Our guest on the Art of the Song Coffee Break was singer/songwriter David Starr who just pre-released his album “The Head and Heart” on standingoproject.com.
Want to listen to the full interview with music? Listen on our podcast here while you read. DAVID STARR PODCAST
Katie: I’m talking today with Standing ‘O’ artist David Starr, who just did a special pre-release on Standing ‘O’ of his new EP “The Head and Heart”. David, it’s so nice to talk with you today. Welcome to the program.
David: It’s very nice to talk to you.
Katie: I want to dive into your new EP, but let’s just start at the very beginning with how you got into music, how your musical journey started.
David: When I was about 10 years old, my older brother who’s right about 3 years older than me was taking guitar lessons at a local guitar store and, in an effort to try to be as much like my older brother as possible, I talked my mother into letting me take some kind of lessons because I decided to be a drummer. So I’ve been a drummer since I was about 10 years old and that was my primary instrument for a number of years, but along the way, since I also was a singer, I somewhere along the line decided I had to do that too. So as part of that I wanted to accompany myself an I was always around good guitar players in the bands I was in and around my brother and so forth so I sort of taught myself guitar and over the years that became more of the primary instrument for me because I could stand out front and lead a band and eventually play solo and that sort of thing. So I’ve been at it a long time and grew up playing high school dances, fraternities, opening acts….you name it, I’ve done it. A lot of bar gigs. I’ve played probably since I was about 13 I’ve played live.
Katie: When did you start songwriting?
David: You know, I’ve been asked that and I don’t really know exactly, but I’d say I probably tried my hand at it as early as 13 or 14.
Katie: So just right about.
David: I don’t want anyone to ever hear any of that. Luckily, that’s all lost to the ages and it’s dust somewhere. I think early on one of the things that I really was drawn to was a good story and good singing. I’ll admit, now that I’m older, that I was a little late to the party when it came to people like Bob Dylan because while he’s a great songwriter, I was not drawn to his vocal style. I like singers that had a little more melodic content. Bands like Beatles, obviously, and later on Poco and The Eagles and that kind of stuff. The bands that really drew me in were the ones with really good vocals. So it was later on that I really came to appreciate the songwriting part of it a little more. But I’ve always been drawn to music.
Katie: That makes a lot of sense too with the concentration that you put on your voice. I loved when you were describing “The Head and Heart”, you were talking about….it was produced by John Oates which, first and foremost, wow, that’s really awesome, but it was interesting how you were describing how he really pushed you to concentrate on your voice and it brought out this amazing quality in your voice. Talk to me about how it was to be able to have the luxury to concentrate on your voice because you produced the rest of your albums, right? This is your 8th release, right? That’s definitely a change.
David: Right. And I’ve always had a home studio. That was something early on that my brother and I both had back before computers. Back before all that. We always had something, whether it was a reel-to-reel machine or even had a big 4-track reel-to-reel machine early on before a lot of folks had them. So I’ve been around recording a long time and that process is something that I really, really like. So all my other records were pretty much self-made, self-produced and part of the benefit of that is you have all the luxury of time and you can re-do things a thousand times and all that. The downside is that when you’re the one staring at the meter and you’re the one trying to push the buttons and turn the knobs, oftentimes the performance suffers. I’ve never had the luxury of a producer until this project. When John and I started talking about it late last year, I said, “One thing I really want you to do, among other things, is when I think my vocal is good, if you don’t think it’s as good as it can be, let’s push it until it’s better.” We didn’t really talk about that as we went into the studio in February to work on this project, but I think he remembered it. There were a couple of times when I came out after 4 or 5 takes and we had a good vocal, but he said, “You know, that’s pretty good” and then he just kind of got quiet. I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “Pretty good.” I said, “I hear what you’re saying.” He said, “Go back in there and nail it.” We talk about maybe were you mad at somebody when you wrote that song or whatever, just joking around, “Well, yeah, kind of.” He said, “Go back in there and think about that.” I can tell, maybe I know better than anybody, but I can tell in spots where he pushed me a little bit. Not in a real overt way, but he just said, “I think you got a little more in you so go back in there and do it again.” I really think it made a difference on this project.
