Thomas Starks, a singer-songwriter based in Seattle, displays both an impressive work ethic and an elevated sense of social consciousness. His self-released independent albums, the most recent being 2009’s Burn the Attic, are full of emotionally direct songs spanning a wide range of personal experiences.
During the past several years of self-promoting himself as a writer, performer, and recording artist, he has worked hard at developing strong ties within the artistic community. Not subscribing to the “every man for himself” school of thought, Starks has built a network of collaborators that continues to grow via his generous participation in non-profit organizations.
His fanbase continues to expand as well. Whether alone with an acoustic guitar or fronting his band, Thomas Starks puts his songs across with a sincere, yet unaffected, delivery. Burn the Attic has a contemporary sound rooted in the classic rock tradition of the two guitars, bass, and drums line-up. “Tell Me” is a rocker buoyed by the album’s strongest hook. “Is This Wrong” recalls ’90s-era Lou Reed. A reflection on maturity and regrets, “Sacramento” is an apologetic ballad sung to a loved one. Sprinkled effectively throughout the arrangements are piano and female backing vocals, demonstrating Starks’ instincts for what each song needs.
I recently had the chance to catch up with Thomas Starks about his various projects – past, present, and future.
In the liner notes for Burn the Attic, you say that without the inspiration you received, these songs would literally still be in the attic. What was the story behind their creation?
There’s a very serious and strong story behind it actually. Between my first album Songs From the Bus Stop and Burn the Attic, I’d gone through some very traumatic things – a realization of my childhood. I had a very traumatic childhood. I had words I needed to say to a certain degree that I couldn’t say on the earlier album. Burn the Attic pretty much was throwing in the towel on the past I had been through, and kind of reconciling with it and saying, “I’m going to burn this thing down and start over.” And it was a conscious decision because I wanted to lead into new work with a fresh start.
You released Songs From the Bus Stop in 2007, it featured a much more stripped down sound than Burn the Attic. Mostly solo with just an acoustic guitar, as opposed to the new album’s full band.
Songs From the Bus Stop was my first endeavor in professional recording. It was boot camp. We cut that album in two days. It was one of those things where we had the opportunity so we just took it. For what it was, I really appreciated it because it allowed me to get my feet wet and learn a few things the hard way. Walking into the arena of music in and around Seattle, everybody was asking for basic things that I just didn’t have. Demos, albums, press kits. So I began to build what I have through that first album. Started out recording at home with a Tascam DP-01. I realized that wasn’t working out so I went to a professional studio.
What have been the newest developments for you, career-wise?
I’ve recently been endorsed by Behringer, very excited about that. Also I am playing a show at the Triple Door in Seattle, March 31st, headlined by Kore Ionz. It’s a benefit show for Seattle Arts Corps.
What can you tell me about your involvement with that organization?
They’re an organization that brings music to young folks from grade school to high school. Anything in the arts that the school system doesn’t have available to itself. The public school systems are cutting back, so a privatized organization has to come through. Seattle Arts Corps decided to be that organization. I’m actually a teaching artist with them. I got placed with a guy from Luc and the Lovingtons, his name is Luc Reynaud. He and I are teaching artists at an elementary school in Seattle through Arts Corps. I’m really proud to be part of it.
It seems that ‘giving back’ is a very important concept to you as an artist.
A lot of people are just spinning their wheels, making it harder on themselves when it could be easier by aligning. By joining. In some cases it is “all for one, one for all.” Everybody takes their own take. But I would like to think if you join the larger community it will help you in your career.
When performing live, do you have a preference between being solo or accompanied by a band?
I’ve done it both ways. It’s what the gig calls for. When you first start out you wonder if you can carry a band. But as a singer-songwriter, I’ve learned that there’s a benefit to both sides. You don’t want a full band in a wine bar or coffee house type setting, but you don’t necessarily want to be solo at the Showbox [a popular venue in Seattle].
Who are your biggest musical influences?
I’m heavily influenced by the singer-songwriters of old, and I count Van Morrison as one of those. He is probably my biggest influence as far as how he emotionally drives what he has to say. Also Jim Croce, The Mamas and The Papas, and The Moody Blues. For newer artists, I would have to say I really like the writing of One Republic. And they back it up with musicianship that is unlike most other bands right now. They’re a really great sounding band with good solid writing.
With all the competition in the independent music marketplace, what has been your approach for getting your music heard?
I’ve really tried to harness social media. It’s a difficult process [self-promotion], because it’s all about “me, me, me” sometimes. I do think there are times when we as musicians forget that people don’t have to buy our records. The most important thing to do, for me, is give the listener a reason to listen. Make it something personal. I’ve had media personalities tell me that I’m pretty savvy. When people look at you for what you’ve done, you don’t want to be seen as an arrogant person. You want to be seen as a person who’s giving something back. Because that’s why people buy music anyway, they have an emotional connection to it.
Armed with enough new songs for a third album, Thomas Starks has plenty in store for the near future. His plans for the rest of 2011 include playing as many live dates as possible, with an eye towards getting back into the recording studio. To hear Starks’ music and keep up to date about his activities, visit him at Facebook and ReverbNation.