Seventeen. Self-taught. Talented. Hardworking.
Those are the four words that stuck with me after speaking with London-born Danny Starr. While most 17 year-olds are understandably idle, confused or slacking off – he’s challenging himself to get better at what he loves.
Before speaking with Danny I found a lot to relate to in a song I’d found on SoundCloud called ‘Man of Steel’. It’s about someone who’s a bit numb to the emotion of love and reluctant to let people in. It’s a song about heartbreak and this wall people hurt by love, or even a very strong case of lust, build around their hearts for security’s sake – a defense mechanism of sorts.
“This guy gets me,” I thought.
And after speaking with him, I was partially right. Danny gets it. The same way that I felt like Ben Howard got it in ‘I Forget Where We Were’ or The Killers got it in ‘Here With Me’. He understands how to encapsulate a human experience; be it heartbreak or love, and put it in a song.
The mark of a great songwriter can even be felt in a rough cut of a demo at the very beginning of their careers. They have something that can’t be taught. It’s an innate ability to touch people across social, political and gender-induced barriers to craft a tune that resonates. It’s about touching one person in a crowded room with a song written about someone who made you feel like you were the only one in it.
I don’t know Ben Howard and I’ve never met Brandon Flowers but I’ve had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Danny Starr – and he’s incredibly kind, passionate about his music and eager to play a song that makes another young, rugby-playing teenage boy ask his mom for guitar lessons.
It’s an honor to have him on this site because he embodies what it’s all about – writing and performing music that touches people, connecting them to a feeling and bringing them together because of it.
On your SoundCloud you mention that you’re self-taught and self-produced – did you grow up around music?
Not really, at all. My dad definitely influenced what I listened to. He gave me his old vinyl player and all the M.J. – I mean from when I was, what, 8-10, I was obsessed with Michael Jackson. I learned all the dances and stuff like that, so that was my first inspiration and what made me feel like, “Ugh, I love music”. I also got really into Amy Winehouse because he’s really into Amy Winehouse. I will say that my dad played trumpet while he was at school and then I learned trumpet for the first, like 8 years of school and then gave it up. I had a couple of years with basically no music at all until one day when I just picked up the guitar.
I saw my mate at a school concert singing a song and playing guitar and I was like, “Ugh, mom can I get lessons” and she was like “No, I’ve got a guitar, teach yourself” and then, I’m left-handed so I had to change the strings around on her guitar. I learned upside down for a bit and then I realized that there’s an easier way and I changed the strings around and then it just kind of went from there…
How old were you when you first started playing?
How old are you now? About my age, right? 20…
Danny went to school with a boy named Archie (you might know him Tenterhook )and I had assumed they were the same age, but Danny explained,
I was about 14 when I’d gotten to our school so Archie was about 17? I saw that you talked about rugby in your piece with him and I used to play, as well. I played it really seriously up until I was about 15 but I’ve been knocked out of it because of a shoulder injury. We knew each other because of rugby from when I was about 12 or 13.
Did you ever busk together? That would be a dynamic duo.
We’ve kind of jammed together a couple of times but we’d planned on writing together and literally the next week he’d signed to his management company so he was like, “Mate, I’m so sorry” (laughs), which is awesome for him.
You sound so much like Ben Howard and I mean that in the absolute best way. When I first heard ‘Home’ I was drawn to it because it had a vibe that was so familiar to me because of that similarity, but then still felt like unique.
Well thank you very much, firstly. I love Ben Howard and he was a huge inspiration to me. I’ve listened to him loads in the last year and a half. He’s just incredible. When I first started, everyone was like, “You sound just like Passenger” or “Oh, you sound like Ed Sheerhan” but I get Ben Howard a lot now. There have been times when I’ve gone into some of Ben’s songs and looked at his tuning and thought that I’d write a song in his vibe. There’s one song I wrote that is far too Ben Howard-y (laughs) to the point where I can’t even really claim it as my own.
An artist I’ve spoken to in the past mentioned that he never experiences writer’s block and if he needs a break he just goes for a smoke – is that creative hurdle just a matter of a cigarette break to you?
It massively varies between like banging out a song in 10-15 minutes to sitting down with a couple of chords for a verse, a couple of lyrics for a chorus and then giving up after like 2 ½ hours. You just think, “Right, forget that one”. I have a lot of writer’s block – if that’s true, he is a lucky guy.
The next John Lennon, I guess –
(Laughs) Literally, yeah.
Are you more inspired by your personal experiences or from what you observe going on around you?
It’s varied a bit but most of my songs are about my own experiences. When I started out, the first song I wrote was about this girl I’d met on a cruise and I was like “Ughh….”
The Love Boat…
“Young love!” It was just instant.
What was it called?
‘One Day In July’…that set the tone.
