GARRISON STARR: SINGER-SONGWRITERíS NEW DIRECTION


Photo by Heather Holty Newton
By Paul Freeman [June 2013 Interview]

Mississippi-born, Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Garrison Starr deserves stardom. She has toured with Lilith Fair and collaborated with such artists as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Glen Phillips and Steve Earle. ďSuperhero,Ē an inspirational number from her 1997 debut album, ďEighteen Over Me,Ē achieved popularity. It was featured on ABCís coverage of Womenís World Cup Soccer. Another song, ďBeautiful in Los Angeles,Ē appeared on MTVís ďThe Hills.Ē Her songs are moving, captivating and skillfully crafted.

Starrís ďEverything You Are Is BeautifulĒ is featured in an anti-bullying TV spot. She knows how it feels to be an outsider.

After stints with labels like Geffen, Starr decided to release her latest album, ďAmateur,Ē on her own. Fans contributed the funding through PledgeMusic.com. Starrís new indie career requires adjustments in attitude and philosophy, as well as nuts-and-bolts approach.

Starrís identification with a fighter is reflected in the cover art for ďAmateur,Ē an illustration of a little boxer. Sheís a battler with a beautiful soul. Her music is cathartic for her, comforting to others.

POP CULTURE CLASSICS:
The ĎAmateurí album is remarkable. The idea of the fan-funding, was that empowering? Was it difficult to wrap your head around at first?

GARRISON STARR:
Totally. You said it all. It was really hard to wrap my head around at first. Because I come from such a label background, I was worried that that was going to appear like needy or helpless, to do the fan-funded thing. But the more I saw my friends doing it, and the more I saw that that was kind of the way the industry was going, the more I just sort of wrapped my head around being an indie artist, for the first time, really, in my whole career, and what that meant. Then it became very empowering. Itís boosted my social media a lot and itís helped me grow a lot. The social media thing has been really important. And PledgeMusic really helped with that. Thatís for sure.

PCC:
The fact that you didnít have to deal with the labels this time, was that liberating in itself?

STARR:
Yeah, you know, itís funny. In hindsight, the more comfortable Iíve gotten in my own skin, as an independent artist, and realizing what it means to be on a label and the freedoms that come with that, that arenít necessarily freedoms... Now that I understand the way the business works - I hesitate to say this, because you never know whatís going to happen and what kinds of partnerships youíll form - I canít imagine being on a label, the way I was back then. I canít imagine signing a record deal now. I just canít imagine that anymore. The more I understand my own business and how the industry works and what ownership means to an artist, I donít know if I could ever do that again.

PCC:
This particular project, ĎAmateur,í had its genesis in a high school journal?

STARR:
Yeah, totally. When I was in high school, I started writing a book called, ĎA View of Life From an Amateur.í And Iíd been getting my junior high English teacher to help me edit it. So I was going call the record, ĎA View of Life From an Amateur,í but all the song titles were so long that I decided to just shorten it to ĎAmateur.í And it kind of has a nice ring to it. And the more I thought about what that project had always meant to me, and what the record means to me, it seemed like a good fit.

PCC:
Did you actual take some ideas from those old jottings?

STARR:
Only the title, and the idea of the title, how fearless I was as a kid, and all the ideas I had and the ways that I was going to conquer the world. Some of those ideas I took, not necessarily the writings themselves. I still hope to one day do something with those, the writings themselves. Thereís a lot of them. Itís funny. I have a manila folder full of all these poems and musings, from my childhood. Itís interesting. Iíve got to take some time and go through that stuff.

PCC:
What about this notion of returning to an amateur status, in terms of attitude or perspective, seeing it as a positive?

STARR:
Itís funny. Iíve spent a little bit of time in 12 Step and Al-Anon and one of the things that Al-Anon taught me was the very strong idea of acceptance. The way to move forward is to really come to terms with where you are and where things are in the moment, where my life is now, instead of whatever ideas I had when I was younger and whatever comparisons I was making and still continuing to make as my life and career went along, and how I internalized the disappointments, Iíd been trying to compare myself to the person I thought I should be, as opposed to the person I actually am and all the successes Iíve actually had and the ways that I want to move forward. The important thing is to accept my life as it is and where I want to go and the fact that it does look different. Iíve never really had a plan.

