It’s been six years since we last interviewed the tattooed and charming singer/songwriter Garrison Starr, but don’t think she’s been off the radar. On May 1 she released her new album Amateur, her seventh full length record. Starr also rocks a resume reads like the lesbian definition of awesome: she’s collaborated with Margaret Cho, had a song featured on an episode of Pretty Little Liars (Season 1, Episode 21, for those of you who are curious), toured with the likes of Melissa Etheridge and Mary Chapin Carpenter, and played Lilith Fair “when it was cool.” What’s more, Starr in recent years has struck out on her own, ditching the big league record labels when they left a sour taste in her mouth. As the talent and heart of Amateur shows, she’s all the better for such a decision.
Photo by Lindsey Byrnes
It’s not easy to be a successful and independent musician today, but Starr seems to be thriving. Her new record is a literal tribute to her fans, having crowdsourced for the first time the resources to finish and tour for the album. She may have had her brush with success at a commercial level, but this kind of work is the real deal. “An amateur,” she says, “ is somebody who pursues something for the love of it, not for money. That’s where I started in the ninth grade before I got into the music business and that’s where I find myself again. I’ve never forgotten the fighter in me and I’m starting over again.”
We caught up with Starr right before she embarked on her U.S. tour for Amateur, and got the (witty) scoop on what it’s like to hit on Katy Perry, how she first felt about Lilith Fair, the best advice for young female musicians, and more.
AfterEllen.com: How’s the European tour going? Are you playing for audiences you’ve played for before or is this new territory for you?
Garrison Star: This is completely new territory for me and it’s amazing. Seeing Holland and Germany for the first time and experiencing new attitudes and culture is refreshing and invigorating. I feel so blessed and energized for the upcoming US tour.
AE: When we caught up with you in 2006, you said that Lilith Fair, while awesome, “f–ked us all up. Now anytime anybody sees a girl with an acoustic guitar they think it’s going to be this sad, sappy elevator music.” Has the image of women with guitars recovered?
GS: [Laughs] What a douchey thing for me to say! I was just pissed I wasn’t getting my way back then. I also believed at that time that anybody who was having success was jeopardizing my chance for success, which is a very stifling and negative place to be coming from.
In a way, it’s an empowering time for everybody in music now. I do think it’s tough for women in terms of the images people are used to seeing in the media. What I mean is, men can be fat and unruly and still be famous, but women kinda have to fit a certain mold in order to be marketed to the public. Sorry, but I think that’s true. And I’ve come to a place of acceptance about that fact. I don’t know if the image of women with guitars has recovered or not, but I do think it’s hard for people to accept a woman doing what a man can do and in a lot of cases, doing it way better.
AE: You’ve worked really hard to establish yourself as an independent artist outside of the scope of the music industry. It’s no easy feat to succeed in such a commercialized time. What do you think are the best choices you made to accomplish this? Any mistakes you’d remedy if you did it all again?
GS: Oh man — there are so many things I’d do differently if I could, like never have signed a record deal. But it’s a process and I believe every person has their own path to success.
I have always been someone who has to learn the hard way. I wish I had taken more advice from people along the way when I was first starting out. I feel like it’s taken me awhile to discover what people like Ani Difranco and a lot of my friends like Joe Purdy and Jay Nash already knew — more ownership means more freedom and more money to grow my business. But I never saw my career as a business until a few years ago. I just didn’t have that mindset. Now I do, and I feel lucky it’s happening now instead of never!
AE: You relied on the crowdsourcing platform Pledge Music to raise money to finish your new album Amateur, and you gave a portion of the money raised to the It Gets Better project. Was this your first time crowdsourcing? How did you find the experience?
GS: It was my first time doing a fan-funded record. I chose Pledge Music because of the people at the company, namely Benji Rogers and Amy Wallae. They were excited and supportive — they basically convinced me [to use Pledge Music] based on their enthusiasm and passion for what they do and their love for music and the empowerment of the artist.
