Garrison Starr – Woman Who Still Rocks
The most pointed and personal song on Garrison Starr’s new album Airstreams & Satellites is one that’s not even mentioned in the track listing. It’s a hidden cut, a bare-bones demo called “Inside Out”, that kicks in near the end of the disc, just after the title song fades.
“I didn’t even think about recording that song at all,” Starr says during an early morning interview midway through her January residency at the Room 5 nightclub in her adopted hometown of Los Angeles. “I just put it on the demo that I gave to Curt [Schneider, the Five For Fighting bassist who produced the album] and Andrew [Williams, the executive producer], and they both loved it. Between them and my friends, [singer-songwriters] Kristin Hall and Neilson Hubbard, they convinced me to put it on there.”
The song finds a young woman seeking her mother’s acceptance of her alternative lifestyle. The daughter notes that she is guided by truth, love, and a powerful moral compass, and finally puts it to her mom this way: “Can you be sure that God doesn’t live here anymore?”
“I grew up in a very strict religious environment, a very conservative Christian home, and I went to a private Christian school,” Starr says. “There was a lot of talk about judgment and heaven and hell and angels and demons and good and evil. And I believe in all that: I believe in good and evil. But I also believe that God loves us all. I remember being young and being so afraid that I was going to lose God’s love because I drank or smoked or did something my teachers or parents didn’t approve of.
“That song is really a song about being comfortable with yourself and being able to find your own way in life, whatever that way is, whatever that path is. And to really stand up for your own convictions and know that that’s right, and know that God loves us anyway, no matter who we are, no matter what we do, no matter what people say.”
For the most part, Starr is not a singer-songwriter bent on doling out messages in her music. Instead, she’s a rocker trying to find her way in an industry that once embraced, as the common phrase went, women who rock. These days, they’ve been shoved aside in favor of pop tarts from Britney to Christina to Kelly to Pink. What the heck happened to all the girls with guitars?
“I don’t know,” Starr says. “I think they’ve been edged out by radio. They lost their nerve or lost their vibe. The climate is such that a lot of artists go after that certain thing. They hook up with managers and other people who tell them, ‘OK, Alanis Morissette is the thing right now.’ Everybody is a little behind the curve, which has always bugged me. It’s like, don’t you understand? If you do something original, then people are eventually going to come after you, because they’re tired of being behind the curve. That’s always baffled me, why everybody always continues to manufacture the same stuff.”
Starr has been traveling her own individual path in the music business for nearly a decade now. A native of Hernando, Mississippi, a small town about 25 miles south of Memphis, Tennessee, she was born Julia Garrison Starr, but goes by her middle name, which once belonged to her father’s great-grandmother. “No one’s ever called me Julia,” she says.
The name has caused some confusion, though. “Some people think it’s a band,” she says. “A lot of people think I’m a guy. I’ve also heard rumors that I’m Ringo Starr’s daughter. Somebody actually said that at a Melissa Etheridge show [where Starr was the opening act]. One of the crew guys said, ‘Dude, there’s a rumor that’s going around.’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Like, have you heard me talk?'”
Indeed, despite the California vocabulary that has invaded her speech, Starr’s southern drawl is pronounced. “Maybe they think Ringo Starr had an illegitimate daughter that he left in Mississippi. I don’t know. People are funny.”
Starr began playing guitar and writing songs early, and by the time she was in high school, she was already playing before paying crowds. “Me and my friend Gracie had this band,” she recounts. “We called ourselves Gracie & Garrison, and we put out this cassette called Five Songs To Fame. We were like the Indigo Girls, and we’d play in schools and chapels. Our high school would let us out of class to go and play and we’d even get paid. So we’d talk a little bit and play and it was pretty cool. Word kind of got around. People were excited to have us come to their school.”
Soon they were playing gigs in Memphis, most often at a place called the North End. “This was when we were sophomores in high school,” Starr says. “My parents weren’t happy about it at all, but you know, my parents, despite their unhappiness with the whole situation, they showed up to every gig. They’ve always been supportive of my musical career. I never drank — not to be judgmental of people who do, but I didn’t even take my first drink until six months before I was 21. So my parents trusted me. They saw, ‘OK, she’s serious about this, she’s not mixing with people that make us feel uncomfortable.'”