Accepting that I have a plan now and that I have a better grasp of what I want and what I want the scenery to look like has helped me to be an indie artist and to understand that I do have full control, relatively speaking, over where my life goes, where the path goes. I have the power to decide how I want that to unfold. Iím so much happier now. I donít really know what I thought my life would look like in my mid-30s. But when I stand in my shoes today and look around me, at whatís going on and how much Iíve accomplished, itís exciting, itís not disappointing. If I choose to compare myself to other people and compare myself to some idea of who I thought I might ought to be, then you can make it into as negative as you want to make it. You can always have more money. You can always have more status. You can always more success of some kind, that maybe you donít have. You can always imagine that you want those things or that they should be different. But I really think that once I let go... itís been a long process of letting go of some of the baggage of my history, from my personal history of growing up and my career history. Letting go of those things has been exciting. Itís exciting, when I finally let it be.

Itís hard. In the Ď90s, there was a lot of status that went along with having a record deal. Itís not that way so much anymore, because of the opportunities and the possibilities that exist now. But, back then, it was a big deal to be on a label. Itís what everybody wanted. And, if you had that, then you had something. And if you didnít have that, well, then, everybody else had it but you... Do you know what I mean? Itís the thing that you wanted.

Now, I think the only real enemy is me. Iím swinging at ghosts now. I donít have to fight like I think I have to fight. I think maybe back then I did. But I donít have to do that anymore. And sometime itís hard to remember that, when youíre so used to fighting.

PCC:
That analogy of being a fighter, which is reflected in the cover art, is that something inherent in you, or a quality youíve had to cultivate?

STARR:
Well, itís funny. I think Iíve always had it. And especially growing up in a really conservative, very Fundamentalist Christian environment. That was stifling in a lot of ways. I had to fight to be who I am. I had to fight to get out of that mold that was trying to engulf me. Iím not saying that thereís not a brand of Christianity that I could subscribe to. But the brand that I grew up with is not the way for me. And in some ways, I had to fight to get out of that quicksand.

PCC:
ĎEverything You Are Is Beautiful,í it must have been gratifying to have that song used in the TV anti-bullying campaign. Did you have to endure anything like that? Did you feel like an outsider?

STARR:
Yes, I definitely did. You know, itís funny, because they interviewed so many people. And while we were doing that, I wasnít sure what the final product was going to be. I think, if I had known the way it was going to all flesh itself out, I probably would have said some different things.

But, yes, definitely. And I feel that one of the ways I was bullied was in the church. Unfortunately, that whole Christian circle I was in, I feel like I was bullied by that, by that whole idea and that ideal, that I donít believe in. And I donít mean Jesus, either. I mean the surrounding religion. Thatís what I feel like I was bullied by. Just being gay, I was ostracized from a lot of groups, a lot of churches. And that sucked. It really sucked. It was really painful as a kid, to be told, ĎI love you, but... Ď

And I just think thatís unacceptable. I donít think thatís what love is and I donít think thatís what Jesus would say to anyone. I think that a lot of churches and a lot of Christians have gotten that wrong, especially when youíre feeding all the bullshit into a childís mind, when the child can continue to absorb that stuff and continue to tell themselves, through their adolescence, that theyíre not good enough, not good enough to be loved. Thatís awful. And itís sad to me.

PCC:
Were you open about it back then, growing up in the South?

STARR:
Well, no I wasnít. I wasnít because, thatís not really a soapbox that I care to be on. I mean, my sexuality, the only reason that I would ever make that an issue is when it helps people. I donít have a rainbow flag hanging outside my house. I donít go to gay bars. Iím not putting down anybody who needs that as an identity. But thatís not my identity. I feel like my sexuality was something that I did protect for a long time, because I knew that being open about that was not going to be safe for me. And I found out, later on, that it actually wasnít safe to talk about. And I kept it very private and to myself, number one, because I wasnít sure how I felt about it. And I didnít really know what it meant. And I didnít have anybody to talk to. And, number two, I really wanted to wait until I could get out of an unsafe environment, to figure out what it all meant for me. And I almost made it out [Laughs]. I barely got into college, when my girlfriend and I were discovered. It was a huge scandal. They tried to kick her out of the sorority. My parents pulled me out of school. It was quite a humiliating scenario at the time.

PCC:
So was it near that point that you moved to California?

