The Rise and Fall of an Almost Famous Teenager - Part Four
The Hard Work
Here I sit in a coffee shop this Saturday morning ready to spill my guts one final time in this storytelling. Like the last blog, I will break this one into sections of events that occurred concurrently, or in an overlapping time frame. So, let’s begin.
After losing my record deal, it was abundantly clear the next step was for me to pursue a publishing deal. Though, in the beginning, the community doubted whether I could write without X holding my hand, I had blossomed into a good writer in my own right. Because I got to write with (and learn from) a lot of A-list writers during my record deal, I had an impressive portfolio (known as a “Schedule A”) of 100+ songs to show to a publisher and take into a deal. During the time between my record contract and pub deal, I was working multiple side jobs to get by, while still writing several times a week. It was during that season of hustling and wondering what was next that I got my first break - Reba McEntire wanted to record a song I had written years before at the age of 16 with Tommy Lee James. On the heels of that, I finally signed my first publishing deal.
I have to make it clear - the people who move to town from some flyover state and have a deal and a number one in a year are absolute unicorns - the exception, and far from the rule. Even with a big contract and big names attached to my material, it still took between 6 and 9 months to get a deal in ink. Getting a publishing deal is just as hard as a record deal, and just as hard to hang onto. In my case, my record deal practically fell into my lap, while my publishing deals have been hard-won. Ironically, I think I am a better writer than artist, but this isn’t an industry that makes objective sense on the whole. So, that said, I did sign a deal.
I feel I can speak somewhat freely about my first deal, because the company doesn’t exist anymore. I signed a two year deal with a company called Catch This Music. Because I have basically no filter with this stuff and don’t at all mind being candid, I’ll explain in inquiring minds what my first deal looked like: I received a
”draw” of $27,000 per year. That’s a recoupable salary that you pay back in the event that you make money from having songs recorded, but don’t owe back if not. I lived (and still live) pretty simply, so that was enough that I could get my first tiny apartment on the edge of town with my cat and dog. I wrote four or five sessions a week, which lasted anywhere from three to eight hours apiece. It was a sweet and simple time of my life, at least for the first year of my deal. I was one of four artists/writers signed, and I really loved and looked up to all the people I worked with. We traveled together, wrote together, dined together, and I was rapidly growing, learning, and gaining traction in my career.
However, the second year of my deal was not so idyllic. As I said, the company is now dissolved, and I could honestly see cracks that early on, though they eked by another couple of years. Besides the owner, I worked with two publishers/song pluggers I liked a lot. However, I got along with one of them better than the other. His name is Shawn. I walked in one day and he seemed upset and was packing up his office. I told him how sorry I was, but basically never saw the guy again. From then on, I got less and less feedback on my material (especially the more artistic songs) to the point that I heard back on a song maybe once a month. No more trips, no more fun camaraderie… just a slow fade to more and more commercial, bro-country material. For a company that started with Marcus Hummon, myself, and two other great writers (Chris Roberts and Autumn McEntire), watching the musical quality slide down the drain and everything progressive get shot down was incredibly disappointing, but it was obviously a money issue.
So, I could see the writing on the wall - that’s true. However, I had a lot of projects in the balance where artists might be cutting my songs and I was really trying to adapt. I didn’t want to cut things off prematurely and I didn’t want to be out of a job, so I was hoping to be renewed another year, even though I didn’t like the slow fade into mediocrity. But, that wasn’t the case. The company didn’t pick up my option, and sure enough, it was financial. In fact, the main takeaway quote from the meeting was “we wouldn’t have signed you for as much now as we did two years ago.” So, instead of keeping me on, they signed two new female writers whom were only paid about half as much as I’d been, which I know for a fact. One of those writers has gone on to be successful and also a great friend of mine. I don’t think it was fair to me to be replaced, nor to the new signings to be so poorly compensated.
This may just be venting, but publishers don’t usually respect the need to have side jobs and expect you to jump and any and every last minute write or sloppy-drunk networking session at Whiskey Jam… but that just doesn’t add up if you’re making 17k a year and being made to feel greedy if you feel like you need 27-30k to make it in a ever-more expensive town. The money side of that business is a disaster, and would be seriously aided by less greedy staffers, more patient investors, and FAIR compensation for songwriters on streaming platforms. End rant.
