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.
“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.
“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.
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.