STARR:
It was. This is actually kind of an awesome story. My friend Bradford Cobb, who manages Katy Perry, heís managed her since she has been signed to Capitol. Gosh, itís been almost 10 years now. But Bradford was moving out to Los Angeles to hook up with a management company called Direct Management. At the time, they were managing the Counting Crows and The B-52s, when both of those bands were at the height of their success. And they still are a good management company. They manage Tracy Chapman and Katy Perry and k.d. lang and a bunch of artists. So Bradford was moving out to get to hook up with those guys to get a job, working there. And my girlfriend at the time, we just had to get out of Memphis. We literally just said, ĎWeíre going with you.í And we threw our stuff in his moving truck and we all moved out together. That was in like June of Ď99, I think.

And itís been amazing. I love L.A. This friend Iím staying with in Nashville at the moment, we went to school together and we were talking about how L.A. is really the only place thatís felt like home to us. It feels like the place you want to be. So, yeah, that was the story. We moved out there with Bradford. And Iíll be eternally grateful to him for that, because I just donít know what it would have been like, if I couldnít have gotten away at that time.

PCC:
With all you had to go through, how important was music in helping you get through the dark times?

STARR:
Oh, man, you know, Iím an only child. And, I hate to say this, because I love my family, and Iím proud to be from Mississippi, and I love all my friends there, but there were just certain things about it that were unsafe. My whole life, the deepest parts of myself just wanted to be shared. They wanted to be shared with my family at that time. And they just werenít. So I put them into my songs and my poems. Thatís the gift that God gave me.

Songs like ĎPretty Good Yearí and ĎCloser To Fine,í so many Indigo Girl songs, and Heartís ĎHeartless,í gosh, man, Bonnie Raittís ĎNobodyís Girl.í So many of these songs, they were my friends, cheesy as that sounds. Those were my friends. Those were the places that I went to hide and cry to and feel safe with. Those were the places that I went.

I can remember being in college, sitting in my dark dorm room, feeling so lonely and just listening to that music and feeling comforted. Feeling understood. Thereís just that understanding there.

PCC:
And can you now get that same sense of comfort and understanding when youíre writing your own songs? When you write something like, ĎYou canít change what you canít change, but you gotta still try,í in ĎTo Garrison On Her 29th Birthday,í can you inspire yourself, when you write that sort of line?

STARR:
Totally. I have more tools now. Iíve been through some therapy. You do some self-care [Laughs]. You get older and you realize that the boundaries have shifted and the walls have crumbled, to a degree. And the weird thing about it is, itís like people evolve, but they donít really acknowledge that. I donít know how to explain it. Itís like you went through something, but itís never really acknowledged. You know what I mean? Itís only acknowledged by you. Itís not necessarily acknowledged by other people who were there, for whatever reason. Because they canít bear to mention it or because they were gone or whatever. Youíre sort of left to pick up the pieces, when you choose to be self-evolved.

So a lot of things have changed now. Our world is changing. So many things are changing. So itís different now. I have a different language and different abilities, emotionally, than I did then. Itís interesting. That trauma, those battles that you fight, they always stay with you.

PCC:
Your song ĎOther Peopleís Eyes,í do you always have to remind yourself not to worry about how other people are perceiving you?

STARR:
Absolutely I do. Thatís something I struggle with all the time, that my first instinct is to be down on myself, to tell myself, ĎYou canít do this.í ĎYou donít deserve this.í But I know that those things arenít true. Theyíre just voices that are there.

It kind of reminds me of that movie, I love that movie, ĎA Beautiful Mind.í I remember thereís that one scene in the movie, when Jennifer Connelly is sitting in front of him and theyíve just been through so much. And she says, ĎI need to believe that extraordinary things are possible.í She just wants him to tell her that itís possible. And I feel like thatís really where I am so much of the time. And thatís where I am with my career, for crying out loud. I mean, I only continue in this business, because I need to believe that extraordinary things are possible. And thatís my whole life. Otherwise, I wouldnít be doing it. I would have given up a long time ago, if this werenít who I am, what I feel called to be doing.

PCC:
But again, that idea of being an amateur again, is that just a return to the purity of it?

STARR:
Yes. And starting over, in a way. Itís okay for me to be starting again. For so long, I didnít want to let go of a lot of the baggage of the past, because I was afraid of what that would mean. I was afraid that it would mean that I had failed, that if I let go of all this other stuff, then that means that Iíve failed. Iím a failure. Thatís what everyone thinks, right? Iím a failure. I had a record deal. I should have sold more records. I should have done this. Should have done that. ĎYou should be famous, Garrison. Why arenít you?í

If I had a dollar for everyone who, innocently enough, asked me why Iím not famous, Iíd be a millionaire. I hate that question. What the hell am I supposed to do with that question? I know what people mean when they say that. But that can be a tricky, dangerous statement, because I can hold onto that and go, ĎWhy am I not more successful? Gosh, I guess they think I should be somewhere Iím not. Well, I guess I should be. I must have failed.í You know what Iím saying?

