Raised on a farm in the small town of Quincy, Washington, Holly Starr is not afraid of hard work. In fact, the farm girl in Starr much prefers the dirt and grime to the glamour of the spotlight. That’s why she’s still confounded as to how she arrived at this place in life, releasing her second full-length record, Tapestry; working with one of the industry’s most sought-after producers, this year’s Dove Award-winning producer Rusty Varenkamp (Tenth Avenue North, Meredith Andrews); and performing on countless stages across the country, including Creation Festival, Lifest and an opening spot for LeAnn Rimes. It’s all Starr can do not to pinch herself.
Named after her grandmother, Starr definitely lives up to her name. Though being a “star” is the furthest thing from her mind. “Grace is so real in my life, and I can’t even express that in words,” the 19-year-old says. “I have felt so inadequate and unprepared for every single thing that has happened from day 1. I live in Quincy, first of all; and there’s no one in the music business there… How in the world did this happen?”
It began when a producer in Seattle took notice of Starr’s talent after discovering her songs on MySpace. At the time, Starr was writing songs for her youth group’s band, which made their way online. Producer Brandon Bee (Stacie Orrico, Lanae Hale) took Starr under his wing and helped her record her first full-length project, Embraced, in 2008.
For Tapestry, Starr was introduced to Varenkamp through a friend of a friend, and an immediate connection was made. “I just instantly fell in love with [Rusty],” says Starr. “God’s peace just entered that room. I walked away thinking, OK, if all my questions and worries and fears about everything that I’m supposed to do next were just solved, that’s the God we serve. That was way too easy, way too powerful.”
The feeling is mutual. Starr’s project was one Varenkamp eagerly took on. “Holly’s music and artistry definitely stem from who she is inside. She’s passionate about connecting with the heart of the listener, which makes the production easier,” says Varenkamp. “On this record, we’ve tried to balance her conviction for truth with music that is relevant to her audience.”
Tapestry is the result of the dynamic collaboration between the two. The title stems from the place where most of us live our lives, somewhere between honoring God and giving in to life’s disruptions, the places where God is weaving His story. “It’s an interesting thought because our relationship with God is often described as ‘vertical,’” Starr says in reference to the album’s title. “And ‘horizontal’ [refers to] the life that happens around us that we tend to get distracted by sometimes.”
With Tapestry, more than ever before, Starr is wearing her heart on her sleeve. “In the last two years, God has done a huge work in my heart and my life, just simplifying how I think of Him,” Starr explains.
“I came to this point where I was starting to realize God is using me in the music ministry, and it started really freaking me out! [I asked], ‘God, do You really want to use me in this way? You’re using my gifts, and it’s amazing. I’ll sings songs, but I cannot get on stage if I don’t believe from the top of my head to the bottom of my toes that You are real in my life.’” It was after this conversation with God that the melodies for Tapestry began.
Authenticity is what listeners will discover on the new album. Songs like “Undertow” do not always end in resolve as Starr confidently details struggle and addiction with a plea for God to pull us out of the undertow; while “Holding On To You” is a song about clinging to the promise of God’s faithfulness.
“There are two sides to the record, musically speaking,” says Starr. “There are these upbeat, more pop-driven songs, and then there are these really broken down, more acoustic songs. There’s a paradox in the record which I really love.” Paradox can be found in the lyrics of stand-out track “Take Me As I Am”: I’m supposed to be in love with You/Why do I fail You all the time?/I’m supposed to be in love with You, but I’m afraid that it’s a lie.
“This song wraps up the entire last two years of my life,” she says. “He just takes us the way we are, sets us completely free and purifies us. That’s grace.”
While wrestling with the profound contradictions of life and the complexities of grace, Starr has come to realize that her fans connect best when she’s at her most vulnerable.
“With this new record, I feel like God has been reminding me to just be real. It’s been a journey of Him saying, ‘Be real, Holly! This is really who you are, the story I’ve given you; don’t try to avoid the most truthful lyric or be something you’re not. ‘Cause yes, sometimes you are angry with Me; and yes, you fall deeply in love with Me. Yes, I am here; and yes, you feel like I’m not here,’” she continues. “That’s life. People relate to that.”
Starr explores these deep-rooted theological contrasts in a way that’s both musically compelling and lyrically insightful, creating a piece of artwork that truly reflects who she is. “God Himself is a paradox to us,” says Starr, “so I believe that’s where the theme of this record comes from.”
Not only is the theme of paradox obvious on Tapestry, but listeners will immediately catch Starr’s insatiable zeal for people. “I have a passion for people. People. Everyone. All ages,” says Starr. “I feel like when I put them in a box, then that’s when I am least successful in my ministry.”
She’s often reminded of the artists who have profoundly influenced her, a list including everyone from Superchick and Skillet to Nicole C. Mullen, Chris Tomlin and Mary Mary. She aspires to be that for other girls. As for her greatest influence, Starr says her older brother has had the most impact on her life. His shining example has been a steadfast beacon for Starr’s faith as she’s pursued her musical calling. “He’s Jesus in my life in so many ways,” she says. “He’s taught me more than any one person in this world how God uses the weak to shame the wise.”
Starr also continues to be inspired by her work with Compassion International. She’s a Compassion advocate; a choice she said she prayerfully made after meeting children sponsored by Compassion on a mission trip to El Salvador.
Her recent trip to Israel is also an inspiration stewing in the back of her mind that will likely translate into future songwriting endeavors. While leading worship in Israel, Starr met members of her grandmother’s family, whom she had never met and her grandmother hadn’t seen in over 60 years. She was able to reconnect the family members with her grandmother via Skype for a surprise reunion.
During the trip she also found out that she is Jewish by bloodline, another strange paradox in the life of this singer still grappling with the ironic contrasts of life. “I’m still processing [Israel]…chewing on it…the land, the history, the people. Since God is outside of time, and He chose the Jews, how does that affect us now? There’s got to be more He wants us to learn from their life than just the Old Testament stories.”
While Starr continues to have aspirations as far as her career is concerned, she’s counting on continued grace to lead the way as she allows real life to be her muse. While she acknowledges that she doesn’t always measure up to her own expectations, she also recognizes that she’s not in control to begin with. “[God says], ‘Submit to me, and I’ll fill in the gaps. Just submit, and I’ll complete it. Just be willing, and I’ll be there.’ That’s what grace is.”