Dallasite Zilpha Starnes and her partner Dania Abu-Shaheen make beautiful music together — in life and in career
JONANNA WIDNER | Contributing Writer
This lesbian hook-up story begins, as many do, at Sarah Lawrence College.
It was there, in 2005, that a Dallas-bred choirgirl named Zilpha Starnes met a raven-haired, Lebanese poet/songwriter named Dania Abu-Shaheen. At first, the pair made literal music together, as they found an almost-instant chemistry when it came to coming up with unusual, inventive harmony.
The romantic chemistry came later, but come it did. They have now evolved both as a couple and as a duo ever since. As Starnes & Shah, they’ve produced an acoustic EP and three full-length albums over the years and gathered a large following of music lovers who love the pair’s unique blend of folky pop (or is it poppy folk?).
Their most recent disc, Shilling for Dreamtown, takes the duo’s Indigo Girls-like vibe and blends it with updated touches — Starnes’ bubbling synths bob around Shaheen’s smart guitar chords, as the pair’s voices curl around each other.
Although Starnes and Shaheen now live in upstate New York, the Lake Highland’s High School grad says her Texas upbringing has always had an influence on her music.
“There were so many musicians, just in my high school and junior high, and I got to perform with them in a lot of their bands, and that gave me a taste for performing,” she said recently in a telephone interview. “The other big element was the opportunities I had to perform at church.”
Starnes learned much of her craft, she says, during her time at Lake Highland United Methodist, where she learned to play bass as well as sing. “Religion aside, it was a really great way to remain structured.”
Like many North Texans growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, Starnes was half choirgirl, half Deep Ellum hipster denizen. She and her early bandmates played at The Door, and she also joined other bands at Trees on occasion. She also played in Denton, “at this crazy place called Mabel Peabody’s Chainsaw Repair and Beauty Salon and that’s where I got my first exposure to the Texas LGBTQ scene.”
With a background like that (never let it be said that Texas life isn’t diverse), it’s no wonder that Starnes & Shah’s music is difficult to pigeonhole. The pair, often compared to Tegan and Sara as well as the aforementioned Indigo Girls, doesn’t quite fit. To start with, Shilling for Dreamtown is no lovesick lady album; rather, it’s a thoughtful critique of the musician’s conundrum: how to balance creativity (which comes naturally), with the overhyped hustle that comes with trying to achieve “success” (which is so artificial). It’s a complicated theme, which is reflected in the pair’s approach to music. Their songs are tight, yet expansive, emotional yet cerebral, with a smart pop sensibility and harmonies that come out of nowhere.
While Shaheen writes all the music, the duo has found a collaborative balance that clearly has progressed and changed over the years.
“Once I have the song down as far as lyric and melody, I bring it to Zilpha, and we work out harmonies,” Shaheen says, “and a lot of time I may have some ideas for harmonies, or other times Zilpha will have a great idea. And sometimes my ideas for harmonies work out, but more often than not, it’s Zilpha’s that are better and that trump mine. She has a very unique ear, and she thinks of harmonies that I would never, ever think of.”
In some ways, that musical chemistry is even less common than a romantic one, so Starnes and Shah’s overlapping connections prove that they are much more rare of a phenomenon: that couple who literally makes great music together.
Even over the phone, their affection for each other is palpable, but Starnes is sweetly pragmatic when she explains how that works:
“We’re both sort of Type-A,” she laughs. “It’s so great to have someone else that you’re doing something with and you feel like, ‘OK, wow! I can do this crazy thing that I set out to do, and I have this other person who’s going to help me.’”
She might just very well be talking about music, here, of course, but she might also be speaking of her relationship. Of course, knowing how intricately these two are intertwined, one suspects she’s talking about both.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 6, 2013.