The Stuff We're Made Of - Part 1 (written for Amy Poehler Smart Girls)
My name is Garrison Starr, and I was born in Memphis, TN, on April 29, 1975. I am a singer, songwriter, recording artist and producer, and I currently live in Los Angeles. (Technically I grew up in Northwest Mississippi in a small town called Hernando, about 20 miles south of Memphis. I like to make that distinction whenever I’m telling people where I’m from.)
I loved growing up in Mississippi. I loved fishing with my dad, playing all the sports, walking everywhere, and getting lost in the country. Everything smells awesome most all of the time, and it’s nice to feel safe as a kid in a community where people are looking out for each other. I kind of feel like the old South is a magical place, and there really is nothing like the smell of fresh cut grass at dusk, the elegance of those giant magnolia trees and the croaking of frogs and cicadas. I used to drive at night down the back roads in the spring and summer with all my windows down listening to Tori Amos’ “Little Earthquakes.”
I started writing songs from the moment I could talk, basically - sometimes they were just melodies that I would sing and sing and sing. I would record them on my little tape recorder and somehow figure out how to layer multiple vocals by using a double tape deck. I guess that was my intro into making records. Somewhere along the way I acquired drum sticks, so now there was a cool beat and a melody. My mom’s favorite numbers were always “Don’t Throw Your Head” and “Your Lips Are White.” I used to talk to myself all day in my room, pretending my bed was a car I was working on, or that I was preaching to all my stuffed animals. I even created a radio show where you could call in about life’s little gripes and I would give you advice. I made up and acted out the commercials in between the segments! My parents used to love to listen back to those cassettes and laugh. Anyway, at some point throughout those years of pieces of beats and melodies becoming full songs, my parents realized music was a thing, and they bought me my first guitar. I know my mom really had her heart set on me playing the piano, but she came around.
I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family and community. That means that everybody pretty much takes the Bible literally, and they’re really intense about it. Being an artist, the inflexibility of this brand of Christianity has always been a rub for me. I heard them talking about Jesus and the way to love, but the way they spoke about “non-believers” and people who didn’t fit into their paradigm was not loving. The contradiction was confusing and really obvious I thought. I worried about what would happen if I didn’t become exactly who they thought I should be. My being a tomboy also complicated matters. I hated dresses; I wanted to be like my dad. Not that I wanted to be a boy, but I just wanted to be able to do stuff that boys did. It pissed me off when I wasn’t invited to participate because I was a girl. I could do most of that shit better than those boys could anyway! The only time it ever crossed my mind that I was female was when somebody else brought it up.
When I started realizing I was gay, I was very young. Like, single digits young. I’ve always been annoyingly self-aware, and I was horrified at the thought of what this would mean. I knew I was in an impossible situation. I heard them talking about gay people and people who didn’t measure up to their standards. It was black and white. There were no exceptions. I felt sick and suffocated. I wanted so badly to just be whoever I was in that moment and feel okay about it. I didn’t want to have to choose a side. I didn’t want to have to call myself a “homosexual.” That sounded like a disease. I was just Garrison. Your friend. Your daughter. Your niece. Your student. What difference did it make that I might be gay? (P.S. Did I mention I’m an only child?)
I went to a private Christian high school in Memphis, and during those years, I started performing. I had a natural connection to the guitar. I remember picking it up and feeling an immediate chemistry. Somehow it just made sense to me. I would spend hours listening to Indigo Girls’ records, learning all their songs by ear. I was learning to put my own flavor and style into my singing and my songs. I was writing some deep stuff, and though the songs were fairly dramatic, they were real, and some of them were really good. My best friend and I had made a tape in high school called “5 Songs to Fame.” I guess you could say that’s what started it all. We did sell quite a few of those things, playing at some chapels around town, at other schools, as well as for our own school assemblies sometimes. We also played around Memphis in some bars like Newby’s - those were some fun days, singing lots of cover songs and a handful of our originals. People loved it, and that was validating. Playing music was all I wanted to do, and I had so much to say. Being onstage was the only place I felt like I truly belonged. I felt untouchable up there, and I never wanted to come down. As my struggle with my sexuality became more intense, my music truly did become my only refuge from the world around me.