I got a second publishing deal almost immediately because of a connection through one of my favorite co-writers. My dear friend Melissa signed me to a small venture under the producer Jay Joyce. I was in that deal as recently as a year ago. For brevity’s sake, I will just say that I loved my collaborators and my publisher there, but because Jay wanted less to do with publishing and only to produce, that company also essentially dissolved after my 18 months of writing there. I got to make my record (which comes out next Friday!) during that time, and I also made great connections and friends. In some ways the end of that one hurt more because I really desired to stay and liked it creatively. Still, in some ways, it hurt less, because I had been through it before - and also, the blame was not falsely put on me as though I was the problem, the way that it was the first time around.
Now, I have been completely independent for a while and am loving it, because I am free to pursue what is called small licensing (basically, music used for film and advertisements, amongst other things) with my producers in our new project, p o p l a r. Life is very different, but I wouldn’t trade the years of honing my skills as a writer day in and day out on music row. I am still learning, but that was, proverbially, my “undergrad” in my craft. It was a master class everyday I am thankful and could just hug a list of co-writers a mile long right this minute because I appreciate their time.
So, back to Zach. The fun stuff, I think with a grin. When we left off, he and I were falling in love. We met around the time I turned 17 and started dating when I turned 18. The year between was absolutely fraught with tension, as you can imagine, for both of us, for the people around us, and especially for me. I was pining after a guy who I wasn’t totally sure was mutually interested. Zach was involved with two other people during that year - a Midwestern sweetheart he met on the road, and then a photographer. I knew the photographer and even worked with her (and actually really liked her, despite my raging jealousy). Both of the relationships were short lived, but it was like pining after X all over again. Sometimes I wonder why God let the unrequited-older-bass-player-crush trope happen to me twice, but I actually know why. Though times of doubt and jealously were difficult for me while Zach was deciding if he could really see himself with someone as young and quirky as me, we kind of had this sacred, very old-timey period of “courting”. Before we ever even held hands, we might meet up at a bookstore, swap records, get tacos, text about our Myers Briggs types or our favorite songs from the 80’s. In a culture where people jump each other’s bones on the third date, it was pretty special to built this intimate friendship for nearly a year before ever kissing or even holding hands. He might’ve had his flirtations, but were were a bonded pair from the beginning. Finally, one night, we became a real couple and sealed things with a kiss (and then a bunch of kisses) on a hilltop next to the Cumberland river and the pedestrian bridge downtown. We haven’t gone without hearing each other’s voice every day since, and that was almost six years ago.
Was our relationship well received? By our family and closest friends, yes. Manager? Yes. A lot of people were really happy for us. BUT, the reason I said I had a love-hate relationship with the band he was in was because one member was a super huge thorn in our side. Once, I went out on the road to open a one-off show and this person got into a screaming match with Zach (who is extremely hard to provoke) about how he was stupid for being happy to see me and a whole host of other things. There had been bad sound at the show, after said person refused a proper soundcheck, and he was pissed that he was pissed, but Zach was in a good mood. Almost a fist fight over a good mood, and that’s a true story. The following day, the band backed me up, and did the most absolutely horrible set ever, because said person refused to practice or let the group properly practice the material.
Yes, I am partly just letting off steam by reliving that weekend, and maybe it’s gossipy and begrudging. But, it was significant. It was an indicative example of why, within a matter of months, Zach and I went public with our love, he left the group, and I detached from having the same manager to get some space from it all, among reasons related to my career. We couldn’t take the toxicity and contagious chips-on-shoulders and negativity in our social and work lives anymore. We are still dear friends with the lead guitarist and my old manager, but otherwise, we left the whole chapter in the dust. His last engagement with the band was the day before his 30th birthday and we drove all night to the Rockies afterwards and spent the day with his best friend Dan. It was symbolic of how we were moving on to a healthier time of life with people who saw our love, our value, and who chose to show us the same respect we show them. We haven’t looked back. I was bitter for a while, but now, I am mostly just thankful for the crazy circumstances that brought us together. And again, I’ll say, this was a long time ago, and I think everyone is somewhat different and healthier at this point. I sure hope so! We are.
I alluded to some health issues earlier, and for those of you who know me personally, you are aware that I have some. Namely, I have a autonomic nervous system dysfunction called Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome - POTS for short. I bring it up for several reasons. One, I think the unhealthy and stressful situations described in this blog series contributed to my acquiring this condition. Two, the illness severely impacted my ability and confidence around performing, which in turn impacted my goals and my career. And three, I truly and earnestly want to bring awareness to this condition. Anyone can get it at any age, but it is especially common in small-framed, caucasian women in their youth and childbearing years. I will describe some of the symptoms, because I know there are thousands of undiagnosed people who need that missing link to figure out what’s going on - it’s notoriously difficult to diagnose.
