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INTERVIEW: Jen Starsinic

Pic by Angelina Castillo

Jen Starsinic is known as a prodigy fiddle player – yet she just made a badass indie rock album entitled Bad Actor, out February 7th.  Her first single from the album, “Picture in a Frame,” has already garnered over 10k streams on Spotify and she played a sold-out Single Release show at The 5 Spot in Nashville. People are really excited about this release! Her backing band is Nashville pedal steel legend, Paul Niehaus (lead electric guitar, pedal steel) formerly of Calexico, Iron & Wine, currently plays with Justin Townes Earle and Iris Dement,
Ben Alleman (synths, piano, organ) – currently in Jenny Lewis’s band. formerly played with Grace Potter and Dr. John, and Parker McAnnally (producer, bassist, mix engineer) of The Prescriptions who are recently signed to Single Lock Records

The Berklee School of Music graduate has earned her stripes as a road warrior by joining the touring lineups of several bands, including the David Mayfield Parade. Starsinic wrote the majority of Bad Actor in Nashville after moving there in 2014. Nashville is also the place where she created her critically-acclaimed The Flood and Fire which featured Molly Tuttle (Compass Records, first woman to win IBMA Guitarist of the Year), Charlie Rose of Elephant Revival, Gabe Hirshfeld of Lonely Heartstring Band (Rounder Records), and Alison DeGroot (one of Canada’s finest folk musicians).

In 2017, Starsinic co-founded a non-profit organization called Girls Write Nashville. Serving as a mentorship program for teenage girls, the organization creates a community where young female artists can come be themselves and unleash their voices.

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Hi there, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

Thank you so much for having me! I’m sitting in my little home demo studio at my piano, so I’m doing just great.

Can you talk to us more about your song “Picture in a Frame”?

There’s a Tom Waits song called “Picture in a Frame” that is one of my all-time favorite love songs about loving someone ever since you put their picture in a frame. My “Picture in a Frame” is like the opposite of that – what if you realize you put the wrong person’s picture in a frame, someone who you don’t love who doesn’t love you and isn’t good to you.

Did any event, in particular, inspire you to write this song?

A drunk text from an ex I guess haha. Wow, what a millennial. I feel like my songs are usually weird amalgamations of my various relationships with different people, though not necessarily specifically about that person, more about what that relationship has me thinking about myself really and about living. In a lot of ways I just write songs to try to organize my head a little bit.

I had had this bad relationship spin out, and then had kind of gotten over it and learned a lot from it and was in a good place finally and then one night my ex was suddenly calling me and it just made my heart stop with panic. And then I got just the absolute silliest drunk text from him. And it just kind of hit me how much I really kind of hated him in a way that was really funny to me considering how much I had let it all matter to me when really we were pretty existentially trivial to each other. Like a total, ‘wow I’m an idiot and so are you’ moment. And then that just turned into me thinking about holding on to things, things that aren’t even what you really like or want, just for the sake of having something to hold on to and why we do it.

What can you tell us about your new album coming in 2020?

It’s called Bad Actor, it’s coming out February 7, 2020 and it’s kind of a dreamy indie rock vibe but very song and lyric focused. It’s a little hard to pigeonhole, I get a lot of different comparisons from Cat Power to Jason Molina/Magnolia Electric Co. to War on Drugs to Phoebe Bridgers.

I’ve been around for a while as a multi-instrumentalist and side musician, I grew up playing fiddle and playing bluegrass and old-time music. Everyone who’s known me a while will maybe be surprised at how synth-y this record is, though my music has always had a kind of ethereal vibe to it. This record is really me co-producing and releasing my own music for the first time which is maybe something I’ve been not ready to do emotionally until now. It was written during and is about a kind of rough personal stretch I went through – dealing with childhood trauma, caring for my dad while he waited on a liver transplant list, my own mental illness. It’s been getting a really warm reception, people who like the music, people who can relate to the songs. I just die a little (in a good way) inside every time someone can find a shared experience in my music.

How was the recording and writing process?

The writing and recording process for this record was the most fun I’ve ever had making music. Though, I wrote a lot of these songs during some pretty difficult times, so in another way, the whole process was pretty torturous. I just desperately wanted to keep making music even though shit was really hitting the fan. I think it was really a catharsis and a record I needed to write though. I loved writing each of these songs though and bringing music to life with a band and getting to go in the studio and record is my absolute favorite thing in the world to do. We tracked most of it in two days at a studio called The Smoakstack in Nashville and it all was pretty organic honestly. I have a fantastic band of great people and great musicians, and we all just had a lot of goofy fun making noise together.

Overall, I can’t recommend letting your life fall to pieces, but I will say that if you do, making a record about it is definitely the way to go. It was really pretty freeing in the most terrible way.

How did the process of putting together this LP differ from your previous releases?

I’ve only recorded one album prior to this, and I was only 21 when I recorded it and I’d never really played my songs out at all. I was also just really young as a writer and hadn’t really found my own voice or style yet. This record is much different because there was a whole lot of intent behind it. I had been writing and playing out just trying stuff out for a while and didn’t want to record again until it was going to be something I was really excited about. This is a way in which I’m definitely not millennial-ish. I can barely stomach asking people to pay attention to me when I think I made something really good, I definitely had no interest in releasing a record that didn’t feel pretty deeply rooted to me.

