Life after a brain injury: Kinnie Starr on trauma, loss and finding her way back through music

In 2015, everything changed for musician Kinnie Starr. A car accident left her with a severe brain injury, which makes it difficult for her to play music.
Kinnie Starr is at a crossroads in her career, learning how to be a musician again after a brain injury. (Submitted by Kinnie Starr)

Originally published on Jan. 6, 2019.

It was a moment that changed everything for Kinnie Starr. 

"I was in the back of a taxi that collided with a distracted driver, a woman on her cellphone and we just kind of went right into it," said Starr.

In 2015, a car accident left the Mohawk, Dutch, German and Irish singer with a severe brain injury, which makes it difficult for her to play music.

"I've spent the better part of the last four years … in full-time rehab for my body, pelvis, arm, brain and nervous system."

Starr said that it took a few months after the accident for the symptoms of the brain injury to appear. The first symptom she noticed was that she was always needing to sleep.

"And then my husband was like, 'you should probably see a doctor because you're flipping your sentences around, and slurring your words, and your walk has changed,'" she said.

"At least I don't have the same issues with not understanding what people are saying when they're talking or not understanding how to put a key into a door, how to put a piece of toast in a toaster."

The injury also had an impact on her ability to play music.

"I'd go to try and play music … I would put my hand on a keyboard, or a guitar, or a drumstick, and I would feel sort of like the seat was going to slide."

On top of that, Starr says that listening to music can sometimes make her nauseous, or like the floor is moving.

"There's all sorts of weird sensory issues that still happen when I [play] instruments, so that feels like quite a significant loss to me," said Starr.

Despite going through so much, Starr is trying to stay positive about the situation.

"If I keep my mind on the good things then I can heal my body, but if I put my mind on the tough stuff — and there's a lot of it — then I can feel lost really fast."

Collaborating on new album 

Due to the changes in her ability to conceptualize and play music, Starr's new album, Feed the Fire, was recorded a lot differently from previous ones.

"In the past I usually holed myself up in the bush and I would stare out at the water or the land and just put my headphones on and I write … I pour into arrangements and beats," said Starr.

Kinnie Starr's new album Feed the Fire is her first fully collaborative album, written with Douglas Romanow. (Aphoria Records)

But for the new album, Starr describes the recording process as "an abbreviated version." 

Because she can no longer play instruments due to her brain injury, she relied on her collaborator, Douglas Romanow, to write the music.

"During the process of making the record … I knew my tolerance for sound was short, so [Douglas] would be like, 'hey check this out,' and he'd show me [a song]," said Starr.

"I'd be like, 'get out of the room, go get yourself a muffin and come back' … because I write [lyrics] in privacy."

Starr's record label thought that it would take a few days for Starr and Romanow to get acquainted, but after three days of spending time together they had already written six songs.

This new recording process forced Starr to give up a lot of control, given that in the past she has written, performed, mixed and produced a large portion of her song catalogue. Starr said she accepted this the new method of songwriting out of necessity.

"At that point it was like, well pull the plug on your career now because you can't play instruments … or adapt," said Starr.

"My dad always says the ultimate form of intelligence is adaptation and I think that's true … you have a choice. You could go with what's happening or you can not do it."

Writing from pain

One song on Feed the Fire speaks to a deeply personal issue that Starr has been dealing with over the last couple of years.

We Are Sky is about Starr's experience with a stalker.

"I was crying so much when I wrote that song and it was such an intense process because I was dealing with a stalker who was hunting me and saying really terrible, racist things about my father," said Starr.

"I was trying to figure it out, I was like, to be a person who has the time and energy to focus on hate like that and be like that … that person must have been hurt so badly to be that way."

The song is a beautiful and calming song, despite the story behind it — which was a deliberate choice Starr made.

"I think anytime we're faced with something like a bad situation … you have to make a choice," said Starr.

"The idea of being filled with rage and contempt was very unappealing to me because I was already riddled with pain and using a lot of therapy trying to manage injuries."

"Part of my reason to respond in that way was for selfish reasons, because I knew it would make me feel a lot better."

Leaving a legacy

As Starr contemplates what her career in music will look like, she is proud of her body of work.

"I think I've done a good job of pushing the envelope, you know I was at the forefront of looping technology, like I was looping before there were loop stations," said Starr.

"I feel happy with some of the innovation that I've been a part of … and I feel like I've empowered a lot of people."

"That's enough for me, I don't need to be on everybody's Instagram feed and everybody thinking that I'm pretty, I just want to make work that is meaningful."

This week's playlist: 

Sebastian Gaskin. (Sebastian Gaskin/Facebook)

Kinnie Starr - Feed the Fire 

Kinnie Starr - We Are Sky 

Kinnie Starr - Soar 

Kinnie Starr - Save Our Waters 

Sebastian Gaskin - 6am