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On The String: Garrison Starr Makes Peace With Her Past On A Cathartic New Album

Heather Holty-Newton

It’s a pop culture movie scene, flattened to two dimensions. A breakout artist sings her new hit song on big stages as thousands of new fans sing along. She’s living the dream, feeling that rush of fulfillment that comes from hard work and nurturing her talent. Unless it’s more complicated than that. Case in point, Garrison Starr blasting out radio fresh “Superhero” in 1997. “I was in survival mode. I mean, I was having an identity crisis,” Starr says of those fast-moving days.

The trouble was incited in her home state of Mississippi, when in the exclusive space of an Ole Miss sorority, somebody blew her cover as a young gay woman trying to live her life and be with a girlfriend. Long before the cultural sea change in American life that led to gay marriage in the 2010s, Starr says she was iced out socially and judged piously by family and friends back in her hometown. It made for some epic cognitive dissonance.

“Here I was up there being revered by all these people,” she recalled from her Los Angeles home studio. “And some are the same people who had stopped speaking to me because of my sexuality overnight, just like that. But they were showing up at my shows screaming in the crowd. And here I am on stage being like, what is happening?”

Many years have passed since those days, and rest assured, Garrison Starr is doing great. But only now has she released an album of songs that directly address those jarring, shaming and infuriating events in her young life. Girl I Used To Be is musically sumptuous, with swooning folk rock arrangements and Starr’s slow honey voice. The songs process the bewilderment of being exiled as somehow sinister by a faith community (“Devil In Me”), the struggle to stay existentially grounded (“Don’t Believe In Me”) and the journey to external and internal forgiveness (“Make Peace With It”). The songs are so personal and cathartic, one would guess they had to be from her heart and pen alone, but that’s not the case. 

“I wasn't sure that I would make another record,” Starr says about her outlook in recent years, which has been focused on co-writing for her song publisher, working her repertoire of TV and film placements. “There's nine songs on the record. Two of them, I wrote 100% myself. The other seven are all co-writes that I initially in the writing session thought, you know, these would be someone else's songs. So, what a gift and what a blessing to realize that all these people who didn't know me at the time necessarily rallied around me to help bring the best out of me and to help tell the best story for me. And that's pretty rad.”

Maybe the most striking example, is “The Devil In Me,” which came out of just such an appointment, writing with then 17-year-old L.A. novice Carly Paige. It’s a concise and defiant poem that protests being demonized by certain strata of society, but it didn’t start that way. Starr brought in the chorus with a completely different feeling, and when Page pushed to develop the idea from Starr’s point of view, Starr was skeptical. “What the hell does she possibly know about my life?” she remembers thinking. “I'm 20 some odd years older than her. What can we possibly say? She's not gonna understand. And, you know, then we proceed to write one of the most important songs, in my opinion, of my career.” 

Another way the album revisits Starr’s life history is by being the latest partnership with Nashville’s Neilson Hubbard, whom we profiled on The String last April. They met in high school and formed their first band together, and they’ve been working together on and off ever since.

“Nielsen is like a mirror for me. He's not even like a family member. He's like a part of me,” she says, recalling formative years banging around Mississippi and the deep South. “We played in the weirdest places, some 47-step walk-up club in Vicksburg with nobody there. But those were the some of the best shows of our lives. We didn't care. We felt like we were on a mission to carry that music wherever we could do it. Because that's what we were meant to do.”

Listen here to Garrison talk about managing her major label deal, learning from her mistakes, bouncing back from dark times and making Girl I Used To Be. You’ll get the sense she still feels that way.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org