The Artist’s Skin: Garrison Starr

Garrison Starr’s Girl I Used To Be is equal parts chronicle and confessional, but in this case, it’s Starr who’s offering something akin to forgiveness to a past she’s more than out-graced. If you’ve ever witnessed her rebel strength on stage (I once saw her deflate a half-lit hecklin’ football fan before rollin’ right into a set at the old Georgia Theatre), you’d think there wasn’t a dragon real or imagined that she couldn’t slay. But even after the success of a 25+ year ascent that’s seen the release of over a dozen albums and EPs, the Mississippi raised Starr thought her story as a performing songwriter had come to an end. She was nearly ready to simply focus on writing music for film and television and helping other artists to tell their tales when the songs that would become Girl I Used To Be awakened something more aggressive. Starr has never cared to be defined solely by her sexuality, but as a gay teenager in a conservative Southern community, she was forced to wrestle early on with the tenets of an evangelical upbringing and the heartbreaking stigma imposed by that revelation. With Girl I Used To Be, Garrison Starr does more than confront ghosts and long-shattered trust, she opens up to the possibility that far from nearing its final pages, her story is still being written.

AI- I’ve been looking forward to catching up with you because you and I actually met briefly when you were in Macon. This would have been 2006, I want to say?

GS- Oh my gosh!

Sometime around that point. But I had seen you before that with Steve Earle on numerous occasions.

I was just thinkin’ about Steve Earle and those days of touring with him, man! Those were some of the most fun days that I ever had on the road. It was so much fun!

You looked like you were havin’ fun too. ‘Cause you got to come out and do your set, but then you would come out and do all of the duets with Steve, which was always amazing!

Man, that was just so much fun! One of the reasons I loved [Steve Earle], he’s always been an artist that I admire because of his courage to just say whatever it is that he was thinkin’, regardless of the consequences of that! As an artist, I always thought that was powerful. I really looked up to him always for being unafraid to say what he believed in. And I agreed with him probably 95% of the time, you know? So it was always empowering to be out with him.

That’s what you’re doing now with this new album and the story behind that, Girl I Used To Be. Did I see that you originally weren’t even planning on releasing these songs under your own banner?

Yeah. To be honest, I just wasn’t sure whether or not I wanted to release another record period. I just felt like I was kinda burnt out on the business of music. I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll just be a songwriter. Maybe I’ll just help other people to tell their stories.” And then once I sat there and took stock of all the songs that I had written with all these other artists and all these other producers, I was like, “Wait a second! First of all, how is this artist not cutting this song? This is an amazing song!” And then I just thought, “Well, oh, I’m an artist! And maybe this is my song. Maybe this was my story.” It was a humbling experience to turn around and realize that so many other people had lifted me up to tell my story and to help me be honest about some things that I needed to be honest about. That’s, to me, what is so special about this record. It was very unsuspecting. I turned around and I had a whole record worth of stuff to say. That was exciting to me! And I was excited to put the record out for that reason. For the first time in a long time, not just like, “Okay, it’s time to make another record! It’s time to come out there again and do my thing!” [Instead] it’s like, “Oh wow! I have something to say now! This is exciting!”

You’d been working through that for some years if I understand it right. Songs like “The Devil In Me”, “Don’t Believe In Me”… Growing up evangelical in a very conservative community and family, you have always been open, you have been out, and to me, I always thought very aware of who you were as an artist and as an individual. So I found it interesting to see that this struggle was still with you. I think what I realized is fundamentalism in any form has a way of leaving scars. And I think, like a lot of things, as you get older, you think that those will go away– and then they don’t.

Yeah. Well, thank you. That’s exactly right. I couldn’t have said it better. And yeah, it’s interesting too ’cause it’s like all of the spiritual work is such an inside job. And just like you said, if something goes undealt with, it doesn’t disappear. It keeps manifesting itself until it’s dealt with. It keeps sayin’, “Hey, I’m still here! I need you to talk! I need you to see me! I need you to deal with me! I’m not going away! I’m still here!” I think that’s a blessing in the end, but it’s also a curse because it can really create a lot of turmoil for you until you can really unravel it.

You’ve said that Girl I Used To Be feels like you. That’s something, as we mentioned, that you’ve struggled with, but what exactly does that feel like now? This album has been, I think, done for a little over a year now, just waiting to be unveiled. So how do you feel about that now?

