Kinnie Starr is keenly aware of how life can change in an instant. In 2015 she was sitting in the back of a cab when it was hit by a vehicle that had gone through a stop sign. In shock, she walked away from the accident without anyone noticing and did a scheduled press interview before returning to her hotel and going to sleep. “That’s not what you’re supposed to do after an accident,” Starr says wryly. She remembers very little of the accident, but still feels the effects of that impact. “Nausea, not being able to breathe, not being able to swallow, dizziness, not understanding people when they’re talking…Makes it hard to tell a doctor what’s going on,” she notes. In addition to a long list of physical trauma, she suffered a brain injury that has left her, to this day, unable to play instruments, arrange or produce music. “I can write again,” she says with relief. “Being able to write those lyrics felt really good.”
Starr has described her background as “sort of English, French, Spanish, sort of Indigenous, sort of white.” Her interest in social justice issues came from watching her criminal lawyer father (who is half Mohawk) at work in a courtroom. “At a very young age I knew about racism, and I knew about sexism, and I knew about classism seeing who went to jail. It was like, ‘Daddy why is it always a white man making the decision?’” While earning her BA in Race and Gender Studies at Queen’s University, she lived with some very talented musicians. “My friend Joe Chithalen could hear me singing in the shower,” says Starr. “He’s actually the first person who ever put a guitar in my hands.” Add to that three standing ovations she received at an open mic night, and what was supposed to be a career focussed on visual art became one focussed on music. Like Starr, her music is a mix of a lot of different elements: jazz, folk, hip hop, rap, EDM. “I’m learning as I go” she says. “That’s why there’s so many styles.” She taught herself to play drums and guitar and in 1994 self-released her demo Learning to Cook, unleashing a bidding war with major record labels vying to sign her. She was just 26 years old.
Six CDs later, plus many other music projects, and a Juno Award for producing We Are by Digging Roots, Starr’s relationship to the music industry is guarded. “It’s basically like being in high school forever when you’re in the music industry,” she says. Starr has endured online attacks from so-called fans who rant about her lyrics and album covers, and faced sexism in an industry that leaves women out of the power positions. When approached to have a film made about her, Starr suggested the focus be on women in the industry instead. Starr co-wrote, collaborated on directing, and hosted the film, Play Your Gender, a documentary that wonders why, in a multi-billion dollar global industry, women represent less than 5% of music producers and why there are so few opportunities for women as technicians, engineers and song writers. After 23 years in the music industry, the biggest change Starr has seen is an increase in women DJs. “When you work as a producer or writer you create royalties for yourself,” notes Starr. “When you’re DJing, you’re using other people’s material, so you’re not creating a sustainable economic foundation. That’s why I want to encourage women to write, produce and play.” The film was a way to get people talking about the gender gap in the music industry as a whole. “I really like dialogue,” says Starr of her desire to make the film. “I wanted to inspire people by putting the conversation out there.”
Starting conversations is something Starr has been doing her entire career, whether through her visual art, her music and socially conscious lyrics, or her writings on topics as diverse as body image and kindness. “Artists take a lot of bullets for conversations,” says Starr. “We have always done that. We pull the veil off of social issues a bit and look at them. It’s a service we provide.” Starr’s road to recovery after her accident has been a long and laboured one, and she’s only now starting to feel like herself again. The lyrics she’s been writing of late are for a new album, Feed The Fire, due out late next year. Starr has called Sechelt her home since 2004. “I am so grateful to live on Sechelt land,” she says. “I am so grateful to be working.” – Anna Nobile