Garrison Starr’s major label debut is now 24 years old. The veteran songwriter from Hernando, Mississippi was nearly ready to give it up, but along came 2021’s Girl I Used to Be, a record years in the making that helped her become more comfortable with sharing her own story.
Ahead of her trip to Birmingham with Matthew Mayfield, we talked about the process of creating that record, the South, barbecue, evangelism, golf and Ole Miss football.
Girl I Used to Be felt really personal. And it felt like it may have even been a bit influenced by the pandemic. Is that a reach?
It would be a reach, only because the record was recorded in September of 2018 in Nashville. And a lot of the songs had been written for years. Some of them had been written as long ago as 2014 or 2015. One of the gifts of this record, to me, is that I wasn’t sure that I wanted to ever make another record. I was so disenchanted with the business. I got to a point where I honestly didn’t know where my place was and I was so…I was working from the outside in trying to figure out, “What is it that I can do that’s gonna work?” I felt so beat up by the business of it. My identity was so wrapped up in it.
I took some time off and started to write some songs with people; just collaborating with other artists thinking, “Well, I’ll just build my equity as a songwriter. Maybe I’ll just be a songwriter. Maybe I don’t need to be an artist. Maybe I don’t need to release records anymore and tour. Maybe nobody gives a [expletive].”
And then, I started writing these songs with younger artists and I thought, “Well, this person will go out and they’ll make it a hit. They’ll make it money. They’ll go out and make something work.” Then I turned around after all this time of being in the room with people thinking that I was helping other people tell their stories; I realized that they weren’t cutting these songs. Then I realized that I’m an artist. This is who I am and these are my songs. All this time I had been thinking that I was trying to help someone else tell their story, and the whole time, for these particular songs, someone was in there helping me tell my story.
Of nine songs on the record, seven of them are co-writes. And they were songs that I thought were gonna be for somebody else. But it turns out they were for me. That’s one of the things that I love about this record. I was given a beautiful gift that I didn’t expect; a record full of gorgeous songs that I couldn’t write on my own.
Did you write with Matthew [Mayfield]? Is that how y’all connected?
No, not at all. Matthew and I have the same booking agent. That’s how these tours originated. Our agent came to us both. [The agent] thought we’d be a good fit, and I said, “I love Matthew Mayfield. Like, I’m a fan of Matthew’s.” I think Matthew is a true artist and some of his songs over the years have truly impacted me. I love Matthew’s aesthetic and I love his writing. I was excited when they came to me with the idea. I’ve known Matthew forever; he’s sweet, he’s talented, let’s do it.
He’s a Birmingham guy, and you have Mississippi roots. Did you know him when you were both here?
No. I think we became aware of each other in the early 2000s. We were both doing songwriting camps and I think we met then. We did a couple of dates together years ago in the midwest, but we have never been in regular contact with each other. He’s the type of good friend you have that you can always pick up where you left off.
I sense that you have struggled with your relationship with the South. You went to L.A. You came back to Nashville for a while. You’re back in L.A. Have you learned that you’re a West Coast girl and you can’t come back?
I did struggle for a long time with the South. When I moved back to Nashville, it was hard for me to be there. It was triggering for me. The trauma that I experienced in the evangelical community – in my upbringing – that’s some deep-rooted stuff. All of these years have been a process of trying to untangle that jewelry box.
I do love Los Angeles. I love living here. I love the aesthetic of it. I love the weather. I love the diversity and the weirdness of it. When I first moved here, it was such a free place for me, where I was feeling so suffocated and boxed in, religiously. But I’ve gotten to a place now where I have spent enough time working on me in my own space where I enjoy coming home now. I’m proud to be from the South, and I can see all of the gifts that I’ve been given by being a Southerner. And I’ve never been ashamed of that. I think for many years, I was hurt. And it took me a long time to get through that and get to the other side of it; where I can come home and be excited. This is the first real concentrated amount of time I have spent in the South in a long time, and I’m really looking forward to it. I feel like I’m coming into it with excitement instead of fear.
Is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to…
Barbecue! Pork barbecue with slaw on a sandwich and extra sauce! That’s what I’m looking forward to! Eating some real barbecue! You can’t get that anywhere but the South – those pulled pork sandwiches dripping with that sweet, red sauce. That’s what I’m looking forward to, dude. That and seeing some old friends.
Do the challenges facing the South weigh you down or is there such a disconnect now that it doesn’t affect you?
