by Jay Singh
Alex Montenegro discusses family, community, and the memories that made her debut record, Great Big Wild Oak
‘Think I’m going back out there to get on my feet / It’s been so long stuck in trial, if I work myself up, it feels worthwhile,’ opens Great Big Wild Oak, the debut album from Dallas-born singer-songwriter, Alex Montenegro, better known as skirts. Her words, exhaling light and reassuring, beckon you to follow her out into the world again. It’s this warm-hearted, empathetic attitude that makes Montenegro’s music so intriguing: quiet meditations on lost love, feelings of emptiness and the inescapable passage of time unravel upon foundations of rustic folk – each song imbued with a homely Southern charm.
The record’s sleeve is adorned by a gorgeous photograph that Montenegro took a few years back, while on a hike through Washington’s Mount Rainier. She held onto this photo, knowing it was special: worth more than a fleeting Instagram post. Depicting a serene setting of lush green trees, rippling water and an innocent group of children wading in it, it’s one of those album covers that tells you exactly how the music sounds before you hit play. The photo is shot at a distance that makes the people in the water seem miniature — like little plastic figurines nestled amongst the scenery of a model train set, positioned perfectly to portray a scene of passing tranquility.
This is reflected across Great Big Wild Oak’s gentle, meandering tour through Montenegro’s memories, kept feelings and regrets. She describes it as something of a ‘Frankenstein album,’ written over the years, and recorded in a myriad of her friends’ home studios. A standout track from the LP, Swim, is built around a line taken from an old poem she wrote and posted on Tumblr: ‘If a salmon can swim upstream then I can learn to swim.’ ‘It felt like I’d been holding on to it all this time for this reason, for this song,’ Montenegro explains. ‘I think I wrote that when I was like 16 or 17, and it’s 10 years later now.’
Within that lyric, in particular, is a key lesson of the record: that we need to be kinder and more patient with ourselves. It’s abundantly clear in the mantras and reminders weaved throughout Great Big Wild Oak that songwriting is a form of self-care for Montenegro. ‘I feel like I’m very guilty of being a very straightforward songwriter. I’ve never been the best at creating a story, which I hope I can try and get better at. All these songs start off for a very specific reason — to cope — and then turn into something much bigger. This album really does feel like growth to me – emotionally.’
Montenegro’s introduction to the music world was at a relatively young age when her dad would play her his favourite records from the 70s and 80s when he wasn’t DJing parties. ‘He was always trying to introduce me to stuff, which initially I hated, and I was just like, “Oh my gosh, it sucks.” But now, as an adult, every time I hear one of those songs passing by, I’m immediately hit with nostalgia.’ It was School of Rock that first made her want to pick up a guitar, though, aged nine and dying to be as cool as the kids of Horace Green Prep School: ‘I was like: “Let’s do it, let’s get rockin’!”’
She first found community online as a teen, and then eventually in real life through her job at a record store in her native Texas. It allowed her to develop her own musical taste, too, annoying her co-workers by spinning Alex G and Frankie Cosmos’ records on repeat. ‘I met a lot of people who were involved in the local community, and, specifically, my friend, Evan Gordon, who plays in my live band,’ she says. ‘He introduced me to these groups of people that later became my closest friends; I’ve become friends with so many amazing artists here that I would have never known about because of that. I didn’t realise that there is so much good music really close by.’
Great Big Wild Oak is a bit of a family affair in that regard; recorded alongside her dearest friends from the local scene in their houses, it bristles with a sense of community spirit. From the saxophone and clarinet sprinkled throughout Easy to the shifted harmonies of Annie, even when Montenegro may feel alone, there’s always someone around to put a hand on her shoulder.
It was initially a more traditional heartbreak record, she explains. Remember deals with the shame over fixating on painful resurfaced memories, and Always somewhat bitterly misses an ex-lover atop the record’s most glistening, upbeat production (‘You wanted to mention that I left a lasting impression / But I watched you walk away, step into a house that isn’t mine’). Opening track, Back Out, was a direct response to this – Montenegro willing herself out of the dark: ‘It’s about being stuck in a depressive episode for so long, and finally saying: “No, it’s okay. You can get out of this.”’
When penultimate track, Sapling, was written, Great Big Wild Oak truly felt complete to Montenegro. ‘I wrote that song the day before my birthday, and I just started crying; it felt really significant to me,’ she says. ‘It’s coping with this weird guilt of existing when close friends have passed.’ She lifted the album’s title from a verse of this song, where she muses on the disconnect she feels from her age: ‘Another year is passing, and I don’t feel as old / As it says on my license until I’m told / That I’ve grown into a great big wild oak / And I’ll always be a sapling to my mother.’
‘I don’t know how it is with other people, but with my parents, I’m always going to be their baby. Sometimes that can feel very stunting for me — like I’m not allowed to be 100% how I want to be because I have this imprinted feeling my parents have given me that I’m always a child. Even if I’m 50 years old, I’m still a child.’
But as the defining statement for the record, the phrase Great Big Wild Oak represents all of the tender encouragement Montenegro gives herself throughout. It’s a reminder of potential — that something which starts out so small can flourish up to unimaginable heights — and of those treasured individuals who continually look up at you in awe. As she concludes: ‘Even if you feel small and not significant and isolated, there are people out there that care, and love you. That, to me, is equivalent to being a giant, big, beautiful tree.’
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