After graduating high school, I ended up at Ole Miss, where I went through sorority rush and pledged Chi Omega. All my friends were doing it - I thought it would be fun! And it was fun for awhile - people kinda thought I might be gay, but I was dating dudes, so they couldn’t really be sure. One night, though, somebody caught me making out with a girl and the news spread like wildfire. My roommate’s mom called me, freaking out, “Garrison, don’t you know what you’re doing is a sin???!!!” To be fair, I didn’t know how I felt about any of it. I really didn’t have a chance to process what I was feeling for the first time, being able to express myself the way I wanted, before an army of terrified faces were interrogating the crap out of me. I was told I could no longer lead the music at our youth group meetings. A “friend” of mine in my sorority took me up to the roof of our dorm and told me, “If you don’t walk away from this lifestyle, don’t say I didn’t warn you.” In fact, my roommate’s dad was (and still is) a minister at a big Memphis church, and he gathered my roommate at the time and all our friends up to their house and instructed them on how to exclude me from stuff in the name of Jesus. They were told “not to speak to [me] until [I] repent.” He called it “tough love.” I was humiliated. I left college after a little over a year.
I moved to Memphis and lived there, working and performing for a couple of years when my friend Bradford decided to move to Los Angeles to start his management career. I impulsively told him I would get a place with him if I could join, and that was that. I was excited about having a fresh start in a brand new and exciting place. I could finally figure out what I wanted, out from under the cloud of impending doom and judgement I had been living with for so long. I felt free for the first time in my life. LA gets this weird rap for being superficial and shallow, but I’ve never had that experience here. I’ve only found like-minded, kind-hearted people who are really talented and gracious. And blessed, for that matter. LA has saved me in so many ways; I think it will always feel like home.
The journey I have taken to be writing to you today is ongoing. I could tell you so many stories about the ways I’ve succeed and more about the ways I have failed. I’m passionate and outspoken about what I believe. Sometimes that works for me and sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve never been good at hiding it, that’s for sure. But the music and the artists that I love and am inspired by aren’t concerned about doing anything for anybody else’s reasons. They were the ones writing the stories and creating the landscapes. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I am a truth seeker, and those records and those artists were always with me through some of my darkest and confusing times. When I felt alone and like an outcast, I had the music. When I was silenced, I could use my voice in my songs. What a gift!
I became very bitter over the years about what I went through in my Christian upbringing. It’s still a struggle to move on from the memory of that emotional trauma that runs so deep and is so deeply connected to the way I see the world. So much of that belief system robbed me of a lot of my youth. It robbed me of innocence. It was really, really hard. And sometimes all that old stuff still gets me down.
It’s easy to dwell on the things I can’t change, but I have so much to be grateful for today. When I start a downward spiral of any sort (my girlfriend calls it “circling the drain”), I remind myself how far I have come. I remind myself of all the blessings, including my relationship with my parents and the wonderful and ridiculous life I’m living with my partner Rene, that have come out of that shit storm of codependency to land me in the happiest place I can remember. I remind myself that every time I have been lost, I have been found again, by so many friends along the way that I believe have been sent at the exact right time to keep me going. And not to mention all the songs I get to be a part of creating.
I wanted to share this story of where I came from and how I came to be because I want you to know that whoever you are, and wherever you come from, you are perfect, just as you are. I think the most important lesson I’ve learned through all that’s led me to you today is that I can trust myself. I have everything I need inside to change the world around me, and in fact, the only times in my life I look back on with regret are the times I know I betrayed myself in order to please somebody else.
I’ve made a lot of records and have played a lot of shows, and I know we’ll be talking more about that in the days to come… My latest album is called What If There Is No Destination, and the first single is “Put Your Weapon Down.” I’m so proud of this new music for so many reasons, but most of all I’m just so grateful to be living my life doing exactly what I want and love to be doing.
Technically, the single is a re-release, as we put it out last year around the Orlando, Florida nightclub shooting to offer support. The song is still timely, I would say. Fear is a pervasive and dangerous enemy, and it takes courage to stand and face it. I believe through understanding we can find compassion and love for each other. It just takes work. Inconvenient work. But that is what they say, right? Nothing good ever comes easy?