With the release this week of her Geffen Records debut, Garrison Starr finds herself on a rock-and-roll thrill ride
By Mark Jordan
SEPTEMBER 22, 1997: I'm late -- as usual.
I was supposed to be at Easley Studios at 4 p.m., but as 5 p.m. rolls around, I'm just pulling in front of the nondescript, gray, two-story building tucked away on a seedy South Memphis side street. Once I'm buzzed through the door, I realize it's been a few years since I've been to Easley -- Memphis' alt-rock headquarters, home to the likes of Alex Chilton, Tav Falco, the Grifters, and countless others; I've forgotten about its '70s kitsch decor, and I find myself still staring at the walls when a smiling, still adolescent-looking face, framed by hair shaved Marine short on the sides with long, floppy bangs in front, rushes up to greet me.
"Do you guys just want to hang out and watch?" she asks, eyeing my photographer who managed to show up on time.
"Sure," she answers. "But I don't know how fun this is going to be to watch."
The face -- and the body it rests upon -- belongs to 22-year-old Garrison Starr, Hernando, Mississippi native, Ole Miss dropout, and budding rock star maybe, hopefully.
Starr and her band of the moment -- ex-Todd Snider guitarist Will Kimbrough and bassist Mike Grimes, who have both been with Starr only a few weeks at this point, and drummer Charles Overton -- accompanied by Starr's close friend and road manager Helena Lamb, have been here since noon recording three songs that will be used as B sides or bonus tracks for singles from Starr's upcoming major-label debut on Geffen, Eighteen Over Me. As I sneak into the control room, I hear engineer Davis McCain putting the finishing touches on the first track, "Plain," a surprisingly noisy, almost industrial rocker about escaping the limitations set on you by others.
"Cool, that sounds good," says Starr, listening to the playback. "Let's do the next one."
As 6 p.m. rolls around, the band is just getting started on the second song, "Take It Back," and still have one more to do after it, their take on the Beatles standard, "Taxman." Outside, it's one of the prettiest days of the year -- cool mid-70s temperature, a soft breeze, a clear sky -- but Starr seems resigned to the fact that she'll be in the studio probably until midnight.
It's a normally hectic day for Starr, whose life began the slow uphill climb of a roller coaster more than a year-and-a-half ago when she signed to Geffen records, home to the likes of Peter Gabriel, Nirvana, Beck, and the Counting Crows. Since then, she has released an independent EP, last year's Stupid Girl, and adopted a regular regimen of recording and touring.
The roller coaster picked up a little steam this summer, when Starr embarked on a dizzying tour schedule that included some high-profile shows as part of the celebrated, all-female Lilith Fair tour.
But now, as she comes up on the September 23rd release date of Eighteen Over Me, that roller coaster is rounding the peak and heading for free fall.
"I have no idea what's going to happen after this comes out," Starr says. "It may change my life completely, or I may just wake up the next day exactly the same."
A FEW DAYS LATER, STARR HAS found a free hour to meet over a chicken pita sandwich and a basket of wonderfully greasy fries. She's hardly slowed down a step, though; she talks effusively, pouring out every one of the multitudinous thoughts that race through her mind.
As we sit eating, Eighteen Over Me is a little less than two weeks away from hitting the record stores. "Superhero," the album's first single, is already getting local airplay. And arrangements are already well under way for both Starr's CD-release party and her appearance a few days later at 96X Fest, a show that will mark her Memphis debut as a national artist.
September 23rd. For the rest of the world it will seem like any other Tuesday, full of the usual banalities. But for Starr, it is the day she has been working toward maybe her whole life. And she is already rehearsing every packed minute of it in her mind. At 6 p.m. she'll be giving a solo, acoustic, in-store performance at Cat's in Midtown. At 7 p.m. she'll be the guest of honor at a private party with friends and family. And then at 8 p.m., she'll be playing for her fans at a CD release party at Newby's.
But right now Starr is fixated on another activity she has planned for that day. It seems that 96X is giving her an hour early in the day to come on the air, talk about her record, and play some of her favorite songs. Now all Starr has to come up with is a list of her 12 favorite albums of all time. So far she has down down albums by Ani DiFranco, Sheryl Crow, Ron Sexsmith, and her buddy Neilson Hubbard.
"How about U2's The Joshua Tree?" I suggest.
"Yeah," she says, thinking for a second afterward. "That's a good one. I'm going to write that one down."
Seven more to go.
Julia Garrison Starr has been singing since she was 7 and playing guitar since she was 13. And by high school she and her Evangelical Christian School classmate Gracey Young were playing around Memphis as part of various folk groups. The teenage Garrison Starr was, in fact, a diehard folkie.
"Listening to folk taught me how to play guitar," she says. "Just listening to the Indigo Girls, Joni Mitchell, and some of those Bob Dylan records taught me everything I thought I needed to know. And those melodies. I was strongly drawn to those beautiful, haunting melodies in folk music."
Starr could have gone through life thinking music history started with "Tom Dooley" and culminated in "Closer To Fine" if she hadn't gone on to college.
