Do you ever really get over your upbringing? On her first album in nearly a decade, Garrison Starr meets her demons head-on, conducting a full-fledged exorcism as she surveys the psychic damage that left the Mississippi-bred singer “broke in two.” A masterpiece of eloquent simplicity, the moving Girl I Used to Be takes a frank look at self-loathing, bitterness, anger, and regret, ultimately arriving at acceptance and even love, for others and herself, as she pushes back against the toxic forces of the past. Don’t be surprised if you’re tempted to cheer her on.
Growing up gay in an Evangelical world offering condemnation instead of compassion, Starr recorded her first album while still in her teens, landed a short-lived major-label deal in the late ’90s, toured with Lilith Fair, and forged a following as an indie artist. She placed songs in high-profile movies and TV shows and worked with Margaret Cho on a Grammy-nominated comedy album, all of which adds up to a pretty respectable career. But for the longest time she was “choking on the fire inside,” trying to be someone other than her authentic self.
Delivering a concentrated dose of honesty, Girl I Used to Be chronicles Starr’s bumpy journey to a better life with remarkable understatement. Her concise country-folk songs feature easy melodies and spare backing; her singing, laced with a hint of a rasp, crosses Tom Petty’s twang and Kathleen Edwards’ quiet urgency and shies away from histrionics. You can practically hear Starr reining herself in, knowing economy will serve her story better than self-conscious melodrama.
The nine songs of Girl I Used to Be unfold like chapters of a memoir, starting with the toe-tapping “The Devil in Me,” which finds her lamenting, “I made my heart twist and bend / All for nothing,” as she wasted her youth avoiding the truth. The pep-talk anthem “Just a Little Rain” charts a tentative path to a more genuine existence, admitting change is scary and painful, a sentiment echoed by “Run,” where she acknowledges, “The only way out is through hell.”
“Don’t Believe in Me,” the album’s mournful centerpiece, paints a heartbreaking picture of Starr’s plight as she murmurs, “I hear people saying that my heart is full of sin / Is there something wrong with me because I’m different than them?” She asks, “How can I believe in something that don’t believe in me?” more in sorrow than anger, noting, “It’s a heavy load to carry, the weight of someone else’s shame.” Demanding, “Let me out,” Starr summons the courage to move on.
Girl I Used to Be also encompasses hope, from the celebratory gospel vibe of “The Train That’s Bound for Glory” to the gentle “Make Peace with It,” affirming a state of grace wrought by kindness and patience. The rousing “Nobody’s Breaking Your Heart” challenges someone trapped by old ways of thinking, declaring, “You’re talking like a lifelong prisoner / But you’re sitting in an unlocked cage.” Of course, she’s really speaking to herself.
Starr closes Girl I Used to Be with the dramatic “Dam That’s Breaking,” ready to take on whatever comes next without flinching. This touching and inspiring album may give heart to anyone else who needs a little push to break with the past, and that’s a wonderful thing.