Nashville-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jen Starsinic sports a musical coat of many colors. A renowned and accomplished fiddler who grew up playing the vibrant folk scenes around her native Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and other parts of the East Coast, Starsinic boasts quite the résumé for a young musician, even by Nashville standards.
Also a Berklee School of Music graduate, her musical discipline has been informed by both the classical tropes of bluegrass and old-time music, and the adventurous, genre-defying spirit of contemporary alt-rock. Her prowess as an artist and instrumentalist exudes great finesse and skill, yet her most fulfilling creative outlet comes by way of songwriting.
“I’ve written songs my whole life but have never really done the damn thing as far as my own stuff,” she says.
Around five years ago, after Starsinic made the move to Nashville and put things into place to start making headway on a solo career, her life became consumed by hardship. Back in her hometown of Pennsylvania, her father needed a serious caregiver after developing liver cirrhosis. She answered the call, putting aspirations she had for her developing music career were on hold.
After her father received a liver transplant, Starsinic headed back for Nashville looking not only to pick up where she left off musically, but to find healing for what had been a difficult personal time.
“When I would play in Nashville, we would joke around that it was Jen Starsinic and Psychic Crisis as my band.”
These times of adversity would wind up playing a key role in shaping the direction of Starsinic’s next musical endeavor – a new record, comprised of original songs, many of which she wrote during the period of migrating back and forth between Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
Out of this creative mission came Bad Actor, a six-track EP that features the likes of some of Nashville’s most esteemed musicians and players, including pedal steel legend Paul Niehaus, keyboard wizard Ben Alleman and producer-bassist Parker McAnnally. Officially out February 7, the album signifies a journey of personal growth and triumph. From the heart-wrenching mystique of its songwriting to its intoxicating aesthetic, Bad Actor pursues truth with a clear vision and no musical barriers.
When asked about the sound of the record, Starsinic says, “I feel like there is pressure if you write lyric-based music to not go balls to wall in terms of production and that you have to go really bare so people have to listen to the lyrics, but I’m not in that camp. That spaciousness and those kinds of sounds are what feels natural to me.”
Her enthusiasm for defying these kinds of standards shines throughout the project. The synthetic, guitar-driven lead single “Picture In A Frame” mingles easily with the country-tinged atmosphere of “Bad Actor,” the latter of which is drenched by Niehaus’ waning pedal steel and supplies one of Starsinic’s most melodic tunes with a Springsteen-esque romantic consciousness. Elsewhere, the languid ballad “Drive To The Ocean” evokes the slow-burning yearn of “Red Dirt Girl”-era Emmylou Harris, while “Cold” creates serene heartland rock that would fit right at home on a War On Drugs album.
Underneath the sheen of blisteringly beautiful soundscapes are songs of longing and escape, all serving as a vehicle for self-discovery and awareness. In its entirety, Bad Actor is an album of internal reflection, experimentation and growth, something found both at the core of the music and in the heart of its principal songwriter.
Riffs & Rhymes Editor Roberto Johnson caught up with Jen Starsinic to talk more about her new EP, life in Nashville, musical identity and more. Check out their conversation below.
Being a scholar and a touring musician, your music education has been informed by both academic studies and life on the road. On the surface, those seem like two very different schools of knowledge. How have those endeavors most informed who you are as a musician now?
Jen: Growing up playing fiddle in bands and going to jam sessions was really exciting because it felt really communicative. It’s not performative at all, it’s all about the social and spiritual aspect of playing music. It’s transcendental in a lot of ways and that was a very formative experience. In academic study, I never saw a huge distinction between those. My time at Berklee felt directed and I just wanted to learn about as many different kinds of music that I could. I had it in mind to learn the tools of the trade and try to use them creatively to make something that really is your own. That’s what I kind of came to. I think it’s kind of wrong to take something that belongs to everyone, like folk and old time music, and try to glorify yourself if you’re not actually adding something unique to the conversation.
You are also a Nashville transplant. This album has a lot of Nashville qualities to it – the tenacity of the performances, the attitude, the musicianship. How would you describe the impact Nashville has had on you to an outsider who isn’t familiar with the city’s culture and day to day lifestyle?