My mum’s been really, really helpful with the music. Every song I write, I play to her and then she’ll tell me, “Change this and that” or “Scrap that, that’s complete rubbish”. She’ll also tell me when it’s really good and she’s just always completely honest with me. There was a period of time when I was just writing loads of stuff that sounded really similar so she said, “Right, go away and write things on completely different topics”, so I had a friend who would give me a new topic every week. One week he’d say, “Hmm…write a song about heat”. You just have to constantly challenge yourself with different things. That definitely improved my writing. So now I’ve taken that and realized that to write a song that you want to perform on stage; one you really connect to and feel lyrically, requires you to include something a bit personal. Otherwise you’ll be up there on stage and there’s this point, about ¾ of the way through, where you think, “Right, I should finish this right now, because I’m bored, so they’re probably really bored.”
When you’re an audience member, do you enjoy seeing a band perform or an acoustic singer/songwriter, like yourself? Last night I went to Hinds in Brooklyn and figured that it would be a bit more chilled out since it was an Album Release. I had no clue that there’d be such a long line for this (albeit great) group of grungey-pop girls from Madrid. It was crazy, people were crowd-surfing, there was karaoke on stage….is that your vibe?
It massively varies depending on who I’m with. For the past two years I’ve been going to this festival every summer called Barn on the Farm. I just go to that for the experience of just watching one person on stage singing. I went when James Bay was opening for Tom Odell in 2014 and I was like, “Oh my god he’s going to go miles!” and no one else was listening to him. It was a great year; Hozier was there…it was just awesome. I really appreciate that experience, but none of my mates are into that acoustic vibe. Most of them are into mosh pits and stuff like that and I can appreciate it, but maybe once every, like two months, I’ll go crazy. It takes about two months to recover.
I love Barn on the Farm sessions – particularly because I think Foy Vance is such a legend and his blow me away. I remember seeing James Bay in one of those Gondola sessions back in like, 2013 and thinking, “If anyone with any kind of say, sees this guy he is going to be huge.”
Yeah, hang on, wait…because I saw him when I was just starting as a songwriter and I decided to get… (pulls up guitar case to reveal an Epiphany EJ-200) this was my first guitar that I used in a gig. I’d tweeted him, and at the time he wasn’t big, so I just said “What’s your guitar like, it sounded really good on stage” and he was like, “Right thanks, it’s this” and he gave me all this info and I was like, “Right, thanks man, I’ll probably go and get it now”.
I’ve seen him 4 times in one year, which is unhealthy. The first gig was in London and no one really waited around to talk to him, but I was like, “Right, this guy has been the soundtrack to my freshman and sophomore years in college – I have to thank him” but I saw he was with his mom and felt too intrusive since it was the last show of his tour.
Literally in six months he was like, #1. I used to tell people, “Have a listen to James Bay” and they’d just be like, “Oh yeah, he’s really good.” Now, he’s everywhere.
You recently posted some new tunes on your SoundCloud – ‘Home’ was my favorite before hearing ‘I Danced With You’ – what was the process like writing that song?
I wrote ‘I Danced With You’ about three years ago. It was probably the second song I wrote. It’s really old and probably…by far, my best song (laughs).
Lyrically, what’s different about ‘Home’?
Loads of my songs are based off of, sort of rough breakups because it’s something emotional to write about. I don’t like being that person who just cuts people off straight away, so it’s about always being there for that person even if you’re not together. I’d say that the first line is the most meaningful to me. I sing, “All I wanna do it put a smile across your face” because you break up with someone because you want both of you to be happier in most occasions. Afterwards you want them to be happy, you don’t want some downhill mess. I kind of went on that idea and yeah, that was in a weird Ben Howard tuning, as well.
Could you shed some light on ‘Man of Steel’?
‘Man of Steel’ was kind of about being battered down by a breakup. Like, I’m a man of steel with a heart of stone; it’s pretty self-explanatory. I was challenged by a couple of people to full-on produce a track with a bit more substance, like musically. So, I just went home and I had lyrics on my phone that I’ve written over time and just hadn’t used. I fit some of those lyrics to some music I’d been playing. I focused more on the production side of this song. ‘I Danced With You’ and ‘Home’ are kind of like, the meaningful ones I guess, compared to ‘Man of Steel’. I was really trying to train myself production-wise on this one.
Do you produce in your house?
Yeah, well…hang on. (Picks up keyboard) Here we have my keyboard. Well, I’ve got my other keyboard over there…and that’s my mic. That’s a new mic, actually. I bought it today.
Is that a rugby shirt behind you?
That was a complete guess, I really don’t know rugby at all.
Yeah, that’s probably the last shirt I’ll ever wear on a pitch, which is quite sad. It’s just hanging there which is arguably sadder. (Laughs) All my mates who come in are just like “No!”
You say that you play rap tracks and love ballads on your SoundCloud…I haven’t heard any rap tracks but am very, very interested.
Do you know Loyle Carner? You should look him up; he’s kind of like a rapper. All of his songs are about his family. He writes really amazing lyrics and really meaningful, great music because he does it all with his best mate who he’s known since he was about 5. I came across him when he was quite small and now he’s getting really big and I just challenged myself to write stuff like that. It helped me a lot lyrically, because writing lyrics for rap songs is a lot more difficult. You have to write so much more and the words you say have be way more metaphorical and interesting. So it was to help me develop my lyrical skills a bit.
