This blog is best read while listening to my Part One Playlist on Spotify.
Living your life is wading out in the ocean. All you have to do is walk out there, jumping over the occasional rough waves and keeping your head above water. Retracing those steps as a writer is like body-surfing back to land. The tide of your artistic integrity won’t be denied, so you’re being propelled back by a torrid current of nostalgia… only this time, you keep scraping the bottom of the ocean. And the bottom of the ocean is made of broken glass. You’re bleeding. The salt is burning your wounds. You’re embarrassed that you have so little control over who you used to be. But there’s no stopping until the shore, so you just have to ride it out.
Let me start with two disclaimers: The first , which is very important to me, is that I mean only to tell my point of view in the most honest form, which is still professional and totally true. I aim to preserve as much of other’s integrity as I can with my writing (not that I assume the people it pertains to will ever see it, anyway.) My fears of my own truths blowing back on others has kept me quiet for a long time, but I’ve accepted that my story is no one’s but my own. I want it known that my writing is intended to heal… not to hurt. Maybe this time it’s my own healing. That’s valid, even when I don’t believe it. Second - this is a long blog and every word counts toward my true meaning. If you start it, please finish it, lest I be misconstrued.
So, without further preamble - the telling of it.
Boy Named X
When we last left off with the prologue, I revealed that I met a mentor when I was 11 years old. That’s true. When I was 11, I finished my first real country song entitled Cinderella Story and was introduced by a friend of a friend to an individual who became my first mentor and a very important figure in my story. For anonymity, that person will be referred to as X. That might sound foreboding, but it’s only for my own peace of mind. This story is not all negative, but it has some difficult themes.
I met X on a summer evening with both of my parents in an above-garage studio down a long driveway in my hometown. In fact, X lived across the street from where I was born – a house we moved away from when I was 4, but that I remembered well. The landscape was a familiar one. A long row of trees grew up along the front of the property, which my mom remembered seeing X plant with his father when she would play with a toddler me in our yard. Small town Appalachia sure creates memories as thick as swampy summer nights, just like this one I’m talking about.
X was one of the most charming people my family and I had ever come across, and in that genuine way that you know is honest, but also in that dark horse kind of way that leaves you curious. I had never met anyone like X, because he was very striking and oozed the kind of cool that simply could not exist inside my current social sphere. It was frankly shocking to me at the time that X could have breathed the same air, drank from the same taps, listened to the same sermons, and had the same teachers as me. It was a miraculous worldliness for my young eyes to behold.
I sang my song with all the confidence I could muster. I used headphones for the first time outside of a karaoke booth in the Mall of Georgia. The song was recorded and the introduction was made. I was charmed. X was impressed by my maturity and somewhat by my voice and song, which was of course elementary by real songwriting standards, but good for what it was. That initial impression led X to provide contact information for me to send future songs, questions, or updates about my musical journey. He was impressed enough to want to know more, but would later say that he wanted to know I was serious about music as a path before committing any additional time from his busy schedule. X, you see, was and is a producer, in addition to a touring musician.
The Real Beginning
Let’s fast forward. You know how I said that at 13 I wanted to be a Naval JAG? Well, jump forward two years from my demo with X at age 11 and that was completely true. I was still singing, but I was involved in dozens of other activities, including stringent academics and Civil Air Patrol. That year, my parents agreed to put me in school in the larger town of Anderson (where we briefly lived) so that I could attend 8th grade a middle school that filtered into TL Hanna High School, which had the only Naval JROTC program in the Tri-County area then.
As a small but extremely pivotal side story, I fell ill on my first day of middle school in Anderson. As a result, I was too mortified to go back. My mom agreed to homeschool me until high school started. Deciding to homeschool meant I finished my work by lunch. Finishing my work by lunch meant playing outside all day, swinging in the hammock chair, riding my bike to the lake. That meant song ideas. They came so naturally, and with a frequency like never before. Mom, who thought a lot of my singing and also thought a lot of X from that meeting two years ago, encouraged me to get back in touch with him to send some of my current material.
