Artist Spotlight: skirts

    Skirts is the project of 26-year-old singer-songwriter Alex Montenegro, who started releasing music under the moniker in 2017. After a series of singles and an EP, the Dallas-born artist signed to Double Double Whammy for her debut record, Great Big Wild Oak, which is out today – a warm, finely crafted collection of songs that takes the intimacy of her lo-fi recordings and renders those personal experiences in rich detail, with subtle flourishes of synths, saxophone, banjo, flute, and clarinet adorning Montenegro’s gentle vocals. There’s a great comfort in how Montenegro, along with live band members Vincent Bui, Victor Bui, and Joshua Luttrull, have brought these songs to life, like watching time-lapse footage of flowers blooming. The effect is ultimately soothing, but there’s an intricate complexity at work that keeps things engaging: on the song ‘Easy’, the dreamy instrumentation mirrors the feeling of being enraptured by another person that Montegro evokes in her lyrics, inviting you into a moment of collective attention. Like its beautiful cover, the album not only captures but enhances the kind of stillness where the tiniest movement ripples through the frame – the kind you want to hold onto when the whole landscape seems to shift at an alarming rate.

    We caught up with skirts’ Alex Montenegro for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her musical journey, the inspirations behind Great Big Wild Oak, and more.

    What was it like growing up in Dallas?

    Nothing about it stood out to me – it just felt very normal, honestly. I always loved music, but I found comfort in music communities online, so I was online a lot growing up. But I started working at record stores when I was 19, so that kind of opened my whole view on Dallas.

    Do you mind sharing some early memories of enjoying music?

    My dad is a DJ, so I guess he’s the one that introduced me to music. I remember being a child and my dad teaching me how to put a needle on a record, you know, and that affected me my whole life. Every Saturday I would wake up super early to him just practicing, playing music next door, and that’s always left an impression on me; always being around DJ equipment with my dad and looking through his records.

    When did you start playing music yourself?

    I got my first guitar when I was about nine years old, and I just started learning how to play by ear. I watched that movie School of Rock, I remember after watching it that I begged my dad to buy me an electric guitar. I didn’t really get into writing songs until I was about 16, so it happened much later. I think I took one music lesson but it didn’t work out, so I just ended up teaching myself.

    You mentioned discovering music communities online – did that come before you started immersing yourself in the local music scene?

    I definitely feel like I met people making music like me online before I met people making music like me in Dallas. I never explored a Dallas scene because I didn’t know how to find it, and I guess I wasn’t really looking for it because I was so immersed in this online community of bedroom pop artists, just listening to their music and trying to find all these cool new artists I could listen to.

    In another interview, you referenced flatsound as one of those artists that had an impact on you. And I was so glad to see that, because he’s not often cited as an influence despite being so integral to that lo-fi music community that flourished on places like Tumblr. I was wondering if you could elaborate on what resonated with you about that whole sound.

    Mitch [Welling] of flatsound – his music was the first thing I ever heard like that that was lo-fi. I didn’t know what lo-fi was, I had never heard anything like it. And it was just so open and honest, and it was really cool that this person was recording this stuff at home by themselves and being incredibly succesful. It was inspiring just in the sense of, I can record at home as well, and I can try uploading my stuff online. It made me feel a little less scared to do that because anyone could do it. And Tumblr opened that whole world for me, which is maybe goofy, but it definitely did influence me, finding out about music on there.

    In terms of songwriting, did it inspire you to be more open and honest when writing about how you were feeling?

    Maybe it did like kind of say, like, you can write about personal things. You don’t have to be like Joanna Newsom, who I was really into at the time, who is writing all these incredibly complex lyrics. It’s very much poetry – even without the music, it stands alone. And I think for a while, I was under the impression that’s what good song lyrics were. And it definitely showed me, you know, there’s lots of other good ways of writing lyrics. It doesn’t necessarily have to be this complex, intricate, big essay.

    Was there a specific moment when you started taking music more seriously?

    I was 19, and I had released an EP called Almost Touching. And to my surprise, people started listening to it and commenting on it and buying it. I think I did like three different tape pressings, and I just had to keep making tapes. I feel like maybe I started taking myself a little bit more seriously once I did start playing local shows and touring.

    There’s a line on ‘Swim’, “If a salmon can swim upstream then I can learn to swim,” that I read traces back to when you were a teenager. Could you talk about when that thought first struck you?

    I used to write poems, I guess – and maybe it was bad poetry – but I remember writing a poem when I was about 17 or 18, and that that was the closing line of the poem. And I always wanted something more for that line, because for whatever reason, I really connected to it. And I tried throughout the years to put it into a song and like sneak it in there, but it never felt right until I was writing ‘Swim’ and I had like that last line to write for the song, and all of a sudden it just clicked. And yeah, it’s always just stuck with me – I can’t even remember what that poem was about. I can remember other lines from it that I feel like I’m also saving, just from that poem.

    Were you always interested in connecting poetry and music in that way, or was there a time where you kind of separated the two?

    I feel like maybe I started with being unable to separate them, and that maybe in part has something to do with how I felt about Joanna Newsom’s lyrics, and how I can read them and be incredibly touched and be like, “This is poetry.” But my own personal songwriting has felt less and less like a starting point from poetry, just because I feel like poetry is a skill that I lack. I’m not positive when that changed for me, but I don’t write poetry anymore. I’ll write thoughts that I have and, I don’t know, make it work in a melody or something.

