Girl talk

An interview with Garrison Starr

Singer/songwriter Garrison Starr, a Grammy-nominee for her songwriting work on Margaret Cho’s “American Myth” album, is back in a big way. “Girl I Used to Be,” Starr’s highly-anticipated new album, is scheduled for release later this year. Working once again with producer Neilson Hubbard, Starr recorded the album in Nashville over the course of five days. Before the album is released, Starr is heading out on tour with fellow Tennessean Lolo on the “Tennessee Queens” tour during the summer months. I had the pleasure of catching up with her shortly before the tour began.

Gregg Shapiro: In order to give readers some renewed perspective on your background, I want to begin by saying that if anyone can attest to the changes in the music world it would be you. Twenty-two years ago, your major-label debut “Eighteen Over Me” was released on Geffen. From there you moved to Virgin and then Vanguard. Looking back on that part of your career, please say something about that experience and how it affected your work.

Garrison Starr: I’ve thought about that a lot, actually. Especially in making this new record and feeling like I’ve gotten back to myself, in a way. My favorite thing to do is to pick up my acoustic guitar and play and sing. I think I started trying to divorce myself from the acoustic guitar as I moved from label to label. When I got signed, and I had a lot of buzz around me when I was first starting out, the Lilith Fair thing was big. The female singer/songwriters had blossomed. When I came on the scene, it was just starting to fade out.

Alanis Morissette came around and it was an edgier, more indie rock sound. Although my record was more rock than it was Lisa Loeb/singer/songwriter at that time because I was so angry [laughs], it was still based around me and the acoustic guitar. That was my primary vehicle for singing and playing. I’ve always worked out my issues in my songs. My story, growing up in the fundamentalist Christian church and not having anybody to talk to or share my pain or anxiety with, I started writing songs.

As I got into the music industry, the business of music is focused on aesthetics and numbers and other things that are contrary to creating art and to being free and exploratory. When I look back over the years, I see myself kind of dumbing myself down to try and figure out what was going to work. At the time, I didn’t see it that way. Over the years, however, I can see myself trying to change or conform a little to bit to what would fit the industry.

After my second record, I felt, for myself, that I had trouble getting my foot in somewhere. I felt like I was one step behind what the industry was doing. I was doing my own thing, but not quite fitting in in some way. At least that’s how I feel about it looking back on it. The major-label thing was tough. I think I was so unsure about who I was at the time because I was so confused from the rejection of the church. That rejection was a direct assault on who I am  as a person. The industry can be really harsh in that way, too. When the industry decides that something is no longer relevant, they just shut it down.

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Shapiro: Are you saying that you experienced the similarities between the two?

Starr: There were a lot of similar parallels between what I was going through personally, being rejected by and kicked out of the church for my sexuality, and having to deal with that hurt and pain, and then moving into an industry where everybody loves you, and then maybe you get lost in the shuffle. Even though it’s not personal, that’s what it feels like. When you don’t have a lot of tools for that kind of life stuff, that can be very toxic.

Shapiro: It’s devastating.

Starr: Yes, devastating is definitely one of the things that it is.

Shapiro: In addition to being known as a solo artist, you have also been involved in other musical projects, including the bands Plover (with Glen Phillips and Neilson Hubbard), Among the Oak & Ash and The Silent War (with AG).

To Garrison Starr, music is meant to be truly listened to. piece by piece. instead of the whole body of work or record. (Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez)

Starr: Of those three projects, my favorite one was The Silent War. I love Glen Phillips and Neilson Hubbard. I love that music, and I loved the process of making it. But I think at the time we made Plover I was not in a very good place in my life. I wasn’t in a very collaborative space. I’ve done so many collaborations since then. I’ve told Glen and Neilson that I want us to make another Plover record now that I’ve had so much more life experience and so much more creative experience collaborating with other people. I love the way it sounds, and I love what it represents for that time. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done. The Silent War is special to me because Adrianne Gonzalez (AG) is both a peer and a mentor to me in terms of songwriting and production. She’s so talented. She makes me better. When we write together, I know she’s going to push me and we’re going to get something great. It’s always a fun challenge to work with Adrianne. She’s so devoted to the craft, to making things as great as they can be, and I trust that. Neilson’s the same way. I love working with producers and writers who are going to push it and not let anything slide by. They’re going to be true to the art and hold you accountable to making the best stuff you can make. In that way, The Silent War was my favorite.

Shapiro: Over the years, you’ve had good fortune in terms of the placement of your songs on TV and in movies. What has that kind of exposure meant to you as an artist?

Starr: The first thing it meant to me in the beginning was that my songs can actually make me some money. I’ve never made any money from all the records I’ve made. As I’ve been an indie artist in my later career, I’ve made some money. Songwriters aren’t making any money unless they’re fortunate enough to get a big hit; a top 10 or something that there’s not 14 writers on. I’d gotten to a place where I was thinking, “How am I ever going to move forward? When I started diving into the placement world, I was burned out. I felt like I’d been rode hard and put away wet in terms of the industry. I was so down on myself. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I’d tried everything to put my career in a place where at least I was happy, and I wasn’t happy. If I could find a way to have my songs make some money, then I could do my artist career any way that I wanted. At the end of the day, you have to have capital, you have to put gas in the car [laughs]. I was just living hand to mouth.

Nini Camps, a friend in New York, invited me there to write with her. We were writing specifically for TV and film, which was really cool. That was my first foray into real constant collaboration. I’m grateful to Nini. I was feeling so down on my career and questioning how to move forward. I had moved from L.A., where I was happy, to Nashville, and I was unhappy, confused and lost there. Nini and I made all these songs in New York.