If you had to listen to 5 songs for the rest of your life what would they be?
‘Me and Mr. Jones’ – Amy Winehouse. I’m scared of picking a Michael Jackson song, for fear that I would overplay it. Is that possible? I don’t think it is but…
I don’t think that’s possible. This won’t actually happen, by the way. He also, won’t hear your answer on it.
Is that too soon? It’s always too soon, isn’t it?
Right? I’d probably do M.J. ‘Heal the World’.
Would the next one be a mosh-pitter?
Yeah, right? Stormzy ‘Shut Up’ (laughs).
Before I re-did the site, I used to have little blog posts up and my first one ever was a Stormzy review. I have no idea why I chose Stormzy right off the bat. I thought I’d comment on Grime, as if I remotely understood it.
(Laughs). His Christmas tune went number one, it’s hilarious.
Had you ever gone to a show growing up that made you think ‘shit I really want to do this’?
It started as more of a hobby after I saw my mate performing and then I started gigging quite early after I saw Passenger. I just knew every single song at that show. I kept thinking how much I wanted to be on stage and feel that energy. Each gig I went to was just reinforcement after that. When I play my own gigs, when one person – just a single person, pays attention and looks over at me and is engaged, it’s the greatest feeling in the world. It’s one of the best feelings. It’s weird how much one person’s attention on something that you’ve written is so fulfilling. It’s the dream to do that as my job because it would just be constant overwhelming happiness. Seeing Jungle perform was like the final blow, for me. They’re nothing like my music at all but they’re my favorite band by miles and it was just so amazing.
Foy Vance said that feeling when you’ve impacted someone’s life with your music and can just play on stages to them is transcendental. Are there things outside of music that influence your writing?
Art’s a big one, I think. I don’t really know anything about it, but sometimes seeing a really evocative image can generate a thought of a lyric or metaphor in your mind for a song. I don’t think you need to know all the details and methods behind art to appreciate it and embrace it, which I feel I do. It’s like music in that you’re trying to relate a feeling inside of you to someone else.
My mum’s side of the family is all from Syria so all of the stuff happening there is quite personal with the family. I wrote a few songs about impacts of things you can’t control on people who, kind of seem irrelevant. It’s all a big metaphor, nothing specific… I wrote this one song a while ago called ‘Rubble and Stone’ which basically sounds like it’s about a relationship but its actually about the country being kind of destroyed.
Generally, I like to take something really relatable like happiness and sadness or love and then use a really personal experience like that to turn it into my own.
Relating to people is the end goal, right?
When someone comes to you and says, “I really like that line in that new song” it’s awesome. It’s a really nice feeling and what you aim to do – to trigger someone to feel something themselves. My favorite gigs have been the really small ones with everyone listening.
My least favorite gig to date was during that competition in Westfield Stratford (a large mall in the UK) when I was on stage singing a cover with a good few hundred people watching me which was really awkward because I just kept thinking, “I’m not connected to any of you and I’m just trying to impress you with my guitar skills and I’m not that good at guitar.”
Say you’re curating that Barn on the Farm lineup – can you pick 5 artists who’d play on your stage?
It’s my career goal to play Barn on the Farm, that’s just such a massive festival to me.
Okay, my headline slot would go to Nick Mulvey because he deserves it. Charlie Cunningham is great, too. He’d have to be there. Dry The River would definitely go on. I fell in love with their old stuff which was probably my first inspiration to write because those songs just make you feel so many emotions. James Bay because he’s James Bay and I’d get to meet James Bay. He can’t play at my festival without becoming best mates with me. I’d round it off with Passenger since he was my first, like proper influence. Oh, and I’d have to put Jungle on because I love them so much.
Do you still busk?
Yeah! I busked last week.
I feel like that’s even more fun because people are choosing to stop and listen to you.
Yeah! It is. People have a place to be when they’re walking on the streets of London, so when they choose to stop and give their attention to you and listen to something you’ve written it feels amazing. There’s something really humbling about it. There’s something about it that’s even more powerful than someone in a bar turning their head to you. They’re choosing to spend their time that way. It helps you work out what people are reacting to and what you should toss.
I feel like a lot of kids trying to write songs are so preoccupied with penning ‘a tune’ or making catchy hooks that they forget to experience the things in life that are actually the catalysts to the best ones, do you have advice for them?
Yeah, when you first start writing you shouldn’t be thinking about the marketability of it. You should be trying to have it mean something and find out if people can understand what you’re trying to say and how you’re trying to make them feel. Once you have a bit of a handle on that, then you can start producing it and playing around with it to give it that catchy chorus to make it memorable. But, before anything, it’s all about the meaning and the emotion, in my opinion. That’s why when Adele releases anything it immediately goes to #1.You’ve got to feel what you’re playing or no one else will.
Danny’s next gig is on February 20th at 229 in London. Tickets are still available here.