What role does Nashville play in your music?

My experience of Nashville, and especially what I love about Nashville, is really different from what I think other people typically think of when they think of Nashville. To me, living in Nashville is kind of like living at summer camp. There are so many fantastic musicians, there are so many people who love music and want to write and want to play. When I first moved here, I quit a side gig with a guy boss who was not ok to me, and I was really down on music and on myself. And I, like a lot of artists, really struggle with feelings of unworthiness. I feel like Nashville, or rather a few people in Nashville really scooped me up and kept me devoted to making music. I played a show once and a guy came up to me afterward and said he wanted to play on my record – it was Paul Niehaus who is a Nashville pedal steel legend who was in Calexico and has played and recorded with Iron and Wine and a gazillion other people. He’s all over this record and someone like that who I respect so much liking my songs was really huge to me. One of my absolute favorite writers in town, a woman named Becky Warren, has been so supportive as well. Not to mention Parker and John from The Prescriptions who are actual saints who co-produced this record with me in between bouts of me being in PA taking care of my dad while he was sick and just low key losing my mind.

I kind of live near the woods and am also really involved in the all-ages scene and working to tie the music scene and the local community together. I co-founded a nonprofit that pairs middle and high school girls with female songwriter and producer mentors, works to build confidence in girls, and also does a lot of work with linguistic empowerment for ELL students. The Nashville that I know and love is a lot different and weirder than bachelorette parties and cowboy hats.

What aspect of your life did you get to explore on this LP?

I’ve always had a lot of issues with anxiety and depression and stuff like that since I was a kid, it had been pretty persistent for me, but I have never really gotten any help with it. I reached a point where it became really clear to me that I needed to try to come to a deeper understanding of why that was and try to find a way to live with more peace or I wasn’t going to make it. For me, and I think a lot of people who have reached some kind of bottom in their life would relate, it started with being honest with myself about a lot of shit that had been a lot easier to ignore for a long time. So that was the inspiration for this record, Bad Actor. Thinking about all the ways I was faking it, thinking about all the ways I was lying to myself, how unhelpful that was to myself and others.

Where else did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?

A lot of the imagery comes from the neighborhood in Nashville where I live which is really pretty suburban and small-town feeling. There’s a lyric about teenagers getting drunk in the woods that was inspired by a spot in the park I walk in where kids go to get stoned and it reminded me of where I grew up. All of the stuff I was processing was really going back-and-forth between the present moment and my childhood so that was really interesting imagery to be walking around in and realize the similarities.

There’s a song on the record called “Drive to the Ocean” that I wrote while I was concussed and was feeling really pretty far out. I grew up in Pennsylvania and my high school friends and I would drive to the Delaware coast to go to the beach in the middle of the night because that was the only time there wasn’t a crazy amount of traffic. We’d get to the beach at dawn and fall asleep on an empty beach as the sun was coming up and wake up surrounded by families and kids running around. That memory kept playing in my head so I wrote a really explicit brain-injury song about it.

What’s the hardest part about being a full-time touring musician?

Well, I’m not properly a full-time touring musician right now. I split my time between playing and running that nonprofit that I co-founded called Girls Write Nashville. That work, which is intensely communal and not about me, really balances out the musician/writer life in a way that has really helped me cope. Times, when I’ve been full-time on tour before, have been pretty rough. I have a lot of social anxiety so that can really wear me out too on the road. I have a rule with myself now where I’m not allowed to tour by myself anymore because I would get stressed out, not be able to sleep, and then drive the next day feeling like I was about to cause a fiery car crash.

You really get sucked up into touring in a way that is thrilling but then also you realize that you kind of lose chunks of life. All your friends and anyone you care about are just living their normal day-to-day while you’re gone. And if you’re gone literally all the time, well then you’re gone all the time. It can be hard to stay in touch with a sense of community or a sense of place or a sense of having a home or a sense of being present with the people you love. Touring is just kind of life on steroids though, I really actually love it. Even though it is super hard. When I was a kid I wanted nothing more than to be on the road all the time but as you get older it’s a little harder to go without being connected to those things. But at the same time, I think that’s just growing up too. People who don’t travel for their jobs are always feeling stagnant, and everyone has to learn how to meet their emotional needs in some way, so I think it’s just about trying to create some kind of balance.

What else is happening next in Jen Starsinic’s world?

Putting this record out and spending a fair amount of time over the next year touring in support of it. It’s been a while since I’ve been out to play places with the shit show my life went though, so I’m really excited to get around again. I’m always writing so am already working on the next record. I just bought a Nord and I’ve been getting into playing keys a lot more. I always need to have some new instruments or something I’m playing around with and finding sounds on. We have 50 kids in my nonprofit now and are actually writing a book this year, so that will be an interesting adventure.
Honestly, I’m just overall super glad to be doing better than I was and feeling a little more stable footed in this world. That’s another thing I wouldn’t recommend but is a cool side effect of coming out the other side of bottoming out is the appreciation of just getting to be a person in the world.
Other than that, just growing food in my yard when Spring hits and trying, like everyone else, to not panic about America.

Check out Jen Starsinic’s new single “Cold”

https://soundcloud.com/jenstarsinic/cold-1

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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