Q&A with Sacramento blues woman Val Starr - has experienced a lifetime of music both as a performer and music industry executive

"My hopes are that the blues are discovered by a new generation and my fears are that the “gatekeepers of the blues” will not accept new and innovative blues expressions."

Val Starr: Lighter Side of The Blues 

Val Starr has experienced a lifetime of music both as a performer and music industry executive. Raised in southern California, Val started singing and playing guitar at age 12. Her earliest musical influences were female singer/songwriters, such as Carole King and Joni Mitchell, and bands of the 60’s and 70’s. Her mother also instilled in her a love of musical comedy, which is apparent in the theatrical way she delivers her songs live, her catchy lyrics, and her amusing storytelling. Her music business career began in the late 70’s working for record labels, ABC, Chrysalis and Polygram as an executive assistant. In the early 80’s her focus shifted to radio promotion and from then on into the late 90’s, Val had a successful career as an independent radio promoter. Val worked in the music industry by day, and at night, played the L.A. club scene, in original rock bands “Local Authority” and “Threshold.” In 1983, Val married bassist, John Ellis, who remains the cornerstone of her band to this day. At the end of the eighties, the family, which now included son James (and later son Sean), relocated to the Bay area. For the next years John and Val continued to write, record and perform with local bands in San Francisco. At the start of the new millennium, streaming audio caught her eye. She had witnessed firsthand as an indie radio promoter how hard it was to get records added to the limited airplay slots available at terrestrial radio.

In 2003, Val and her family moved to Sacramento and continued playing in local cover bands. Around 2010, tired of the cover band/club scene, Val and John started showing up at local blues jams in the area, where she found the talent to form her first blues band. Val Starr & The Blues Rocket released their debut album, “Cool Ride,” in 2012 to favorable reviews. Two years later, “Blues Away,” their sophomore recording, was well received at blues radio and went to #4 on the Airplay Direct Global Blues chart. In 2016 Woman On A Mission was submitted for nomination to the Grammys, and I Always turn The Blues On (2017) was submitted for consideration for the Grammy Award. For the past 4 years, John and Val have been actively bringing blues acts to Sacramento by way of their own summer concert series, Blues On The Patio. Val have provided the Blues Rocket with the opportunity to share the stage with blues artists such as Tommy Castro, Coco Montoya, Rick Estrin, Chris Cain, E.G. Kight, Dennis Jones, Laurie Morvan, E.C. Scott, Albert Cummings and more. The band was also a finalist in the 2012 Sacramento International Blues Competition. Val Starr is an extraordinary singer and songwriter who writes songs gleaned from everyday life, love, friends, and family. Val’s new fifth album titled Lighter Side of the Blues (2019). It doesn't have to be heavy to be the blues. Lighter Side of the Blues contains a wide spectrum of blues infused original tunes. From traditional blues to rockin to rnb flavored, Lighter Side of the Blues is sure to delight and surprise you with Val's own special blend of California blues. Starr is backed by the veteran musicians The Blues Rocket, which includes her partner in crime, John Ellis on bass, and slide guitar.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the music industry and Biz? What characterize your music philosophy?

Having been an independent radio promoter for over 15 years, I learned how difficult it was to get traditional airplay. So when streaming media was born, I really saw it as an opportunity to even the playing field for independent artists and niche genres. That was the catalyst for me to start one of the first online radio networks, choiceradio.com and then gotradio.com, which features a 24/7 blues radio channel. My music philosophy is to be true to yourself. Don’t try to emulate other artists. I sang in cover bands for so long copying other female singers, I really didn’t discover who Val Starr was until I started writing and singing my original blues.

How has the Blues and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Have you ever seen a fight break out at a blues concert? I betcha you haven’t! That says so much about how the blues makes people feel. It is music for the heart and soul. It touches people in ways that they never knew music could touch them. Rock on the other hand I think insights, motivates and excites their audience, which is also good, but more potentially explosive.