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Her wife, Brooke, who was at (record label) Razor & Tie and is now at Concord, started placing all these songs for us. That gave me the ability to step back and widen the lens and try and figure out what I wanted to do next as an artist. After touring, banging my head against the wall and working my ass off and spinning my wheels, I needed to make some money to keep going. That’s what TV and film gave me at first. Now, it’s given me a rich world in which I get to continue to collaborate with amazing and talented songwriters and artists. In that way, it’s been a great gift.

Shapiro: You have described your forthcoming new album “Girl I Used to Be,” your first solo album since 2007s “The Girl Who Killed September,” as “an actual completed thought, sequenced as a storyline, with nine songs on it”. At a time when the model for purchasing music is iTunes singles at 99 cents a pop, please say something about making a traditional album.

Starr: To me, that’s what a record is. You listened to a record from beginning to end. I think of a record as a whole story. That’s how I used to listen to music. I got invested in the whole story. When Neilson (Hubbard) and I made this record, we sequenced it like it was a storybook. It has a first chapter and a last chapter; it’s a piece of art. There’s a through-line, a story. People can pick it apart if they want to, but when you look at it as a whole picture, it makes sense. That’s what a record means to me. To me, it should be something from which you can take the pieces out, but when you put it together as a puzzle it makes a picture. It’s not just a bunch of random pieces that fit together. It’s a deliberate story. I personally love that about records. That’s my experience of listening to music. If you listen to (Neil Young’s) “Harvest,” you’re not just listening to one song from the album your entire life, you’re probably listening to the whole record; popping it on the record player and letting it play all the way through. It seems to me that people are craving real stories and authenticity again. I love pop music, don’t get me wrong. I think some of these pop songwriters are some of those most talented people there are. It’s not easy to write some of these top hits. I applaud those people. The problem is that this world sort of lends itself to a lot of people trying to be like everybody else. Maybe that’s just human nature in general. It’s hard to find the courage to find your own voice. I’m drawn to people who are telling stories that are pushing the envelope. I’m drawn to the David and Goliath underdog story. I’m drawn to the fight. I’m drawn to trying to change the world even in the face of someone saying it’s impossible.

Shapiro: You talked a bit about the church. The incredible “The Devil In Me”, which opens your new album “Girl I Used to Be,” is particularly timely, given the rise of religious fundamentalism and the ongoing banning of conversion therapy and such. Did you realize at the time you were co-writing the song with Carly Paige that this was going to be such a timely composition?

Starr: No, I didn’t. Honestly, the way the songs on this record came about was I was writing them thinking they were going to be someone else’s songs. What I believed was that nobody wants to put out my records. Nobody thinks I’m relevant. I was telling myself that I wasn’t a viable artist anymore. My time had passed.

As I started collaborating, I thought to myself, “You’re just going to be a songwriter now. This is what my career will be from now on”. Then I looked back at these other songs I’d written with other people that nobody is doing anything with. This X artist isn’t cutting this great song that we wrote for them. No one’s recording it, and no one’s pitching it, so I’ll take it. I made a list of 10 or 11 songs that meant something to me over the last several years. I realized that I had a body of work that’s strong. These are my songs, not somebody else’s songs. Taking all these songs, on which I collaborated with other songwriters, I realized that all these other people helped me be the best that I could be. To be able to take these songs and make them mine, to be able to say the words I needed to say at the time. I wasn’t planning on making a record. I got all of these songs together and thought, “Wow! I do have something to say and this is it.”

Shapiro: Finally, Garrison, I’d like to ask you about being a part of the queer southern female singer/songwriter tradition, which includes the Indigo Girls, Michelle Malone, Mary Gauthier, Brandy Clark, H.C. McEntire, Lucy Dacus and Sarah Shook. Can you please say something about your place in that realm and the importance of being out as a queer southern artist?

Starr: I don’t know what my place is. I hope I have a place. What I want to say is that I’m proud to be from Mississippi. I really am. Because I think Mississippi is special. I think that people from Mississippi have an unspoken sort of connection. It’s like in the movie “Mississippi Burning.” When the preacher says to them, “Hey, y’all, we have a system around here and you’re fucking it up. Y’all need to get out of here. We have a way that we communicate and it works for us.” The reason I bring up that example is that I feel like people in Mississippi, and maybe it’s all of the South, but people in Mississippi have an unspoken bond. We have a language; we have a thing. We may not agree with each other, but for the most part, it’s not going to keep us from stepping up or having a conversation when it’s needed. Or for helping each other out when we need help. That’s something I’ve always experienced in my time in Mississippi.

I’ll also say that I had to leave the South because I was so hurt and angry by what happened to me that I had to leave. I hope that I have a place, that I’ve been honest enough in my music. That I’ve somehow paved the way for younger artists to be free to be themselves. I left because I was dying inside. Should I have tried to stay and fight? I don’t know. I’ve always tried to be honest in my music and be myself and stand up for what I believe is right, regardless of the situation. I hope that I’ve done that. I hope my music gives people something to hold onto, just like music has always given that to me.

Los Angeles-based lesbian singer/songwriter/producer Garrison Starr performs on May 11 at Backyard Stages in Greensboro, on May 12 at Pour House Music Hall in Raleigh and on May 14 at Evening Muse in Charlotte. For more information, visit garrisonstarr.com.

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