You mean in terms of racism and homophobia? [laughs]
Yeah. I mean. All of it. Are you affected by it or is it something you just gave up on?
No, I’m absolutely affected by it. In large part, it’s why I play music. It’s such a huge part of my story. I’ve been given a gift and I have a responsibility to that gift. That’s why I do what I do. I never used to talk about my story on stage. I couldn’t figure out a way to integrate my authenticity and my truth with the music. I could never figure out a way to do it in a way where it felt comfortable. I couldn’t figure out a way that it felt like it was part of my story and not preachy; like I was pointing my finger at people. But I got to a place where I could find a vulnerability in it; where I could talk about what I’ve been through as something that happened, and not something where it was like, “It’s YOUR fault, Blake. You’re the [expletive] reason.”
And I have found that in that vulnerability of just sharing the truth about something, I have found a way to connect with people in my music. I had never put that together before. There’s a conversation that is happening. And to me, that is empowering. That’s what makes me want to continue to tell my story and to be honest about what I’ve been through. I feel like there are so many people longing for that conversation.
In terms of politics? It’s sad because it’s everywhere. There are things that happen in the South where it’s like, “Yeah. I understand that.” I have definitely been in a rest area in the South where I felt unsafe because I’m not sure if somebody is looking at me as a lesbian. Are they gonna try to hurt me? Are they mad at me? Do they hate me? I’ve definitely felt those feelings before. But the political aspect of it all – how the religion fits into it, and specifically, the evangelicalism – I feel like that is a nationwide problem. It’s a nationwide epidemic. California does have a lot of protections built in for people who can’t necessarily fight for themselves in certain ways. California is very protective of its people in a way that Tennessee or Mississippi or Alabama aren’t, but when it comes to trying to coax people into being mad at each other and throwing each other away because we don’t all think the same stuff? That’s happening everywhere. Those types of scenarios where I am not sure how I will be perceived exist, but it doesn’t keep me away the way that it used to.
There’s been a lot of progress, too. People are waking up to the [expletive] of the baby boomers. So many people are thinking for themselves and making waves of change; it’s just a slow process. It’s hard to forget the hurts that have happened in the past; to really believe that you can trust someone.
You mentioned learning how to tell your own story. Do you credit that to the process of creating this record? Did that process reinvigorate you and make you want to get back at this thing when you had felt like you wanted to stop?
Yeah, I think so. As I’ve been able to get out and be more free and more honest, and through a lot of my own spiritual work, be more open and confident in who I am – it’s given me the freedom to share more. And seeing people respond to that – just having one person come up and say, “Thanks so much for what you said because I grew up in evangelicalism…” I had an old friend from Mississippi tell me recently that she had gone through her own series of persecutions for dating a man of color. She’s white and she had a husband that was a person of color and she was persecuted and ostracized because of that.
She’s from Mississippi. She’s from my town. You just never know what people are going through. If me sharing my story can help someone else relieve their own burden, then it’s all worth it. Imagine if everyone could do that. Imagine if everyone could share a little piece of themselves to make it a little easier on someone else; imagine what kind of a world we’d be living in.
On a much lighter note: have you been watching this Ole Miss football team?
Dude, my dad has every kind of Ole Miss…like, dad has Ole Miss shorts, he’s got an Ole Miss belt, he’s got an Ole Miss shirt, he’s got Ole Miss golf head covers. The dude has been an Ole Miss supporter for my entire life, and every year, I’m like, “Dad, Ole Miss sucks. Why are you trying to get me behind a losing team every year?” And apparently this year, they’re actually good. [laughs]
I’ve never really had a team that I staunchly supported. I’m jealous of other people for that. I wish I had a team. I wish I could do that with the Dodgers or something, but I just haven’t ever cared that much. I’m a golfer. I watch golf. And I obsess about golf. People probably think that’s the whitest, bougiest thing ever. But my dad played golf, so I’m a golfer.
You should really connect with John Barrett from Bass Drum of Death. Huge Ole Miss guy. Huge golfer.
What?! Bass Drum of Death?! That’s amazing.
He’s from Mississippi. He’s a huge golfer. And he loves Ole Miss. Maybe you guys have something in common.
Bass Drum of Death! I am on it. I am gonna find this dude. I’m gonna find this dude.
Garrison Starr and Birmingham’s own Matthew Mayfield perform at Saturn on Thursday, November 11. Show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20.