So, for me, I had to accept, and I have to accept that itís okay that Iím in a new place, that Iím starting over from a new place. And it doesnít mean that the old life is a bad life, that itís a failed life. It just means that weíve turned the boat. Weíre going in a different direction. Weíre going to see what we find over here. And that was really hard for me for a long time. But now Iím excited about it, because Iíve come to terms with what it means. It doesnít mean what I thought it meant. Iím the one who said it meant that. Nobody else did. And if they did, theyíre stupid idiots. Iím the one who perpetuates that picture, that falsehood. Iím the one who has the power to keep that going. Or turn it into something else. And Iíve chosen to turn it into something else, because the other way makes me crazy. And it inhibits me from moving forward. And I really want to move forward.

PCC:
So is part of the process redefining, for yourself, what success is? Just making great music and not caring about the numbers?

STARR:
Yeah. I think thatís what you have to do as an artist. I think what I have to do is to make the best music I can make, to put the best that I have into everything that I do, to be the best singer that I can be, to be the best songwriter I can be, to be of service, in that way, in every opportunity that I have. To be of service. To give of myself. I think I have to let go of the results of those things. I have to take ownership of my goals and my ideas and visualize those things and put them out there and try for them. But I have to let go of whether, ultimately, Iím going to get the things that I want.

So for me, that means Iím not touring as much as I was touring. Iím writing more songs now. And Iím writing more songs with other artists, for TV and film. And Iím just creating more, keeping that creative flow going. And thinking less about, like you said, how many people are going to be at the shows, how much money Iíím going to make. I mean, I know how much money Iím going to make when I go on tour. But Iím thinking less about the end result and more about what Iím putting into each project.

PCC:
With all the collaborations you do, does that inspire you, give you new kinds of energy?

STARR:
Totally. I mean, it feels so good to be working. One thing, as an artist, it doesnít feel like work. But it is work. My friend Adrianne Gonzalez [who now bills herself simply as AG], whoís going to be on this tour with me and Maia [Sharp], we had talks, weíre both reading this book called ĎHarmonic Wealth.í And itís really empowering. Thereís a lot of great strategies in there. And we talk about it. And she was like, ĎLook, man, we have to go to work every day. You work every day. You just put your head down and you go to work.í

Thatís something that I didnít do for a long time, because I was sitting around, pouting, waiting on somebody to drop something in my lap. But Iím not waiting on that anymore. I write every day. When Iím home in L.A., I co-write at least three times a week, if not more. I donít sit around. I work, because it keeps me going and it also takes my mind off things that can distract me from what I want. And itís great. Itís really energizing just to be creating. Thatís what my gift is, a gift to create things. And I feel like thatís my work. Thatís my job.

As you get older and you have more maturity, you can say those things. When youíre younger, you just want what you want and youíre pissed off, if you're not getting it. But as you get older and see how it works, you understand more things. And you can put more things into practice. As one of my therapists used to say, ĎIf you think about it in terms of the alphabet, that person can only communicate A through H. Youíve got all the letters. Youíve got A through Z. Sheís got A through H., so thereís only so far youíre going to get.í

PCC:
One of the most gratifying, magical moments for you must have been when you were performing ĎSuperheroí in Florida and the physically challenged audience members in the front reacted so enthusiastically.

STARR:
Oh, it was amazing! It was magical. I remember I was having trouble singing, because I was crying, because this guy down there was in a wheelchair, signing to my song. And it was really rewarding. And those things still happen in different ways. Even if thereís just a small crowd at a club I play, people will come up and say, ĎIíve been listening to your music for 15 years. I havenít seen you play in 10 years. This is how this song helped me.í

Well, I canít argue with that. Thank you, guys. Thatís great, because it reminds me that itís a bigger thing. Ultimately, itís not really about me. Itís about how I can be of service, with this gift that Iíve been given. And thatís how I have to think about it, because otherwise, it turns into something that I donít like. It turns into, ĎHow can I get this?í ĎHow can I get to this person?í ĎWhat can I get out of it?í ĎHow am I going to do this?í ĎWhat is it going to mean to me?í ĎWhen am I going to get some money?í And that just moves me into a real toxic place. I just donít like how I feel in that space. But I like how I feel when Iím collaborating. I like how I feel when Iím having great conversations with people. I like how I feel, when itís on a bigger level. So my challenge is to keep it on a bigger level.

