In junior high school, Hernando native Garrison Starr started writing a book — a collection of self-penned poetry, stories and thoughts that she called "A View of Life From An Amateur."
More than 20 years later, the acclaimed singer-songwriter has returned to that childhood project for the title to her new album. Due out on Tuesday on Starr's own Radtown Music label, the record, in a renunciation of Starr's admitted propensity toward wordy album names, is called simply Amateur.
"Before picking (the title), I looked the word up to get the official dictionary definition, and it said someone who does something for the love of it and not for money," says Starr of just one of the layers of meaning that made the title suitable for her seventh full-length release. "Also, I feel like I'm starting over in so many different ways as an artist because I'm in such a different place now in my career and in my life. I just feel like it's a fresh start, and so I thought it was apropos for that reason, as well."
Starr, who returns to Memphis on Thursday to promote the new album with an acoustic show at the Hi-Tone Café featuring New Jersey troubadour and author David Berkeley, may feel reborn, but her fresh start comes with the experiences and contacts of someone who has spent years proving herself alongside some of the top artists in the business.
Starr got her start while still at Evangelical Christian School, singing first as a duo with her high school friend Gracey Young Smythe and later as a trio with the addition of veteran Memphis performer Poesy Hedges. In college at the University of Mississippi, she played in the band This Living Hand with Neilson Hubbard, Clay Jones and Helena Lamb, musicians with whom she frequently collaborates to this day. (Violinist Lamb appears on the new record.)
After three semesters, however, Starr left school and began making her name in Memphis as a solo performer, marrying pop smarts and Americana grit with a voice of remarkable power and clarity. Major label Geffen Records soon signed her up, and in 1997, she released her debut album, Eighteen Over Me. Since then, over five albums and a handful of EPs, she has explored her distinctive take on confessional songwriting while modulating through a wide swath of styles, from hard pop to emo introspection.
Coming five years after her last full length, 2007's The Girl That Killed September, Amateur draws on Starr's experiences living in Southern California. She first moved out West in 1999, shortly before she walked away from her Geffen deal in the wake of the company's takeover by Interscope Records, and except for a three-year stint in Nashville, has lived there more or less ever since.
Living in a house in Los Angeles' Eagle Rock neighborhood, Starr has been able to take advantage of business opportunities like providing the singing voice in a recent national advertising campaign for the fast food chain Sonic. She also has become a part of the city's thriving singer-songwriter scene, performing regularly at venues like the Room 5 Lounge and Hotel Café, where she will hold her official record release party on May 18.
"It's a really good community of peeps," Starr says. "(Los Angeles) is the only place that has made sense to me as a long-term home. I love my family and friends in Memphis, and that area will always ... be important to me. But as far as where I want to put roots down as an adult, Los Angeles just feels really comfortable to me."
A lot of the musicians Starr has befriended in California lend a hand on Amateur. Producer Justin Glasco has worked with such well-known troubadours as Cary Brothers, Matt Nathanson and Kate Voegele. Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket fame helps out on the album's "When You're Really Trying." And Grammy-winning country star Mary Chapin Carpenter, a friend from Starr's days on the Lilith Fair tours of the late '90s, chimes in with harmony vocals on "I May Not Let Go," which was featured in a recent episode of the CW network show "Hart of Dixie."
Starr is proud that Amateur signals a new sense of ownership of her own fate. She financed the record herself with the help of the Kickstarter-like crowd funding website PledgeMusic. She is releasing the project on her own label and is even teaching herself how to engineer recordings in her home.
"This is a really empowering time for me," she says. "This is the first record I've owned 100 percent. It's mine. I own it. It's taken me almost 20 years in the music business to get to a place where I figured that out, so I'm really excited about it."
Garrison Starr with David Berkeley
8 p.m. Thursday at the the Hi-Tone Café, 1913 Poplar. Admission: $12; advance tickets available online at hitonememphis.com. For more information, call (901) 278-8663.