Ella Mae Bowen – The Rise and Fall of an Almost-Famous Teenager - A Blog Series

Part 3 - Freedom in Love and Labels

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This is part 3 and part 3 has two parts in and of itself. I don’t think that it will be longer than other posts, but while these two sections of this part of my story happened concurrently, they deserve their own blog-within-the blog. There’s no need for much preface, but I will just say that I am predominately covering events from 2012-2014 when I was 16, 17, and 18.

Label, X, and Music Row

It’s logical to pick up where we left off… with the label. It’s the least juicy bit of this blog, but, hey. Maybe it’s interesting if it isn’t old news (like it is to me). Life at the label was like this: I had a stipend to live on, and with that I lived in a cheap suburb of Nashville an hour away at home with my parents. It afforded me a decent amount of independence to commute into the city, write, work, and hang out with friends. Mostly, my days were spent writing for my record, interspersed with playing writers’s rounds, going out for lunch with friends and acquaintances, and taking “pitch” meetings.

Those writing sessions were some of the best of my life. I look back on them with fondness, but also with a cringe-laden regret. The truth is (at least on paper) those were the best writing pairings of my life to this day, but I was so young and in such a hard place as a person, I feel in some ways that I squandered those writing sessions. It boiled down to two overarching experiences. One, I was welcomed with open arms by these incredible, legendary writers and encouraged to write what I really felt… which was really hard because I mostly felt things for X and talk of that wasn’t always appropriate. Or, two, I was discouraged from what I was authentically feeling (unrequited love, coming of age, difficult themes of loss and fear) and pushed into writing whatever was commercial. While that is a completely valid conquest for a new artist, my old-soul vibe combined with my young age caused many of my writing partners (i.e. superiors) to domineer me in sessions, from which I would walk away with absolute song-turds that I loathed singing in public.

Probably the most notable co-writer I ever had was a session with Kieth Urban. I feel like we hit it off but we didn’t walk away with an incredible song. I was trying to express a love song idea (about X) very awkwardly. We had a great day together, though, and if you are a fan, I have to say that he is everything you would hope him to be. He was a new dad then (via surrogate) and so in love with Nicole and his eldest daughter. Very open about his recovery years, his spirituality, etc. I was proud to spend time with him. — Keith gush over. :) — Probably my favorite co-writers, though, were the matriarch women in the industry. In particular, I had great experiences with Liz Rose, Lori McKenna, and Natalie Hemby. Those are household names in the songwriting world, so it might sound cliche, but they were genuine guiding lights for me. Welcoming but protective. Open but savvy. I am still learning from them from afar. Basically I am not successful enough at this point to get back in those rooms. Those calendars are controlled by publishers and interns and busy lives. I’ve accepted that. But I do wish those ladies could grab a coffee with me now… to see that, even though I wasn’t a commercial success, I got over X, I got out of my toxic deals, and I lead a happy life where I am still an avid writer. I may not get the satisfaction of them knowing that, but it would feel really good to me if they did. I honestly think they worried about me.

And on that note, to mention a snapshot of how X played into all of this, he was still my producer, but no longer my primary co-writer. And he hated it. In fact, he didn’t even like that I lived in Nashville, though Borchetta gave me no choice. Management and label made attempts to merge my South Carolina world with my Nashville world. Two of the worst sessions of my entire life were when they sent some of my favorite writers down to X’s studio to work with us. Liz Rose that I mentioned above was one. Liz and I were totally vibing on something and X was squashing it at every turn. It killed him not to be in control. It killed me, because I had this revered writer on my turf who was now likely having an awful experience. For me, it felt like my choices were only to anger my mentor-turned-crush, or alienate my favorite, matronly, wildly successful collaborator. It was paralyzing. Later came another similar experience with another producer that went even worse. I was becoming less of a person to X (and to many people at my label), and more like a pawn in a power-play. X did the same thing again in a session with Tom Douglas. And again in a session with Luke Laird. Honestly, those writers were my lifeline. The good ones were, at that point, the only part of the industry I felt safe, confident, and at home within. If any of you are reading this - Liz, Marcus, Lori, Tom, Natalie, Hillary… thank you. You are everything everyone hopes you are when they hear your songs on the radio.

So, let me get to it. Basically, Big Machine threw me a bone every now and again. Sing on this session, sing at this NASCAR event, do the Opry, go out for this placement, come film this YouTube special…. but it was little more than busy work. Two and a half years and I knew I was never going to radio and my record was never coming out. At that point, I really wanted to be a songwriter exclusively for a while. Some people approach that as a mere “plan B” after a failed deal, but for me, it was really all I cared about anyway. So, my manger Tracy and I reached out to Big Machine and called their bluff. In a nutshell, we told Scott I didn’t want to be there if he wasn’t going to help me and he said “well, we aren’t going to do anything with her.” So, I asked to be let out of my contract and they played it like that was a relief. It was for me, that’s for sure.

However, it was also something to mourn. I knew it meant my opportunities would change and dwindle and they did. Also, Borchetta’s lawyer went to work trying to keep my final 40k payout from me, which was my only source of income. In the end, he did the right thing and released it to me months later. I got his email driving and literally pulled off on the side of the road and thanked God because I needed the money really badly. And that is literally the end. My relationship with the A&R team continued, but only in the capacity that I was pitching songs as a writer. Chapter closed.

Life and Love

So, how did I go from my dysfunctional relationship with X to my healthy relationship with Zach? That’s the most direct and important question you can ask if you want to decipher the real core of my story. I joke that my life has been run by bass players: my dad, my first love, my label exec, and my husband. In regards to Daddy and Zach, though, it’s a good thing. So, without further ado, I’ll tell a bit of mine and Zach’s story, which is inter-spliced with details of my career right before and after I left my label.

