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Turn Me On: Garrison Starr
Since recording her first album in 1993, Garrison Starr has continued to blend folk-rock, Americana and singer-songwriter influences with incredible deftness and to compelling effect. On Garrison Starr’s forthcoming album, Girl I Used To Be, Starr stays unwaveringly true to the emotional landscape she has explored throughout her career, confronting the most confessional, introspective and vulnerable aspects of herself and her experience.
Starr’s recent live shows, launching her Patreon, and Girl I Used To Be, all find Starr reclaiming space as a solo artist, after spending the last few years focusing on interesting collaborations and varied side projects while writing songs for film and TV. Starr produced Margaret Cho’s Grammy-nominated American Myth album in 2016, and earlier this year had a co-writing credit on the Backstreet Boys’ latest album, DNA. Starr has a robust 2020 on the horizon, releasing an EP early in the year with Sean McConnell under the name My Sister, My Brother before putting out Girl I Used To Be.
Starr recently spoke with Rock Cellar over the phone from her home in Los Angeles while enjoying a few days off before kicking off a west coast run with singer-songwriter LOLO on their “Tennessee Queens” tour.
In recalling how her childhood in Hernando, Mississippi led to her career as a singer-songwriter, Starr recounted, “I grew up in fundamentalist Christianity. Everybody was conservative. And everyone talked about Jesus. It just seemed like a normal thing to grow up in. Until I realized, at a pretty young age, that who I was, was directly going to be in conflict with that belief system.”
Starr continued, “When I was really young, I realized that I was gay. Or at least that I had those feelings. I was very aware at a very young age that there was something different about me. As I got older, it got more intense. But I was in private Christian school. I was in that world. I spoke that language. Or at least I wore that skin. Because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do. As I got older, that started to become a problem. That’s the reason I became a songwriter.”
When asked if she ever felt herself consciously define her perspective or voice as a songwriter, Starr revealed, “No. I didn’t. When I first started out, it was whatever was coming out of my mouth. Wherever I felt like the muse was taking me. I think I was born with a gift. But I think I really leaned to writing songs because that was the only place that I could really tell my story. I didn’t think I could talk to anybody around me. Because it wasn’t safe to disclose to anyone what my true feelings were. Because that just wasn’t going to be acceptable. When I got to college I was outed. I was ostracized from the Christian community and essentially all my friends. I was in a sorority. So it was a huge scandal. It was very humiliating. I ended up leaving school and moving to Memphis and basically starting my career.”
After living in Memphis for a few years, Starr moved to LA and was signed to Geffen Records. The release of her first major label album, Eighteen Over Me, lead to Starr participating in the first two years of Lilith Fair, the traveling, all-female festival co-founded by Sarah McLachlan. Starr remembered of her years on the tour, “It was the coolest festival ever. At any point, at any turn, you could see somebody awesome playing. So many of my heroes were on that tour. Sarah McLachlan’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy is still one of my favorite records of all time. I got to meet The Indigo Girls and Mary Chapin Carpenter and Bonnie Raitt. It was a dream come true. It was incredible to feel like a peer among those people.”
As Starr continued to enthusiastically reminisce about Lilith Fair, she shared, “The people who were running the thing would always ask me to come to the panels because they knew I liked to talk. It would be me and Natalie Merchant and Skye Edwards from Morcheeba, who was breastfeeding one time in an interview. Which was just hilarious. Amy Ray and a couple of other people would be on the panel, and me. Because I would sit there and get up in there and talk with them. It was pretty awesome. That tour was special in a lot of ways. I wish they’d bring it back. Or somebody would bring back something like it. Because it was nice to feel a part of something so historic. It felt like a real moment in the music business that’s something people will look back on and remember. I feel really lucky that I got to be a part of that.”
In the years since independently releasing 2012’s Amateur, Starr has been focusing on co-writing with a growing list of diverse artists, including Adrianne Gonzalez in their project This, The Silent War and The Rocketboys’ frontman Brandon Kinder, with whom she recorded the Lovey Dovey EP. Starr ruminated, “I’ve grown a lot as a songwriter over the last several years, especially, and as a person, through collaborating with other artists. Which is something that I never used to do when I was younger. To be honest, there’s a part of me that’s been threatened by other artists and other writers. Like, ‘All of these songs need to have my name on them. I don’t want anybody else’s name on these songs. Because I write my own songs. And I don’t need anybody’s help writing songs.’ I started collaborating with other people, as I started thinking about diversifying my songwriting business to get into writing for TV and film. And getting invited to songwriter camps and things like that where you get paired up with people. That’s the whole point. You start to cast your nets a little bit wider. To try to have some of your songs making money, so you can actually live as an artist.”
On how these and an increasingly-prolific number of co-writing experiences influenced her as a songwriter and as a person, Starr reflected, “I’ve started doing more of that kind of work, collaborating with others. I feel like that has opened me up so much just in terms of learning new inflections and walking in new territories and trying out new things with my voice. Or writing a song that someone else might sing. Those are just aspects of the writing I had never really considered before. To be honest, I think that’s changed my life more than anything. It’s opened me up so much in my own writing. I can see now when I sit down to write a song by myself, there’s just places I’ll go and things I’ll do that I might not have done before. Because I’ve experienced so many different flavors and different aesthetics from other great writers and other great artists.”