Well, it’s interesting because this record was recorded in September of 2018. So it’s actually been over two years. We had initially wanted to release this record earlier in 2020, but obviously, COVID and the My Sister, My Brother project that I have with Sean McConnell and Peter Groenwald, we decided to release that first and then release my record on the heels of that via Soundly Music. So to answer your question, I guess it feels like the right time for this record to come out, even though we did record it a couple of years ago. This feels like the right time for this message and for me to just sort of step into the spotlight again. I feel like in terms of how it feels like me, I feel like it’s come full circle. Because when I first started out playing, I had a lot of bravado and confidence and self-assurance to a point, but I didn’t have the life experience to back that up.

So when the wind blew too hard, I got knocked over because I didn’t fully believe that what I thought was true. Back to your thoughts on fundamentalism, which I totally echo, there’s always that voice that tells you, “Yeah, well, but you know, they’re probably right. You’re not good enough. You know, there is probably something wrong with you. I think there’s something wrong with you.” You know what I mean? There’s always that little nagging voice until you can really deal with that and start to step into your own shoes and build yourself up from the inside out. I feel like there’s always that shadow of doubt, the evangelicalism thing, the consequences, and the sin and the Old Testament stuff, it’s just kind of always there until you can put it in its place.

I feel like I’ve come full circle. I feel like I felt when I was younger and first starting out with that hunger and passion for the message of the music and not the working from the outside in to try to figure out, ‘What do people want from me? What’s gonna work in the business? What’s gonna move me forward in that way.” It’s like, “Where do I want to be? What do I have to say? What do I believe in? And what do I have to offer someone else?”

Talkin’ about those early days, I saw on your Patreon, you’ve been going through your entire catalog, playing those albums all the way through. What’s that been like? Rediscovering your own work?

Oh man, thank you so much for asking that question! That is an awesome question! And I have enjoyed that! It’s built my confidence, you know? I look back and I think just because of my own struggles in the music industry– and the music industry struggles, they run parallel to the evangelical struggles, right? Because there’s no difference between the rejection or abandonment that you feel. When you feel that, you can feel it in this context or that context, but it feels the same. There were a lot of issues that I experienced of just wanting to be accepted and so I say all that to say, I think at a point I would look back at those early works and be like, “Yeah, that record’s not that good. Those songs aren’t that good. I shoulda done this. I shoulda done that.” But with people comin’ out and talking about these other songs and these other records that are older that meant so much to them, going back and relearning those records and exploring those songs and just having love and compassion for myself at that time and whatever I was going through musically and personally and spiritually, it’s built confidence.

I realized, “Wow, this record was cool! And this is what I was feeling in this moment! I had the courage to make this record!” Even though it might not have been sonically the “right thing” for me in my genre or what would’ve worked for, again, the business side of things. I took a risk and I made a statement that I wanted to make in that moment as an artist, and it makes me proud. It makes me really proud. And it also makes me really grateful for the fans who have been listenin’ to my music for a long time and the connection that they feel to those songs. It feels like something bigger than me and I like that. I liked that a lot on a spiritual level. I feel like that’s really important. It feels like a conversation in like a mutual experience that we’re having walkin’ along this road together. And I liked that a lot.

Tell me about that Patreon, letting folks behind the creative curtain. You’ve been doin’ that for a little while and so I guess in some ways, from an artist, a business standpoint, you were prepared for this desert that the pandemic has created. And I guess it’s a lot different than social media as well because you’re really in control of that narrative. Imagine what that would have been like to have that platform back in the ’90s?

Oh, yeah, that would have been really cool. In the early ’90s, like before I even got my record deal, I would tour around in Mississippi. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to [Tuscaloosa, AL], but there’s a place called The Chukker. It was the grossest, shittiest club of all time. And we used to travel there, man! All the places we’d go to, Vicksburg, Mississippi, Jackson, all these little places, wherever we could play, we would go. Me and Nielson Hubbard and This Living Hand, we’d play for nobody. I mean, literally, no one would be there– but it was like the greatest thing we ever did!

I remember I used to write handwritten newsletters. I used to write them by hand and mail them, snail mail them to all my fans. And just to your point about Patreon, that would have been so wonderful just to not have to do it that old-fashioned way! But yeah, I would have loved to have had that platform back then and it’s been a huge blessing through those times when I was tryin’ to figure out like what I was doing and how to kinda step back into that artist skin again and like you said, control the narrative and take control over my career and my life as an artist again. Yeah, it’s been really great, but it would have totally been fun to have that when I was first startin’ out.

