Nashville-based singer-songwriter Ellen Starski is set to release her solo debut album, The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants, on May 11, 2018. On the collection, which was written over the course of 12 years, Starski explores both her homeland and herself, traveling from the coal country of rural Pennsylvania to the roots-music hotbed of Nashville, Tennessee, and creating a soundtrack to that period of self-discovery. The album is autobiographical and rooted in a lush mix of indie-folk, orchestral Americana, and organic pop.
A record that’s as dynamic and driven as its creator, The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants was recorded in East Nashville and produced by Anne McCue. The album also features a handful of the town’s top players: drummer Paul Griffith (Jason Isbell, k.d. lang), bassist Jimmy Sullivan (Lee Ann Womack), pianist Carl Byron (Michelle Shocked, Jim Lauderdale), and drummer Bryan Owings (Emmylou Harris, Tony Joe White).
Sonically influenced by Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan’s Desire, and the Alison Krauss/Robert Plant collaboration Raising Sand, The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants offers up a combination of sweeping string arrangements, stripped-down piano ballads, finger-plucked folk songs, and everything in between, all held together by a voice that’s both emotional and elastic, singing about the triumphs, missteps, and stories she’s picked up along the way. “The record is about growth,” Starski explains. “It’s about all these things that have happened to me, which have helped me blossom as a human being.”
There are songs about loss, heartbreak, and family, all of them filled with details from Starksi’s own life. “Miss You Mary” pays tribute to her mother, who helped steer her daughter out of a dark hole as a teenager. Laced with acoustic guitars and cinematic strings arranged by McCue, “Ode to Nanny and Cookie” opens the album with a salute to Starksi’s two grandmothers. Meanwhile, her own daughter inspired the lovely, lilting “Daughter of the Sea,” while the country-inspired “Honey I’m Not Him” was written during a nighttime drive around along the Nashville backroads, with her infant sleeping in the backseat. Personal anecdotes are woven throughout, but The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants ultimately delivers a universal message: that you cannot come to grips with yourself until you come to grips with the beautiful wreckage of your past.
“I’ve been singing in front of people since I was a child,” says Starski. “I’ve been writing songs for years, too, but I’d always hide them when I was singing with blues bands and funk groups. They didn’t fit. Things changed once I had my daughter. It opened up a whole new world to me, and I knew I was strong enough to express how I feel.”
Starski was born in Reynoldsville, a town in the woodlands of Western Pennsylvania, amidst the beauty of rural Appalachia. “Growing up, music was all around me – everybody in my family sang. My grandmother sang in musical theater and the violinists and banjo players of my family go back generations.” She was raised on a wide spread of music — the Lilith Fair-era earnestness of Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan; the heartland rock of Tom Petty; the moody, nocturnal music of Portishead; the articulate, lyric-based writing of Aimee Mann. She began playing guitar at 19 years old, before cutting her teeth as the singer of a bluesy bar band. Once she settled in Knoxville, she kicked off her solo career with pub gigs and open mic performances, before she settled in her now-hometown of Nashville.
Starski plans to celebrate the release of The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants with a show in Nashville; details will be announced soon.
Ellen Starski online:
The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants
1. Ode to Nanny and Cookie
- Honey, I’m Not Him
- Missing You
- Slip of Paper
- Separated By Time
- Taken By The Breeze
- Miss You Mary
- Daughter Of The Sea
- Fairweather Friend
- Chasing The Sun
- The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants