Music in Your Gardens: Q&A, Skylar Gudasz

This article was originally published on the Duke Performances blog

This summer, we’re proud to present Music in Your Gardens, a free eight-week online concert series showcasing nationally renowned artists who call Durham and the surrounding area home. The series shifts Duke Performances’ longtime summer series, Music in the Gardens, normally held outdoors at Sarah P. Duke Gardens on Duke’s campus, to an online format.

This Wednesday, July 8, we continue the series with Skylar Gudasz. The pre-recorded performance will be viewable at 7 PM ET online, free of charge, on our website and on our YouTube page.

Each week, in advance of these performances, Duke Performances’ Michaela Dwyer “sits down” over email to chat with each artist.

We encourage you to check Duke Performances’ blog to read previous Q&As with artists participating in our spring 2020 livestream series. We also invite you to explore or contribute to Duke Arts’ “Arts & Artists Are Essential” collection of voices, opportunities, and offerings, or you can subscribe to receive weekly updates.

Your artistic practice spans songwriting, music composition, writing, acting. Recently you curated a virtual performance series, ‘Comfort,’ for the journal Southern Cultures. I was struck by the images you summoned to introduce the project, and to encapsulate the right-now:

As I write this, we are living in a world in which lightning bugs illuminate over green tomatoes, memaws sew masks from scrap fabric, and people scrawl lawyers’ numbers on their arms with Sharpies. The nights, thick with honeysuckle, are also choked with tear gas. The recipes being shared now are home remedies for surviving weapons of war.

What are some of your creative approaches for distilling such an uncertain, potent present? Do you find your methods have shifted from your ‘usual’?

I love that you brought up the present. It seems like we are all in medias res right now, in this sudden time of pandemic and uprising. I feel very much like it is this moment of practicing presence, which can be scary, because it feels like relinquishing our usual anchors. We don’t know the future, can’t really plan for it. Our immediate past life and our tools from just a few months ago are very distant from us right now, and we can’t go back to them. And then, at the same time, what is surfacing is that our deep and living past, the knowledge of plague, our country’s racism, the murk of the stuff of our myths, is close to us, and to deal with that we are called upon to endure on high alert and find catharsis with quick, reactive action.

Along the lines of the present, and where my creative methods are now, I’m kind of in a place of reception, of receiving energy, artistically speaking. I’m reading Audre Lorde, and Claudia Rankine, and Rachel Kushner. I’m binging Derry Girls. I’m following the wisdom of Mariame Kaba on Twitter. I’m watching lots of videos of people in amazing neon outfits roller skating. I’ve really been obsessed with motion, or more specifically, verbs lately. The making of art/life being something constantly in motion, and testing this feeling that words (which I love) get closest to the movement of truth when they are in verb form, sort of because verbs honor the transience of living. How changing the tense of them can imply a future, a past. James Baldwin tells us, “There is nothing stable under heaven.” A verb is a spoken honoring of change, a claim of existing. And that’s powerful stuff; you feel it in your body, viscerally. A verb can change the spell of your speaking.

Listening to Cinema, at times I feel like I’m watching a dance or theater performance where the dressing room is part of the onstage set — where we see the performer in command of the in-between space where dream and desire coalesce in the application or removal of makeup, of costume or workwear. I’m curious what images — of spaces, of personae — kept you company during the composition and production of this album. 

Wow, I love that observation. In terms of personae, the femme fatale — Hedy Lamarr, Eartha Kitt, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis. And it’s true that part of what intrigues me about show business is all the un-spotlit machinery that goes into it.

I have always loved the dressing room or the backstage, or the bathroom or green room at a club, as an in-between space where transformations happen. I love pictures of people looking at themselves in mirrors, getting ready together. There’s an intimacy, and a suggestion of someone being on their way to something. What I love about a costume, or makeup even, is that when you put one on there’s an agreement between you and the world, depending on the power dynamic of any given situation, wherein you could slip on the right clothes, or in some cases the wrong clothes, and become whatever role is needed in that dynamic, or whatever role you’re trying to be. In some cases, you don’t want to be noticed, and those are usually especially situations about belonging, or survival, or class-climbing. We put on a costume and stand out, or we fit in more, or we adapt — although, of course, if you have power you become what is being adapted to. But regardless, costume facilitates transformation in making the wearer something they may be without it, but that the voyeur, audience, looker may not have seen otherwise. And I’m actually most interested in when the voyeur is ourselves, right? We are the looked at and the looker, signaling to ourselves who we are/want to be/are for right now. Costume as self-determination of your own narrative.

Speaking of Cinema — an album that fixates on stardom and archetype, evoking drama and noir — were there any films, or other works of art, that influenced the album’s tone and content? Take us through your process or thinking around translating image to sound and lyric, or vice versa. (I’m thinking, too, of your music video collaborations with your brother, the filmmaker Jason Gudasz.)