"We feel our brand of west coast or more specifically California Blues it is a hybrid mix of different blues styles including horn driven Central Avenue jump blues, Chicago style harmonica driven blues and Memphis style shuffles. We have also noticed how much our audience loves to dance to the blues, so we like to showcase varieties of shuffles into our music creation." (Photo: Val Starr)

What were the reasons that you started the Blues researches? How started the thought of The Blues Rocket?

My husband John and I literally grew up playing music together in the '80s and '90s in Los Angeles, in rock n’ roll original and cover bands. We relocated to Sacramento from San Francisco in 2003 but John was still building custom homes up in the Bay Area; and while living part time at the beach in the bay, he started going to blues jams at night. I was like, “what is this?” and started to tag along on the weekends. After years of singing rock n roll cover songs, I felt I had finally found my own unique voice and style. When I started singing the blues, I found Val Starr as an artist. I never wanted to be seen as a front diva blues singer. I always only wanted to be part of the band. This is why we decided to have a distinct band name, The Blues Rocket. Our original intention was to play blues songs by rock bands, so the Blues Rocket name seemed perfect. But once I started composing my own blues songs my style expanded and went way beyond just rock-based blues, and it continues to do so the more I write.

How do you describe Lighter Side Of The Blues sound and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

I very much wanted to capture the joy the blues instills in people on this CD. “Can’t Get Sad Tonight” is the perfect example; it glorifies the blues and how the blues makes people happy – “I Can’t Get Sad tonight..the blues makes my Day!” I think that some people have a misconception of the blues, in that they think it is oft times depressing and sad; hence the Lighter Side of the Blues. The title track talks a bit about my upbringing and life experiences and how even though I had sadness and hard times, as most people do, that I choose to be happy and positive in my life. The first track, “Say Goodbye to The Blues (Like you Mean It), is a real-life situation, where a friend observes another being “down” and tries to help lift them up with positive messages and gratitude. Sactown Heat is such a fun song that anyone, who has lived in the hot California San Joaquin Valley can relate to. Mister Bassman is a love song and tribute to my husband and bass player of 43 years. I get the ideas and write the songs from what I observe in the world and people around me.

Are there any memories from Lighter Side Of The Blues studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

We worked with a new saxophone player on this CD, Danny Sandoval. He was an absolute pro and a pleasure to work with. It was so exciting to see him loving the songs and pouring his heart out. Todd Morgan is a young and very talented keyboardist, who has blessed us with his talents on several of our previous releases. He continued to amaze me with his feel, interpretation and delivery on this record. John and I have a tradition of mixing the songs and then running out to the car to preview the mixes on the car stereo system. We trust our car speakers and have found that if the song sounds good in the car, the mix is solid.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Having worked in the music business, I met many rock stars from Jon Bon Jovi, Billy Idol, Pat Benatar, Steve Winwood, Janet Jackson and on and on. None of them actually personally inspired me, but their music certainly did. I think my most important acquaintances have been my record colleagues, the people that are behind the scenes that actually make it all happen. The best advice I’ve ever gotten was from my mother. Since I was a woman working in a very male dominated field and have had to front bands comprised of guys, I needed to make sure I didn’t over compensate as a “strong woman”. My mom told me to “never lose my femininity.” I thought that was terrific advice. It’s ok to be a strong woman, but it’s still important to BE a woman.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I grew up listening to rock and roll and at that time, as a music lover, we used to know all the names of the guys in the bands. It wasn’t just an upfront person and a backup band. As a result, when I started to put my blues band together, it was very important for me to be part of the band, not just the front gal, and for each band member to have their identity. Hence the name Val Starr & The Blues Rocket. So, when my guitar player at the time decided to join another band, I was hurt and confused. How could he be in two bands at once? I learned pretty quickly that in the blues, the players perform more often than not with multiple bands and that was just the way it was. So, I had to adapt my way of thinking and be o.k. with playing with multiple local blues musician. Which actually works out to be quite exciting as each musician brings a different something to my songs. I guess my bass player and husband is the only true Blues Rocket! (laughs)

