By Mya Byrne, Staff Writer
Garrison Starr’s new album, Girl I Used To Be, finds this longtime LA resident and Grammy-nominated songwriter – who released her first album as a teen, toured with Lilith Fair, and has collaborated with Margaret Cho and Glen Phillips, among other amazing artists – coming back to her Mississippi roots. Girl I Used to Be is a deep exploration of Starr’s background, both musically and personally; it’s a forthright expression of found truth and transformative thinking. Her effortless, gorgeous voice soars over the acoustic guitar-centered, expansive, cosmopolitan sound – very much of the moment and timeless.
This feels very much like a concept album. Starting with the opener, “The Devil In Me”, Starr explores the religious hypocrisy that hurts so many in those narrow places (“Broke in two / hiding the devil in me / is that really all you see?”), pulling no punches in calling out anti-queer sentiment. Throughout the album, Starr navigates a path of discovery towards self-acceptance, eventually closing with “Dam That’s Breaking”. She’s gone through a massive shift to reconcile herself with that past in moving forward, yet recognizes that, through the entire process, she’s managed to stay alive (“I’ve been breathing underwater / I can feel my walls are shaking / baby, I’m a dam that’s breaking”).
It’s a powerful journey, on which she exudes hope in ultimately finding herself, while pushing the demons out and into the open, using a brilliant combination of metaphor and plain speech. I’m glad she’s released such a wonderful, queer-affirming statement. Girl I Used to Be has been getting quite a bit of attention in the Americana world, and I was eager to talk with her about it.
You’ve gone to a very, very rootsy sound on this record. It’s charmingly modern Americana. What inspired the arc of the record and shaped the sound? What was the songwriting process?
Well, to be honest, I was in a place with my career where I just wasn’t sure I wanted to release another record. I felt lost and uninspired. These songs had mostly been written. I’m constantly collaborating with other artists, so they accumulated over a period of about 3 years. I was looking through my catalogue and realized there were so many songs I loved that weren’t being cut by the artist I thought we were writing for. I realized that these songs that I thought were for somebody else were actually for me—turns out, I was the artist! I thought I was in the room to help somebody else tell their story but it turns out, they were helping me tell mine. That’s pretty cool.
That’s powerful. And indicative of what you’ve gone through.
This record feels like a life that’s come full circle, and I honestly feel like I’m starting again from a more confident and loving place. That feels like progress to me.
There’s a lot of reassurance on this album, for instance on “Just A Little Rain.” It seems like you’re both urging yourself, and the listener, to go forward: “It’s all right honey…it’s just a little rain.”
For sure. Songs have always been my outlet for working things through. I grew up in evangelical Christianity, so I learned from an early age that there were some things that weren’t safe to talk about for me. I was aware that I was gay when I was young, so the only way for me to process and make sense of what I was feeling was to write it in a song and to listen to songs that validated my experience. At the end of the day, it’s all a matter of perspective, I think.
On the album closer, “Dam That’s Breaking,” you wind up in a place of transcendence: “I remember that girl I used to be / and I can’t go on living this way.” This song solidifies the notion for me that this album is a conceptual journey to get through what you need to to actualize your true self.
I think that makes sense. This album was definitely a journey for me in self-love, discovery, and forgiveness, and none of it has been easy.
As a queer person, the title certainly holds a lot of meaning. You were one of the first out artists I ever encountered. How has your experience of navigating the music world as a queer person shifted over your career?
Thank you for this question! Well, first of all, I was outed, so I lost control of my own narrative from the beginning. Before I had a chance to really come to terms with my sexuality and what that looked like for me, the lovely evangelical community outed me and basically ran me out of town on a rail. Or at least, they tried to. I was made an example out of, and that was humiliating, to say the least. I was bitter and angry for a long time after that trauma, and it’s taken years to work through all the abandonment, rejection and hurt I felt from people who were closest to me at the time. So, being gay in the ‘90s wasn’t as cool or accepted in any circle as it is now. at least, not in my experience. That being said, sometimes I feel like an outsider in terms of the way the world and the industry has changed. I have to remind myself that everybody isn’t out to get me. I wish I had had a stronger sense of myself when I was coming to terms with my sexuality so I could’ve enjoyed the experience of exploring and dating and discovering.
“Don’t Believe In Me”, written with Katie Pruitt, is such a queer anthem: “I wanna stare you in the face and ask you how am I supposed to wait a lifetime to finally be set free / When I believe in something that don’t believe in me.” You’re directly “staring in the face” and addressing the hypocrisy of anti-LGBTQ+ folks. Who do you hope this song reaches?
I hope this song reaches anybody who needs to hear it. The evangelical self-appointed judge, the person struggling with their sexuality and self-worth, the person who’s never had a gay friend…. hopefully the truth reaches the target that needs it.
I’ve been moved by your gratitude posts lately. What has been bringing you joy?
Oh wow! Thank you so much. I started those to practice gratitude and to try and bring some joy to my social media account. I struggle with self-promotion and the general popularity contest of our world and business, so I needed some accountability and to turn the inside out to remind myself what’s really important. My family has been bringing me joy during this pandemic: my partner, Rene, and our two fur baby rescues, Gracie and Oreo. I’m beyond grateful that I get to do life with them.
What’s your favorite track on the album, and why?
“Downtown Hollywood.” Because Los Angeles most definitely saved my life and gave me a place where I always feel like I belong. I love that city and love living there.
What advice would you give to songwriters coming up in the world of queer country/Americana right now?
Find your true, authentic self and be totally unapologetic about it. Whatever it is that you do best is what is gonna make you happy. Always work from the inside out.