Photo by Heather Holty-Newton

I’m glad you brought up Nielson Hubbard, somebody that really has been with you since the very beginning of your career, and who you have worked with repeatedly throughout it. He’s back again at the production helm for Girl I Used To Be. How’s that relationship, that dynamic changed over the years working together?

Man, that’s interesting. There was a period of time where we were estranged. I mean, we had worked together, like you said, for so long. And Nielson’s even more than family! Nielson feels like he’s a part of me. He really feels like an extension of myself. He is a part of me that shows up and is like, “Yeah, what are you saying? Do you really believe that? Whatta you got?” He keeps me honest. He always has, and I have always admired that about Nielson. And I think that’s part of what makes him a brilliant producer is he really is an old school producer. He brings out the best in the artists always. And his process is just so raw and real. We were estranged for some years just ’cause I think we had worked together for so long and kind of as a familiar relationship, you just get sick of each other. I think we took a break from each other, but then we came back together again.

When I realized that I had a record full of songs and that it was time to make a record and I was excited about it, I thought Nielson is the only person that I could do it with because I knew that if I’m gonna make this record and it has to sound like me and it’s got to be honest, it’s gotta be true and it’s gotta be me, it’s gotta be real, he’s the one person that I felt like I could work on this with me and keep me honest. So I was very excited that he was willin’ to show up for that. Nielsen? He’s amazing. He’s always there and I just appreciate him so much. We had a great time working on this and his engineer, Dylan Alldredge, was also amazing. He’s incredible, and he mixed the record. We just had a great time doin’ it!

Tell me about this time, this quarantine period, pandemic– what have you been doing creative-wise throughout all of this? I read your op-ed in The Tennessean, and it would appear that the social unrest, the political unrest most recently has been on your mind. And of course, that’s not something new, it’s something that’s been going on for quite some time. As you say [in the op-ed], these things that are happening now, they’re manifestations of things we haven’t been dealing with. Have you been dealing with them in your work?

Yeah, and I’ll say I’ve realized that one of the reasons why, the Trump presidency, when he was elected, was particularly difficult for a lot of people. It was particularly difficult for me because that’s when I realized that a lot of the underlying anger and hurt from my evangelical, Christian fundamentalism upbringing, I feel like those two worlds converged in a way that I was like, “Oh, okay, no.” You know what I mean? Because for so long, there’s just been the self-righteousness, in my opinion, and in my experience in the evangelical community, this exclusivity and elitism. It’s entitlement is what it is! People waggin’ their finger in their face and spouting their opinions about what people should do and how people should live and how people should believe! And then they turn around and vote for Donald Trump! As evangelical Christians! To me, that’s where I was like, “Oh, hell naw! Uh-uh! I’m sorry, no!

Sometimes I feel weird bringing my parents into conversations because I love them, and I don’t ever want to speak ill of my family, and I wouldn’t because my parents are lovely people– but they are part of that world. They are evangelicals. They are very conservative Republicans. They’re Trump supporters. They don’t agree with Trump, but they voted for Trump and they represent a large swath, as we know, of people who did the same thing. And for me, that hypocrisy, that is where I draw the line! It’s like, “No, you don’t get to say anything to anyone ever again, because you know that what you did was wrong and you did it anyway! You did it anyway. You drew a line in the sand.”

So once Trump got elected that really kicked up a lot of dust for me and a lot of my lingering issues with the fundamentalist upbringing. And I know I’m not alone in that. I think that’s part of the reason why everyone is so divided because I think people are really searching for some accountability. So yes, that has been on my mind a lot during the pandemic. This time has been interesting and intense for a lot of us who, well, for everybody, whose lives have changed. Everybody’s kinda been forced to sit with themselves– and a lot comes up! You can’t just go on with business as usual and see people that you might disagree with and talk about surface stuff.