Katie: I think so too. One of the things that struck me through listening through this EP was just the honesty that came across. I think John also reflected that as well. It was just so astounding to me how straightforward it was and how I got the emotional state you were in when you wrote that song. It came across just beautifully so I’m glad he pushed you.
David: That makes me happy to hear that because that was the idea. So my work is done I guess if I did that.
Katie: No kidding. Talk to me more about how this collaboration with John Oates came about. He had worked on your last album with you, correct?
David: Yeah, I’ve known John for several years. He, in addition to having a place in Nashville, he also has had a place for many years over in the Aspen area and I used to live over there years ago before we knew each other. So we had a lot of mutual friends. A couple of those guys are guys that played in his solo band some over the years. And I’ve played with him. So one thing led to another and we got John to come over here where I live a couple of hours to the west several years ago and I did a show and he just used me as lead guitar player. Then we did another show down in Arkansas where I’m originally from and did the same thing. Along through there I would sort of hint around to him through a text or an email, “Hey, if you ever have time and you’re inclined, I would love an opportunity to write with you.” To write with somebody like that is a pretty big deal for a guy like me because he’s written a lot of songs, sold a lot of records, and he’s had a heck of a career. One day, he said, “You know what? We can do it, but can we do it in Nashville?” It worked out that I had to go down there to meet with a promoter and do some other things so we spent about 3 or 4 hours at his place and then went out to dinner. Then he was able to come back in the follow-up after I got the follow-up and sing a part on it. So we’ve stayed in touch. Last fall, what happened was he had cut a Christmas song with The Time Jumpers, Vince Gill’s Nashville band and he posted it on YouTube. I had just done a Christmas song, was pushed into it by a friend of mine in Scotland that promotes me over there. He said, “We really need you to do a Christmas song so we can release it in Scotland and the UK.” I said, “It’s not something I really do and he said, ‘Ah, give it a try.” So I sat down and wrote one and it was a little different than your typical Christmas song but it was pretty catchy. So about the time John posted his on YouTube, I sent mine to him and I said, “Hey, I like your Christmas song, here’s mine.” Really just as a way to touch base with him and let him know what I was doing and let him know I liked his, and he wrote back he said, “Man, your stuff sounds great.” I said, “Hey, in 2017, I’d like to either play a gig or two with you, write something again, or maybe even have you help me on my new album project a little bit.” So I went over there one day. I drove a couple hours over to his place and spent all afternoon and we wrote a little bit. Didn’t quite get that song finished yet. But we talked a lot about a project and one thing led to another and he said, “Well, if we can do it in early February, I’ll be in Nashville, I’ve got time to do it between my stuff and getting ready for the Hall & Oates tour and all that sort of thing.” So I said, “Man, I’ll make it happen.” So that’s kind of how it went and in the meantime I sent him some vocal guitar demos of some songs I’ve been working on and we narrowed it down. At least on the original tunes. Now the cover tune’s a whole other story.
Katie: Yeah, and I want to hear about that too. First of all, I just want to say that I think it speaks a lot to your quality and skill and capabilities as a musician that he had so much faith in you and also I think it’s a really good note for aspiring songwriters out there to take advantage of connecting with people. I think that’s really great. Now, it was his suggestion to do ‘California Dreamin’” on this, right?
Katie: I love that song and I love your version of it too, which says a lot because it’s one of my favorite songs. I love that you brought this whole new life to it. Talk to me about how that came about.