Starr went to college at the University of Mississippi in Oxford for a year and a half. While there, she met Clay Jones, who produced her cassette release Pinwheels and her 1996 EP Stupid Girl. She also met Neilson Hubbard, whom she calls a continuing source of inspiration. “He is a phenomenal songwriter,” she says. “He’s been a huge influence on my songwriting.”
The three formed a band, originally called Spoon, which became This Living Hand after the Austin, Texas, group Spoon asserted their rights to that name. Starr played drums for Hubbard and Jones, and they in turn backed her up on her own efforts.
After leaving Oxford, Starr worked for a time at Ardent Records in Memphis, answering the phone and doing other odd tasks. “It was an easy job, it was fun and I loved the people there. It was a party every day,” she says.
Various acts came through to record, but not that many Starr cared to meet, and some she was only too happy to avoid. “I remember Cybill Shepherd came in there one day,” she recalls. “She had a total attitude. It was hilarious. I made it a point to stay away from her. I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of thinking that I thought she was anything hot.”
The job at Ardent did provide her with one important connection, though. “That’s how I got introduced to the whole Steve Earle clan,” Starr says. “Steve is really cool. He’s been a supporter of my music for a long time, just sort of a big brother type. He’d show up at gigs years ago, just to check things out, always keeping up with me and my career. He’s always been real sweet.”
Starr eventually signed with Geffen, thanks in large part to her bright alterna-pop song “Superhero”, which appeared on her 1997 debut album Eighteen Over Me and is reprised on Airstreams & Satellites.
Making that first record was an exciting experience, but Starr realizes now that it could have been — should have been — entirely different. “I was 19 when I got signed to Geffen,” she explains. “I had no clue what I was getting into. I trusted everybody and I was just a kid in a candy store. I had so many people telling me what was going to happen, with the record, with my career.
“They were so sure that ‘Superhero’ was going to be this giant hit. ‘We’re gonna make all this money and then we’re gonna go to Jamaica and then we’re gonna drink Red Stripe on the beach and it’s gonna be so much fun.’ There was a part of me that felt uncomfortable with those kinds of projections, but there was another part of me that was like, ‘Damn right we are!’ I believed it. I bought into it.”
The reality was much different. The album didn’t take off, and the deal with Geffen unraveled. Starr fell into a deep depression and even quit playing music for a while. “I wasn’t writing any good songs,” she says. “I wasn’t very open. I was angry and bitter. I wrote a couple songs about being angry and bitter, but that wasn’t very inspiring. I had to wait till I broke through the surface to get inspired again.”
Oddly, that happened one night while she was watching TV. “I had been watching ‘Hard Rock Live’ and Ani DiFranco was on,” Starr remembers. “She played this song called ‘Swan Dive’ and it tapped into this place deep inside of me. It was like, oh yeah, this is what I do and oh yeah, I can write songs, too. I sat down in my kitchen and wrote the chorus to that song ‘Madness’ that’s on my last record. That was the beginning of a lot of songs that followed.”
She recorded 2002’s Songs From Take-Off To Landing with next to no budget, and eventually released it through a one-shot deal with the Back Porch label. “It was such a great experience,” she says. “I grew so much as a musician. I grew a ton as a guitar player. A lot of times, we couldn’t hire anybody to do anything. There was nobody around to do anything but me.”
For Airstreams & Satellites, she moved to Vanguard Records. The album’s eleven songs offer an appealing brand of straight-ahead pop rock, with just a hint of twang here and there and some brilliant production touches by Schneider. Starr cites “Gasoline” and “Like A Drug” as her favorites on the album, based largely on how much fun they are to play live. That’s something she intends to be doing a lot of in the coming year, as her residency at Room 5 ends and she heads out on the road.
“This has really been fun, playing here. Room 5 kinda has a Largo vibe,” she says, referring to the longtime L.A. hipster songwriter’s haven, “but it’s a little less pretentious. The gigs have been laid-back and low-key and all my friends have been playing with me. The guys I’ve been playing with have been laughing about it. They were like, ‘Well, we won’t have to rehearse.’ And it’s true. These have been our rehearsals, and we’ve gotten paid to do it.”