Tapping the Muse: Skylar Gudasz Finds Inspiration in an Old Blue Guitar

This Durham singer-songwriter often backs up locals like Hiss Golden Messenger, Tift Merritt and Superchunk — and she’s got a new solo album coming.
by David Menconi | photographs by John Gessner

A few years back, Durham singer/songwriter Skylar Gudasz was grappling with a crisis of faith. Like a lot of musicians, she was sidelined by the pandemic, which left her wondering if she’d have to give up music as a career.

An old blue guitar in her closet, however, had other ideas. Gudasz had inherited the instrument from her brother when he moved to Los Angeles, although it had mostly stayed in her closet because it was in need of some repairs. But then one day she pulled that guitar out.

“It’s like it brought all these songs on, lined up in a queue above my head,” Gudasz says. “There was a monthlong period when I felt them up there, and all I had to do was pull them out and write them. I’ve experienced songwriting like that, but never a whole group of songs that wanted to be together. It was a super-powerful feeling.”

May 2023 will see the release of the first of those songs, “Mother’s Daughter,” inspired by maternal advice overheard at a friend’s wedding.

It sports an ambient electronic pulse that sounds closer to 1980s New Wave than the classic-pop orchestrations of Gudasz’s previous catalog. The rest of this batch of songs should follow later this year as her third full-length album.

Even though they’re still unreleased, these blue-guitar songs have comprised the bulk of Gudasz’s live set for the past year. Their passions, deep but expressed with elegant understatement (with “fire” as a recurrent motif) have been perfect onstage fodder for her recent “Ask Me Anything” series of shows.

In each of these, a trio of local singer/songwriters — Kate Rhudy, Mipso’s Libby Rodenbough and Gudasz — per- forms songs interspersed with all three of them entertaining written questions submitted by the audience. It’s equal parts back-porch hootenanny and in-person advice column.

“There have been some questions we’ve refused to answer, because ‘ask me anything’ doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll answer,” Gudasz says. “We get a lot of questions about love, of course, or people asking us to name their animals. It really runs the gamut from silly questions about cheese and jam to talking about death and loss.”

Now 35, Gudasz grew up in Ashland, Virginia, near the King’s Dominion amusement park. She came to the Triangle to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she did some of her earliest recording work on other local artists’ records as a flutist (which she still does on a regular basis). But she was already writing her own songs even then.

Gudasz made a stylish debut with 2016’s Oleander, a remarkably mature work showing the influence of Joni Mitchell and Carole King. The album’s best drawing card is Gudasz’s own singing voice, a dusky croon that lands somewhere between Mitchell and Natalie Merchant. That voice keeps her busy as an in-demand backup singer for big-name locals like Hiss Golden Messenger, Tift Merritt, Superchunk and Chris Stamey.

“Vocally, Skylar tends to nail things really quickly,” says Jeff Crawford, one of her regular producers. “That’s not to say it’s easy.

But she’s very precise and prepared, wants to get it done just the way she envisions it. We always make sure she gets the right take. She’s extremely professional, but also such a genuine person with so much integrity. Always helpful to everyone who comes her way, and she succeeds at whatever she sets her mind to do.”

Lyrically, Gudasz has a knack for the well-placed epigram, like this line on her new song “Fire Country:” “I tune my guitar to the names of old lovers plastered in posters on the walls.” Between her lyrics, voice and arrangements, Gudasz’s songs can be pretty reverie-inducing — and that goes both ways. “I work incredibly hard at songwriting, but I have to maintain a sense of awe and joy and magic about it, too,” she says.

“A lot of my initial drive to write was because I felt incapable of handling all the emotional feelings about some situations,” she says. “But when things are hard for me, that’s when I have a hard time creating, because all my energy goes toward trying to feel OK. When I’m going through something, the last thing I want to do is that process of writing songs.”

Still, Gudasz keeps enough of an even keel to stay fairly prolific in terms of coming up with new material. It helps to have that old blue guitar, which she says is now hers on “permanent loan.”

“Yeah, my brother has kinda let me have it, even though it’s technically still his,” she says with a laugh. “It was a little busted up, but I was nervous and superstitious about having it worked on. After the record was all done I did finally have it repaired — hesitantly!”

This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.