In the five years since her debut album, Jen Starsinic has been through some serious shit.
“Everything might not be alright,” she sings on the title track of her new album, Bad Actor. Those brief words hint at the story behind Starsinic’s long break from recording, and why this professional fiddler—once hailed as the next big voice in folk—is now releasing a decidedly un-folk, indie rock album without a single fiddle part. And far from being the sad, introspective album you might expect to come out of difficult times, Bad Actor is brash and confident, full of pulsing guitars and distortion and thumping drums alongside Starsinic’s sharp lyrics and dreamy vocals.
Among the things in Starsinic’s life that definitely have not been alright since her debut album (2014’s The Flood and the Fire) were the following: Her relationship with her estranged mother crashed and burned in spectacular fashion. Her father became sick with liver cirrhosis until he ended up on the liver transplant list. Starsinic became her dad’s primary caregiver, commuting between her songwriter’s life in Nashville and her hometown near Harrisburg, PA. Exhausted, she fainted and hit her head hard, causing a concussion that affected her strongly for weeks and continues to make her brain work subtly differently than it did before.
Slogging through all of that freed Starsinic to abandon expectations and to listen more to the voice inside her that told her what she wanted. When her dad’s transplant came through and he began to get stronger, she finally had the time to follow that voice. “It’s interesting to me that when my life fell apart so hard, despite all the pain and confusion and grief, eventually I started to see that emptiness as a space to put new, more authentic and honest things in,” she says. “I felt such an exuberance and clarity in that, even a gratitude for it all. In producing these songs, we really wanted to express that dichotomy and complexity.”
That extra time— the trial and error that allowed Starsinic to mold the sound into just what she wanted—comes blazing through the speakers on Bad Actor, where the core band (Starsinic along with rhythm section/co-producers Parker McAnnally and John Wood of The Prescriptions) is joined by Nashville pedal steel legend Paul Niehaus and keys player Ben Alleman (Grace Potter, Dr. John). The album roars into being on the first song, “Picture in a Frame,” as layers of delay, guitar, and synth grows louder and is joined by Springsteen-esque driving drums and, finally, a guitar melody that feels joyous against Starsinic’s aching vocals: “Oh this love was so hard-hearted/Love’s not what you wanted.” On “Drive to the Ocean”, a song she wrote when she was heavily concussed, she begins with a lone vocal and electric guitar, insisting in a not-quite-polished voice as the organ builds to a crescendo: “When I’m alone, I feel fucking lonely/When I get tired, I feel fucking dead.”
The final song, “Foreign Thing,” was also on Starsinic’s first album, and the vocal melody owes a lot to the fiddle tunes she first cut her teeth on, but this version of the song is not going to be mistaken for bluegrass. At times, the exuberant collision of pedal steel, drums, synth, and electric guitar threaten to overwhelm Starsinic’s own distorted vocal. “It felt extremely right to include that song in with this group,” she explains. “To me, it kind of sums up the arc of all these songs nicely—they're all different moments in trying to figure shit out, not by what someone else is telling you do to or what you feel you 'should' do but by learning to trust what you feel.”