Coincidentally, X would be performing nearby soon, a show which my parents and I planned to attend. I did contact him, and X quickly responded. He liked what I was working on (I had made one demo tape in Nashville between age 11 and 13 which is another story that did not really lead to anything more) and therefore, we planned to meet after the concert. We did meet, and even though my parents were right beside me, I felt like the coolest fourteen year old in the universe, backstage at a rock club.
X said he wanted to work together. I thought X was so cool that I would have literally scrubbed the wheels of his tour bus with a toothbrush if it meant I could keep catching glimpses of his exciting life. Obviously, I was in. For the record, my parents were in, too. This meant recording could take place near home (a few hours away in a bigger coastal city where X had moved) rather than 6 hours away in Nashville. It also meant that their daughter would be creatively in the hands of someone local, upstanding, and with markedly Christian values, rather than someone in big-city Nashville we couldn’t trust. We struck up a deal. My parents and I would pay very little, X would keep co-publishing and master recordings, and we would work when X was off the road.
I don’t know how long it took for Civil Air Patrol, dance, and making straight A’s to phase out, but pretty quickly, they did. I had found a path and it was music. With someone to send my ideas to, my songbook and me became inseparable. Around this time, my dad lost his job in the Anderson area due to the market crash and some other factors that were out of his control. We moved back to Oconee County, where I finished half of 8th grade and went into the 9th.
Soon enough, X and I settled on a work pattern. I got one of the most primitive iPhones at his urging so that we could record song ideas in the voice memo app and send them to each other. We stockpiled 3 or 4 finished songs at a time, and when he would come home, I would commute 3 hours with a family member to stay at the studio a few days and record them all. I began losing a lot of sleep and a lot of extra-curricular activities to devote to these trips, as well as the long hours needed to finish this material and respond to his ideas when they came.
When we did get together to work, we worked for 3 days straight sleeping about 4 hours at a time. Whichever family member accompanied me typically stayed upstairs or nearby in X’s home studio, while I would nap on the studio couch or sun porch for a few hours, wake up and keep going. I practically lived on Redbull, chips, and herbal voice tea. I would go home and sleep for a whole day and night to recover. Obviously, this wasn’t healthy for me (or anyone) at 14 and 15 years old, but I was determined to handle it, and so I did. It contributed to stress induced health problems, but I will tell that story later on.
This work continued throughout this story with a constant ebb and flow. If I failed to keep up, X would become distant. If I conjured up the strength to keep going past what was expected, I was highly praised for my efforts. That praise was addictive and made me feel like a legitimate artist, and so I pushed past my body’s boundaries to keep working towards my two greatest goals: making my songs come to life, while also making my parents, supporters, and new creative counter-part proud.
Perhaps you can sense how this part of my life completely submerged me emotionally, and if you can’t sense it, I’ll directly tell you… I was drowning. I was engulfed by the drive to create, but I was also engulfed in the constant battle of keeping up with X, keeping up with school, and still being, or at least pretending to be, a normal teenage girl. These were my proverbial Hannah Montana years. I was living the best of both worlds… except my life was on fire and I was falling asleep in Spanish class and I didn’t have a best friend, or anyone really, who could fully accept who I was at that point in time.
I was living a double life where I watched Hilary Duff movies and went to football games at my high school. Then, I would stay up all night with a 20-something year old semi- famous musician writing songs over the phone. I was also starting to headline small local venues. I was also on the verge of signing a recording contract. I was also missing days and weeks of school to go to Nashville. I was trading in my low-rise Hollister jeans for black skinny jeans before they were cool. I was explaining to my parents that I couldn’t do better than Bs and Cs, even though I used to win academic awards. The icing on the cake was that I literally had become someone else- Ella Mae Bowen.
