Born Julia Garrison Starr on April 29, 1975, in Memphis, TN; daughter of Walt and Julie Starr. Graduated from Evangelical Christian School, Memphis, TN, 1993; attended University of Mississippi, 1993-94. Addresses: Record company--Back Porch, 4650 North Port Washington Rd., Milwaukee, WI 53212. Management--Dan Gilles, 1815 Division St., Nashville, TN 37203. Publicity--Sacks & Co., 427 West 14th Street, New York, NY 10014. Website--Garrison Starr Official Website: http://www.garrisonstarr.com.
An alternative rock performer with a strong feel for roots music, Garrison Starr found her first go-around with fame a disheartening experience. Fortunately, after a lengthy sabbatical from the music industry, Starr returned with a more expressive voice, fresh song material rife with autobiographical allusions, and a sound closer to her true artistic vision. Starr possesses a voice that can coo tender emotions or belt personal outrage. Often compared to Melissa Etheridge, Sheryl Crow, and the Indigo Girls, Starr shares their need to communicate high spirits and heartaches within her mix of post-feminist folk, hard-thrumming electric rock, and soulful country twang.
Born Julia Garrison Starr on April 29, 1975, in Memphis, Tennessee, Starr was initially exposed to music by her father, who would play recordings by such groundbreaking 1960s acts as the Byrds, Creem, the Yardbirds, and the Beatles, while the singer was growing up in the Memphis suburb of Hernando, Mississippi. A precocious only child, she combined message with music early on, often gathering her stuffed animals together so she could preach a sermon to them while one of her dad's recordings played in the background. In addition, the artist recalls making up songs while smacking a pair of drumsticks on the sides of her bed years before formally taking up a musical instrument.
At the age of 13, her musical ambitions ignited when a counselor at Strongriver Camp Farm in Penola, Mississippi, gave Starr her first guitar instruction. "It was a really cool camp because they had international counselors," Starr told Contemporary Musicians. "One guy, I think he was from New Zealand or something, he was teaching people how to play guitar and I just remember going over there, I sat down and he taught me three chords: A, E, and D. He taught me how to play 'Blowin' in the Wind.' And it was easy. I just remember sitting down, grabbing the guitar, and it was so natural and I learned how to play. Then, when I got home, my parents bought me this really cheap guitar just to see if I was going to stick with it."
Learning to play by ear, Starr absorbed riffs from a variety of sources-- radio, television, tapes, and records--but like many teens growing up during the 1980s, her primary influences were all-female ensembles like the Bangles and the Indigo Girls. "I would say that watching Emily Saliers play guitar was probably the first true inspiration I had--her and Vicki Peterson of the Bangles," observed Starr. "When I was nine and ten I was writing little ditties that were kind of like the Bangles' songs--still my favorite band of all time." However, Starr paid particularly close attention to Saliers's work with the Indigo Girls and spent untold hours continually rewinding and playing back sections of tape figuring out her licks. "It was really neat because I learned how to do some things that would've been harder to learn in a regular guitar lesson. I learned those things just by being diligent and not giving up until I got it exactly right."
Began Performing in Junior High School
The Indigo Girls' influence extended to Starr's seventh-grade teaming with classmate Gracie Young. Armed with acoustic guitars, the duo called themselves Gracie & Garrison and played their songs at parties and in chapel. According to Starr, a cassette tape they recorded titled Five Songs to Fame was surprisingly successful. "We made a few hundred dollars! We sold 'em for five bucks at high school and then it spread to our rival high school." Later, Starr and Young hooked up with fellow student Andy Scoggins and briefly renamed themselves Casual Reality, which Starr laughs off as "the worst band name of all time." Although their three-part harmony was impressive enough to help them win a Battle of the Bands sponsored by a local music store, Scoggins quickly disappeared from the group.
During tenth grade, Young and Starr met local musician Posey Hedges, who invited them to perform with him at the North End, a popular coffeehouse in Memphis. Blending songs by Crosby, Stills & Nash with their own original tunes, Starr and Young received a split of the door receipts for the better part of two years until all concerned went their separate ways. The break-up spurred Starr's first solo project, Pinwheels. Produced by Clay Jones of This Living Hand and Spoon fame, Starr regards the primarily acoustic nine-song collection as the first "real collection of songs."
College Failure Led to Career
According to Starr, attending the University of Mississippi and joining a sorority was her parents' idea. "It's funny, but I think I went just because I was supposed to," confessed the singer. "I didn't want to go. I didn't like studying.... I just wasn't into it," Starr told Contemporary Musicians. With a vague idea that reading more might improve her songwriting abilities, she majored in English and pledged a sorority, though music dominated her thoughts. "Being able to hole up in my dorm room and write songs about things that were going on in my heart--that's the only thing that got me through that time."
Although her college days lasted a mere year and a half, Starr came away better off for the experience. She became acquainted with the nuances of the electric guitar, and some of the songs written to vent her troubled feelings eventually appeared on her major label debut. In the meantime, she had to earn a living.
Still playing local coffeehouses, Starr secured a job with Ardent Records in Memphis. Basically an errand girl or "gofer," the aspiring singer-songwriter remembers the position fondly. "Looking back on it, it was such a cush job," she told Contemporary Musicians. "I'd get people their coffee and lunch, and when they made videos I'd get to go to the thrift stores to pick out the artist's clothes. It was just a really fun job and I learned a lot."