So that’s that with all that the political stuff, and yes, it has been right on the surface. But in terms of creativity during the pandemic, I’m lucky because I had spent some time, like you mentioned, building up the Patreon thing and sort of preparing for a time like this. Because I do so much work in TV and film and I do so much co-writing for so many different scenarios, I have set it up where I’ve diversified in a way that the other projects that I’m involved in, mainly with the sync stuff, pay my bills. So I’m able to afford to be an artist. Honestly, I make more money at home in my studio than I ever did out on the road. So I’m lucky. And I feel very fortunate that I’m not an artist that is living hand to mouth in that way. But I have been there, which is why I don’t want to be there ever again (laughs)! I was there for a long time, literally just living on a wing and a prayer. So having my studio is a huge blessing! And being able to dig into that is a huge blessing!

[You mentioned] your career involving film and TV and writing music for that. As I understand it, that’s what got you into co-writing and collaborating with other people, which I thought was a very interesting, sideways way to come into that.

Yeah (laughs)! You know, that’s a great point, Aaron. That is true. I remember I was living in Nashville– around the time that we met, actually, if we met in 2006. That’s right around the time that I moved to Nashville for almost a three-year period. I was lost during that time. I went to Nashville and I made The Sound of You & Me, and I had hit a low point. I can remember it. I was so down in the dumps and things were just not goin’ the way I wanted them to in my career. I had been contacted by my friend Nini Camps out of New York and she was like, “Let’s write some songs together! Let’s write some songs for TV and film! So I went up to New York and started spendin’ time with her and we started writin’ some songs and gettin’ some placements. I’ll always be grateful to Nini for pulling me up out of a dark hole. ‘Cause she got me writin’ some songs with her and makin’ a little money and seein’ a different path emerging to be able to make a living. Yeah, that’s kinda what started it all. And then I enjoyed co-writin’ so much, I just never stopped! I love it! I really love it!

Tell me about the big plan for the album release. You’re gonna be doin’ a streaming show from Nashville, right? Where’s that gonna be at?

It is at a studio called Instrumenthead Live [owned by a] photographer named Michael Weintrob. He’s a really talented photographer. I think his studio is called Instrumenthead ’cause he has a photography book that’s really beautiful that’s a lot of famous artists with instruments over their heads– like guitars and basses or whatever. I think he’s gonna release another book that has their actual faces, so it’s like a key to the first book, which is pretty awesome. But he’s a sweet guy and he has a little studio space, art gallery space in East Nashville, and we’re gonna get the band together and play a show there and it’ll be released on March 11th. I’m super excited!

You got some special guests joining you for this?

Oh! I do! I’m so excited! Well, first of all, we were going to film this thing in LA, and the director, unfortunately, got COVID, so we had to make a new plan. I have some writing stuff to do with My Sister, My Brother, so it worked out for us all to come together. Nielsen Hubbard is going to shoot it. We’ve got Annie Clements, who plays with Marin Morris, and a ton of other people. She’s amazing! She plays bass. We got my old friend Will Kimbrough, OG Will, who used to tour with me back in the mid-90s with Eighteen Over Me! He’s one of my oldest friends and probably my favorite guitar player– besides Michael Grimes– of all time. I just love Will, and he’s a wonderful person, great singer, great songwriter, and artist himself. He’s playing guitar. We got Josh Day on the drums. Josh plays with Sugarland and a ton of other people. He’s amazing too. And then we got Maia Sharp on the keys and she’s one of my closest friends and an amazing artist and songwriter in her own right.

I just heard her latest album.

Oh, isn’t it beautiful? Don’t you love it?

It really is! It’s a little on the electronic side for me at times, but her voice is so unique and amazing and the songs are so great. I think I’m actually gonna reach out and speak to her about her new project as well.

Oh, good! I know she would love that! So Maia’s on keys and then we got, of course, Nielson Hubbard and his partner, Josh Britt. They have a video business and they’re gonna shoot the show. It worked out really well that we could do it this way. That would have been my first preference anyway! So, yeah, we’re excited!

That’s the second time you brought up My Sister, My Brother. So you and Sean McConnell, you’ve got more of that on the way. Is that right?

Oh yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah! I think we’re gonna maybe cut it into two trips, but we’re gonna spend some time writin’ some new songs. I love those guys! Workin’ with Sean and Peter is a dream! They’re incredible songwriters and just great dudes. I really feel grateful to be in that project. We have a lot of fun!

Pre-order Girl I Used To Be now! And celebrate the album release virtually with Garrison Starr and her very special guests at Instrumenthead Live on Friday, March 12th!