David Starr talks about looking back and the joys of cover versions. The Touchstones project.

Colorado based David Starr was all set up to promote his latest album, Beauty & Ruin, when Coronavirus brought everything to a halt. That album, produced by John Oates, was inspired by Of What Was, Nothing Is Left, a novel written by Starr’s grandfather in 1972 and Starr’s last live gig was the album release show in Nashville in March (a show which turned into a benefit concert for those affected by the tornado which whipped through Nashville days earlier). As so many others did, Starr then turned to social media for a series of live streams to play the songs from the album accompanied by readings from his grandfather’s book but, when time and safety allowed, he returned to Nashville to record a new project called Touchstones where he covers some of his favourite songs from other writers, an immersion into what he has called, “musical comfort food”.

Blabber’n’Smoke caught up with David for a Zoom chat to discuss the project. He’s keeping his selection of songs kind of secret so we haven’t mentioned any song names but the more astute might guess at least one from the clues scattered. We started off by asking him why he had decided to record a bunch of cover songs.

The idea was really to try to keep the creative juices flowing while all this pandemic stuff has been going on. It was so soon after Beauty And Ruin and I didn’t have enough original songs to put together a new project. I’ve always  enjoyed playing songs which I like and which have had an impact on me, like when I recorded Elton John’s Country Comfort on my South And West Album. Anyhow, the idea of recording a bunch of covers had been going around in my head for a while and I thought that this was as good a time as any to actually go ahead with it.

I believe that all of the songs have been recorded, but rather than release them as a collection you are going to issue them one at a time digitally.

That’s the plan for now, a digital release each month. I’d love to press them up and go out on the road to sell them but that’s not going to happen for a while. So, for the meantime I’ll release a song a month, for a year and I hope that folk will join me on Facebook, Instagram and Youtube as I release these songs and the stories behind them. I’m hoping that people will join in on the online conversations and we can share our thoughts on the songs. It’s also a way, hopefully, to keep up interest as if I released all of them at once it would be up and then down in a very short time. It was all recorded in Nashville, in the same studio I recorded my last three albums. It’s a studio that John Oates introduced me to and although he hasn’t produced any of these songs he came over to sing on a few of them. It’s a good band with a couple of guests coming in.

You released the first song, Robert Palmer’s Every Kind Of People a few weeks ago and it generated some conversation. I didn’t know that it was written by Andy Fraser, Free’s bass player, so that was new to me. Obviously, you know what’s coming next but you’ve said that you’re keeping the song’s identities close to your chest until they come out one by one.

I thought it would be good to try and keep it a secret so that each release is a bit of a surprise. However, that makes it just that little bit more difficult to talk about in public as we’re doing now. Maybe the best way is to just mention a couple of the artists I’ve covered and people can try and guess! Anyhow, I can say that the next one will be a Bob Dylan song and then later on there’ll be one by Jackson Browne. It’s either artists who have really meant a lot to me or songs that I’ve sang in the past and really enjoyed doing so. There is one original song in there which I did just to make the selection an even dozen so that the release schedule spans one year.

So, have you thought the sequence out?

Well I’ve already released Every Kind Of People and I know what the next three will be, but beyond that I’m not sure what order they’ll come out in. I can say that we recorded a John Prine song and I’m going to release that one on the anniversary of his death. I’ve been trying to look at making some rational of when to release each song. The first one, Every Kind Of People, seemed to me to be a good place to start what with all the discord and trouble we’ve had over here. It seemed like a nice sentiment you know. Most people associate Robert Palmer with his glossy pop videos with the girls playing guitars but to me he’s the guy who recorded with Little Feat and that makes him cool as far as I’m concerned.

How did you choose the songs?

Well, I made a list of about thirty and then I started to whittle away at them. Like I said, I thought that some of them just seemed more appropriate for these times, like Every Kind Of People, and the Dylan song I’ve picked seemed to me to be about choices and because we’re all being asked to make choices, like here we just had a very divisive election, it suits what’s going on right now. The Jackson Browne song is just a song I love, the words, the melody, the fact he wrote it when so young which tells me that if you dig deep you can write a song which lasts throughout the ages. There’s also a well-known blues song which I’ve always just found great fun to play. So, essentially the final list is a bunch of songs which all speak to me somehow. The funny thing about cover songs that I’ve always noted is that when I was playing my own songs solo, if people started to look as if they were drifting a bit then I’d play a cover and that would kind of bring them back into the fold. That Jackson Browne song always worked because if the audience didn’t like me then at least they liked the song.

Where did the project title, Touchstones, come from?

I was trying to think of a word which kind of spoke to the idea of things you pick up along the way. I toyed with the idea of calling it Breadcrumbs, you know like Hansel and Gretel, how do you find the way back to where you came from. And then, someone suggested Touchstones and that just stuck with me.

Is there any one particular song which stands out for you.

I have to say that it’s the Jackson Browne number. An interesting thing happened. I used to sing that song years and years ago but then left it behind, but a couple of years ago I was in Nairn, up in the highlands, and this guy came up to me and asked me if I knew that Gregg Allman had died that day and did I know any of his songs. I didn’t but I told him that I knew a song Gregg had covered and so I sang it that night and since then I’ve sang it at most of my shows. It’s a song that I connect with for whatever reason, there’s a sort of melancholy that goes with it although it becomes more hopeful towards the end and I just love the act of playing it. On our recording of it, Garth Brooke’s fiddle player, Jimmy Mattingly, added a lovely fiddle part and I was really pleased that he was able to do so.

So, while we’re all waiting for this miracle vaccine to come and save us, what are your plans for the future?

I’m writing all the time. I note down words and phrases as they come to me, like, in the middle of the night, I’ll think of something and write it down because, you know, by the morning it will be gone. I’ve got some songs started but, as I said earlier, not enough to be putting anything out so that’s why I’ve done these covers. I feel that I really haven’t finished with Beauty And Ruin as I’d just started to get off the ground with that before everything came crashing down. So, once we’re able to get back out on the road I’d like to pick up on that just where I left off and add in a few of these covers. I’d really like to get the whole band together in Nashville and play a big show just to get these songs out of our system when it all blows over. I’d love to get back to the UK but who knows when that’s going to happen again.

Will you be doing any more live streams?

I haven’t done one for a while. It seemed like all of a sudden everybody was doing them and it seemed like too much. Most of the ones I did were based on my record and the book where I sang a song and read from the relevant chapter but I also did a couple of others like the ones with Martha (Healy) and Al (Shields) and they were fun things to do and probably more therapeutic than anything else. But this has been a strange time and we’re all trying to find new ways of getting across to people.

Touchstones will be added to monthly with the second song coming this Tuesday. The songs will be available to stream and buy on digital platforms and David will release a video to accompany each song on his Youtube channel which you can subscribe to here.

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