How To Fail As A Songwriter In Nashville

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When you first move to Nashville, you will be overwhelmed by how kind everybody is to you. The first few days will seem to stretch into a hundred, because everything is moving so fast. You'll go out to a few songwriter nights. You'll play in your first round. You'll realize that you should have had business cards printed out to exchange with other musicians — the "Nashville handshake," they call it — and order them immediately, while carting around the mountain of cards you collect from everyone else. You'll go to NSAI and get yourself a mentor; you'll write down the important dates to remember for the next few months; you'll camp out in front of the Bluebird three hours before a show, hoping to get a no-show's seat in the back, just so you can watch the men and women who made other men and women famous pluck acoustic versions of their radio hits. You'll get a little tipsy meeting the food and drink minimum with a glass of wine, and an hour into the show, you will think, I was meant to be here, and for a brief moment when you leave into the cold night air, you will feel strangely infinite.

You'll take a service job. It'll pay less than any other job you've taken before, and it will be far below your experience level, and your shift will start sometime before dawn (after all, you have to have your afternoons and nights free for workshops and playing out). But you'll make do, and it'll be OK at first, when the novelty of it is still fresh. Everything is fresh: the air mattress you sleep on, the cardboard box you found in someone's recycling outside that you're using as a bedside table, the electric blanket you have to sleep with, the ratty, mismatched hangers you've propped all your dresses on. It's not sad! It's an adventure!

You'll make two types of friends: the friends at your terrible job, and the friends you make playing out. They are very different friends, but ultimately the same, because they are the only thing that keeps you sane. There is nothing quite as bonding as the misery of your day job and the heartache of your dream.

Samantha Leonetti Photography

You'll write songs. They'll all seem beautiful right after you write them. After a week or so, the shine will fade off of them — but once every month or so, you'll write a really great one. Once every six months or so, you'll write something groundbreaking, something truly profound. It's the kind of song that makes your bones hum when you sing it, that makes you think, This is what I came here for.

You will sing that song out at bars where drunk people will talk over you. You will sing that song in hotel lobbies where German tourists will squint at you and laugh. You will sing that song in some intimate, treasured space among fellow songwriters, the only time anyone is ever quiet, the only time anyone ever listens, and there is magic in the hush that follows the brief few seconds after you finish the song and the notes are still hanging in the air.

You'll discover that Nashville is a boy's club, in all the worst senses of the words. You will learn, very quickly, to be very discerning about the men who take interest in your talent. You will constantly teeter on a tightrope, reconciling the fact that they are in charge of this industry, I can't offend them with why the hell are you touching me there/following me to my car/insisting we co-write up in your cabin somewhere instead of in the designated co-writing spaces at NSAI? You will watch guys who arrive at the same time as you, and have comparable talent, get a leg up from these men, and fall into co-writing circles and get publishing deals long before you do.

The same men who offer them a leg up will offer you advice, too: Do your hair and makeup for all of your gigs, even the small ones. Stop writing man-hating songs (nobody wants to hear a man-hating song). Try to write songs you can sell to men, because that's where the money goes. Your heart will splinter for your own sake; when you see the younger, more impressionable girls vigorously nodding their heads and writing it down in their composition books like it is gospel, the splinter will break.

Emma Lord

Every now and then, you'll cry in your car. You'll drive thirty miles to a gig in apocalyptic traffic, and someone's set will run over, and you won't get to play. "The Climb" by Miley Cyrus will come on when you're on the freeway, and you'll start bawling a river. Sometimes you'll cry for no reason at all. You'll call your mom at odd hours and just cry at her. You'll fall asleep some nights feeling like Nashville is a distant moon to the earth you used to live on, and your last waking thought will be, I just want to go home.

Every now and then, you'll feel immortal. Some drunk people will remember your song from the last time you played out and sing along to the chorus. A publisher will email you after you sang in a competition and say they're interested in meeting with you. A songwriter you respect will ask you to play a round with them. You'll get a spot in a coveted workshop. The sun will come out, and a song will come out on the radio, and you'll think, Holy crap, I know the person who wrote this. I KNOW them. You'll remember that you're a part of something so much larger than you are, and in those moments, it's enough.

Your terrible job is still terrible. It was never meant to be a longterm job — not for you, and really, not for anyone. The pay is terrible. The customers are rude. Sometimes when you have an interaction with someone that lasts more than five seconds, some monologue in the back of your head is screaming, This is not who I am! This is not what I'm supposed to be doing! I'm smart and I'm driven and I'm going to take over the world! Because you've worked terrible jobs your whole life, but this time it's different — this time there is no until the end of the summer or until graduation or I'm just saving up for such-and-such. It's starting to feel like forever.

Emma Lord

But while you're in the forever, suspended in time, the rest of the world keeps moving. Your friends  get real jobs, and sign real leases. They get engaged and married and have babies. They send you texts every now and then, and while they were encouraging at the beginning, now they sort of feel like a text someone is sending their slightly troubled kid sister: Hang in there! 

You'll start looking at job listings. You're not even sure why. You can't take a real job here if you want to keep songwriting, and if you're going to take a real job anyway, why the hell would you do it here? Why not back home? Why not in a city that won't remind you of the dreams you gave up every time you leave the front door?

You pause at your computer, and everything is suddenly very still. When the hell did you give up?

Long after it's over, you know that there is no one moment that it happens — no knock-down, air-sucked-out-of-your-gut moment of surrender you can trace to the end. There are lots of these moments. There is the moment you leave your terrible job seething at something so stupid that you're even angrier at yourself for thinking about it, and you think about just getting in your car and driving home — not Nashville home, but home home, however many hundreds of miles away. There is the moment you realize that you're never going to sleep again; that your life and your opportunities are always going to be dictated by how late you stay up in a bar, how able you are to "keep up with the boys" and still wake up at 5 a.m. for your endless shifts. And then suddenly there is the moment you are sitting on a sidewalk curb in the middle of the day, the summer sun shining, your knees buckled so nobody can see up your dress, and announcing to your parents as steadily as you can through your tears: "I'm coming home."

Samanatha Leonetti Photography

You leave your sublet. It was always a sublet; in your heart, you think you must have always known Nashville wasn't for keeps. You give your two weeks and could kiss your boss when they tell you it's OK to go after a few days. You train another girl to take your job, and she is doe-eyed and bushy-tailed and so optimistic that you have to excuse yourself to go to the bathroom so you don't grab her by her skinny teenage arms and tell her, "Run." You leave her all your contacts. You're still stupidly hopeful for her in a way you stopped being for yourself a long time ago.

Nashville swallows the hole you leave behind before you cross state lines. And the further you drive away, the more brutal your relief: you're home. You're home.

At first you feel oddly stripped. You're not sure how to define yourself anymore. You take a job, and you relish the routine of it, the measurability of your successes. Your friends ask you when you're going back to Nashville, and you give some vague answer. They keep asking. Nobody wanted you to be the statistic. Nobody wanted you to fail. You knew how much you wanted it for yourself; it didn't occur to you just how many people were in your corner until you'd left it behind.

Samantha Leonetti Photography

But your vague answers get less vague, and you settle into your new old life, and you know the truth: you're not going back. And if you ever do, it will be as somebody else. You left that girl in Nashville the day you drove away, and she will always stay there, some odd, fragile, earnest reflection of yourself that looks nothing like the person you are now.

Years will pass. You'll see the pictures and hear the old songs, and at some point bitter will become bittersweet. You'll realize that you don't regret it. Your souvenirs were few, but you have to think that they were worth the trip: an answer to the what if, and a few songs that will never lose their shine.