Jen: The Nashville I partake in in my day to day to life really isn’t the Nashville people might imagine. To me, Nashville is a lot more of a holistic place than it is “Music City.” With that said, one of the things I always loved about it when I would come through here is that it does feel a bit like music summer camp, where there’s just so many good musicians. If you’re ever feeling disconnected from music, just go out of your house and go talk to someone, because there’s so many different things happening here. I think that’s the Nashville story that’s a little under-told. There’s a lot of industry bullshit that happens and that can be rough, but there’s also amazing musicians and people here that care about promoting amazing work. Sure, sometimes you try to introduce yourself to someone and they blow you off, but I’ve had just as many experiences where people are willing to give you some kind of advice or talk to you.
Over the past several years, you’ve filled quite a variety of roles within different bands. Having been a front woman, a side musician and a songwriter, is there one craft you feel most drawn to or identify with the most?
Jen: Being a songwriter is probably the thing that runs the deepest inside me. I have that writer brain that I can never turn off. It’s the thing that I could probably never stop doing, but it’s also the scariest. I really like getting to do all of those things though. It’s a nice balance. When I was only doing side gigs, I’d get bored and frustrated and want to do my own music, but sometimes when I’m just doing my own stuff, I get sick of myself. It’s nice to be a part of someone else’s art.
The first thing that struck me about your new album was its intoxicating aesthetic, which seems to be drawing inspiration from many different arenas. In terms of the sound of this record, what were your biggest influences for crafting such a spacious and atmospheric yet still hard rocking vibe?
Jen: When I was teenager, I had a bunch of friends who were involved in really weird post-punk and ambient bands. Double bass drum pedals, spacious ambient soundscapes. I have loves for these two different aesthetics: folky stuff that’s really warm and organic and then also, something that’s very sparkly-glittery-neon-synth-pop. When you go to an old time jam in West Virginia and you’re playing all night in the middle of the woods, it gets pretty trippy and it’s very immersive, so I’ve always felt a real kinship between those two different things. I’m also from working class Pennsylvania, so I’m a card-carrying Bruce Springsteen fan, and I think there’s some of that in there. I think my lyrics are introspective but also pretty non-determinative. It’s like thinking around a question, and I like that kind of spaciousness.
There are a few prominent themes running throughout the record, notably nostalgia and escapism as a form of introspection. That concept can be a bit of a double edged sword for some people. When you embrace a sense of longing internally in your writing like that, what purpose does it serve for your present self?
Jen: Specifically with this record, it was definitely just trying to come to some kind of answer. It is a double-edged sword, but that’s the journey towards self-awareness that we all have to take, right? Releasing the record is like the capstone on that process. I think if you would make music about that and never put it out, you might get stuck inside yourself. If you go down that rabbit hole and ultimately, make it out and share it with people, that feels like the culmination of that process. Like, can you reckon with yourself and take it out into the world?
The music seems to match up perfectly with those emotions you’re conveying. As a band, was there a collective feeling you were trying to tap into in order to bridge those worlds within the songs?
Jen: That’s something we had a lot of conversations about. If you were to listen to acoustic guitar demos of all of those songs, especially in a town like Nashville that’s more country and Americana-influenced, there is definitely a standard treatment for them that we were trying to avoid. All the nostalgia and longing, that was stuff in my life I needed to reckon with and get a better understanding of in order to move forward. There’s kind of a celebration in doing that. “Cold” was very much a song of like ‘I’m beat y’all.’ Just being able to embrace and admit that was really freeing.
Something else the album dwells heavily on is emotional accountability and being honest and transparent with yourself. Why is that so important as someone who is constantly creating?
Jen: I think there’s a lot of responsibility in asking people to pay attention to something that you’re saying. That’s never something I’ve taken lightly. We can call my therapist and ask her why that is (laughs). As a creator, especially as an independent artist, you’re constantly asking people to listen to what you’re doing, even if it’s just by nature of getting on stage. You have a responsibility to think about what that is you’re saying. I think that is something we all have, as people. If you’re not self-aware, it’s not helping you or the people you interact with. You don’t have to look very far into our society or our political structure to see that.
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Listen to “Bad Actor” in full below.