One afternoon in 2017, the singer-songwriter Kate Rhudy met Mipso’s Joseph Terrell for lunch at Jade Palace, a decorating book called Dream Rooms for Real People in tow. Earlier that day, Rhudy—who’d just released her debut album, Rock N’ Roll Ain’t for Me—had picked it up while wandering around a Carrboro thrift store; she liked its photos of plush eighties carpeted bathrooms. Glancing at it, Terrell told her, “You should name your next album that.”
Thus was born Dream Rooms, Rhudy’s sophomore album. It’s an apt name for an intimate, intricate album full of jewel-like songs—folk, but with irresistible hooks and crisp pop production—that feel like worlds in and of themselves. Listening has the effect of drifting from room to room at a party, glass of wine in hand, catching snatches of emotional conversation.
It’s also an album that Rhudy had to put a pin in for several years: one song, “Janie Doe,” was written almost eight years ago, and most of the rest were written around 2019, pre-pandemic, before both of Rhudy’s main worlds—the service industry and the music scene—were thrown for a loop.
“I sat on this record for quite a little bit, thinking I was gonna send it out and shop it around,” says Rhudy, 26, sitting at downtown Raleigh’s Person Street Bar, where she also works. “But it didn’t seem like something that was viable in the industry the way it is right now, with everybody trying to get back to the way it was.”
To make it, she hired a band comprising Josh Oliver, Clint Mullican, Andrew Marlin, and Joe Westerlund; Marlin (one-half of the band Watchhouse) produced the album. Most songs, she says, were written over the span of two meaningful relationships that followed each other so closely that she anticipated having to emotionally “pay for” the sequence.
“You want to feel all your feelings at the rate that your heart wants to feel them,” Rhudy says. “But I was still very cognizant that I was maybe moving on too fast and not actually going through that grieving period of a relationship. I think I ended up doing that like halfway into that next relationship.”
“To the Nines,” a balladic song about trying to muster a going-out spirit after a breakup, is a perfect snapshot of that specific mixed mourning period. It’s a savvily executed two-minute song, beginning with the deadpan “I’m not having fun at this party / Wishing I’d stay at home / I could ask the man in the corner / He’s picking my brain all night long,” which then leads into the aching zinger: “Found better things to do with my hands / Now that you don’t hold them / You don’t hold them anymore / … Ain’t it awful always wanting more.”
Specificity is a boon and Rhudy’s songwriting is especially resonant for its witty, openhearted precision. Listening, I was reminded, at once, of singer-songwriter kindred spirits like Waxahatchee and Tift Merritt but also of the confident confessionals of pop-country stars like Maren Morris and Kacey Musgraves. Rhudy has the shine of a rising star who could mix credibly, and comfortably, with any of the above.
“She’s really fearless as a songwriter,” says Mipso member Libby Rodenbough, a close friend and collaborator of Rhudy. “There’s this perception that writing about your own life in a raw, direct way, is immature or cliché or something. But the more that I do it, and the more that I continue to listen to music, I realize that it can be wonderful to write in more abstract ways—but it’s also a lot safer. [Rhudy] has no fear about being extremely personal or being embarrassed. To me, that’s essential to doing a creative career.”
Rhudy was born in Raleigh and grew up in a music-playing family; she trained in classical violin and learned fiddle tunes at conventions in southwest Virginia. At Appalachian State University, where she began a music therapy degree, she started playing music more seriously, taking a brief Nashville detour for a semester, before dropping out her junior year and returning to Raleigh.
Here, she began waitressing and writing more songs. She carries a notepad around on shifts, she says, in case anything good comes to her at work. (For example, the line “I spent all my tips on a blouse I just stained / Another thing I have to explain” from “To the Nines.”) In Raleigh, she’s found kinship with musicians like Marlin and Emily Frantz of Watchhouse (with whom she has toured twice) and Rodenbough, with whom Rhudy says she shares a mutual “friend tab for musical favors.”
“I really like being home—I don’t know if I’ll ever move from Raleigh,” Rhudy says. “It felt really cool to have a job and go to work at like seven in the morning every day—that’s when I worked at a breakfast place. I had all this time in the afternoons for gigging.”
In 2017, just shy of her 22nd birthday, she released Rock N’ Roll Ain’t for Me, an album with stronger Americana overtones than Dream Rooms and maybe a bit more country fang. Lead single “I Don’t Like You or Your Band” contains the perfect breakup burn: “Your cigarettes, your leather shoes, you, your friends, and your white boy blues / You’ve become something I can’t stand.” (I’d quote fewer lyrics, but they’re all just too good.)
If Rock N’ Roll showed one spirited side of the relationship coin, Dream Rooms flips to show the other.
“My first album had a definite ‘fuck you’ to it,” Rhudy says. “I rationalized it by saying, ‘that’s how dramatic you felt in that moment—you deserve to honor how dramatic and angry and hurt you felt.’ But this one’s more about my part in all those situations.”
Dream Rooms is a touch softer and more self-reflective than the debut, but, now a few years removed from its source material, it’s also a bittersweet slant toward the sweetness that romance can offer, even when fraught. It sounds, in other words, a lot like love.
“I’ve been in love a few times,” Rhudy says. “But it’s never been the same feeling twice.”
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