Garrison Starr Embraces Co-Writing

… and Finds Inspiration in Creative Limitations

Garrison Starr is no stranger to the music scene, as she enters her second decade in the music industry. After all those years, Starr has finally found a place where she’s happy with the direction of her career, and is learning to be less precious with her songs, as she explores more licensing and co-writing opportunities. Starr has made music her day job, and attributes a shift in her attitude to the upward swing of her career’s trajectory. We recently spoke with the Southern singer/songwriter about home recording, letting go of past bitterness and how formulaic song structures actually inspire new bouts of creativity. 

I saw you perform here in Boston at Club Passim, where you touched a little on your background growing up down South. I was hoping you could elaborate on that and give us a better sense of your upbringing and how you got started with music.

I grew in up Hernando, Mississippi in a very conservative Christian household, and I was an only child. [That] environment led me to write a lot, spend time alone a lot and entertain myself a lot. So I started at a very young age writing music, just playing drumsticks on my mattress. And I used to record everything on a tape recorder. For the longest time, my mom had those cassettes – she was so frustrated about ten years ago when she realized she had lost them.

I also used to record myself, pre-teen, doing sermons and constantly talking and singing and doing this one-woman show. My parents worked when I was growing up, so I had to entertain myself, especially during the day. But I really started singing in the church.

When I saw you perform, there was a really strong hint of gospel; did the church influence your early writing a lot?

I didn’t really notice that…or embrace that as much until I got older. I feel like I really rejected and rebelled against a lot of my Christian roots in my adolescent years because I felt that to be a really oppressive set of beliefs. And it was very strict and rigid; there was no room for exploration or gray areas. So initially I was like, “Fuck these people. Fuck church…” in my own way, you know. I’d never say anything like that out loud, but that’s what I was thinking. But as I’ve gotten older and expanded my subject matter more as a songwriter, I feel like I’m growing so much and I’m trying new things and I realized that I was actually grateful that I grew up in a faith-based belief system. I’m re-examining my relationship with God and Christianity and who I am today, but “The Train That’s Bound For Glory” is totally a gospel song about my relationship with God.

Earlier you touched on co-writing and writing specifically for TV and film. How did you get into that, since you come from more of a performance background?

I had so many opportunities when I first started out, and I got signed to my label [Geffen] as they were about to be engulfed in the whole Universal merger. I got my first record deal at 21, and it was a huge deal. But my career was not turning out as I thought it should, with the whole merger and everything. I really internalized all that stuff and became bitter and angry…and begrudged a lot of my new friends for having successes. But I had a lot of fiends from Nashville who were signed to my publishing company for licensing. At that time I didn’t really know a lot about it, I was just bitter and jealous and angry, because I felt entitled. “Why are they getting that stuff? Fuck them, I’m better than them…” You know, that sort of spoiled attitude. Just frustrated with my place in the world…

A little chip on your shoulder?

That’s exactly right. And my friend said, “There’s enough to go around for everybody.” She was really helpful in getting me to see if from a different perspective and showing me the world didn’t owe me anything, and getting in my face to tell me, “You need to get your attitude straight.” After having some more conversations with friends, I started making calls. I asked one friend in particular, Matthew Ryan out of Nashville, “How are you doing what you’re doing?” Because he was getting a lot of placements in TV. And he was really encouraging and put me in touch with his publishing company, and I made a CD of what I thought were five of my most license-able songs, so I had a meeting with one of the guys from the publishing company, fully expecting to get rejected, and he took me on. And I’ve been working with them for the past four years.

Honestly, I got a new perspective and I stopped acting like I had everything figured out, because I didn’t. And that was a big breakthrough for me, just that change in mentality.

As a songwriter, is it difficult to give up songs that mean a lot to you, personally, and have other artists record them or have them placed in TV or a film where they might not have the same relevance to the song you originally wrote?

As someone who gets checks for those, it’s not hard to give up [laughs].

Fair enough.

I’m protective of songs, but I used to be very precious. And I was that way about co-writing, too. I wanted my name on it 100%. And now, I’ve found that it works for me to cast the net as wide as I can. I’m protective about songs that I want to sing or record on my own record. But I don’t feel uncomfortable at all about putting a song out there and letting it find a place. I’m just happy that it does find a place, and that brings me income that lets me have a career in the music business.

