Cover Story

Reach for the Stars  by Cindy Filipenko
Reach for the Stars

Fair-skinned girls who want mainstream acceptance aren’t singing about gender politics or First Nations’ issues, either, but that’s exactly what makes Kinnie Starr stand out.

Favourably compared in the music press to Lauryn Hill, PJ Harvey and Ani Difranco, Starr has spent her 10-year career on the edge of mainstream success. Her first album came out in 1996 and she has worked steadily—albeit often independently—since then.

Now, her debut on the critically acclaimed Canadian label MapleMusic stands to bring Starr and her politics a larger audience. Her new CD, Anything, is a brilliant showcase for Starr, who easily blends hip hop, rock and pop to create a sound that is at once familiar and unique. The uniqueness comes from both her genre-defying sound and her music’s lyrical content. Starr’s poetry is a vividly honest, sometimes profane examination of sexual and racial politics—not the stuff of female artists typically heard on commercial radio.

“I think if I was male and black it would be okay,” Starr says. “There are a lot of examples of record labels allowing men to have their own voice. I think if I weren’t female, it wouldn’t be an issue. We’re supposed to wear short skirts and just shut up.”

Starr is an incredibly grounded artist. It could be her locale. She lives on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast in the small seaside town of Sechelt, where she leads a quiet, anonymous life. “I’m not big on cities. I like trees and small-town people who actually answer your questions in a store.”

But don’t expect her to be making impromptu appearances in local coffee houses, except perhaps to grab a chai latte. Besides, she says, “I don’t want anyone to know that I’m an artist, because then they’ll expect me to be cool.” Perhaps it’s the yoga that’s increased her flexibility from “zero to about 20 percent,” or the meditation that keeps her connected to reality, or maybe it’s the fact that she’s been to this rodeo before.

The possibility of a much larger, if not exactly huge career seemed within reach in 1996 when Starr was signed to Mercury/Island/Def Jam. That label released her debut album, Tidy. Like many smaller, independent artists signed to the label, Starr was lost in the shuffle when Seagram’s—which, like whiskey barons of yore, sought cultural greatness through the entertainment industry—bought the label in 1998. Her contract was not renewed—simply a business decision of a corporation wanting to redefine itself under new management.

While some artists might remain bitter or appear cynical after coming that close to the brass ring, Starr is philosophical and thankful for the experience. “My experience with Mercury/Island/Def Jam started my career. When I signed, I was on welfare. How could I ever, ever think that was the wrong move? It gave me mobility and got me into the public eye. I wasn’t shy about working on labels. I just didn’t have the choice to work with a label on my next record,” she recalls.

“The record industry was collapsing. That was1998 and everyone was merging, and only massive artists were getting released—no smaller artists were being released,” Starr explains.

Eight years later, Starr isn’t looking back. Her new deal with MapleMusic yielded less of an advance for producing Anything, but there are other payoffs. A glance at any Top 40 chart proves that a blatantly politicized artist is definitely a harder sell than a pop diva, but MapleMusic was willing to take a chance on Starr.

“There aren’t a lot of people who will touch an original artist in Canada,” according to Starr. “Maple is an amazing record label. They provide me with publicity, they manufacture the product and get it into stores—all things I would otherwise be doing alone.” With the administrative burden of a musical career lifted, Starr is free to do her thing. And creating music completely informed by her politics, infused with commentary about sexism, homophobia and racism, is very much her thing. [snip]