Skylar Gudasz NPR Live Session

Saturday, May 2  |  3:00 p.m.             

It’s last call at Kingfisher in Durham and Skylar Gudasz is sitting at the bar, chatting with the bartender as she drains her glass. As patrons shimmy and shimmer in the dark, it seems like a typical Friday night out. But then, as the ambient chatter quiets, Gudasz turns to face the camera. She begins to sing.

It was the shoot for Gudasz’s “Actress” music video in early December, and she was in full command of the room. The bar hummed with energy as she moved between takes and a makeshift greenroom. 

When Gudasz returned to the barstool, her back straight with the poise and cool of a 1970s starlet, she seemed to conjure the silver-screen dreamer that she sings about on Cinema, her second full-length album, which was released April 17 on Suah Sounds. During the lead-up to the release she rolled out several singles—“Rider,” “Play Nice,” “Actress,” and “Animal”—which received attention in outlets like Billboard and NPR’s All Songs Considered, placing her music in the national spotlight. 

“Actress” is a late-night ballad of the service industry, a song swoony with old-Hollywood references. Gudasz says that after spending time in LA with her brother, the filmmaker Jason Gudasz, she kept thinking about the secret ambitions of everyone she encountered in the service industry. What song might a bartender put on after the bar had cleared? 

Gudasz’s answer is the lilting “Actress,” which compels listeners to “ditch your diner dress” for a French kiss and a cigarette and to practice an award-acceptance speech in the stockroom. That music video shoot and its particulars—bars, nights out, the ability to lose yourself in a crowd—now feel like a distant dream. But while Cinema was born in a world shut down by COVID-19, it also feels eerily timely, shining a spotlight on the essential humanity of the service industry and the sacrifices that artists often undertake. Bars and theaters may be closed, but dreaming, it turns out, is evergreen.

Despite Cinema’s glamorous West Coast sheen, Gudasz is no stranger to the service industry, nor to the South. In an essay for Southern Cultures, she vividly described the farmhouse where she grew up in Varina, Virginia, as being tinged with witchiness; poisonous pokeweed stalking the yard, her grandmother’s quilts on the beds, and an old Steinway piano at the foot of the stairs. 

At age five, she began playing the flute; later, Jason taught her the guitar. She learned the piano on her own. Her childhood tape collection included Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, Bach, a collection of flute solos, and a nature tape of thunderstorms. The house often felt haunted and, when she was alone, she made up songs to keep the ghosts at bay. 

“Reba McEntire was the first tape I bought,” Gudasz says by phone in early April. “My family is very musical. My dad is into classical music, so we were always talking about composers and there were always instruments around. I used to sing to myself. We grew up in the woods, and it was dark and there was no one else around.”

Gudasz’s father played ragtown piano, and her mother sang with an old-time group that would occasionally play at the house. The old-time practices made an impression, as did her parents’ interest in theater and storytelling. Her father had a flair for the dramatic: His mother was one of 12 siblings, and he grew up among them on the second floor of a funeral home. He and Gudasz watched movies together; he loved Bette Davis. His sprawling family history was like the cast of a movie to her, she says, and he instilled in her an ability to see high drama in ordinary moments.

“He’s very poetic with the way that he views the world,” she says. “He just sort of sees the dramatic arc of things. He’s very good at making a narrative and expressing, and experiencing, awe and wonder.”

Gudasz’s first job, at the age of 13, was as a page at the General Assembly, followed by a patchwork of other odd jobs—as a lifeguard at the YMCA, at a barbecue restaurant, at Applebee’s, at a farm, and at the theme park Kings Dominion, where she sold candid pictures of people on rollercoasters.

At UNC-Chapel Hill in the mid-2000s, she studied theater and creative writing. She worked as a barista and a waitress and sold earrings at the Franklin Street Light Years alongside a formative group of co-workers, including the musician’s Laura King and Heather McEntire. After graduating, she stuck around and found herself amid a scrappy, welcoming community of artists.

“It’s been a great place to be a musician,” Gudasz says. “People are able to do the things here that they wouldn’t be able to do if they’re paying higher rents in a bigger city—they’re able to tour, which is very expensive; they’re able to make records because there’s all these amazing studios at varying degrees of affordability and mentorship.”

In 2011, she released her first EP as Skylar Gudasz and the Ugly Dolls, Two Headed Monster, a collaborative project with Jeff Crawford (The Old Ceremony) and Casey Toll (Mount Moriah), who is now her partner. In 2013, Chris Stamey recruited her to join his Big Star tribute, which gave her the chance to perform on stages around the world alongside the likes of Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, and The Posies’ Ken Stringfellow. 

Her rendition of Big Star’s “Thirteen” is especially memorable. Her vocals—open, confident, and unpretentious, the kind of voice that, as Mills has said, can “command a room”—alchemize adolescent angst into something bigger. When Alex Chilton sang “rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay” in the 1972 original, there was a searching fragility. Gudasz turns that fluttery phrase into an assurance: Rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay.

In 2016, she released her debut solo EP, Oleander, which Chris Stamey produced. With its teasing piano and acoustics, the album earned comparisons to Joni Mitchell. There’s also something of Courtney Barnett’s winking wit in the writing, a wry humor that sticks after the last note fades away: “Don’t ask me if I believe in God / I believe in Gibson guitars / Don’t ask me if I believe in goodbyes / I believe in a fast car,” Gudasz sings on “I’ll Be Your Man.”