PCC:
In its own way, can it be just as satisfying to play intimate venues, house concerts, as opposed to huge amphitheatres, which you played for events like Lilith Fair?

STARR:
I think so. I had played so much, I had played solo acoustic so much that I got really burned out on that. It was like, ĎOh, I hate playing solo acoustic. I donít want people to think Iím a chick with my acoustic guitar playing pussy music.í [Chuckles] Iíd gotten to this place where I hated doing it. And now Iím like, you know, this is really who Garrison Starr is as an artist. When I first started playing music, I just played the acoustic guitar and sang my songs. And thatís really what people respond to about me, just seeing me play and sing by myself.

I think Iíve gotten to a place where Iím good with that. I get that. I think thatís cool. People respond and Iím happy to do it. Hell, this may not make any sense, but, as a solo artist, Iíve really had a hard time, because I love making records the way I want to make Ďem. When I make a record, Iíd like to produce it and to add all different kinds of instrumentation, because the records that I love... Tom Petty is probably my favorite artist of all time. I just love Tom Petty. His songs are timeless. His production is awesome. The Americana music, in a lot of ways, the Americana rock, thatís what I grew up listening to. Thatís what I love. Itís rootsy, but itís rock. Itís just great. Itís not complicated. Itís just bare-bones, f--kiní great songs. Great rock songs and great rock vocals. Heís just such an example of an artist to me. He just does his thing. And heís got this character about him. And thatís really how I see myself. I really see myself as a female Tom Petty or female Bruce Springsteen. So as a solo artist, Iíve really struggled with my identity a lot because I like making full band records. But itís not always feasible to go out and tour in that capacity.

I mean, I didnít start out thinking about what my brand is and all that stuff. I didnít have to think about that, when I was first making records. There were other people who thought about that stuff... and I just didnít understand it. And now that itís so important, as an indie artist, you realize, who else is going to think about it, but you? Thereís really nobody to help you figure that out and, if you donít know it, when youíre first starting out, if you donít have that vision of yourself, so young, itís kind of a shit show. And it was kind of a shit show for me, in that. And I think thatís one of the reasons why, in my career, itís kind of been all over the place. Itís been a marketing nightmare, because I wanted to do what I wanted to do. And there hasnít necessarily been a rhyme or reason to it. ĎNow Iím going to have my hair this way.í ĎAnd now I want to do this.í And ĎI want to make this record, but I canít afford to take a band, so Iíll play solo acoustic.í

And my name sounds like a band. ĎIs that your real name?í ĎIs your name Garrison Starr?í ĎWhat is it, a band? A guy? A girl?í Itís been interesting. Iíve had people say to my face, ĎYouíre Garrison Starr? Thatís a country band, rightí ĎNo, Iím Garrison Starr. Thatís me. Youíre lookiní at her.í Theyíre like, ĎOh, shit. Iíve heard your name, but I never knew what it was.í

So Iím at a place now where I understand that the heart of the matter for me, and what seems to resonate with my fans, for most people, is me playing and singing solo. I do like playing small clubs. I like to tell my stories. I like to get feedback from people. I like to get that close experience. I do enjoy that.

PCC:
You mentioned that you had a new plan. What do you envision for yourself? Where do you want to take this?

STARR:
Well, if I could have a career, like anybodyís career, I would probably choose to have a career like a Patty Griffin... or an Emmylou Harris. More so Patty Griffin, just because sheís seen more as a songwriter. Emmylou Harris is seen more as a singer than a lyricist. I donít think Emmylou writes all her songs. But I like how Patty Griffin can go and tour, when she wants to tour, and thereís a nice crowd that comes to hear her play and sing, in whatever capacity she chooses to do that. And she can also not do that, and just write songs and have other people cut her songs. Sheís built her catalogue as a songwriter and sheís known as a songwriter. And I think, at the end of the day, thatís who I am. I am a songwriter. And I want my songs to define that path for me. And I think thereís still time for that to happen.

Whatís to become of my career still remains to be seen. Thereís a new way thatís been opened up for me. And Iím excited to see where it goes. But I would love to be able to get to a place where I play in theatres, for people who have come to hear me tell my stories and sing my songs. Thatís really what Iíd like to have happen.

For this gifted artistís latest news and tour dates, visit garrisonstarr.com.