After listening to Anything, Kinnie Starr’s latest release, I’ve been telling everyone I can find to buy the CD when it comes out — go to record stores, check the official website, search the Internet for legal downloads. One person had heard Ms. Starr’s music during an episode of Showtime’s The L Word. Another got me tangled up in an Abbott and Costello “who’s-on-first-base” routine:
Other person: “What do you want me to listen to?”
Other person: “Can you be more specific?”
Other person: “You want me to listen to ‘Yes’?”
Me: “No. Anything.”
Other person: “Anything?”
Other person [growing impatient]: I thought you didn’t want me to listen to that!
And so on…
Everyone else pretty much wanted to know, “Who’s Kinnie Starr?” I can’t blame them, considering all the “Starr”s in world. There’s Ringo Starr. There’s Dove Starr and Harmony Starr. There’s Garrison Starr. Can’t forget Edwin Starr. Gang Starr is a legendary hip-hop group. Midnight Star was a cool R&B and dance band in the ’80s. Brenda Starr ruled the comic strips. Kenneth Starr wrote that infamous erotic report of his investigation of the Clinton Administration. The odds of Kinnie Starr getting lost in the mix are certainly increased. It’s almost as bad as the scene in White Men Can’t Jump when Gloria (Rosie Perez) correctly answers the entire Jeopardy category of “Foods That Start With The Letter Q”.
I’ll take “Name That Starr” for a thousand, Alex.
Plus, I only knew a little about Miss Starr before I heard the new album, mostly simple stuff, like the fact that she’s Canadian born, enjoys fusing hip-hop into her pop and rock sound, and that her full name is Alida Kinnie Starr. A few other tidbits came from television, interviews, and gossip, like her passion for sculpture and painting. Then there’s her ability to speak English, French, and Spanish; in fact, she’s been known to perform songs in either of the three. How about finding out that she performed in Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity? Better yet, there’s her love for De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising album while also loving Cyndi Lauper’s single Time After Time. De La Soul and Cyndi Lauper? Listening to Kinnie Starr’s album might be as close as I’m gonna get to finding a soul mate.
Of course, there’s more to Kinnie Starr than this, but you don’t have to read about it to learn it. All you have to do is listen to Anything (the album, that is, for Abbott and Costello fans) and you’ll get a musical invitation into Kinnie Starr’s world. Not just Kinnie Starr the musician; rather, it’s about Kinnie Starr the individual, the human being, and artist. In this regard, the album is intensely personal. Listen to the songs and she’ll tell you all about herself.
Pick anything from the 11-song set. Did you know Miss Starr’s heritage included Native lineage on her father’s side? Many of Anything‘s songs carry traits of traditional Indigenous music — the chants, the airy melodies, the skillful instances of repetition. Even the cover art and liner notes reinforce the aboriginal atmosphere of the recordings. Plus, two songs (“Rock the Boat” and “Blackbrown Eyes”) directly reference Starr’s Native history. “Rock the Boat” showcases a rock ‘n’ rap exercise that appeals to anyone yearning to feel comfortable in his or her own skin. To the “aboriginal”, she says, “I’m speaking directly to you”:
full blood quarter third or sixteenth
Rez folk city folk blue eyes brown or green
Caucasian features or cheekbones that cut glass
Ignite the future joined by the past
Rise like the sun you already have begun
Blood boils even in the weakest of quantum
Stay strong help each other along
To every shade of red I dedicate this song
Later, “Blackbrown Eyes” finds our heroine searching for more information, from an “old graying auntie”, for instance, who responds, “Hush now, Child” as the “child” wonders, “Hey now, how’d it come this far / Why don’t we know who we are?” and observes, “Love changed hands from red to white / stories gone now in the night.”