Starr’s co-writing efforts recently resulted in her having a co-writing on the Backstreet Boys’ 2019 album, DNA. When asked how that came about, Starr beamed, “That was really cool. There’s a guy named Stuart Crichton. He’s a producer and writer. I had gotten set up with him. He’s done a bunch of stuff for Ke$ha. He’s a really cool guy. He and I had a session booked together. I had an idea on the way over. That Rihanna song, ‘Love on the Brain.’ I loved that song. I was obsessed with it. I thought it was the coolest thing.”
“I thought, ‘I kind of want to write a song like that. Like a soulful, cool throwback kind of song.’ So as I was driving to the session, I had this idea for the chorus. I had the melody idea, just that song concept. So I got there and Stuart had invited another artist-writer, his name was Justin Jesso. He’s been on the road with Kygo for the last couple of years. The three of us were there. Justin and I basically just toplined the lyrics to the music. Stuart was kind of creating the track. And that’s how it happened. Then Stuart was doing some vocal production and recording some vocals for the new Backstreet Boys album. They were looking for a ballad. And Stuart said, ‘Well, I happen to have this sitting around.’ Right in the moment, Nick Carter heard it and loved it. That’s how it came to be. All the stars lined up.”
While Starr’s 2014 and 2017 solo EPs, The Forgotten Street and What If There Is No Destination, respectively, feature songs that are to be counted among Starr’s finest, 2020’s Girl I Used To Be is set to mark Starr’s first full-length solo album in eight years. As to what led to there being another Garrison Starr solo album at this particular moment in time, Starr related, “As I was writing all of these songs, I was never thinking any of these songs were for me. I thought, ‘My time as an artist is kind of done. I’m too old. I’m a lesbian. Nobody fucking cares. So I’ll just write songs and that’s fine.’ Then, cut to doing that for several years, and being in the room with a lot of people who didn’t know what they wanted to say. I thought, ‘Wait a second. I know what I want to say.’ So I started looking at all of the songs that I had written thinking they were going to be for somebody else. And realizing, some of these amazing songs, nobody was cutting them. So I cherry-picked the ones that I was resonating with and realized, ‘I think I need to make another record.’”
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I am so incredibly proud of this. Thanks to @secretroad and @byaginc for making this happen. I love Mr. Rogers and the doc on Netflix really touched me. ❤️ hashtag truly blessed #Repost @byaginc with @get_repost ・・・ I’m SOOOOO excited about this one. Wrote this incredible song the one of my best friends ever and I am so so so glad to see it get placed in this also incredible International trailer for this movie that the world really needs right now. Love you @garrisonstarr, proud of us 🖤🖤🖤 Huuuuge shout out to @phyliciachong and the whole @secretroad team for making this happen!! ⠀ *****⠀ Film: A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood Song: Better Day Comin’ Artist: @garrisonstarr Written By: AG, Garrison Starr Produced By: AG⠀ ⠀ *****⠀ @secretroad @sonypictures #mrrogers #femaleproducer
When asked what makes the songs on Girl I Used To Be resonate with her so genuinely in this moment, Starr shared, “I’ve been digging into some spiritual work. And what is brought forth in the music, it is cool to see that. A lot of my earlier stuff is darker. Because I was in a dark spot. I was working out a lot of stuff. I was really angry about things. I think that I’ve realized that the anger was serving me in my earlier days because it helped me to survive. But now it’s in the way. That anger is now in the way. So I’ve had to learn how to break it up and send it off. I’ve had to learn how to forgive. In a way that I just didn’t want to and didn’t think I had to when I was younger.
“But I realized that in order for me to go forward, I can’t carry all that stuff with me. You’ve got to let it go. You’ve got to forgive and send it on its way.”
As Starr continues to prepare the release of Girl I Used To Be and ready a handful of 2020 announcements, she continues to build her Patreon, where fans can regularly hear unreleased songs and acoustic demos. Asked what she most enjoys about the subscription model, Starr answered, “I love that you can basically create your own business with Patreon. I love connecting with the fans, and connecting with people in general. I think that’s why I love performing so much. Patreon is kind of fun. Because you can just create. I can sit in my studio and make little videos. And I can practice my songs. And I can share new stuff. I’ve been doing it for the last couple of years. I love to get a chance to work things out on the platform and just be me, for better or worse. If it’s 9:00am and I feel like doing something, I can make it video and put it up on Patreon. Anything that you can dream, basically, you can bring to life and on that platform. I think it’s a great idea to empower artists and to help support artists. It has been like a steady stream of income for the last couple of years. Which is obviously helpful and appreciated. I’m kind of just having fun with it. I’m starting to change things up a bit. It’s fun to be empowered to take control of your business and to create a new way to engage with people and also get paid for it.”
Prior to releasing Girl I Used To Be, Starr is set to kick-off 2020 with the January release of “Nothing Without You,” the first single from My Sister, My Brother followed by Starr and McConnell touring together on the West Coast. Starr previewed, “There’s a way that Sean and I sing together that’s really effortless and undeniable. I’ll get to play some of my songs. And we’ll also get to introduce the new project to the audience. So I’m looking forward to that.”
Starr promises a release date for their EP as well as more 2020 touring plans to be announced in the coming weeks.
To turn yourself on to Garrison Starr, find her music on Spotify and check out her Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/garrisonstarr. Garrison Starr is on Instagram and Twitter @garrisonstarr and Facebook @garrisonstarrmusic. Visit https://www.garrisonstarr.com for merch and upcoming tour dates.
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