Cover Story

Feeding the Fires of Change  by Stephanie Cram
Feeding the Fires of Change

For the last three years, Canadian singer-songwriter Kinnie Starr has been on a slow path of recovery from a severe brain injury she experienced following a car accident. Starr doesn’t remember much from that day back in April 2015, but the accident continues to affect her day-to-day life, including her work as a musician.

“I noticed right away [after the accident] that everything became very loud—very loud. That’s very symptomatic of a brain injury, when your senses are on overload,” says Starr. “Sound would make me really sick really fast. And, obviously, instruments—I couldn’t use them at all.”

Today Starr says that while she feels much better she is at a crossroads in her career.

“Creative endeavours that used to come really naturally to me—that’s not available anymore,”

explains Starr. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to stay in this industry—it’s a very big change.

We wrap our identities around what we do—I certainly did—and I’m not able to do that now.”

Starr’s career started back in 1996, with the release of her first album, Tidy. Her music is genre-bending, combining pop, rock, hip hop, punk and spoken word poetry. She is of mixed ancestry—Mohawk, French, Irish and German—and her music is uniquely multicultural, something exemplified by the fact that she performs in English, French and Spanish.

Starr’s career skyrocketed, and she went on to release six more albums. Her music and arts projects included producing an award-winning album by the Canadian duo Digging Roots. Despite the limitations caused by her brain injury, Starr felt she still had at least one more album in her. Her record label, Aporia Records, hired songwriter Douglas Romanow to write music for Starr’s new album, Feed the Fire.

“It was really cool. I’ve never done a fully collaborative record. I’ve always been the person who drives everything—I played a lot of the instruments and did most of the programming,”

says Starr about her previous albums.

“They say from great sorrow comes great learning, so I would say that’s true for my writing process [on Feed the Fire]…. I was always feeling at a loss, had massive surges of pain going through my body, and then I had to put my trust in this brand-new person.”

“It was very humbling to have to give away control, and just be like, ‘I trust you.’”

Not only did Starr give up writing her own music, but her typical recording process had to change to accommodate her injury.

“I could only tolerate short bursts in the studio, so I had to stay out of the studio while they were [writing the music], and then I would come in, listen to the material, and write the lyrics and go. It became a very punctuated process,” she says. On other albums, Starr says she would spend hours in the studio and was part of the songwriting process from beginning to end.

After the album was released in October, Starr played some concerts, but she doesn’t know how much longer she will work in the industry.

“I don’t know what the future holds, which is kind of upsetting, but I try to be positive. If I let myself focus on [my injury], it really just can make me feel so bad about my life,” explains Starr.

“I just try to be positive and say, you’ve had a great run in the industry, you’ve been a part of a lot of really good projects, and you’ve done a good job of uplifting people, and so if you can’t do it anymore, you can’t do it anymore.

“You just got to celebrate what you’ve created and be grateful, right?”

That gratitude includes appreciating what her music has offered to her audiences.

“One of the things that I’m really good at is helping people… That’s kind of what I like about music. When I started it was like—this is really cool; you play onstage and your whole audience leaves feeling beautiful,” explains Starr. “I like that about music—that you can lift people’s spirits, and there are a lot of different ways of doing that.”

It’s not that Starr doesn’t examine the dark side of contemporary life. Feed the Fire takes a deep look at people’s relationships to their personal devices and is critical of the constant digital chatter that many people just can’t get away from.

“There’s a lot of conversation [on the album] about how we communicate digitally, and how we can be better to each other, instead of trying to demean each other’s identities online,” says Starr.

“I’ve been trolled a fair amount,” Starr says by way of explanation. “I’ve had my fair share of experiences of people not knowing me and assuming they know me.”

Inspired by U.K. writer Zadie Smith’s rejection of social media, Starr says she, too, is slowly weaning herself from platforms that don’t enhance her connections with people.

One song on the album, “Gotta Do Something,” with its hypnotic beat, exemplifies this theme with the lyrics: “We’re so caught up in it/ Can’t stop leaning into it/ We’re just pawns getting pushed in the game.”

The song is a powerful anthem about breaking free of the unhealthy side of social media. Starr says Facebook doesn’t nourish her and says she left Facebook five or six months ago.

“I’ve been letting my PR people manage my Facebook artist page, and I’m slowly trying to remove myself from social media, because my best self is when I’m in nature, and not comparing myself to my online persona or other people’s online personas.”

Starr says she sometimes uses social media but favours a return to real, face-to-face experiences

between people.

“I really feel like what happens when we sit with each other is that we can see each other’s rawness and vulnerability. But online it’s really easy to send someone a really mean text,” said Starr.