David: I sat down one afternoon and he said, “Just hammer out some really rough demos of songs you think we might cut” and we hadn’t talked about whether it’d be a full album or an EP. So I sent him maybe nine or ten songs. A couple of them were older songs and most of them were newer. Some time went by, a week maybe, and I was out on the road in California and I actually had a night off. A Sunday night. And I was in my motor home parked in an RV park listening to the rain fall outside and watching a football game on TV in the motor home and I get a text from John and he says, “I know you want to just cut original tunes on this thing, but have you ever thought about covering ‘California Dreamin’? I think your voice would work on this.” I wrote back and I said, “No, but I’ll give it some thought.” So a couple of days went by and I get a call, or I guess I texted and said, ‘Let’s arrange a phone call’ or something like that, maybe he called me, it doesn’t matter, but we talked and he said, “I know that’s kind of off the wall” and I said, “Well, I think if we’re going to do it, we got to do it differently than the Mamas and Papas because it was such an iconic song and the treatment of it has got to be different or it’s going to sound funny.” So I said, “I sort of hear a down, sort of a dark thing” and he said, “Yeah, let me work on it.” So a couple of days later I get a little voice memo of this recording of him sitting playing a guitar and just singing about a half a verse of that thing and the day before we recorded I got to Nashville and he played it for me and he said, “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to” and I said, “I love it.” It’s a very complex guitar part, really, and I haven’t figured out how to play it yet. He played it on the record and I had to videotape him playing it in slow motion so I could try and learn it. It’s done with a certain kind of a capo and he’s a very, very accomplished guitar player so I may have to wind up doing a little different version if I do it live. But I love what happened on it. It was really cool.
Katie: Me too. It was just beautiful. I love the collaboration there and how it came about. I want to talk about your original tunes too because again I was so struck by the authenticity that came across and I loved how personal it was but also the different stories that you brought to life there too. Let’s start with talking about the title track ‘The Head and Heart’ and how that came about.
David: I think all artists and I guess most people, the term ‘cognitive dissonance’ sort of comes to mind, but you can’t really use it in a song. It just doesn’t work. I couldn’t really figure out how to work that in, but I guess it’s such a human trait to just be conflicted about stuff. Whether it’s when to leave home as a young person, whether it’s a love interest. It could be any number of things. I know last week, for instance, and this is completely out of the blue but one of my dogs that I’ve had for almost 15 years, it was time to let her go. She was suffering. While that song is not necessarily about that, all the sudden hat song sort of lays on top of that situation for me and my heart told me to never let that dog go, but my head told me it was time and she was suffering. I think it could be about any number of things. For me, a lot of these songs work on a lot of different levels.
Katie: They do, and it was interesting reading the descriptions and stories behind them as well. I could have put them in a lot of different contexts and I like that your songs are applicable in that way. It makes them very accessible and universal. I also love and it was interesting to read the stories behind them because, for example, ‘Dancing With My Pride’, it was based on a character that your grandfather, Fred Starr, had written in a book. Tell me about that. I thought that was so interesting.
David: Well, the story behind that song. Well, my grandfather was an author and he wrote small, little anecdotal books about the Ozarks. He was an educator and a farmer. Just a neat guy growing up and I was pretty close to him until he passed away in ’73. He left behind some books and one of them was called, “Of What Was, Nothing Is Left” and I never read it until just a few years ago. I don’t why. It’s a fiction book about post-constructionist South Arkansas where different families are there and the setting of being down in the prairie country in South Arkansas and how hard life was and some things that happened between people. There’s a couple. Then there’s a mom who drags herself to a lake and kills herself because she’s grieving for her son who died in the Civil War. There’s all this sort of really heavy stuff. That book has been on my mind as a future project that I’d like to write some songs out of because there are a lot of good characters and a lot of good stories. I was at a songwriter retreat with 16 other people up in Santa Cruz county in January and it rained and rained and rained and we all wrote songs together and we were paired up on different days with people to write songs and we were were given subjects and the subject on the day that I wrote this song, me and a guy named Bob Liebman. Bob is a cellist and he was there with his wife who is a songwriter as well. One of the parts of the assignment was pick a character in a book that you’re reading. The only book I’d read in the recent past was I’d re-read this one of my grandfathers and there was a character in there who had gone done there to make his way in the prairie and he had this property and he had raised cattle and he married this woman who wound up breaking his heart. So it was loosely based on that guy and while the song isn’t about him per se, it became this springboard and it just took me in that direction. What I ultimately think that song is about is kind of the healing properties of being alone after you’ve had your heart broken. And that guy in the song he went down there just to be alone and try to figure it all out. Towards the end of the song he’s thinking, “Maybe I can forgive her and maybe I can go on”. Time has a way of healing I guess is kind of the (lesson).