More personally revealing is the curiously titled “Sex in the Prairies”, an interlude of sorts that wades casually into the electronica end of the music pool. With the monotone of an android, you hear Kinnie Starr welcoming “ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls” and thanking us for “buying, burning, or borrowing this CD”. She goes on:
You have been listening in on
Miss Kinnie Starr’s fourth album
Yeah, that’s right…album number FOUR
Check the space beneath the pavement
If you haven’t heard my name before
Want to know what her music sounds like? She describes it in “Sex in the Prairies” as a “rock ‘n’ roll folk hip-hop fusion” (as if the phrase “sex in the prairies” isn’t descriptive enough). What’s abundantly clear is that this isn’t a debut album from a newbie (notice that “album number four” quip above); as Starr puts it, she’s been rockin’ this boat “since the streets of ’96”. Her first album was called Tidy (1997). After that, she released Tune-Up (2000) and Sun Again (2003). Given her longevity, you’d think we would’ve heard more about Miss Starr. What happened?
The answer could be imbedded in “Up in Smoke”, a song about a lost opportunity. The song doesn’t go into detail over what that opportunity might have been. Rather than lamenting the specifics, the song focuses on what it feels like to have what you want, only to lose it as quickly as it came:
You know that feeling
When it seems like everything is moving along
Just how you want it
Just how you want it
And then a little shift or landslide of change
And you’re crying and screaming
And fighting and reeling
As the whole thing goes up in flames
And from there, “the whole thing” goes “up in smoke”, leaving you with two choices: “It can make you sink or help you float”. Sure, the song could be about anything (as the album title might lead us to believe), but my reaction to the song was, “Yikes…sounds like the record industry.” Sure enough, press materials and interviews say Starr was inspired by a cousin’s ill-fated dealings with the biz.
In this regard, Starr herself is no stranger to the quirks of her profession, as she had inked a deal with Mercury/Island/Def Jam back in 1997. When a well-known beer company (no need to provide free ad space by naming it) took over that group, Kinnie Starr felt like her opportunity was going down the drain and that her career wasn’t getting the promotion it deserved. See, you can never, ever forget what A Tribe Called Quest said in “Check the Rhime”: “Industry Rule Number 4,080, record company people are shady”. And I believe it’s Industry Rule Number 4,081 that says, “Reread Number 4,080”. Sometimes, the problem has nothing to do with shady dealings; sometimes, it’s just a matter of timing.
Even so, it can tick you off. Wanna know what Kinnie Starr sounds like when she’s ticked off? Listen to “Step Back”, a folksy hip-hop tune with an in-your-face chorus: “Step back got no more space for you / gonna get free from that sh*t you do”. Here, somebody’s got her nerves in a knot, prompting her critique of the unidentified “you” through drawn out and inverted verses:
You know it’s too late — you played your own fate
You closed your own gate — sealed your checkmate
Curves got set straight — fishin’ don’t take your bait
Won’t stay up late — wait while you hesitate
Memories cremate — side pocket ball eight
You don’t appreciate — no room to debate
My eyes don’t dilate
With its hard drums and sharp guitar strumming, “Step Back” is a catchy number.
Same thing goes for the title track, “Anything”, an upbeat rock jam dedicated to the power of positive thinking (“I can dream / I can be anything”). Yet, as surely as she can drench her guitars in positivism, Starr’s moody side comes out on songs like “Please Hold My Hand” and “Wind In Your Sail”. On “Please Hold My Hand”, track six on the album, Starr throws a quiet and somber curveball to the rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop vibe she cultivated in the first five tunes. Her croon, as revealing as it is haunting, floats effortlessly over waves of guitar and percussion, similar in many ways to songs by Wendy & Lisa from their Girl Bros. album. “Please Hold My Hand” is a plea of sorts, sung from the perspective of one who knows she pushes others away and that she can be a “stubborn girl”. By contrast, “Wind In Your Sail” takes that same type of persona and makes it promise to do better, to “try to be a much better friend”.
Best of all, Anything tells us and shows us what an intriguing artist and songwriter Kinnie Starr is. When she’s leaning toward a positive message, she never goes so far as to become preachy. Her hip-hop musings are sometimes more on the cutesy side than hardcore, but she knows what she’s doing and what she wants to say. When her mood ebbs toward moodier tunes and minor chords, she stays away from melodrama. Even her ’80s bubble gum pop tune, La Le La La, works like a sly nod to Cyndi Lauper’s She Bop. Basically, it’s exactly like she said: she still serving up the right mix.