I struggled at first with doing a fan-funded deal. I just wasn’t sure about the whole format. I mean, I started out in a completely different climate. But in the end, I realized that connecting with my fans is not only important but essential in this changing world of music business. And let’s face it — without the fans, what’s the point? The most important aspect of music to me is the connection with people — the conversation that happens when I perform. I know that perception is important, but ultimately I care more about being honest in my music and my presentation than I do whether or not everybody agrees with the decisions I make.
AE: Describe your new album, Amateur, in three words.
GS: Honest, heartbreaking, compelling.
AE: What was the writing and recording process like for Amateur? It’s your seventh album since leaving Geffen. Would you categorize Amateur as different from your earlier albums?
GS: Well, the writing for the record took place over a couple of years, as usual for me, and the recording took place in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles, with my best buddy Justin Glasco, in his home studio last April and May. The process was the most fun I’ve ever had. We built the tracks ourselves with beats and rhythms and then added to them when the vibe felt right. It was very deliberate and relaxed. The whole process felt really natural.
I feel like Amateur is my best work to date on every level. I think it’s the most mature record I’ve made, from the songs, to the development of my voice, to the music on the album. I couldn’t be more proud of it or confident about it. I wouldn’t change one thing.
Photo by Aaron Redfield
AE: Did you ever make an It Gets Better video? What would it say if you did make one?
GS: I want to make one. I think I got busy and forgot. It’s still on my list. I would say that at the end of the day, nobody can take away what’s important to you. Nobody can touch what you don’t let them touch.
As a gay woman and a child from a religious background, I allowed my self-esteem and my identity to be swallowed up by the fears and judgements of others. I didn’t know I had the power over what I was giving away. There are so many people out there in the world who will love and accept you.
We don’t have to live in a box. We can live however and wherever we choose to live. It may seem impossible in a moment, but taking the steps that are hard are essential to our growth and development as adults. And they are essential for our happiness. And everyone deserves to be happy. Everyone does. That’s what I think, anyway.
AE: I know you were part of Margaret Cho’s album Cho-Dependent. I picture working with Margaret Cho as a badass party where everyone pees themselves laughing. How far off is my imagination?
GS: [Laughs] Actually, Margaret is very professional when she’s working. She takes her singing and songwriting very seriously. But she is one of the funniest people I know and being around her in any circumstance tends to be pretty fun. She’s wonderful.
Photo by Aaron Redfield
AE: Your bio on your site is a list of fun facts about you, like that you hit on Katy Perry before she got famous. How’d that go? What do you think of Katy’s music? She got some flack for songs like “Ur So Gay” for being strangely homophobic.
GS: Hmmmm, well, I did hit on Katy Perry many times before she was famous. It never went very well! I was definitely not the girl she kissed, much to my chagrin. I didn’t particularly care for that song, but not for any other reason than I didn’t think it was good. I think she’s extremely talented and sexy and she deserves everything she has. She’s worked her ass off.
AE: Who are you most often compared to as a musician?
GS: I get compared to Patty Griffin, Melissa Etheridge, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Shawn Colvin most often. I’m not complaining about any of those comparisons. I’m honored to be in their company.
AE: Are you familiar with Rock ‘n Roll Camp for Girls LA? This is my own self-serving question, since I’m involved with Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls here in Brooklyn. What advice would you give to young women who are making music today?
GS: I am! My friend Mona Tavakoli is very involved with Rock Camp for Girls in LA. She and a couple other awesome ladies in LA have taken over the whole thing and are kicking ass with it. They have a band called Raining Jane. Very awesome people and stupidly talented.
My advice is: Know your business. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask until you understand. Educate and empower yourself. I’m reading Reba McIntyre‘s biography right now, and she’s badass, especially as a business woman.
AE: What was your first guitar?
GS: It was a 20 dollar pawn shop guitar with the highest action of any guitar I’ve ever had. My fingers bled like crazy for the first 6 months I learned to play!
AE: Favorite place to record? Favorite venue to play?
GS: Aw, man — I don’t have a favorite on either. I’ve had so many great experiences in so many places. However, The Space in Chicago is definitely one of my all time favorites. As is the Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles.
AE: If you could tour with any band or musician, living or dead, who would wanna hit the road with?
GS: Tom Petty, take me on tour with you, for the love of god!