Definitely black-and-white and old movies of all kinds were influences. Less the plots of the movies but the imagery, the striking lighting, the ways people carried themselves on screen, this heightened, dramatized style. It’s not really “real,” of course, and yet movies are within our shared history so these images function in the way a myth does, or a memory — it’s a mirror, it’s instructive, it’s highlighting the big arcs of what it means to be a human, to make sense of the narrative of your life. There’s also this democracy I feel in pop culture, in the distribution of movies and TV and radio, in the everywhereness of them: they’re more accessible to people than their own government is, than an expensive education is. Movies exist as a shared reference point, and that’s fascinating. And when I think about the translation of image to song, it’s all in feeling. It has to feel right; it has to make you feel. That’s the only stipulation. And then the lyrics to a song are like a script you get to sing — who is your character, how does she feel, what does she want?

In terms of other works of art, Félix Vallotton — his woodcuts, which are amazing, but also the tones and colors of his paintings. And then books — Bluets by Maggie Nelson. I read The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner several times while making Cinema — there is a lot of artist self-determining resonance in there, not to mention she had me thinking about motorcycles a lot. This quote from her always stuck with me:

A funny thing about women and machines: the combination made men curious. They seemed to think it had something to do with them.

I’m still mulling that observation over. And then musically — Jason Molina, Leonard Cohen, Billie Holiday, Gillian Welch, Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

It’s wonderful to collaborate with a sibling — there’s no one that I’ve known or has known me for longer, and because of that we have a whole referential library of history from which we’re constantly pulling, like an ongoing artistic conversation. It’s nice to see and feel seen in that way, to be inspired and egg each other on, to hold each other artistically accountable. And like you’re saying in the question, art begets art. When you’re listening, you’re envisioning; when you’re making videos, you’re soundtracking.

You grew up near, and have written about, Richmond, Virginia. Richmond, like this area and particularly, in recent weeks, Raleigh, has been a kind of southern epicenter of protest against white supremacy. What has it been like to participate in and observe protest between, and in your connection to, both places?

Participating in protest right now feels absolutely necessary. Durham is the city of my adulthood, and it is where I learned about Black Lives Matter and about anti-racist work, and about abolition, from queer leaders and from BIPOC organizers.

Richmond is very much the city of my childhood, and so my connection to the protest there is, at this point, more a witnessing from afar, in context of what I know about it from growing up. Richmond has this deep, active history of white supremacy that it wears openly with its symbols, its statues. I grew up on a road called Yankeetown Road, in a county where the high school was named after Confederate generals, and every time we went outside we were confronted with a namecheck of this violent history against Black people and Native people, and it was very much still alive. In the creek where we swam there were arrowheads; in the garden we dug up dusty Civil War bullets. The evidence was everywhere of white violence, in the land and the woods.

So, to see these strong images right now in Richmond — the people in the streets; the reclamation of the Lee statue, which has been completely covered in BLM art and memorials and altars to victims of police violence; or the Kehinde Wiley Rumors of War statue directly facing the now burned Daughters of the Confederacy building — it’s very powerful. And still, the KKK is marching unguarded right down the road; police are pepper-spraying anti-racist protesters directly in the eyes; white people with guns are everywhere. And that’s happening in Graham, NC right now; it’s happening in Raleigh. So, being out in the streets, it’s everything right now.

The last time I saw you perform in-person was at NorthStar Church of the Arts, where you opened your set with an a cappella cover of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” It’s such a tender but also clear-eyed and reassuring song — a sentiment I reach for in a moment when our social and creative communities have been so disrupted. How are you sustaining contact and collaboration with your own communities? With yourself?

That was one of my grandparents’ love songs! God, the line that always gets me in that song is that part towards the end where the melody starts to rise — “I’ll find you.”

There was a lot of Zoom calling in the beginning, which was nice, because it felt like reunions. But then it tapered off, like we’ve adapted out of that now a little — maybe because of the weather, maybe because of the protests.

Sending music back and forth with other musicians and getting creative about home recording has been a way to stay connected. And singing always brings me back to myself. It brings me back to my breath. And hearing my own voice reminds me that I’m alive; it connects me to my mother and her mother and the long line of singers in my family.

An intentionally open-ended question I’m asking of all the artists participating in this series: What’s next?

Leo season. We all get to go to the ocean again. Zinnias. Abolition of caging humans in our lifetime. Dreaming a different world into existence.

Duke Performances presents Music in Your Gardens in collaboration with Duke Arts, WXDU, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Duke Continuing Studies, and Duke Summer Session. Hospitality partners include The Palace International and Locopops.