“I love the vibe of old Neil Young records,” says Garrison Starr, “where it sounds like a bunch of people sitting in a room, playing music together. That’s what I was striving for on this new album. It wasn’t about making a perfect recording, it was about having fun and capturing a moment.”
Starr—whose distinctive songs, expressive voice, and assertive guitar playing have inspired a devoted fan base and drawn critical acclaim—made her major-label debut with 1997’s Eighteen Over Me [Geffen]. “I recorded that when I was 19,” she recalls. “Being new to the game, I let a producer make all the decisions. I can’t listen to it today.” Determined to avoid that scenario on her latest and fourth release, Starr took a firm grip of the production reins, sharing the task with Brad Jones and Nielson Hubbard, key figures in Nashville’s burgeoning underground music scene. The result—The Sound of You and Me [Vanguard]—is a set of very personal songs, featuring lots of chunky acoustic guitar and neo-tribal percussion, some greasy riffs and haunting string arrangements, and a visceral, unguarded sound.
Where did you record The Sound of You and Me?
We cut most of it at Alex the Great, a Nashville studio owned by Robin Eaton (Jill Sobule, Butterfly Boucher, Steve Earle, Marshall Crenshaw, Josh Rouse) and Brad Jones, who co-produced the album with Nielson Hubbard and me. We also cut some vocals at Nielson’s studio in East Nashville.
Did you demo the songs before going into the studio?
Nielson, Brad, and I met at Brad’s house, where he got out his microcassette recorder and taped the three of us playing through the songs on our acoustics. That was the extent of our preproduction, and the sense of actually performing the material carried over into the album itself. I wanted this record to feel live, rather than stacked and pieced together.
Had you worked with either of them before?
Nielson and I have been friends for 12 years—he has had a humongous influence on me as a songwriter and musician, but I’d never worked with Brad. Truthfully, Nielson and I had done some demos at his place with the idea he was going to produce the new record. But the demos didn’t turn out the way we wanted—the combination of the juju and the players just wasn’t right. My manager wasn’t happy with it, and it seemed like things weren’t jelling with that combination. But I really wanted Nielson’s input and involvement with this album, so after talking it over, he said, “Let’s bring in another person. Let’s do it as a team effort, a three-way production.” So we got Brad involved. He was the quirky guy in the mix, offering some push and pull to Nielson and me.
The album’s foundation seems to be the steel-string acoustic. Did you play on all the songs?
I played most of those parts, and some electric parts as well.
Describe your instruments.
I played a couple of old Gibson acoustics, including Nielson’s B-25. Those older Gibsons are so good for recording—really dark and boxy sounding, which is what I like. I also used my old all-mahogany Guild—another dark guitar—and my Taylor W-10, which has walnut back and sides, and a punchy, chunky tone. That’s the way I like electrics to sound, too.
Tell us about those.
I’m a Tele girl. My favorite is a ’78 Tele Custom, black with a maple neck. It’s badass. I also have a ’58 double-cutaway Les Paul Junior with an original whammy bar. As far as amps, I love my Silvertone Twin 12; that thing sounds great with the Junior. We used Nielson’s old Fender Deluxe a lot, a Vox AC30, and a Fender Champ.
How do you string your acoustics?
With Martin SP 80/20 Bronze mediums—the best strings I’ve ever played. I used to break strings all the time, but the SPs never break and they sound amazing. These are bronze—phosphor bronze strings are too bright for me. I use yellow [.73 mm] Dunlop Tortex Standard picks.
Did you sing while playing guitar, or did you overdub the vocals?
I tracked most of them along with my guitar. We went back and tweaked a couple of vocals, but most of the vocals are a live performance. For example, on “Pretending,” we all sat in a room and played and sang the song several times, and then kept the take we thought was best. “Cigarettes and Spearmint” was one take; there were four of us playing guitar on it. We overdubbed the drums, strings, and Nielson’s background vocals, but the body of the take is just us hanging out and playing. We tried to do that throughout the record. “Let Me In,” “Sing It Like a Victim,” “Big Enough,” “Black & White,” “Kansas City, KS,” “Beautiful in Los Angeles,” and “We Were Just Boys and Girls” all have live vocals.
We didn’t go back and layer vocals and instruments a million times, because I didn’t want the album to sound that heavy. Like Songs from Take Off to Landing [Starr’s 2002 album on Virgin]—that’s such a heavy record. The Sound of You and Me doesn’t have that weighty production feel. The material is heavy, but the vibe isn’t. The music is dark and sad, but in a simple way.
On Eighteen Over Me, I sang the vocals line by line, and it was the worst experience. I’ll never do that again—terrible, no fun for a singer. I don’t have a problem singing a song, so I don’t see the need to go over and over it. By the fourth time through, I’ve lost the passion for it, I promise you. When I write a song, I get so excited that I sing it around the house all the time. So when we take it into the studio, I want to sing it once, maybe twice, and then press on.
The album offers a number of little sonic surprises, like the oddball sounds in “Let Me In” and the muttering at the beginning of “Sing It Like a Victim.”
That talking was actually my idea; I was reading from my journals. I got the idea for “Sing It Like a Victim” while watching a late-night documentary about a seven-year-old boy who committed suicide because he was fat, didn’t have any friends, and was insecure. In his journals he’d written how “in the shadows” he could be whoever he wanted to be, rather than the awkward kid at school. I was going through a hard time when I saw that show; I saw a parallel there because I struggle with self-esteem and security in my own life. The song was about his journals, but I was reading from my own.
For “Let Me In,” we had to paint the intro a bit, because it was just vocals until the drums came in, and that didn’t make any sense. So Brad put together some backward noises to guide listeners into the song.
When writing songs, do you start with lyrics or music?
I have a hard time writing lyrics without music, I really need something to build from. Usually I’ll start with acoustic guitar, but sometimes I’ll mess around with the piano. Or I might pick up the bass or electric guitar—anything that helps break up the monotony.
Do you use open tunings?
That’s another way I break up the songwriting monotony. In addition to standard, I use several open tunings, including DADGAD and an unusual [Csus2] open C—C, G, C, G, C, D. Patty Griffin turned me onto DADDAD. I find using a capo can also inspire new ideas. I’m obsessed with Keyser capos, and a fan makes me custom capos engraved with my name.
Do you record your ideas to keep track of them?
It’s rare I’ll have a good idea and not remember it, but sometimes I get nervous that I’ll forget it, so I call my voicemail and capture the idea there. I also have a little tape recorder at the house, which I’ll use to get something down quick. It’s really a placebo thing; I rarely go back and listen to these recordings, but it’s reassuring to know they’re there.
Some songwriters are very disciplined; they get up early and work on their craft everyday. How would you describe your approach?
I’m not one of those people—I’m the other kind [laughs]. I’m writing now, but I had a six- or seven-month period of writing nothing.
Do you work on several songs at a time, or do you take a linear approach to writing?
I’m linear, and that’s probably why I don’t write a lot. If I start accumulating songs I haven’t finished, it keeps me from moving on. To feel creative, I have to clear out the stuff that’s going on right now. I admit I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to songwriting, and I’d do well to take more chances.
Not being afraid to sit down and work on something because maybe I won’t be able to finish it, or maybe it will sound too much like another song. I’ll think, “Oh, I’ve used that word so many times, I can’t say it again.” I always want to write a timeless masterpiece, and that’s not very productive.
What advice can you offer budding writers?
Don’t go over and over a song, trying to craft it into something that meets your expectations. So what if it says things you’ve already said before? If that’s where you are right now, it’s okay to express that. Let a song be what it is.