Katie: It’s a good, hopeful song to conclude your EP on because there is a lot of struggle and strife and wanting and longing and loss themes that are explored in your EP and so I think it’s a beautiful, hopeful tune to end on.
David: It was an interesting song to write because when I think back to sitting and writing it, it came to me almost telepathically. It almost was channeled my way and I’m always grateful when that happens because you don’t know how it happens. It’s like magic.
Katie: Absolutely. You know what I was thinking, while you were describing this too, is like the transcendence between the generations. It’s like you’re translating your grandfather’s voice in the story. The story that came through him and it came through you. It’s beautiful how that happened. I love that. Before we talk about a few more subjects here, I want to talk about ‘Waiting in the Dark’, which I thought was a beautiful tune too, but you were saying it was inspired by some of the drug addiction that you saw your friends go through in the 1980’s and I’m guessing especially in the music scene as well. Talk to me a little bit about that tune.
David: Well, I lived in Aspen, Colorado in the early ’80s and that was a time when there was a lot of cocaine use and a lot of alcohol use. I suppose that stuff still goes on. I’m not a drinker anymore. I haven’t had a drink in 19 years. I look back at that time and I think we all behaved pretty recklessly but we all, for some reason, thought that was acceptable because we were musicians. We stayed out late and so forth and so on. But I remember thinking about some people who were sort of left behind to deal with the wreckage of all that. Maybe it’s a spouse, maybe it’s a loved one, maybe it’s a parent or a child even just waiting for this person to get it together and come home and, as the song says, “See the light”. Again, it works on another level. It’s just about waiting for somebody to figure it out. To kind of come to their senses. It could be about addiction. It could be about any number of things. But that’s where it came from in the first place.
Katie: Speaking of what was acceptable in the 1980’s and the music industry then, how have you seen the music industry change since you’ve been in it? Because you’ve been playing for a long time now and I’m sure you’ve seen it go through a lot of transitions.
David: Well, the industry itself has sort of imploded in a lot of ways because when the iPhone and iTunes sort of burst on the scene 10 years ago, all of the sudden, there’s this shift to, “Hey, we don’t have to pay for music like we used to” and albums aren’t albums anymore. There was just this big paradigm shift and I see that in a couple of ways. One way is that it’s been really damaging to a lot of people’s careers and it’s really changed the way a lot of people have had to approach making records and making music. But, for somebody like me, who never had a real record deal in the old days, I decided to embrace it and say, “Well, I can make a record now and I can be on iTunes and I can be on Spotify and Pandora and all those place that if you want to get heard you sort of have to be”. And I can go out and tour and sell CDs off the side of the stage or at house concerts and so it really has changed everything for everybody but I’ve decided to make the best of it at least for me. I know in Nashville the studio business isn’t what it used to be and record companies aren’t what they used to be and all that. I could either lament that or I could just figure out how to make it work for me and go forward.
Katie: Absolutely. I’m curious, is that one of the reasons that you decided to do an EP instead of an LP for this? Just because a lot of people do this short form nowadays I know.
David: Well, you know, when we were working on this project John said, “Well, I’ll help you with five or six tunes and then are you going to do an album?” and I said, “Yeah, I’ll probably add some songs to this.” And he said, “You ought to think about just doing an EP”. I said, “Well, isn’t that what artists with not enough songs or money do?” He said, “No”. A lot of Djs now would rather have an EP with your best stuff on it. They don’t want a lot of tunes. They want a focused effort. John brought some other people in, record company people while we were working on this project, a lot of very important people to hear it, which I was real gratified about. Every one of them said the same thing. They said, “Just put your best stuff down here, five or six tunes.” It was originally going to be five and then we added “California Dreamin’ “. It’s funny for me to listen to it in the car because it’s over too soon. I keep wanting it to go on.
Katie: Me too. But it was so impactful because it was your best stuff that I was like, “There’s nothing that I don’t like in here.”
David: I’ve tried to put it in the context of a short story. Maybe these are what a friend of mine calls “little three minute movies”. They’re little vignettes and there’s an arc that runs through them of conflict, confusion, forgiveness. All that stuff. All that human stuff that runs through us all. So I guess they all touch a vein there.
