established themselves  as fervent followers of early 1960s country traditions. The debut collection was embellished with experimental overdubs and characterized by a wailing vocal delivery best displayed in Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man.” Stranger Again bears a palpable vulnerability with an unadorned take on storytelling.

“Beyond recording almost all of these songs live, one of the bigger shifts on this album is a more personal approach to our songwriting,” Arnez says.

“Worried Man” evolved immensely under Bingham’s advice. The song dates back to the Boyfriends days, ideated as a Bluegrass-leaning tribute to Stewart’s grandfather, who was “the worrier” of her family.

“It’s such a gift to have someone thinking about you all the time,” Stewart says. “I didn’t realize that until he was gone.”

When it came time to record it for the first time, Bingham twisted the classically structured tune into a disco groove, invoking early Outlaw sounds introduced by the likes of Waylon Jennings. This was an apt approach to honor the man who introduced Stewart to that country-western sound. Much of the lyrical content is rooted in years past and yet, overlaid with the current context, the messaging is undying. “Rodeo Queen” and “Radioman” speak to the toxicity that social media presents—especially to the creative community—and the dilemma of a digitally streaming world.

“One of my favorite things about this record is how it feels even more relevant today than when we recorded it,” Stewart says. “It holds new meaning in a lot of ways.”

She points to “I Can’t Touch You,” as an obvious example of this irony within current social-distancing measures. The theme of “constantly evolving” relationships grows increasingly evident as each of the 10 tracks rolls as vintage vignettes of a universal phenomenon, coalescing into a retro-country collection. Pedal steel sears through the album opener (“Blue as the Day”), setting the tone through lingering gloom.

Skylar Gudasz’s vocal offerings on “Rebel” add a nostalgia-tinged jubilance to the confident mile marker for Arnez—bidding adieu to freedom-filled 20s and devoting himself to his partnership. “Come Clean” reckons with a painful conclusion as Stewart sings, “I think it’s time I got it right with me / Cause I’ve been becoming everybody / I never wanted to be.”

“Stranger Again” is told by someone who has drifted from the familiarity of a previously congenial partnership, now longing for the mysterious excitement that  being a stranger once brought.

“When you start a relationship, you have so much to learn about each other, so much potential,” Stewart says. “It’s weird that when it ends, it’s often because you don’t know each other anymore.”

The duo captures the brokenness of this full-circle effect with perseverance through painful emotional processing and the stillness of the pandemic. In harmony with the late-August cicada chorale that first inspired the album nearly four years ago in their creaky cabin at Wildacres, Blue Cactus evokes a celestial soundscape of mid-century heartbreak. Rather than attempt to fix what’s broken, this prickly pair of cosmic country artists embrace it.

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