Salty breakup banger “I’m So Happy I Could Die” plays directly off of Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Underwritten by twangy electric guitar, the sarcasm hits like a sledgehammer. The music video, in which Gudasz wields an actual sledgehammer, was shot in more than 30 locations across North Carolina. 

In it, Gudasz sings defiantly from a bathtub, a hair salon, and a waterpark. Music videos are an integral part of Gudasz’s aesthetic, and she’s a natural performer. When she deadpans to the camera or tilts her head back archly, it’s easy to see how life as an actress might have taken off. 

In late February, I met Gudasz at The Carolina Theatre. It was a thematically appropriate place to talk about performance, with its red carpets and theater that seats 1,000, although, she told me, she also likes it because she enjoys going to see movies alone. We sat outside and talked about how few references Cinema makes to either romantic love or men. It’s an album that focuses, rather, on the transformative power of performance. 

“I think about Dolly Parton, in this way of somebody who has mastered performance and I don’t think that it has mastered her,” Gudasz says. “There’s a line in “Have We Met, Sir” [from Cinema] that’s like, ‘I do not write on love / I write on the inevitability of death.’ Not that love is not worth writing about; I’ve written a lot of songs about love. But I just didn’t want that to be the focus of the album.”

To make Cinema, Gudasz recruited a host of collaborators for the album, many of whom are local: Brad Cook, Shane Leonard, Pete Lewis, Ari Picker, Nick Vandenberg, James Wallace, Jeff Crawford, Casey Toll, and Libby Rodenbough.

It had been a lot of work to pull an album and tour together, she says, even as a seasoned artist a decade deep in the Triangle music scene, but she was feeling hopeful about the release that she’d poured so much into. 

In early March, she left for a short tour. The reality of a shutdown seemed far away.

“We had a promo thing and left, and my publicist was there and said, ‘They’re talking about canceling South by Southwest,’” and I was like, ‘That’s not real,’” Gudasz later said by phone. “And then, on the drive home from New York to North Carolina, everything just shut down.”

During a crisis, art inevitably takes on more potency. But it’s hard not to feel that Cinema, with its glitz and grit and longing, packs a particularly resonant punch.

“Actress” is not the only song that exists in the service world: There is also “Rider,” a song about the open road, with a video shot by her brother in the pristine interior of Saint James Seafood. She plays the part of the devoted waitress; elsewhere on the album, there is a song titled “Waitress” that is peppered with details about apple pie and lipstick smudges and the blues.

Neither “Actress” nor “Waitress” follow the usual script about aspiring actresses, though: The romance comes equally from having one foot in the working world and one foot in the clouds. Four of the nine songs contain mention of stars: star-chasing, yes, but also stargazing, star-blaming, and finding one’s true north.

Gudasz says people have told her that “Animal” has taken on more meaning in isolation. She wrote it while walking on the Brighton Pier in England, after locking herself out of a club. It’s a song grounded in the touring life but is also, more broadly, about making sense of chaos and figuring out how to be alone. When Gudasz gently croons, “Is there any place I haven’t left my heart?” it’s hard to not feel homesick for a time when public spaces felt safe and free.

“Play Nice” is the poppiest and most cathartic song on the album. The fourth wall seems to drop a bit as the Southern girl who has been raised to be “decent at pleasantries” bares her teeth at sexist expectations (“Babe, I’m as nice as a guillotine / You say play nice, babe / I’m as nice as gasoline.”). Gudasz recorded the song with Picker in his wooded Goth Construction Studios; she was his first client. Picker says that he and Gudasz watched Heart videos while recording, and worked intensively to capture the album’s pop sensibilities. Picker added a drum machine to amplify what he describes as a “nighttime-driving, fist-pumping, Tom Petty kinda song.”

“When I think about the voice of Oleander, it was a person willing to be malleable,” Gudasz says. “Cinema is still personal in terms of the multitudes of identities that you have to walk through in the world, like in Whitman’s ‘I contain multitudes,’ but there’s some boundary-ness, some self-knowledge. It’s less being looked at then looking.”

The shutdown necessitated an improvised kind of promotion. As with other independent artists, Gudasz has taken to livestreams, including an upcoming NPR Live Session on May 2. She’s waiting and taking a lot of walks. She’s worried about her friends—the artists, the musicians, the bartenders, the waiters—but she’s hopeful that our new reality will usher in urgent political change, like Medicare for All.

On April 17, she staged an Instagram Live album release that somehow felt both intimate and elaborate—as, perhaps, a good performance should.

She wore bright red lipstick and thanked her fans. The singer-songwriter Molly Sarlé, with whom Gudasz had been in a wooded production of Macbeth with, a winter ago, guested into the livestream, and the two read a violent scene from the play. Gudasz also dropped into The Pinhook’s virtual karaoke stream and sang a cover of “Don’t Speak” by No Doubt. 

There was also, during her livestream, a lime-green cake with “CINEMA” spelled out in icing. Skylar Gudasz blew out the candles and, despite everything, an album was born.  

Contact deputy arts and culture editor Sarah Edwards at

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