    When you started putting together your debut album, Great Big Wild Oak, what was on your mind when it came to figuring out what you wanted the project to represent?

    I feel like the shift happened to me when we were done recording. I didn’t have an idea for the album until the songs were done, and even then I was like talking to my label and I still didn’t know my album title and I didn’t know my album art. I feel like I got a loose concept of what I wanted when I wrote one of the last songs for the album, which I wrote towards the end of recording where we had to record a last track, and it’s called ‘Sapling’. And that’s the song that I feel like subconsciously started linking everything together.

    ‘Sapling’ was an incredibly important song to me. I wrote it the day before my birthday, and I tend to struggle with my birthday, like a lot of people, and I think that song is just about feeling overwhelmed and this, like, lack of direction, and just trying to cope with moving forward despite feeling so bad. And in that song, there’s a line that’s like, “Another year has passed, and I don’t feel as old/ As it says on my license, until I am told/ That I have grown into a great big wild oak/ And I’ll always be a sapling to my mother.” Which ties also just to, as much as I try to grow, I feel like there is always a place that I come back to where I feel still like a child, you know. Like, “What am I doing, what’s going on?” It’s just a lot – like, feeling lost. And that’s where the album title came from, and it all just kind of rolled out after that.

    I love how, in that song, you kind of go back and forth between setting a very specific scene and then zoning out with thoughts like, “I know someone’s rolling over in their grave/ They want to tell me I’m missing out on living.” Is that something that often happens to you when you’re in ordinary situations, where you’re hit by these almost existential questions? Or was it very much related to the fact that it was your birthday?

    Yeah, I feel that it was a much bigger factor, where it was my birthday and I felt very upset. That line you just said specifically is about, like, the year before I had lost a really close friend of mine, Kevin, and I had also lost my aunt. And I was incredibly depressed. I was sort of just like, “Man, I’m just laying in my bed all day, and like, they’re not here anymore, and they would be incredibly upset probably if they were here and I had told them about this.” And that’s what that line is typically referring to. And yeah, it is common in the sense of like, I’m human and these thoughts happen and sometimes things get really hard, and it’s easy to fall in a swamp and feel sad. But the song is trying to find comfort in a crappy situation.

    Do you feel like writing and recording that song has helped you come out the other end of that feeling?

    Yeah, maybe to a certain point. I mean, I feel like you’ll always feel pain for losing a loved one, whether it’s through death or romantically, you know. And you can grow from it, but I feel like ultimately you’ll always carry that with you.

    What was it like working with the rest of the band and seeing how the songs grew in their own way since you first wrote them?

    It was really cool. I was so used to just doing everything on my own, and it was a lot of fun getting to work with my best friends and just make what it is now. At that point, it sort of becomes less about what I wrote, you know, and it’s like more of a technical thing of, you’re allowed to step outside of the lyrics and just have fun with it.

    I wanted to ask you about the stunning photograph that graces the cover, which predates the album. Could you give a little bit of backstory as to how that came about?

    I was in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington, just visiting a friend. And we went on this hike, and I always have a camera with me so I’m just taking pictures of everything with no intention, really, just to have it. And we get to this part of the trail, which is kind of like the peak point of the trail because you’re about to see Mount Rainer, and right aside from it is this beautiful pond, and I just see these people swimming in it. I was just like, “Wow, that’s so magical. I have to take a picture of this.” And when I got it developed, I was very surprised and just like, “I need to use this, I don’t know what I’ll use it for, but I’ll save it for later.” I never posted it, I just wanted to keep it saved if an opportunity ever came. And whenever the album was done, I was unsure about the album photo, and I remembered, like, “What about that photo?” And for a while, we were going to incorporate drawings on the photo, but I think the day before, even after we commissioned my friend to do it, I decided, “Let’s just go just the photo.” And yeah, I’m really happy with it.

    Do you have other photographs that you’re proud of that you think you might use in the future?

    At this moment, no. I’ve been really into Super 8, so I’ve been shooting a lot of that and saving that, but I put some of those clips in the ‘Always’ music video. I just went to Seattle again and went to Mount Rainier because we took limited polaroids for pre-orders, and I have a roll of film that I’m really excited to develop.

    How did it feel going back there?

    It was really surreal. My friends got to see what this picture everyone’s been like looking at and you just immediately know and you’re like, “Wow.”

    Whether it be with lines and poetry or photographs that you don’t use right away, can you describe that feeling of finally being like, “Okay, I think this is a good time to put this out into the world”?

    Yeah, it’s weird because I sort of forget about those things. It’s like I’m subconsciously holding on to them and I don’t even realise it, and there just comes a moment, like in ‘Swim’, where I was like, “If a salmon can swim upstream then I can learn to swim,” and it just made sense at that moment. There isn’t like a formula to it, I guess it just happens sometimes.

    With the release of the album, do you still feel like you’re in that place where you still haven’t fully realized it yet?

    A part of me is incredibly nervous for people to hear it, but another part of me – we’ve been working on it for so long that I’m just ready. And yeah, I have no idea how it’s gonna feel the day of. I’ve never released something like this. I can believe it, but it also does feel like a dream in a way.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. 

    Skirts’ Great Big Wild Oak is out now via Double Double Whammy.

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