‘superhero’ Garrison Starr Finds Better Days

Chuck Parsons
 | 
February 2, 2020
UPDATED: 
December 21, 2020

by Jim Beaugez, Mississippi Today
February 2, 2020

Midway through the two-minute trailer for the 2019 Fred
Rogers biopic “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” actor Matthew Rhys,
playing journalist Tom Junod, sits across a diner table from Tom Hanks, who
stars as the host of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Junod is despondent and nearing the bottom of an
existential break. His brief experiences with the placid Rogers have led him to
reassess how he’s lived his entire life. Then, just as Rogers gently assures
Junod he's not a broken man, the stirrings of a gospel choir sweep up the scene
in a redemptive chorus.

The bombastic “Better Day Comin’” is still playing in the background when Rogers says, in another scene, “You need to let people know that each one of them is precious.”

Hernando native Garrison Starr can relate to both characters. Much about
the singer-songwriter’s personal experiences are revealed in just three verses
of “Better Day Comin’,” which she wrote with collaborator Adrianne Gonzalez.
When she sings about laying ghosts to rest—“I've seen more than I wanna see /
The people I love turning on me”—there’s more than a ring of truth.

Starr has spent her 25-year music career turning negativity on
its head, and turning those experiences into music. Her journey from college
dropout to burgeoning alternative-rock star to TV composer started while she
was still in high school, but it took a sharp, unexpected turn after
graduation.

Like many of her friends, Starr enrolled in the University of Mississippi.
She didn’t get a chance to live the college life for long, though. After being
outed as a lesbian, she was thrust into conflict with the unspoken rules of her
community as institutions and relationships she thought were safe turned their
backs.

“My sexuality became an issue,” Starr says from her home in Los Angeles.
“They couldn't kick me out of the sorority because that's illegal, but they
tried. I ended up leaving Ole Miss because it was a scandal. I was outed and
humiliated.”

She retreated to her parents’ home and saved enough money to move
across the state line to Memphis, where she hoped a less judgmental community
waited. But Starr wasn’t long for the Bluff City, either. A representative from
Geffen Records, which brought artists like Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses to the
mainstream, signed her to a development deal after seeing her perform at a
local club.

When a friend who was moving to L.A. offered to tote her belongings in his moving truck — and with a record deal in her pocket — she took the opportunity to be close to her new label and work on the songs that would become her third album, Eighteen Over Me, released in 1997.

“I just wasn't feeling good about myself, and I didn't feel like I
could be free to live my life,” she says. “I felt like people were looking over
my shoulder all the time—my parents included, because to be fair, I'm sure they
were worried about me.”

Moving to L.A. afforded Starr access to top industry talent and studios,
thanks to her relationship with Geffen. Once rock radio latched onto her song
“Superhero,” she landed a tour with Nashville outlaw Steve Earle as well as a
spot on Lilith Fair with heroes the Indigo Girls. “Superhero” was even played
at the 1999 Women’s World Cup at the Rose Bowl.

The good stuff was great. But just as she was gaining momentum, Geffen was
sucked into the Universal Music Group merger, which left its artists and label
reps in limbo. The machine behind “Superhero” locked up almost immediately and
her career stalled.

Another facet of major-label life confounded her, too. She had left
college and moved to L.A. to find herself, but she mostly found more people
trying to mold her into what they wanted her to be. Starr was discouraged from
her casual Tomboy look. One label rep told her outright they didn’t want her to
look like one of the Indigo Girls. The woman she saw in her publicity photos
looked nothing like the one she saw in the mirror every day.

Courtesy garrisonstarr.com

“I was going through this identity crisis,” she explains, “because I
had been told by my community and the people I thought were loving me, and
protecting me, and supporting me, ‘There's something wrong with you. So, until
you get yourself fixed up, we have to give you tough love.’

“Looking back on it, I realize I was so insecure because I didn't know
what to think about myself. All the people I trusted were telling me that I was
wrong, but in my heart I didn't feel like I was wrong.”

By 2000, Starr was bouncing between highs and lows, from finding
new recording opportunities to fighting writers’ block. Her output stalled
until 2002’s Songs From Take-Off to Landing, and continued through
another pair of albums before she pulled up roots and moved to Nashville.

After nine years in L.A., Nashville wasn’t the fresh change she’d hoped
for. Instead, she found herself battling familiar obstacles.

“All my friends when I lived in Nashville were married or in
relationships, and I wasn't, and my career wasn't going well, and I just didn't
feel good about myself,” she says. “I was just really down.”

A friend who worked in music publishing eventually convinced her to
write music again.

“Nini [Camps, now at Concord Music] called me and said, ‘Why are you
sitting in Nashville doing nothing? Why don't you get your ass up here to New
York? Just come up here and stay with me, and let's write some songs for TV and
film.’ I'll always be grateful to Nini for pulling me out of that rut.”

Starr’s second act as a music writer for TV and film grew even more when she moved back to L.A. in 2010. In the last decade, she’s notched song placements on shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Pretty Little Liars,” “The Hills” and “NCIS: Los Angeles.” While she had been reluctant to write with other songwriters in the past, she opened herself to collaborations and wrote music daily instead of waiting for inspiration to strike.

Courtesy garrisonstarr.com

“I started thinking about it like Forrest Gump,” she says. “You know when he goes out, and he starts Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and takes the boats out, and he pulls the nets back in and there's barbed wire, and seaweed, and broken toilet seats, and dead shrimp? But he keeps on. He keeps casting the nests, and the nets go wider, and then finally one day there are shrimp.”

The TV cuts started coming through just as the business of selling
music in tangible forms like CDs and records declined. In 2010, physical sales
accounted for 52 percent of the business. By the end of 2019, that shrank to 9
percent, while streaming grew to 80 percent of all U.S. music consumption.
Starr’s business remains strong thanks to those TV and film opportunities.

Neilson Hubbard singer/songwriter Garrison Starr

Turning her life around has taken discipline and an acknowledgement of
how the past always comes back, no matter how hard you try to avoid it. “No
anger and no bitterness can fill the hole inside my chest,” she declares in
another revealing line from “Better Day Comin’.” Letting go can be liberating,
she says.

“A lot of my ship turning around, I think, has been me being willing to
forgive myself and others,” she muses, “being willing to take responsibility
for my business, and the mistakes that I've made, and also the successes that
I've had. Taking ownership of all of it, and taking responsibility for my life,
and my story, has made a huge difference.

“I'm not in as angry or dark a place as I was when I was going through all that stuff in my ‘20s. That was a tough time for me. I think now I'm in a better, more grateful and more generous space, and that makes a huge difference for the gifts that the universe has for you. Sometimes good things are there, but you can't receive them, you know?”

This story is an exclusive of The ExPat, part of Mississippi Today’s Mississippi ExPats Project. Click the button below to receive this specially curated newsletter for Mississippians living outside the state.
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This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

SOURCE: Jim Beaugez
VIA: Mississippi Today

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