For 15 years, Garrison Starr has been a lesbian singer/songwriter on the rise. From her first big hit, “Superhero” to her new album, Amateur (the album's release party is at Los Angeles' Hotel Café on May 18), Starr has never slowed down. While she’s on tour Europe and the U.S. this spring, she took time to chat with her biggest fan, the reigning queen of queer comedy, Margaret Cho. The comedian has several albums, DVDs, TV shows, and even a Broadway stint under her belt, but she took time from her recent comedy tour (she’s playing Birmingham, Alabama tonight) to turn the tables and chat up her friend.
Cho: How did you get into singing/songwriting?
Starr: Well, honestly, I can’t remember a time where I wasn’t singing, writing silly songs or lip synching to the Beatles on my Shaun Cassidy record player with a golf club sticking out of the dresser while the lights were blinking on the turntable. I sometimes used drumsticks on my mattress as well — just drumsticks and vocals. I was obsessed with music as a child. I guess I just never stopped doing it.
Who do you love to listen to?
I love Tom Petty, the Bangles, the Beatles, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Bjork, Tears for Fears, Tracy Bonham, Suzanne Vega, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, the Pretenders, Heart, the Indigo Girls, and Kristen Hall, to name a few of the peeps I really grew up listening to. But I really just love great songs performed well. I love passion and conviction. There are so many songs I love by so many different artists. We’d be here all year, really.
Who are your inspirations?
The Bangles, Tom Petty, the Indigo Girls and Mary Chapin Carpenter are probably the biggest inspirations for me. I’ve met them all and performed with them all, except for Tom Petty. I’m coming for you, dude.
What was the first song you wrote?
It was a little ditty I called “Don’t Throw Your Head.” Yeah, that’s all I got. I’m pretty sure it was a cappella.
What is your favorite song you wrote?
That’s a tough one. But “Other People’s Eyes” on the new record, Amateur, might be the fave for now.
What type of singing do you enjoy most? My fave is when you go real high in your range. Your voice is so beautiful and dynamic and really interesting because the tone is so different in each octave.
That’s so sweet, dude. I enjoy all singing. I enjoy it most when I’m doing it well, breathing right and using good form, so it feels very effortless. Because of the way I use my voice, sometimes it gets fatigued easily, so I really have to pay attention to things that can be tiresome to think about. Such is the life of a singer, I guess.
Do you do any type of ritual before performing?
You know, I don’t. I wish I did. I’m determined to get better at warming up before performances. That’s my goal for this record and the touring coming up.
I love when it’s just you and your guitar. There is a natural beauty and command in your presence. Do you prefer playing with a band or is being unplugged fun? To me your magnificence is magnified when it’s just you. I just want to focus on you.
Ha. I love focusing on me — you know that! But, I actually prefer playing with a band, probably because I do so much solo performing. I’m sure playing solo would be welcome more if I always played with the band. But I love the camaraderie of the band and it’s nice to have accompaniment, especially when you’ve made a record you love so much, like the one I’m promoting now. However, there are shows that are geared more toward solo stuff, and when people are listening, there is nothing like that connection with an audience.
Who have you enjoyed working with?
Glen Phillips. I love him. I wish we got to play together more often. Also, Don Heffington, Svend Lerche, Mary Chapin, Steve Earle, Kevin Devine, Nini Camps, you, the late and very talented Jay Bennett, Ken Coomer, Justin Glasco, Josh Dunahoo, Cary Beare, Josh Joplin, Jason Karaban, the Rescues, Adrianne Gonzales, Natalia Zukerman, David Berkeley, the ladies in Antigone Rising, Will Kimbrough, Kristen Hall, Neilson Hubbard. There are so many. I’m sure I’m leaving a bunch of people out. I’ve been very fortunate to get to work with some of the best people in the world and the most talented. I’ve learned so much from all my buddies out there.
What is your favorite color?
I don’t know if I have a favorite color. I really want one, but I can’t choose. I don’t have many favorite anythings. There are too many to choose from out in the world.
What instruments do you play? How did you learn?
I play a little bit of everything, but I play guitar the best. I am self-taught. I was at camp one summer, Camp Strong River, in Pinola, Mississippi, which I attended pretty much every summer there for awhile, and there was a counselor teaching guitar. I picked it up and kind of could just play, and I loved it. My parents bought me a $20 guitar, promising that if I stuck with it, which I most definitely did, they would buy me a better one. I was into so many things as a kid that they wanted to make sure they didn’t sink money into another passing hobby. And the rest, as they say, is history.
What advice do you give to other singer/songwriters who are starting out now?
Know your business. Ask as many questions as you need until you are satisfied that you understand everything. Don’t sign anything until you are fully aware of what you are signing. Don’t be afraid to be educated. Knowledge is power. I have learned all these lessons the hardest way. Still learning them, in fact.
Your fans are intensely loyal and incredibly loving. What has been your favorite fan experience?
The one that comes to mind just now is when I was touring behind my first record, Eighteen Over Me. I was playing at outdoor festival in Florida, and there were some handicapped folks in the front row, singing to “Superhero,” the single from the record. I remember tearing up during the chorus, so much so that I had a hard time singing. That was so touching to me. Very powerful. I’ve never forgotten that moment.
