Starley Explains How Breakthrough Hit 'Call On Me' Was Her 'Therapy' During Depression

Dennis Leupold
Starley

Starley is in the midst of celebrating a platinum record, more than 200 million streams on Spotify, and a spot on the Billboard Hot 100 (No. 82 as of the Feb. 18 chart) all thanks to her song "Call On Me." But at this time last year, the Australian singer would've never seen this kind of success coming.

It's been a long road for the 29-year-old, facing hardships that ultimately resulted in the inspiring song "Call On Me." Realizing her desire to be a singer at just six years old -- in part because of the movie La Bamba, which she rented from the video store every week for months on end as a kid -- Starley began making music at 14. Despite having a passion so early on, though, something wasn't working in her pursuit of a music career.

"I had quite a lot of knock backs in Australia at a really young age," Starley tells Billboard. "Record labels would tell me to straighten my hair or lose weight, and it was a bit too much to me as a young kid having an impressionable mind at the time.”

After spending about five years in London as a songwriter for Sony/ATV in her late teens/early twenties, Starley (whose stage name is actually her real first name) nearly gave up on the idea of being an artist at all. “I was so used to being in the back of an artist that it felt really comfortable that I could be a songwriter and not have to put myself out there and not have to face my worst fears of being on show and being scrutinized.”

She soon moved back home to Australia and worked for her dad's blinds company to save some money, then packed her bags and headed to America in hopes of landing a publishing deal. But without any cuts, that seemed impossible.

Moving home once more, Starley reached a point where she was so beaten down that she decided to give her singing career one last shot. If that failed, she'd follow her love for fitness and become a personal trainer instead -- even though it devastated her to think that she wouldn't be able to live her dream.

"In that feeling of being devastated, I kind of -- as I always do -- I write songs through my experiences and what I'm feeling as a way of therapy. So I wrote 'Call On Me' in my bedroom on four chords," she explains. "It was my way of saying that sometimes you don’t get the answers you want from God. You might get something else and be put on a different path, or something might happen to lead you to something else, but just have faith in the process. And the reason why I was doing that was to sort of comfort myself through the situation."

She continues, "And as I was writing it I thought, 'I’m going through things in my little world, but there’s lots of people out there that are going through some of the same things and some way bigger things than what I was going through.' So I thought I’d include other people in my story as well and give them something to hope for. Providing hope to people in my story as well was important to me because I feel like music should have a purpose."

Her message caught the attention of an A&R representative at Central Station Records, and finally, Starley had herself a deal. "I kind of knew ['Call On Me'] was special when I was writing it," she says. "It was really ironic -- just when I wanted to leave and everything, and then I wrote a song that changed my life.” 

Soon enough, her new label was in talks with several DJs to create some remixes of "Call On Me," including fellow Australian Ryan Riback, who said it was an "easy decision" to sign on to the project.

"It really resonated with me," he tells Billboard. "I just got the feeling. Her vocals had a really good bit of a quicker energy, so all I really had to do was up the tempo. I heard the emotion, and that flowed through me when I was making the beats."

Riback and Starley never even met during the production, though Starley was "hands on" with the remix process via phone calls and text ("I’m very particular about the way I sound," she admits). Regardless, clearly their team-up was a success -- in a matter of months, the track now has more than 206 million Spotify streams.

Neither Starley nor Riback could offer any explanation for why that specific remix gained speed so quickly, but Starley gushes, "I get goosebumps just talking about it." Although Starley's slower-tempo original version isn't the one that took off, she's just happy to see people connecting with the words she wrote.

"People are embracing it in so many ways, there was so much good feedback for it that you couldn’t help but smile," she says. "Because it’s an uplifting song, I want it to reach as many people as possible. So if that’s the one that does it, I’ve only got to be embracing it and be happy. Especially when I went through those emotions and other people are connecting with that and they’re using it for positivity in their life, I couldn’t ask for anything more."

As for where she'll go from here, Starley plans to share more music with fans in the near future. Even amidst the exploding success of "Call On Me," she's managed to write plenty of material in the last month or so, and hopes to release an album sometime this year.

"My sole purpose in life [is] to put out music that makes people feel something and maybe heals them in some way and helps them get through life in some type of way -- even if it’s just for four minutes."

A version of this article originally appeared in the Feb. 11 issue of Billboard.

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