"I first met Garrison when she was still in high school, actually, but I didn't really get to know her until she came to college here at Ole Miss," says Clay Jones, a guitarist who, like Garrison, attended the university in Oxford, Mississippi. "I remember the first time I heard her and being blown away by her amazing voice. That's what impressed me the first time I heard her and every time since. But as far as her influences go, she was kind of sheltered and naive. I hope that doesn't sound mean, but she just pretty much listened to one kind of music."
When Starr arrived in Oxford, Jones was playing in a band called Spoon with his friend Neilson Hubbard. Soon, the new underclassman was in the band as well, playing drums and singing. She also played in later Jones-Hubbard band, the popular This Living Hand.
Today, Starr still points to her relationships with Hubbard and Jones as the ones that most shaped her. It was Hubbard, the consummate pop craftsman who has just released his first solo record The Slide Project and recently toured in support of the Counting Crows and the Wallflowers, who taught her how to express herself in her songwriting.
"My problem going into college was that all I listened to was folk," says Starr. "And what's more, I was mainly listening to female folk singers, especially the Indigo Girls and specifically the songs of [Indigo Girl] Emily Saliers. So, inevitably I started writing songs like Saliers, with weird ambiguous lyrics that had nothing to do with me or my life. It was Neilson who finally said to me, `Garrison, what the hell are you singing about? This isn't you.'"
And while Hubbard, who still collaborates with Starr on songs, including Eighteen Over Me's "Molly," helped shape her approach to songwriting, it was Jones who exposed her to completely new worlds of sound and genres.
"Clay used to make me these mix tapes with bands like the Red House Painters and Big Star and stuff I'd never listened to or sometimes ever even heard of," Starr says. "And Clay would give me these tapes and say, `Here. Check this out and tell me what you think.' And I'd come back later and tell him, `Man you're right. I totally hear what you're talking about.' That was a really special time, being exposed to new music like that; it's like hearing music for the very first time."
Since Jones was responsible for so much of Starr's musical education, it's only been fitting that throughout her brief career so far she continues to turn to him for guidance. Jones has produced all three of Starr's recordings to date, starting with 1993's acoustic, folky Pinwheels, an independently released cassette that only saw a few hundred copies made but which Starr says may resurface again soon.
"We're thinking seriously about re-releasing it on CD," she says. "It's very different from what I'm doing now, very sparse -- just guitar with a little bass or violin. But there are some songs on there I still like quite a bit."
Hubbard and Jones also may be responsible for Starr's record deal with Geffen, indirectly. It was through her Spoon/This Living Hand bandmates that she met her manager Mark Roberts. It was Roberts who financed the Stupid Girl sessions. When that recording was finished and before it was even released, Roberts sent a copy to his friend Ray Farrell, an A&R rep at Geffen, for feedback. Farrell was immediately floored by what he heard. A few weeks later, on Labor Day 1995, Farrell flew into Memphis specifically to hear Starr perform at the Library on Highland. Six months after that, Starr was a Geffen recording artist.
"Ray has really stuck his head out for me," Starr says. "He's one of those guys who cares about music and will do whatever he has to to get the music he likes heard. I found out the other day that Ray went into the office of the guy in charge of getting artists radio airplay at Geffen and took him the EP [Stupid Girl] and barricaded the guy inside his office until he listened to it. It's really good to have someone like that on your side. Someone with a passion for music who cares about what you're doing."
When it came time to actually record her major-label debut, Starr stuck with Jones behind the board, but the duo also enlisted the help of veteran producer Dennis Herring, whose credits include working with Cracker and the Innocence Mission.
"It was important to me that we have somebody who knew his way around a studio and knew all the technical stuff, but who also could respect Clay and his input," Starr says. "I can't stress enough what a wonderful job Clay and Dennis did."
Recording basic tracks at Daniel Lanois' opulent Kingsway Recording in New Orleans, Starr and her producers abandoned any preconceived notions of what the album should sound like in favor of an approach that stressed each song's individual character.
"We would go in the studio every day and start work on a song, say `Stick,' and we would ask ourselves: What does `Stick' need? Or we're doing `Ugly' today. Okay, what does `Ugly' as a song need?"
The result is a straight-ahead rock record that is quite different from anything Starr has done before. The beats on Eighteen Over Me come fast and heavy; the guitars are loud and fuzzy. The folk singer with powerful pipes has completed a transition toward rock that began on Stupid Girl. Regardless of what folk purists or old fans may say, however, Starr is more than pleased with the final product.
"I'm really proud of it, and I'm proud of Dennis and Clay and all the musicians," she says. "[The whole record] feels like a special thing. It feels like a special project, and that's what I wanted."
BACK OVER THE LAST OF THE greasy fries, Starr has thought of another one.
"I know, Rumours," she cries out. "Fleetwood Mac is such an underrated band, and I love Stevie Nicks. She's got such a neat voice and writes the best songs. Man, that was a great album. I hope I can make a record that good someday. Okay. What is that? Six? Okay, six more to go."
Tuesday, September 23rd: 6 p.m. at Cat's Midtown and 8 p.m. at Newby's. Saturday, September 27th: 96X Fest on Mud Island.
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