I met Zach in a Green Hills apartment belonging to the singer of the band he played in. My manager had decided to begin also managing the front woman of the band he was in, and by band I don’t really mean a group, but that he played for an artist with a consistent band. This is a group I had a love-hate relationship with, so I’m not using names, but I’ll say that I think everyone, at this point in time, is good people whom I wish every success. It was an interesting dynamic. My manager, whom I loved dearly, brought on another female act. She’s a lot older than me and for every bit that I am the old-soul introspective, she’s a balls-to-the-wall rockstar with the beauty and smarts to back it up. However, I won’t say that it wasn’t difficult to feel “replaced”, and honestly I did. I was floundering and I was watching my manager/ last lifeline’s attention be sent in another direction.

Nevertheless, we all got along ok. I really like this female artist as a person and she was welcoming to me, even if we were competing for some of the same seats at the table. The interesting thing was, I was “ahead” in that I had this big contract and large-scale film placements, but she/they had years of touring and grassroots accolades. I had the benefit of more extensive writing experience, but I was never much of a performer. So, that’s why my manager thought it would be good for us to get to know each other. I could possibly write with this artist, but she could also show me the ways of the road. We embarked on a week-long tour of the southeast with those goals in mind.

That brings us back to the rehearsal where I first met Zach. It wasn’t love at first sight. He claims he thought I was cute, but in that “she’s too young for me” kind of way. I don’t really remember noticing him, but I thought his name was different because I had it confused with the guitarist’s. Zach handed me a pick, and afterwards, he sent me charts for a cover song we were performing together. Ironically, it was “Someone Like You” by Adele, which I would sit and cry listening to thinking about X (who was back with his girlfriend).

The first night we went out on tour, we played at a small university in North Carolina. I had my own room every night, and that night before the show, I actually had a huge argument with X. It was partially personal, because he was keeping his relationship from me, but also work related. I don’t remember all the details, but he basically said that he gave me most of his personal life and resented me for it… ironic, because I resented him, too, for completely taking over my entire life and controlling my career for the previous three years. I was literally crying in the hotel room floor in sheer frustration. I was praying. I wasn’t even in love anymore, I was just trapped in a cycle and a working relationship I couldn’t find my way out of. It was like standing in a dark room with my hand on the light switch, but so disoriented, I didn’t know how to turn it on. I literally prayed something to the effect of “God, end this misery for me. Just let me find my husband. If it’s never gonna be X, you have to spare me from this. It’s going to break me.”

In true teenage girl fashion, I wiped my tears, put on a dress, and got show ready. Maybe it’s the pictures, but I remember wearing a lace maxi-dress with a sweater on top and boots, along with my big, curly red hair I used to dye. I kid you not… that very night, I really noticed Zach for the first time. I had been around him a couple times, but I didn’t really see him until show time. He was always the one going out of the way to make sure I knew what was going on. He would set up my in-ear pack and my mic. He was the quietest of the bunch by far, but also the most helpful. At the end of the night, he was tearing down the stage while myself and a couple of the band members did the meet and greet line. We were in a college auditorium lobby with wooden swinging double doors that led into the performance hall. I kept casually breaking out of line to stare through the round windows in those doors to watch him tear down the stage. I can’t explain why I kept looking at him. He was quiet. Maybe even a little sad. The black sheep. So cute, though, with strong forearms peeking out of a flannel shirt and a few stray brown curls falling in his face. I was just instantly… in love. For the first real time.

The next week was full of van rides, a chit chat, awkward glances, and me sneaking looks his way anytime I could. I remember getting an Auto Trader (because I love cars) from a bookstore we stopped at and us looking at Jeeps together in the middle row of the 12 passenger van. That’s when we discovered we both loved and drove old Cherokees. Another incredible memory I have was that the whole band, myself, and our manager went to a nice dinner in the hotel one night, while Zach walked (in a storm) to an Indian restaurant he wanted to try. I sat up on the air conditioner unit in my hotel room after dinner watching for him in the rain, kind of worried about him in the lightning. Before he ever made it back, I saw fireworks go off in the distance over the rolling southern Virginia hills. Fireworks in the pouring rain. It was bizarre. Looking back, it was so symbolic. We were both experiencing storms in our lives, as well as deep loneliness and rejection. Though there were more storms to come before we got a happy ending, God sent along some fireworks… despite all odds.

We wouldn’t become a couple for almost a year and wouldn’t go public until even after that, but I was already in love with him, and he admits now that he was in love with me, too, in a subconscious way. But I know what you’re thinking… and it was everyone around us’ thought, too. I was turning on the edge of 17 and literally swapping an infatuation with one older musician for another. He was almost the same age, same instrument, same background as X… but strikingly different hearts, goals, and ways of treating people. While everyone would proceed to think I/we were crazy, I knew from the very beginning that this time, I wasn’t. I’ve told him before in a sappy card this: Some people fall in love and it takes their breath away. But for me - before him I couldn’t breathe, and now I can.

Here’s a song I wrote with my dear friends Melissa Fuller and Rachel Loy in the months I was falling for Zach.

And with that, I’ll leave you for a few days. I thought I might get a little further in this blog, but I don’t want to leave anything good out. In the next blog, I’ll talk about the early years of our relationship, the tension it caused, moving out on my own, and landing my first publishing deal. Look for Part 4 soon!

All my love,

Kate

  • First photo taken by Ryan Faucett