“When I’m in the natural world, I don’t have to be female or male, Native or white, young or old. I can just be me.”

Starr’s desire to return to face-to-face experiences and a connection to nature is expressed in a line on the album’s title track, “Feed the Fire”: “She knows the best and worst of me/ she knows my name.”

As Starr explains, it is nature that knows who she really is, beyond her social media persona, including her full name, Alina Kinnie Starr.

In 2012, Starr was approached to make a film about her life as a musician. But talking about herself is not something she enjoys.

“I’m in the entertainment industry, and you’re supposed to want to talk about yourself, but I don’t really enjoy it that much.… I would be a lot more interested in talking about society and feminism,” says Starr.
 

Out of the discussions about the project came Play Your Gender, a fascinating documentary that explores what it’s like working in the music industry and having to deal with gender inequity.

Given that Starr is not only a musician, but also a producer, she has a unique perspective from

both onstage and behind it. Play Your Gender features artists including Melissa Auf der Mar from Hole and the Smashing Pumpkins, Sara Quinn from Tegan and Sara, and Patty Schemeln from Hole. It also includes members of Purity Ring and the Los Angeles-based female mariachi group Las Colibri. In the film, artists discuss the many ways that gender affects their experiences in the industry. They describe experiences that range from not being taken seriously by label heads to being mocked and talked down to while shopping for equipment.
 

Play Your Gender looks at all facets of the industry, from songwriting and performance to producing.

“I’ve been in the entertainment industry for 23 years, so I’ve been dealing with gender inequity for that entire time,” recalls Starr.

“Women are so effective, productive, intelligent, and we’re able to multi-task, so it kind of bothers me and baffles me that there aren’t more women in the industry at every level.”

Even though many of the biggest pop stars in the world are women, the music industry is dominated by men. A study of 600 popular songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart from 2012 to 2017 found that roughly 12 percent of songwriters whose works were played were women. Play Your Gender informs us that about five percent of producers working in the music industry are women. In the 59 years of the Grammys, not a single female has won in the category of producer of the year; in fact, only six women have even been nominated for that category.
 

During the process of researching the film, Starr learned how strong an economic driver the

music industry in Canada is.

“At one point while researching [I read that] …the music and entertainment [industry] was coming in just under oil [mining and gas] in terms of Canada’s GDP,” says Starr. “This is a really lucrative industry, and this money is mostly being gathered by white guys”—something Starr says is “not okay.”

Despite the lack of equity in the music industry, she believes the conditions are changing—albeit very slowly.
 

“There’s the whole Keychange movement, where a bunch of music festivals—over 100 festivals—have signed on to say that they will hire 50 percent female acts,” says Starr. She’s referring to a project launched by the U.K. talent firm PRS Foundation. Keychange was started to encourage music festivals to hire more female performers and achieve equity by 2022.

Fourteen Canadian music festivals have signed on, including organizers of prominent festivals like Canadian Music Week, North by Northeast, Rock the Shores, Mutek, Rifflandia and the Halifax Pop Explosion.

The #MeToo movement and Time’s Up have spurred powerful conversations about ending all forms of gender inequity that occur in the entertainment industry.

“I think one of the answers, on a personal level, is for men in positions of power to take women seriously. But how do you put that into play? I can’t tell some guy to take me seriously,” says Starr. “I think there are a lot of men who really want change, and a lot of men have said to me, ‘we would love to have more women on deck.’”

“Your workday is spent with people you’re working with, so if you’re all dude bros hanging out with dude bros [in the studio], and there’s no female energy, it is less interesting.”

At the 2018 Academy Awards, the term “inclusion rider” was brought to the attention of millions of viewers when actress Frances McDormand used the term in her acceptance speech when she received the best actress award for her role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. An inclusion rider is a stipulation performers place in contacts to ensure that a production’s cast and crew hire a stipulated percentage of women or people of colour. Inclusion riders are becoming more common in the music industry as well, thanks to the

Keychange movement. Female Canadian musicians are also speaking up on this issue, including pop electronic musician Iskwé, electronic jazz musician Rayannah, and pop musician Lights. While many bankable popular performers in the music industry are women, Starr’s film provides a deeper exploration of how far the industry is from achieving gender parity. (See article on page 26 for more about equity in the music scene.)

As more and more female musicians continue to use their voices to advocate for greater equality within the entertainment industry, the pressure on the industry to change its tune is going to get

a whole lot louder.

As Starr chants on “Gotta Do Somethin,” “I gotta/ I gotta/ I gotta change something now.”

 

Support feminist voices in Canada by subscribing to Canada’s foremost feminist magazine, Herizons. This article appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Herizons.