From Sid Selvidge to Keith Sykes and Nancy Apple, Memphis has definitely been known for its share of singer-songwriters. This spring, look to local faves Charlie Mars (a resident of Oxford, Mississippi) and Garrison Starr (who relocated from Memphis to Los Angeles six years ago) to rejuvenate the genre with their new albums.
"This has been a dream come true," Mars says of his eponymous album, which will be released by V2 on May 18th. "I couldn't be at a better place," he says, noting that the indie label is home to such disparate artists as Moby and The White Stripes. "V2 is like a family. It's a small label, and everyone gets involved. There's not much corporate pressure either. V2 is owned by one guy who loves music and doesn't give a shit about anything else."
Mars calls his new record "12 little versions of what's going on with me. There's nothing more complicated about it." Listening to the album, however, the songs are full of complexities. Some, like "Silver Buttons," are brooding ballads, while "White Out," "Gather the Horses," and "Simple Things" are melodic rockers.
The laid-back "Bay Springs Road" is easily the best song on Charlie Mars. "I could love like you/And it makes me feel like I'm 18 again in my car with my friends/Singing, 'The grass is green, the girls are pretty, the kids are alright in Mississippi,'" Mars croons on the chorus.
"I don't sit around with a notebook trying to come up with a line," Mars says. "In fact, I write most of my songs while I'm trying to sleep. It's all about insomnia. If that happens 12 times, you can make a record."
Catch Charlie Mars at Newby's on Saturday, March 13th.
When former Memphian Garrison Starr hits town, local folks will notice that she's all grown up. "I feel better in my skin than I did 10 years ago," the 28-year-old admits. "Moving to L.A. helped me stretch my wings. I've been able to learn more on my own."
It's been a wild ride for Starr. She released her major-label debut, Eighteen Over Me, on Geffen when she was just 22. After its follow-up, 24-7, she took an extended break before returning with 2002's Songs from Take-off to Landing, which was released on the independent label Back Porch.
"I was fortunate to get out of that situation at Geffen," Starr says, recalling the label's attempts to make her into a Melissa Etheridge/Sheryl Crow-type chanteuse. "At the time, I didn't see myself being made into one of those women. I was so young -- literally and in life experience -- and I didn't have my own vision. I was just putty in everyone's hands at every level: in the studio, with the record label, and playing live. Whatever anyone's opinion was at any moment stuck to me. I finally said screw all ya'll and backed out of everything. It was a painful process, but since then, I've had ultimate control."
Starr employed that newfound power when she jumped from Back Porch to Vanguard for her newest album, Airstreams & Satellites, which was released last month. "The people at Back Porch were awesome, but it wasn't the perfect match. They're not so aggressive on the promotions and sales end. Recording for them was like a stepping stone," she says. "The people at Vanguard were big fans of mine, and through my friend Peter Stuart, I started a dialogue with them."
Recorded while Starr was in the process of signing to Vanguard ("I signed the contracts at the studio," she says with a laugh), Airstreams & Satellites was produced by Curt Schneider and Andrew Williams. "Curt challenged me. We butted heads a few times, but he had a vision for this album," Starr says. "Neilson [Hubbard, her longtime friend] also played a key role. I was thinking he'd just come in and do some filler, but he took a few songs in a different direction," she adds, citing "Hey Girl" as an important collaboration.
The album also features a new version of her signature song, "Superhero." "To be honest, it wasn't my idea to include it on this record," Starr sighs. "Andrew and Curt talked me into it. They were adamant, saying, 'It's such a great song, and it's out of print.' But from a songwriter's perspective, my ego is the size of this universe. I didn't want people to think that I couldn't write any new songs. I was dragged, kicking and screaming," she says, "but in the end, I decided to trust the process."
Garrison Starr will be performing a free show at 6 p.m. at Cat's Records in Midtown on Monday, March 15th.