By Gregg Shapiro
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.
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. 22 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.
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.
You have described your forthcoming new album Girl I Used to Be, your first solo album since 2007’s 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¢ a pop, please say something about making a traditional album.
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. 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?
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.”
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?
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.
Garrison Starr performs May 15 at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur.