Once upon a rather recent Valentine's Day, Sarah Fuller received a dick pic for a present. For her young suitor, the unsolicited image had unintended consequences.
"I texted him back and explained to him that it was disgusting, that I was really disappointed and that he was gross," she says. "He tried to backpedal."
Dating for the first time after the end of a two-year relationship, Fuller had forgotten how people play immature, potentially offensive games when courting. But she got the last laugh at that phallic photograph. The guy inspired "Long Gone," the biting lead single from You Can't See Me, the whip-smart five-track debut of her band, See Gulls. Fuller says "Long Gone" affords its subject more sympathy than he deserves, but her writing still hits a raw nerve for anyone ever wronged in the realm of dating.
"I saw you in the produce/You were squeezing the tomatoes," she sings toward the end. "I caught your eye over the strawberries/And I was like, 'Fuck you!'"
The incident is just one in a long string of bad dates for Fuller, who used the experiences to fuel the lyrics and attitude of You Can't See Me. Her past scenarios are funny if painfully familiar, as with the guy who interrupted a make-out session five times to accept phone calls. On other occasions, she's caught herself thinking "This guy will be different!" when every sign suggested otherwise.
"You want to believe there's going to be something more there, that there's some sort of diamond-in-the-rough situation," she says over beers on a balmy weeknight. "A lot of people believe that lie."
Recorded early last year at Fidelitorium, the celebrated Kernersville studio operated by power-pop pioneer Mitch Easter, You Can't See Me is a tight collection of sneering, sassy songs. Backed by a trio of local music veterans, Fuller's taunts ricochet through layers of distortion to arrive at instant hooks. She sings about her romantic misadventures with resigned defiance.
Despite picking up the guitar at age 15, Fuller—unlike her fellow See Gulls—hasn't spent most of her adult life bouncing from act to act. This is the first band she's ever led and the first at all to gain any type of momentum, like the NPR commendation they earned last year. Turns out, Fuller, now 33, had plenty to say.
When she was 25, she was in a group with friends that never took off. She later joined The Big Picture, a quirky and energetic collective that Fuller supported with guitar. Though Fuller was writing songs the entire time, she never felt like they were good enough to share. In a community saturated with talent, she didn't feel her songwriting ability matched that of her peers or pals.
"I was protective. A lot of people I knew did play music, and they were really great at it," she explains. "I sort of felt like me doing it was foolish, because I didn't measure up."
But when The Big Picture fizzled out in 2012 after she and bandleader Jonny Tunnell broke up, Fuller wanted to keep making music. She just needed someone to ask. In the summer of 2013, a friend, Theresa Stone, invited Fuller to come hang out and play music with her and Maria Albani, a bassist and singer who had been in a half-dozen noteworthy area acts by that point. Fuller had admired Albani from afar but had never met her. Stone and Albani convinced Fuller that her songs measured up.
"It wasn't really going to be, 'This will be a thing where Sarah plays her songs!' I was just trying to fill the silence, because we didn't know what to do," she remembers. "It made me think if other people wanted to play them, then maybe other people would want to listen to them, too."
See Gulls' lineup has shifted a few times since that impromptu start. During the last year, though, the roster has settled into stability. Albani pounds the drums, while Hammer No More the Fingers leader Duncan Webster and former Lost in the Trees cellist Leah Gibson add guitar and bass, respectively. Fuller, at last, has found herself at the helm of a proper, committed band.
"I have changed so much throughout the course of this," she says. "I'm so much more assertive."
Fuller credits Albani with inspiring that self-confidence. Albani has been playing music for 18 years, but she only started leading her own band, the quixotic pop group Organos, in 2006. She recognizes how difficult it can be to make the transition from supporting to leading roles.
"I'm an only child. I'm used to doing everything myself," Albani explains. "That's just how I grew up, my way of doing things—if you want something, you ask for it."
For Albani, her role as Fuller's de facto mentor stems from the desire to help her friends find success, however they define it. She knew sharing these songs mattered to Fuller.
"It's very important to her," Albani says. "When you see somebody who has this true passion, if there's anything you can do to help, you just do it."
That self-sufficient, supportive credo is a founding principle of the Potluck Foundation, which Albani operates with a cadre of other local musicians. It functions loosely as a record label and resource pool for its artists. To release You Can't See Me, See Gulls were working with Happy Happy Birthday to Me Records, an established imprint based in Athens, Georgia. But as negotiations stretched across the first quarter of 2015, they decided to take the tunes back and release them themselves.
Fuller's newfound assertiveness is the real star of these songs. Opening track "You Can't See Me" thuds beneath accents of scratchy guitar licks as she sings about haunting an ex. "Don't Write Me Love Songs" is bold and demanding, as the band shouts the title in unison. Some of this audacity, Fuller says, comes from getting comfortable with the idea of being alone without the pain of loneliness, a byproduct of so many good prospects gone bad. She'd rather deal with that than falling, as many of her friends have, for what she dubs the Johnny-and-June myth: A woman thinks that the only thing her total mess of a man needs is one great love to fix everything.
"I do spend time thinking about how being single sucks," she says. "A lot of people, their relationships are the pits. I got to a point where I was just like, 'I'm going to live my life and have the best life that I can, regardless of whether I have a boyfriend or a girlfriend.'"
Being at ease with that means Fuller doesn't have to write sassy kiss-off songs forever. She's already starting to stretch her scope.
"The last two songs I've written have been about what happened with Michael Brown and walking home alone at night, and how you shouldn't have to be scared as a woman," she explains. "My ideas are changing. I'm not having that want and that angst anymore."
In that case, the deluded dick-pic dude will need to be content to continue squeezing his own tomatoes.