Starr has paid her dues singing backup vocals on recordings by such local acts as Jolene and This Living Hand, and even tried her hand at playing drums for the latter. Besides bringing in a few sorely needed dollars, studio work proved to be one of the more enduring aspects of Starr's career. "I like this kind of a challenge--to just walk right in on the fly, have 'em play the song, and then have to come up with something. It pushes your creativity button. It's like a math problem, something you have to solve really quick. There's a weird twist inside of me that enjoys that very much."
What Starr didn't enjoy was allowing her very personal vision to be tinkered with by outsiders. This happened when her well-received EP Stupid Girl inspired Geffen Records to sign her to a full-length album deal, which resulted in Eighteen over Me. Her excitement about her big break quickly dimmed when Starr discovered she had no say in her music's production. "I don't want to harp on this, but the process of making that album sucked," Starr told Contemporary Musicians. "I didn't have any fun making that record whatsoever. It was a painful, painful process."
Despite mixed reviews, the album earned the singer some loyal fans who have wondered why she no longer performs songs from Eighteen over Me. "It's really not that I don't like it anymore," Starr explained to Contemporary Musicians. "But what people don't understand is that so much has happened since that record. I'm so much more positive about my life and about my music than I was then." Years after the fact, Starr believes her first album is emotionally dated. "Those songs were written in a very specific period in my life--college. What I was dealing with was discovering the worst sides of people. It was like losing my innocence all at one and that record documents that time, and I was really angry." Compounding her frustration with the music industry was 1998's 24-7, a live acoustic set of previously released tunes. Unfortunately, the album was officially distributed only to radio stations and is now a much prized collectable for Starr's fans.
Hiding Out and Reemerging
Disgusted by music industry practices and wracked with self-doubt, Starr slipped off the entertainment-world radar, intermittently reemerging to sing backup for friends and special projects. Finally, longtime collaborator and friend Clay Jones roused Starr from her self-imposed creative exile with a stern pep talk. Subsequently, a representative from Virgin's Back Porch label contacted Starr about contributing a song to 2001's The I-10 Chronicles, Vol. 2: One More for the Road. The experience brightened her outlook and gave the artist reason to refine the song material that would become 2002's Songs from Take-off to Landing.
Heavily involved in the process this time, Starr played both electric and acoustic guitars, and overdubbed her own backup vocals onto many tracks. As a special vote of confidence, alternative country icon Steve Earle sang backup and helped produce the country-rocker "At the Heart of Things" and the self-deprecating "Serves Me Right." According to Starr, Earle's no nonsense approach provided just the reminder she needed to stay focused. "I was really distracted that week. I had a lot going on personally and Steve was like, 'You know, if you'd just quit calling home so much, we might be able to finish these damn songs!' I said, 'Oh my gosh, you're right. My head is totally not in the game.'"
Another big-name contributor to Songs from Take-off to Landing was country hitmaker Mary Chapin-Carpenter, whose vocals can be heard supporting Starr on the tormented "Silent Night" and the sadly philosophic "Hardest Part of Living." Starr had met Carpenter at Lilith Fair in 1998, and she began singing behind the country star in the studio, on tour, and even during a Late Show with David Letterman appearance. "I used to feel really awed by knowing Mary Chapin and Steve Earle," Starr confessed to Contemporary Musicians. "But now I've come to regard them as my peers and I feel really blessed and lucky that these people like my music enough to want to be involved in it."
Vocal lessons, a relatively new idea for this singer, have taught Starr how to take care of her voice. Moreover, the new techniques she employs allows the Los Angeles-based artist to imbue her ode to imperfect love "Raging Fire" and cynical anti-music industry rocker "Knucklehead," with greater dramatic bite without oversinging. Meanwhile, the honest, universal approach of her writing, particularly the regret soaked "Gardenia" and painfully reflective "Five Minutes," aids both Starr and her listeners in gaining perspective on lost love and its many intangibles.
by Ken Burke
Garrison Starr's Career
Began playing acoustic guitar, c. 1988; formed Casual Reality, played Memphis-area coffeehouses, 1991-93; released solo debut, Pinwheels, 1993; began work as backup singer, 1995; assistant at Memphis-based Ardent Records, 1995-96; released EP Stupid Girl, 1996; signed with Geffen Records, released Eighteen over Me, 1997; signed with Back Porch Records, 2001; released Songs from Take-off to Landing, 2002.
- Selected discography
- Eighteen over Me , Geffen, 1997.
- (Contributor) The I-10 Chronicles, Vol. 2: One More for the Road , Back Porch, 2001.
- Songs from Take-off to Landing , Back Porch, 2002.
- Beat, March 30, 2002.
- Billboard, April 13, 2002.
- Chicago Sun Times, March 15, 2002 .
- Commercial Appeal (Nashville, TN), March 16, 2002.
- Hits, March 22, 2002.
- Washington Post, March 29, 2002.
- "Garrison Starr," All Music Guide, http//www.allmusic.com (April 29, 2002).
- Garrison Starr Official Website, http://www.garrisonstarr.com (April 29, 2002).
- Additional information was obtained from Back Porch, Sacks & Co. publicity materials and an interview with Garrison Starr on April 17, 2002.