Aw, thanks Marge. I loved being a part of ATOAA. Josh Joplin is one of my favorite people ever, and certainly one of the nicest folks I’ve ever met. I don’t have plans to do anything, however, I do plan at some point to make a gospel record. That idea has been tugging at me for the last year or so.
When you tour, what is your favorite thing to get at the truck stop? My fave is Funyuns.
Oh shit. I’ve been trying very hard not to participate in crappy food from the truck stop for quite some time. Especially since I’ve been listening religiously to the Jillian Michaels podcast and doing her No More Trouble Zones DVD workout when I can. I keep thinking about how mad she would be if we were friends and she found out I was eating truck stop snacks. That being said, I like Combos, pizza flavor, and beef jerky. And vinegar and salt potato chips, the Lays ones.
Who is sexy to you?
Well, aesthetically, I like grungy boy rock star types and really feminine women. But overall what is sexy to me is confidence. Having no apologies for who you are and what you want. That is sexy. Standing alone in a crowd. That is sexy to me.
What makes you really want to write?
Is it a cop-out to say I really love to write when I’m inspired by something? I’m not all that prolific. I’m not the type who writes every day because I don’t really feel inspired to write every day. I like to feel moved and impassioned. I like to feel like I’m pushing a boundary. That’s my favorite time to write songs.
When you are writing, is it music first or words first?
It’s usually a melody idea that combines with a lyric idea that’s floating around in my head. But the melody always has to be there.
Do you have an artist that you compare yourself to?
I constantly compare myself to Emmylou Harris. That’s my ideal voice; if I could get there vocally, I would be happiest. I am OK with singing, but she’s the voice I’d love to emulate.
I think that you are as incredible as Tom Petty. He’s actually the only artist I can compare you with.
Dude, that’s so awesome. You know I love Tom Petty. I always use him as a comparison because his style is rootsy, yet rock to me. He’s a singer/songwriter for sure, but he’s rock and roll. What’s been hard for me in the past is being somewhat pigeonholed as a folky artist, when really, that’s not what I feel describes what I do best. I’m determined to play some shows this year with a damn band. Tom, we should tour together. I also love Emmylou’s voice. She’s undeniable. Classic.
When you are unhappy, is that a good time for writing? For me it is. I feel it heals me to put whatever is going on into a song or a story or a joke. I haven’t had the same impulse to write when everything is going well. Do you think it’s a myth that artists have to be tortured? Things that I write when life is not so great are often best?
I think it makes total sense that tension and discomfort often breeds the best work. It kind of touches back to what I said a little while ago about pushing boundaries. In my mind, stretching our limits is the only way to truly grow and move forward in life. Being comfortable is great, but it gets old for us artists. We need hunger. We need something to work toward. I think it’s what frustrates us the most but also keeps us working.
What is your family background? Where are you from? Do they come to gigs?
I grew up an only child in the Memphis area. The town I’m from is called Hernando, Mississippi, and it’s located about 20 miles south of Memphis, Tennessee. My parents are very conservative Christians, and I grew up in the Methodist church. I also went to a private Christian school, so needless to say, I have a lot of baggage.
How do you parents feel about you being gay?
My family struggles with my being gay for sure, but they are respectful, and we have a great relationship. They are such loving and fun people. We’ve come a long way, to their credit. Well, to all of our credits, actually. They have always been supportive of my music career. They used to come to every gig. Obviously, they can’t make them all anymore, but they do come whenever they can. I have always appreciated that about my parents and my immediate family. We don’t always agree, but I’ve never doubted for a second that they love me and are there for me, no matter what.
Where do you live now?
I’m now back in LA, where I’m the happiest.
Nashville still hold a place in your heart?
I can’t say I really miss Nashville, though I do miss some of my very closest friends who are there.
What did you want to grow up to be?
I’m living my own dream, though I’m afraid that sounds really dumb. I’m lucky. My life is exactly what I would have hoped for. There are things I’m striving for, clearly, but I call my own shots, and I’m not going to complain about that.
I listened to "Superhero" running through Tompkins Square park in 1999, when I lived on lower east side and jogged. It made me feel powerful and young and immortal. That was way before I knew you. I had to get everything you ever recorded after that song. I still love it. That’s my favorite after “Beautiful in Los Angeles.” What’s the story behind that song?
Ahhhhh, “Superhero.” There’s so much I could say about that song. I’m happy you asked me about the story behind it — I never really tell it. I remember exactly when the song came about. I had left college, Ole Miss, after a huge scandal of people finding out me and a sorority sister were in a relationship. That was my first real relationship with a woman and I was commuting back and forth for a time instead of living in the dorm where nobody was speaking to me anymore, for being gay. Because they were all being coached by a Presbyterian minister to give us “tough love.” So, literally, we had no friends anymore, but I couldn’t just run away with my tail between my legs, so I tried commuting from my parents’ house in Hernando to Oxford on the days I had classes. This only lasted a short time because I was miserable. So, one morning on the way to school, I had the sunroof open, the day was gorgeous, and I started writing a song about wishing I was a kid again, before I had lost my innocence.
How did you come to be so fucking talented?
Oh dude, thank you so much. I can’t take credit for any of that. I woke up one day and could sing. Personally, I would like to thank God for that.