Known for big hats and big hair, Dallas has often produced music with a certain glitzy sheen—the polished country pop of the Dixie Chicks, for example. Even the avant-garde sounds of St. Vincent and the weirdo rock of Tripping Daisy and the Polyphonic Spree possess a flair for theatrics. Great Big Wild Oak, the understated but excellent debut album out this week from 26-year-old Alex Montenegro, a.k.a. Skirts, bucks this trend.
Like the tree in its title, the ten-song collection thrives on a quiet power, remaining rooted in straightforward arrangements even as subtle embellishments like saxophone and flute flutter like leaves among Montenegro’s airy vocals. Imbued with stunningly earnest lyricism, these songs thrive on nostalgia—even while exploring painful experiences like a breakup or the loss of a friend. “The album feels like looking through a scatter of a hundred pictures,” Montenegro says. “It’s kind of like looking into a journal of mine.” Concrete yet fragmented images—like a “spare key in the front yard, underneath the bed of flowers”—meld with delicate instrumentation. Together they create an impression that drifts by coolly, like a Polaroid daydream.
When Montenegro was growing up in the Dallas suburb of Richardson, her mother worked as a nanny. Montenegro would often tag along to “the rich part of town,” where the family her mom worked for had a piano. She’d plunk out melodies on the ivory keys, eventually learning a simple version of “Ode to Joy.” For her tenth birthday, her father gave her a guitar; she’d recently seen School of Rock and couldn’t get the idea of learning to play out of her head. But her earliest music memories are of her father listening to disco and classic rock like Queen, Elton John, and the Band on his Technics turntable, which he taught her how to use. “I maybe didn’t like what he listened to back then, but now if one of those songs comes on, I can’t help but sing along,” she says with a smile.
Around age sixteen, Montenegro began writing songs in the privacy of her bedroom, despite feeling that her music had no place in the showy Dallas scene that she knew. When she was nineteen, she got a “life-changing” job at a renowned local record store, Good Records. Working there exposed her to a deluge of new sounds, from the artsy pop of Joanna Newsom to the mellow, psychedelic indie rock of Alex G, who proved particularly formative for Montenegro. “I like listening to music that conveys an emotion I can relate to,” she says. That impressionistic approach became her blueprint. “It’s more about a feeling versus diction.”
With Good Records functioning as a subculture hub, she also met a cadre of like-minded musicians, including Evan Gordon, who briefly turned his house into a beloved DIY venue called the cOoompound. Though that venue had folded already, Montenegro soon found herself among kindred spirits. “Growing up, I would always daydream about moving away somewhere,” she says. Now, she loves her city, particularly East Dallas, where her cohort of friends ride bikes on trails or spend afternoons hanging out by the pool at someone’s apartment complex.
That discovery of community effectively transformed her outlook on the entire state, which has slowly carved out a place in her heart—and her music. If Montenegro’s songs are like photographs, the fingerprints on the glossy finish are distinctly Texan. “Swim” and “True,” two of the album’s best tracks, feature beautiful swells of twangy pedal steel, played by coproducer Vincent Bui, whom Montenegro credits with much of the album’s tone and texture. Great Big Wild Oak‘s lyrics also contain flashes of Montenegro’s upbringing in the Lone Star State. “Papa was a rodeo, you’re like him,” she sings over skittering percussion on “Easy.” And the standout “Sapling,” one of the most fully realized and mature songs, recounts a bet over a Texas Rangers game. Leaving Texas to tour nationwide has increased her affection for Texas, Montenegro says: “I’ve been to so many places on tour, and nothing is the same as the Texas sky.”
Strangely, connecting with Dallas’s local community of DIY musicians led Montenegro to an extended family of artists when she signed to Double Double Whammy to release her album. Based in Brooklyn, the label has defined itself with a bevy of artists akin to Skirts—sincere songwriters who craft gently devastating indie pop albums. While those artists hail from all over the U.S., some call Texas home, including Lomelda and Hovvdy, two excellent points of reference for approaching Skirts’ lo-fi pop. Double Double Whammy agreed to put out her debut after hearing the series of singles and an EP, beginning in 2017.
In the process of writing material for her first full-length release, which she began in 2018 and completed last year, Montenegro ended up with far more songs than ultimately made the cut. The final collection is the result of thoughtful pruning and a recording timeline lengthened by the pandemic, during which Montenegro and her collaborators continued to add layers, such as electric piano and drum machines. Such focus and careful attention yielded a cohesive and developed composition.
While effortlessly listenable and perfect for relaxed Sunday mornings basking in soft sunlight, the record also navigates some intense emotions, including familial hardships and the sudden death of a close friend. Not to mention the ubiquitous heartache of young love. “Fold an old T-shirt that was yours but then mine, a distant memory I wanted to hold, put it at the bottom of my drawer,” Montenegro sings forlornly on “Remember.”
At just 26, the songwriter has already developed a mature take on the painful experiences from which her songs stem. Of songwriting, she says, “It can make a hard situation bearable.” At times, she says, making music feels more like a therapeutic self-interrogation than creating art. That willingness to be vulnerable ultimately resulted in a powerful sense of catharsis and comfort. “After a while, they stop feeling like my songs. They feel more like this past place,” she explains. By externalizing her experiences in song, she’s been able to step outside them and hold them up to the light to examine.
In the end, the songs on Great Big Wild Oak became accounts of Montenegro’s past selves, a chronicle of her growth, like the rings inside a tree that signify the passing years. If there’s a message to take from Skirts’ debut album, it’s likely one as uncomplicated as the songs themselves. Montenegro sums it up well: “It gets easier.”