It all started with a Luis Valdez movie and a dream, Starley tells me. It’s 1:15 pm in Toronto and she’s calling in from Los Angeles. After a couple of fervent attempts at trying to get the connection behave, our telephone conversation begins in earnest. Starley informs me that she just got back from supporting the Australian leg of Katy Perry’s Witness tour. The Witness tour was her first time performing in an arena of that size, and Starley admits that it was a learning process. “At first it was bit scary, but I got the hang of it and it was a lot of fun,” she remembers. “I learned so many things and I had a great time.” Now back in LA, she jokes that she’s tired, but already contemplating her next steps: “I’m still jet lagged so I’m trying to figure out my life. I just recently got back from Sydney. So everything’s good.”
The Sydney native is a singer-songwriter whose been steadily making intercontinental waves in the pop world since her debut single “Call On Me” first found boundless success in 2016. With Ryan Riback’s electro-pop remix in particular peaking at number one on the Swedish pop charts and earning a remarkable 5x platinum certification. Right now she’s busy finishing up her debut album, but when she’s not touring, Starley lets me know that she likes riding her bike and going to the beach. It’s a fact that I think is perfectly delightful.
Charmed by the affable Australian lilt in her speaking voice—a detail that’s markedly subtler when she sings—I ask her about growing up in Sydney and when she knew music would be a manifest destiny of hers. “When I was a kid I used to hire this movie all the time and it was called La Bamba. It was about the story of Ritchie Valens and I was obsessed with it,” Starley laughs. “My parents used to play it for me all the time and I wanted to be a singer ever since I watched that movie. The songs were addictive and made me feel so good.”
In addition to early inspiration from 80’s cult classics, Starley insists that her achievements are bilateral, explaining that her family played an early and integral part in her present musical odyssey. “My mum was a singer back in the day. She stopped her career to focus on being a mum,” she remembers. “They encouraged me a lot. We didn’t have a lot of money and my parents definitely did the most with what they had to help us kids to fulfill our dreams.”
Curious about how Starley’s experiences growing up black in Australia coincided with her ascent into the music industry, I ask her if the support she found in her personal sphere was just as resilient within her material reality as she traversed through professional spaces. She pauses for a beat then explains there are two sides to every coin. “I have a family that’s very mixed” she prefaces. “In my daily life I didn’t really notice, but the music industry was a very different beast. Record companies would tell me that I was too different. That I needed to straighten my hair. That I needed to lose weight. That was hard to face.”
I had to build my whole network myself and figure it out. It was part of me growing and building my craft.
Things are a lot different now. Starley’s signature cloud of champagne-colored, corkscrew curls is proof enough of that. She thinks that this change was due, in part, to her relocation to the United Kingdom when she was a teenager. She acknowledges it was a character excavation of sorts. “I decided as soon as I was 18 to move to England and go somewhere where there were more people that looked like me” she says. “Somewhere where I could grow as an artist and not feel stifled. I had to build my whole network myself and figure it out. It was part of me growing and building my craft, as well as just growing up”.
Starley is frank about the reality that while the move was ultimately fortuitous, it wasn’t without its setbacks. She characterizes the time as acutely isolating. “I didn’t have any connections. I didn’t know anybody. I had to build my whole network myself and figure it out”. Written in 2016, “Call On Me” came out of this time, as a therapeutic way of working through her struggles with mental health. “It was a song I wrote after going through a bout of depression. I was in England and I didn’t want to make music anymore. I wrote it because I wanted to help myself out of it”.
Listening to the record, I’m struck by the juxtaposition of the jaunty tempo superimposed with lyrics that softly declare a covenant to never leave your side. How sometimes, in the midst of the most abject kinds of chaos, you end up being the life raft you’ve been frantically searching for. I think about the correlation between music and mental illness, and how pop music often acts as a pseudo-sedative for my own depression. How the upbeat, sunshine ladened synths and rhythms serve as a makeshift lighthouse beam for when you can’t manufacture your own joy.
Riback’s rendition of “Call On Me” is decidedly up-tempo; his flighty electronic production buoyantly structured as to constantly lull and then reawakens the listener’s euphoria, all the while dispatching the pointed tenderness that outlines Starley’s lyricism. The original cut of the record is slower, more intimate. Punctuated by gentle guitar strums, plummy 808s, and the kind of roomy bass that reverberates deep in your chest. Starley’s vocals are playful and faintly husky, smooth like salted butter and artfully peppered with sprightly runs that keep you delightfully guessing their eventual destinations. It’s intentional in a totally different way. She cites Mariah Carey as an influence, which seems just about right to me. “When I listen to her I think that’s the reason why I do it,” she tells me “that feeling that I get when I hear her sing.”
Considering the gargantuan success of the record, with nearly 600 million stream on Spotify and over 60 million views on Youtube, I ask Starley if she felt the alchemy of its crowning potential when she penned it. “I didn’t know it was gonna be as massive as it was gonna be,” she chuckles, “I knew that I had something special for sure. I had a very clear message and I wanted it to cross the people. I had no idea that it would impact like it did.”
Writing songs, she divulges, is a deeply restorative ritual—a spiritual mining of sorts that she credits as being a vessel for healing throughout her life. “When I feel like I can’t talk to anyone, or when talking to anyone doesn’t help, songwriting is that thing for me that’s my therapy. To go through emotions that are a little bit harder to process.” Spurred by this, I inquire about the emotions that enveloped Starley’s recent single “Love Is Love,” which details her coming-out process with her father. The track has all the trappings of “gay anthem” status: it’s a velvety ballad accentuated by a jiggy guitar riff and crisp bass line, creamy vocal crescendos, effortless vibrato, and a lyrical narrative that refuses to compromise on the validity of queer love. A certified bop, as they would say.
Thanks to a number of factors, queerness and all of its complexities can often be the sweetest kind of melancholia for black people. I think this is true especially of our initial engagements with it. Starley, who came out as bisexual a year and a half ago, is no different. She says that the experience was an arduous one at first, but that it eventually settled into a truly wonderful place. “Writing “Love Is Love” was pretty hard because I was going through it at the same time as I was writing it,” she confesses. “The intention wasn’t to make my family look like bad people. I think when you speak on how you feel about things, if you [add] good intentions, you turn something that’s a little bit sad into a positive”.
Starley’s approach makes it evident that she believes that authenticity-to-experience and vulnerability is the key to conscientious songwriting, a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with. “I was a bit scared to put everything out there. I had to go through the emotions and finally be stable enough to tell the story correctly and get the message across in a way that could connect with people.” On both the healing powers of community and performing at Sydney Mardi Gras for the first time after coming out, Starley says “It was my first year out as queer so it was really cool. When I first realized that this was the life that I was going to be living, I couldn’t wait to be around more people that were like me.”
Just before I let Starley go, I cheekily ask her how beaches in LA measure up to the ones in Australia, now that she calls California her home. I can all but hear her amused grin over the phone. “I don’t want to complain because I think LA is this beautiful, amazing place,” she starts. “But I’ll tell you my girlfriend’s impression of it. She’s been to LA many times and she’s American. When she came to Australia and she saw a beach there for the first time, she cried. So I think that just says it all.”