X and a management contact of his initially encouraged me to change my name because Kate Bowen is both common, very normal sounding, not memorable. In music and in digital advertising, you want to be very singular – especially for being searched on the web and streaming platforms. Ella Mae is a family name. I picked it for myself and we all took a vote. That was that. Kate to my family. Kate at school. But to X, to management, and to Nashville, I became EMB.
That’s jumping around a little in the timeline, and perhaps I’m writing a little pedantically to avoid the parts of the story that I feel the most insecure and embarrassed about. I am too far in, I think, to quit.
Consequences of Creative Closeness
Here’s the gut-wrenching truth all the empaths out there can already infer. Over time, I knew I loved X. Not the way I love my husband, to be sure, but I didn’t have that kind of love for a frame of reference then. I loved him like another girl my age might’ve loved her poster of Zac Efron, only the page came to life, leapt from the wall, sat down on the bed and asked to stay up all night writing songs. Except also in this scenario, we were born on the same street and our life was unavoidably intertwined in this treacherously beautiful, productive, dangerous, wonderful bed of thorns. That’s how I loved X.
And here’s the part that broke me in a way I am still piecing back together. X knew just how I felt. And to be crystal, crystal clear… he never laid a hand on me, he never pursued me, never let me in further than a lingering hug or two. He was a perfect specimen of professionalism in every tangible way, and that is often not how the story goes (just ask all the teen female musicians sharing their #MeToo stories). No, no. I am not that kind of victim. I am not sure if I even am a victim. I’m just a product of a series of choices.
What broke me was this: he used my feelings to elicit an emotional response to make me work harder, to keep me stirred up so that I would create “better”, more authentic art, and to keep as much creative control as he possibly could in my project. It worked… but what he, to this day, doesn’t know is that it almost killed me. He valued the work more than my emotional and physical health and I wasn’t self aware enough to say so.
To him, the music was paramount. To me, he was paramount. To everyone else, keeping whatever good mojo we had going without it falling apart was paramount. And to my parents? Well, my emotional well-being was paramount. But… I so fervently wanted to keep going that I told them I was okay every time they checked in. I lied to everyone, most of all myself. If I admitted how pitiful I was, I knew it would come to a screeching halt, so I just kept going and I just kept lying. Not to say that people didn’t know. Some inferred it, some I told outright… I even told X outright. Still, it was like an elephant in the room and we all just pretended it didn’t exist.
So, this is how it was for years. And please know that this “exposé” of sorts is not the reason for telling my story. In fact, it has been the chief reason I couldn’t tell my story for fear of stepping on toes or embarrassing myself beyond repair. I see it as a mountain I have to summit and the rest will be bumpy, but more downhill from here. Thus, I’ll continue the climb.
What’s On Me
I have to take blame for several things in this completely unhealthy, one-sided emotional affair. One, I would not ask for help. Two, I would not give up hope that he would someday feel the same way. And, three, I pushed people away that tried to come between us, even if it was better for me creatively to put them there (other collaborators, in particular.) However, a couple snapshots illustrate why this situation was so confusing for me and why my feelings were not completely insane. I wrote out three, but decided only to include one. Some things should just remain memories.
The birthday girl.
There was one instance where X spent his birthday back home. It falls near a holiday, and he was dating a girl seriously at this time who came in town to meet the parents. Naturally, their romance destroyed me on the daily, but it was the kind of torture I had become completely accustomed to. Pain can be addictive. Honestly, you can’t blame a grown man for dating someone just because a desperate teen who he professionally spends time with exists in his life. I tried hard to know that, but I couldn’t. So, we went to dinner for this birthday. At the table was X, his girlfriend, his brother, myself, and a houseguest of his parents’. His girlfriend, by the way? Completely lovely. I couldn’t even hate her. She was awesome. They did not end up together, though.
