Interview | FFS 5 with Jen Starsinic

Photo by Angelina Castillo

From the dreamy, confessional indie rock that fills her newest release, Bad Actor, to the bluegrass and old-time roots music that soundtracked her upbringing in small-town Pennsylvania, Jen Starsinic has spent much of her 20s in a whirl of evolution.

She’s been a frontwoman, a side musician, a songwriter, and a top-tier instrumentalist. As her music has deepened and diversified, so has her understanding of her own emotional makeup — an understanding that’s been shaped not only by the onset of adulthood, but also by her time taking care of a sick parent, navigating the twists and turns of modern-day romance, making a new home in Nashville, and taking a hard look at her anxieties. Bad Actor shines a light on that period of personal and musical growth, reintroducing Starsinic as a songwriter whose folk roots have blossomed into something bigger, bolder, and far more amplified.  

Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how did you get started in music? Any defining moments along the path to present day?

I grew up in small-town south-central Pennsylvania near Harrisburg, PA. I got started in music pretty young – my older brother was taking piano lessons when I was 3 and I wanted to take lessons too. After being told I was too young, I (apparently) convinced my brother to come home from his lessons and teach me what he’d learned. My brother is a great musician and singer and apparently I have an annoying habit of taking over instruments that other people in my family started to learn and get really good at them. I started playing the violin when I was 9 – I was a huge Dixie Chicks fan and loved watching Martie play the fiddle. 

There was a lot of bluegrass music where I grew up and I started playing regional gigs when I was 14 and played fiddle professionally until I was about 23 years old. When I was 16, I found my way to the Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, WV and fell in love with old-time music and the wild time that it is: staying up all night yelling and dancing and playing this really beautiful, haunting, trance-y music for hours and hours in the dark. I’ve always really been in love with the connective, social thing that music can be and also with the honesty of a great song, both of which I learned from playing old-time music. Even though my music is way more indie rock than folk music now, I still carry those things with me.

I heard Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls talking one time about how much she hated playing music alone because collaboration was really the end all be all to her, and I agree with that. Even though I generally write alone and really believe in finding your own individual voice and things to say, for me, it’s all really about a conversation with people who will eventually listen to it and maybe let my songs mean something to them.

As an artist, how do you define success?

When I first moved to Nashville, a great songwriter told me, “Nashville is great but you have to learn to plant your artistic seeds far far away from the superhighway of the music industry.” I always feel the most successful as an artist when someone tells me that they come back to one of my songs over and over and it’s really grown to mean something to them, or that they find a kind of comfort in the recognition of themselves they see in the song. I feel successful when I write something I really think is quite good, or after a “vibing” band practice, or if I play a show and people seem to have fun and feel something.

These aren’t very quantifiable metrics though, so I do find that advice to be super true – I have to constantly remind myself to try my best at all the different aspects of being an independent artist, but to only really measure my worth by what I think is important. Easier said than done, of course, I’m not quite sure what my actual success rate at doing that is haha.

What do you find to be your greatest struggle when it comes to the music business?

Whoops, I keep answering these questions before you ask them! I am a super-smart, super determined, super hardworking, super-capable person who is in the very same breath an absolute tangle of depression, general anxiety, social anxiety, sensory sensitivity, head trauma, and probably a few other things. I have to find workarounds for myself for a lot of different things. I love touring but have to be careful about not getting totally energy zapped and then turning into a zombie shit monster. I love sharing music with other people, but I really struggle with social media and screen time limitations etc. The part of my brain that can write and make music is a very different part of my brain than thinks logically about tour routing and online marketing, etc. Sometimes it’s hard to get them to play nice with each other. But I think that’d be true for me in any industry honestly. Isn’t it strange how sometimes the things we love the most are also the hardest? I think that’s a good road to be on regardless.

What do you think is the most realistic goal you can achieve as an artist/band? What do you hope to achieve?

I would honestly just like to be able to pay my band what they deserve to make and keep getting to make records until I croak. I hope I can make music that genuinely means something to people. I write a lot about my own emotional pain and life experience and that’s important to me because it’s something I’ve rarely felt comfortable discussing in regular life. And yet I’ve always been fascinated by the pit of despair that I have and felt there was something beautiful in it. I feel infinitely more alive when I can just be honest in that way, I try to put that into the music I make, so if I can achieve that, then I’ve done what I’ve set out to do. There’s, perhaps paradoxically, a lot of joy in that for me. The same joy I feel when I go see my favorite bands, so I guess I just want to contribute to that in the world.

Outside of music, what do you like to do that you feel contributes to the creativity that you tap into for your music?

I try to always have a creative practice that’s not also my profession, and I find it super helpful to keep the creative flow moving when you can do something and be totally unattached to the outcome. I dance a lot and paint sometimes.

I also really try to make sure I get myself out of my head and out of the music-world bubble on the regular. I co-direct a program in Nashville called Girls Write Nashville that is a songwriting and production mentorship program for teen girls really focused on the empowerment of expression. My friend Georgia English and I started it together and always joke that we accidentally started a nonprofit because it really started as just a little community project we did with some local kids and has since grown into this beautiful wild beast we chase around. Staying connected to a sense of giving to others has been really helpful and meaningful for me since we started doing Girls Write, I really don’t know where I’d be without it.

Words by: Jonathan Frahm