Today, that’s one of the things I feel most grateful about when it comes to licensing. I am a working musician who doesn’t have to have another job, and that’s something I took for granted for a long time.

So how do you approach your songwriting? Do you treat it like a job or do you write when the inspiration strikes?

I used to only write when inspiration would come, but now I can write everyday because I have challenges and things to write for, which I actually really love. I think that used to scare me when I was younger, and I had so much anxiety, like “What if I can’t do it? What if I can’t think of anything today?” But now I enjoy it, because it’s challenging.

Now that I’m doing more writing for specific projects, it becomes kind of formulaic, in a way, depending on what you’re writing for. And I actually like that. Because certain things, and certain types of music, do have a formula.  Like if you’re writing for pop artists, there is a formula for that. So you do your research and cop the formula, because that’s what gets placed and makes the money. If I’m writing for a specific project, they’ll say, “OK, we’re looking for a song that has these themes, or uses these words, and references these types of feelings…” I think that’s fun; that helps me stay sharp. It makes me more accessible and makes people think of me for jobs – it keeps the revenue coming in and allows me to do what I want to do. I mean, I’m not gonna get a call to write for Flo Rida [laughs], you know? But somebody is, because they do that really well.

Your records are really well produced – what’s your approach to the studio? Do you search for a producer to help craft your sound or do you enter the recording process in more of a songwriter mode?

My approach has always been to go in having a group of songs done that I can choose from.  For this record, I chose Justin Glasco to produce, who’s got such a kick-ass work ethic. I love the sounds he can get, and he can play every instrument very well. I knew I’d learn a lot from him going in. And I also wanted to be able to co-produce the record with someone so I could learn about the production aspect of things.

It’s interesting that you mention Justin as a multi-instrumentalist. When I saw you on tour with Adrianne Gonzalez and Maia Sharp, you were quite the multi-instrumentalist yourself, switching from guitar to keyboards to a sweet little Mustang bass. Is that normally part of your process or was that special for the tour?

That was special for the tour, but I’ve definitely gotten more confident playing more instruments. Working with people like Justin, who allows me the freedom to try new things, gave me that confidence. As a female in this business, I will say that I’ve noticed the politics between men and women. Especially in the studio, working in the past with male producers, they just want to take care of you. “Oh, we’ll get so and so to play this. And we’ll get so and so to play that part.” And it was usually a man they’d bring in. And I remember I worked with this producer on my first record who was very condescending, and said some very shitty things. He didn’t build me up as a musician, he just brought me down. That was just his bag, that’s just who he was…

I’ve heard that from a number of female artists, who are treated like that by producers even today. Like it’s the 1950s, and they don’t listen to what kind of record they want to make…

That first Geffen record is unlistenable to me in a lot of ways. Because I hate the way my voice sounds, it was so brittle. I think it’s a good record, musically, but for my second record I took the bull by the horns and did it more as a labor of love, as opposed to a label saying, “Hey, it’s time to make another record.” So that was a much better experience for me at that point in my career. But again, I don’t really think about being a woman until it’s thrown in my face.

Is there a style of particular genre that you haven’t tapped into that you’d like to pursue in future projects?

There’s something that’s been gnawing at me, artistically. In the back of my mind, I really want to make a true gospel record. Write real gospel songs and make a real gospel album. Or make a real stripped-down record, a truly inspired record that I can make in my house, because I have a setup that I like, and just because I want to.

Do you do home recording now?

I do. I turn in a lot of stuff for licensing that I record at home. I’m learning how to use Pro Tools, just becoming more self-sufficient. It’s more cost efficient to do things that way, and it’s a fun way to learn. I want to know more about it, and I’m speaking the language now.

Any last advice to fellow artists?

My advice is to stay open to the possibility that someone might know more than you.

Know your business right away. Don’t leave it to business managers and managers. Have meetings with them and ask them questions. Really know your business.

www.garrisonstarr.com

photos by Aaron Redfield

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