Katie: Absolutely. We’re running close to the end here, it’s gone amazingly fast, but I want to touch on the fact that you also have a guitar shop too that you’ve been running. It’s been really successful there. So much so that the local town named a day after you too. Talk to me a little bit about this guitar shop.
David: The naming the day after me thing was pretty humbling really. It’s a small town and one of the things I try to do as a businessperson and as an artist and just as a citizen more than anything, I just try to contribute around here to make it the kind of town I’d want to live in. I think more than anything what I’ve done is there’s a festival here in the fall where it started pretty small about 35-40 years ago called Apple Fest because it’s an Apple farming area and when I came here 16-17 years ago they asked me to help with the music and I’ve tried to build that up and make that a more integral part. And I try to bring live music here. I brought John Oates here. I bring John McEuen. I bring Dana Cooper comes to play. A lot of really good artists. I bring them here and people see what’s possible in a little town as it relates to music. That can happen in other aspects too. So it was fun to have my birthday called “David Starr Day”. It was kind of fun. The guitar store is in a very unlikely location because it’s more store than a town like this can really support. It sort of falls under the category of “Build it and they will come” and anybody that’s listening that knows guitar people or is one, you’ll go a little out of your way to go to a cool guitar store. So we have to try to make it a little more interesting that your big box store down at the mall. It’s got to have a neat feel to it. You have to have really good service. We have to make sure we have interesting stuff in there. We just try to cater to the people. I’ve got some vintage stuff in there. I’ve got some new instruments. I’ve got some quirky stuff nobody else has. Then the staff that I have. I have a repairman that has been at this many, many years working on amps and guitars. I’ve got a manager who’s been at it a long time and she’s a singer/songwriter and is great with kids and adults. Then I’m there as much as I can be when I’m not traveling. We just try to make it a really good experience for people when they come in and hope they leave happy.
Katie: Have you ever built your own guitars or are you mostly a collector?
David: I collect some and mostly we’re a retail outlet and my technician Craig over the years has built some solid body electrics that he designed the electronics for and did some custom work, but it’s a pretty big commitment of time and energy and tools and patience to build guitars so I haven’t waded it that much. I have the tools but I don’t have the patience or the time I’m afraid.
Katie: Well, yeah, between operating a guitar store and touring as well, I’d imagine that that’s a lot to take on.
David: It is and I like to play quite a bit. I’m going to spend more time in Nashville over the next couple years because I want to immerse myself in the energy down there a little bit more and write some more with some people and maybe play in that part of the country a little more. I could have them play well over 100 nights a year, sometimes 140-150 nights a year. I like doing it.
Katie: Well, and you’re good at it.
David: Well, thank you.
Katie: Before we head out today, do you have any advice/words of wisdom for the aspiring songwriters/aspiring creatives out there?
David: I guess what I learned on this most recent project is when you’re working with people who you’ve had a lot of success, sit back and listen, but don’t be afraid to ask questions. One of the things I loved about working with John, he was open to my suggestions. I was open to his suggestions. There was no hierarchy there so much as it was just collaboration. One of the things he did was put good people in the room and just let them play. To me, that’s what made the record. The record has a lot of air, a lot of space in it, but the songs have a lot of impact for that reason I think. I can’t wait to do it again. I’ve had a lot of success already out playing these songs. I’ve got house concerts coming up and I love that setting. I would just say to anybody that’s out there doing it: Figure out who you want to be and then just be that person. If you want to play house concerts, just decide that’s what you want to do. If you want to play listening rooms, do that. If you want to play bars, that’s fine. I’m going to focus on venues as much as possible where people are actually listening and paying attention because that’s the most rewarding thing for me. Easier said than done, but that’s what I’m going to do.
Katie: No kidding, I think that can be a challenge these days, but it seems like there’s communities out there that do it. Especially the communities like the one you developed around your guitar store. There are people out there who are craving that sort of connection. There’s something, I think, very special about those communities. Well, David Starr, thank you so much for talking with me today on the Standing ‘O’ Project podcast.
David: Thank you, Katie, I’ve enjoyed it.