How did I know something was wrong? When I was 16, I was running and doing workout classes everyday, eating healthy, avoiding any kinds of drugs and alcohol that some teens pursue, and doing my best to live a full life, despite some stressful times (i.e, X, the label, sleep loss, travel, school, etc). However, my body just never quite felt right. I went through a phase around the time of puberty where I frequently felt dizzy, nervous, and nauseous, but I brushed it off as growing pains and body changes. I was always very private and didn’t want anything to be wrong. Over time, I got totally better. The weird phase just dissipated. But, at 16, it was back with a vengeance. Every time I was on stage - and mind you I’m not a super nervous performer at all - I would feel so awful. It was like my eyes would go blurry, then, black, then snowy and then back to normal again. Bile would rise to the back of my throat, but I’d force it down. My feet would feel like they weren’t under me. The strategy was always to keep singing through the feelings and wait until a musical break in the song where I could take a sip of water and discretely take some deep breaths.
One show in particular, I was high up on a stage and playing a longer acoustic set in Franklin, TN for a good crowd. It was a decent show and I did well. I remember that I looked really pretty that night, too, and I often struggled with feeling put together. It should have been so great. But I was just sure I was going to hit the deck and fall off that high stage, or have to run to the bathroom to be sick. I told my mom after that show that I knew my body was different. Another thing that worried her was that I was getting winded going up stairs. Mind you, I could run 4 miles without stopping. It didn’t compute. My eyes would go fuzzy on the stairs to our second level apartment and my heart would beat extremely slowly in these hard, pounding, loud, arrhythmic beats.
With my parent’s support, I started with my primary doctor and went on a journey to figure out what was really wrong. I was misdiagnosed with panic attacks, and I knew it wasn’t psychological. Though I feel clinical anxiety is totally valid and I am sometimes anxious, the symptoms were just not right. For months, I struggled to find a doctor who could figure it out, and had every test under the sun. All the while, the symptoms got worse. I would throw up if I didn’t eat, I would throw up if I ate too much. I couldn’t even perform on a stool without the fuzzy vision. Walking uphill totally wore me out. I pulled over once because I was too dizzy to drive home.
Finally, I was referred to a cardiologist. He diagnosed me in about 5 minutes by taking my vitals upon sitting, standing, and lying down. It was classic POTS - wild shifts in pulse and BP upon postural changes or under certain situations of stress. He put me on a beta blocker and told me to hydrate, eat lots of salt, and be as healthy as possible… and get this, he even encouraged me to “fill out” a little, because I was rather thin and being a little fuller-bodied would increase my blood volume. I still have flare-ups and days where I’m couch bound for an hour or two at a time. Skipping a meal or not drinking enough water can put me in bed with nausea and full body chills on the best of days. However, I consistently do very well. I have even started running again! Performing is also now possible for me, but I have to move around on stage to keep my blood flowing. All those times I felt so sick, it was because I was standing perfectly still with a guitar and a mic in front of me and my blood was draining to my feet and not my head, wreaking havoc on my vitals.
The two big take-aways from this - this illness has not defined me, but it has shaped my past. I have adapted my goals with my art to fit my body. It will never impact what I make, but I was comfortable letting it impact the scale I strive to perform on. Unexpectedly, it really validated my feelings of not wanting large-scale fame and nudged me to focus mostly on writing, creating, and seeing film and advertisement placements. However, I don’t let it rob me of the joy of performance. I make it work and am always happy to scratch the itch. Secondly, if you think you (or your child) have POTS, I’d be more than happy to point you to some great resources. If you don’t believe you’ve been diagnosed properly (with anything) or your meds/ treatment aren’t working… keep pushing. Someone will figure it out.
What was I doing in between the cracks? Well, I nannied as an on-call childcare provider for Vanderbilt doctors and professors. I worked two absolutely nightmarish serving jobs. I went to school to be a dental assistant, a field in which I ultimately never worked a single day. I got trained as a birth doula and helped deliver a baby in Masindi, Uganda on a 2-week medical mission trip. I went back to Africa again (thanks to the help of my second publisher Melissa). I went to Europe for work and fun. I worked two different remote writing jobs. I wrote a book. I moved literally 7 times to different houses and apartments as Zach and I navigated life and work. Most importantly, I grew up. I rediscovered my faith within the Anglican church (thanks to St. Patrick’s in Smyrna, TN). I grew to be best friends with my parents and grandparents. And on April 2nd 2016, I married my love and became Mrs. Bowen Morse. We are on a great adventure.
We are at the end of this chapter, but I am writing an epilogue - just as I wrote a prologue - to tie up all the loose ends and talk about my current journey in life and music.