So, the houseguest asks X’s girlfriend, who is a college student how old are you? And she replied 19. I was assuming she was a grad student, maybe 23, 24. She looked and acted it, to her credit. But she was 19. A mere few years older than me at the time. We would have been in high school at the same time. I realize a few years is a lot when you’re coming of age. I really do. But to my hormone-driven brain, it was like someone drove knife through my heart in the middle of this strip-mall Mexican restaurant.
I glanced at him and stared back down at my enchilada, which I didn’t want to eat. I wanted to run directly through the window, shatter it, and keep running down Main until I reached the mountains and just sit up there alone for a while… or forever. That moment, I just knew it wasn’t really my age. No, I didn’t think we would be together at that present time, of course. But.. I mean, think of Celine and Renee, Shania and Mutt Lange, Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner, all the other similar music industry age differences. It was me. It was my fat thighs. It was my pimples. It was my height. It was my ignorance. It was his parent’s nice house and my parent’s struggles. It was my desperateness. It was me. Obviously, I know now that none of that is true, but I am telling you what I thought then. It hurt like absolute hell. It was the closest thing I have to a gut-wrenching, high-school sweetheart break-up. At the end of the night, I hugged him in the parking lot. All I said was “Happy birthday. She’s beautiful.”
This is just one of many examples that I only elaborate on to show the glimmer of hope that validated the tailspin in my own mind. There were several instances where he gave me extremely symbolic gifts that I couldn’t make sense of, like a coffee mug for the studio with a diamond ring on it that “symbolized our working relationship.” There was a lot more to it. Maybe justifying those feelings is selfish, but I don’t want my side of things to come off as completely without root in reality. Young and confused, that I was. But the situation was a very bizarre gray area.
Here’s the thing… This is a person I still somewhat esteem and am deeply grateful for. I think we could be friends one day, but I’m not there yet. And he probably doesn’t think about me often now, regardless.
I couldn’t take the anxiety of having him at my wedding and didn’t invite him. He made me an early-invited guest to his wedding, and I couldn’t bring myself to go. Maybe it would have been healthy. I’m just not that healthy. For those who get totally hung up on the age aspect of the whole thing, it’s ironic that he wound up with a girl (who seems lovely) who is not much older than me, and myself with a guy who’s less than a year younger than him.
You see, this person who meant well for me in the beginning was the same person who said “You’d have a great figure if you worked on it.” and “Call me if you want your music to have soul again.” who told me about a dream where he died to save me from a car crash. And still the same person who gave me a career. And the same person who pulled me away from co-writers to keep control over my music for as long as possible. You really can be grateful and still mad. You can forgive, but not reconnect. You can say “thank you” and even apologize for your part (which I have) and still write this story because you desperately need to speak your truth. I hope he doesn’t see this, but if he does… there’s nothing here that isn’t true.
I can’t blame him for my health problems. I can’t blame him for my failures. But I can explain what happened and how it all led up to now.
Pheobe Bridgers says it better than I in her breakout hit “Motion Sickness” (which is ironically about her dysfunctional producer/protégée relationship with Ryan Adams.) I hate you for what you did… and I miss you like a little kid.
What I Really Need to Say
Here’s what I need to say about all of this. I feel a mix or release and guilt in writing this chapter, so that I can chronologically move on to the next. But most importantly – if there are any young girls reading this… all for the love a guy who didn’t love me, I ran miles until I couldn’t walk the next day. I counted my calories. I took pills to make my boobs bigger when I got so skinny from all the running. I threw away friends. I pushed away my parents. I refused to go to therapy. I hated what I saw in the mirror. I embarrassed myself professionally. I let myself be isolated. I shared amazing experiences and successes that are now bad memories… If you are feeling any of these things… It’s not love. Someday, someone will love you… they will love you for your curves, dimples, scars, youth or lack of it, your crooked teeth, your eccentric humor… all of it. My Zach loves me SO much.
So, my music career began with a controversial, unrequited love story. It defined me then, but it doesn’t define me now. The story simply can’t be told without this chapter, and I feel lighter already.
There’s so much more to say about different people and places. Part 2 coming soon.
All the love,