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I have been playing and performing the blues for the past 6-7 years, so I guess compared to some, I am a relatively new blues artist. My hopes are that the blues are discovered by a new generation and my fears are that the “gatekeepers of the blues” will not accept new and innovative blues expressions.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I’d like to see a middle class musician emerge. I’d like a music eco-system that could support a musician to the point of sustaining a musician and his/her family as a job. I hate that it’s still either feast or famine for most musicians.

"My music philosophy is to be true to yourself. Don’t try to emulate other artists. I sang in cover bands for so long copying other female singers, I really didn’t discover who Val Starr was until I started writing and singing my original blues." (Photo: Val Starr & John Ellis on stage, California 2013)

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in music paths?

To always remain humble and grateful. We have always had a saying, “one fan at a time.”  Also, you should never compare yourself and your musical creations to another artist, and always be true to yourself. Music is very personal, and everyone has their own style and preferences. On this album I wrote from my heart and let the songs and musicians that contributed, dictate the end result.  And that end result is an excellent representation of what the blues is to me.

Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

I think it’s both. Traditional blues was originally an art form born out of the trials and tribulations of slaves in the south. It talked about their hardships and experiences. Although racism unfortunately still exists, most people cannot directly relate to those times, so I am hoping through the evolution of the blues as a genre, that blues artists will continue to tell their own stories in current times that people can relate to. That is why I took the traditional classic “Big Boss Man” and recreated the lyrics to address the issues that women face today. The “state of mind” of the blues in my opinion is joyful and spiritual to offset those days when things may not be going your way. It is like a comforting fire on a stormy night.

What would you say characterizes California Blues in comparison to other local US scenes?

We feel our brand of west coast or more specifically California Blues it is a hybrid mix of different blues styles including horn driven Central Avenue jump blues, Chicago style harmonica driven blues and Memphis style shuffles. We have also noticed how much our audience loves to dance to the blues, so we like to showcase varieties of shuffles into our music creation. We have been influenced and touched by so many types of blues, we like to provide a diverse, upbeat and heartfelt presentation of blues to our blues loving audience.

"To always remain humble and grateful.  We have always had a saying, “one fan at a time.”  Also, you should never compare yourself and your musical creations to another artist, and always be true to yourself. Music is very personal, and everyone has their own style and preferences. On this album I wrote from my heart and let the songs and musicians that contributed, dictate the end result.  And that end result is an excellent representation of what the blues is to me." (Photo: Val Starr)

Make an account of the case of the blues in Sacramento. What touched (emotionally) you from the local circuits?

I have been so blessed with the local blues scene here in Sacramento and all the people involved. I have made so many deep and lasting friendships it’s unbelievable. My band has done many local charities as well that were heavily supported by blues fans here, most recently a benefit for Hurricane Harvey victims. What emotionally touches me is when I am performing my original music and everybody is dancing and singing along to the lyrics. There is no bigger high than people knowing your original songs.

What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

I still feel sometimes that I have to continue to prove myself as a musician and artist. But that could be just my own insecurities. And it doesn’t sit right with me when I still see Blues Festivals with multiple acts and not a single female fronted blues band on the bill. But for the most part, I believe that we are seeing more and more blues gals emerge and that is very exciting to see. I am pretty proud to write, record and perform my own original music, and nobody can take that away from me.

What is the impact of Blues and Rock music on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

I have a song on my new album called “Whether Blues” which talks simply about all of us just getting along and that in the end, none of it really matters cuz we all end up in another place. I have never felt any prejudice personally from the blues industry as a white woman singing the blues.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I’d like to take a time machine back to the 60’s and be sitting in The Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, watching and listening to the late great Etta James record with those amazing studio musicians.

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