It’s taken me a little while to write this one. I guess because I’ve been extremely busy with school, work, music, and family, but also because compared to the branded-in-my-brain emotional drama of Part One, some elements of this segment of the story are just a little bit fuzzy. That said, that is part of why I am writing this series… I’m beginning to forget things I don’t want to. Stories I want to remember someday, for better or worse. And though it might be a (slightly) less emotionally tumultuous part of my life compared to part one, this chapter of the story actually holds maybe the most pivotal moments and “did that really happen?” memories. So, without further ado…
This chapter starts with me getting a record deal and moving to Nashville, but how that happened deserves a little bit of backstory in and of itself. If you have followed my career (and have a good memory), you likely know that I “broke out” because of a cover of “Holding Out for a Hero” (made famous by Bonnie Tyler in 1984) which was featured in the 2011 Paramount, Craig Brewer- directed remake of Footloose. How did I go from small South Carolina stages, to working with X, all the way to 15 minutes of fame seemingly overnight?
Well, first off, it wasn’t overnight. It was about 7 years in the making and about 2 years very seriously in the making. However, the specific opportunity did happen very suddenly and over a matter of mere weeks. Here’s how. X had a manager and that manager took me to Nashville to meet with execs from Atlantic Records, whom sort of had “first choice” in signing me due to affiliations I won’t go into, basically courtesy. Atlantic flew in the head of the label to meet with me after an A&R rep responded even better than expected to my original material. (As a side note to aspiring artists, if any are reading, going straight to the top of the chain like that is not typical at all and only occurred because the person I was working with was already in a successful group.) This was like a movie sequence. You don’t just go from single-wide trailer to “this could be your single” that quickly, but that’s how it was going.
That said, Atlantic did not sign me. They could not figure out which genre I belonged to and they passed on my music. However, that was not until after a lengthy “courtship.” Sometimes labels “date” their potential signings. This includes listening to your material, wining, dining, showcases, etc. Their biggest holdup in to sign me or not to sign me was that they were not sure whether or not I could write songs without X in the room. Oh, was I ready to show them! So, writing songs for Atlantic by proxy meant several months of development at Warner Chappell Nashville – one of the fixtures on music row. Atlantic, you see, is huge in and of itself and home to many legends, but it is ultimately just a subsidiary of Warner Brothers.
During that time of writing, I met the woman who would later become my manager, Tracy. I still really care about her and owe her a lot. She was like a second mom for a while. Well, she heard that a music supervisor for the film Footloose (the legendary Anastasia Brown) was looking for a remake of “Holding Out for a Hero.” They were hoping for someone in their mid-twenties, a fresh female voice, to turn it into a heartfelt, earthy ballad. I was only 15, but X and I got together and turned the pitch around in 48 hours. Two weeks or so later, it was in the movie and going into post-production.
If you know anything about the music business or film supervision, you know that this is a one in a million moment. Hundreds on hundreds of female artists submitted versions of the same song and I landed it. It was a big moment, a big payday, and a pivotal moment that I probably wasn’t ready for. But ready or not – it was go time.
Atlantic passed, as I said, but with the momentum of “Hero”, which was briefly going viral worldwide, I had to act fast to be signed to a label. I was not really ready to be signed, but in Nashville, you ultimately have to follow the buzz being created. It was barely even talked about. We just all knew that we needed to take the next step. I met with Warner Brothers, Sony, EMI, and Big Machine. Warner acted like they were going to sign me (they owned my Footloose song), but super weirdly and abruptly ghosted me. Like, the head of the label said “welcome to the family” and then never called again. He apologized in person to me about two years later. It was super strange. The other two labels passed on me, mostly because they “couldn’t sign any more females”, which is a whole other can of worms. Then there was Big Machine. They said yes.
If you aren’t familiar with Big Machine, you are likely familiar with their two figureheads - the head of the label, Scott Borchetta (of American Idol), and their flagship artist – Taylor Swift. Here’s how the meeting went down. I played two songs for Scott and the head of A & R, Allison (a really lovely woman who I still respect entirely. A bright spot in the whole journey, for sure) and they signed me on the spot. I mean, sure, there was paper work to do, but I was offered a deal at that table. My parents were waiting down the street at a Mexican restaurant and I ran in to tell them the news. It was an incredible day. Movie moment kind of stuff.
Within a few months, it was basically demanded by the label (i.e. Scott) that my parents and I pick up and move closer to Nashville. My parents moved mountains to make that happen and I can’t thank them enough. I could write a whole other blog series on how much I love them and how patient they’ve been with me.
An incredible moment that sticks out to me about that meeting where I was offered a deal was something Allison said. I don’t remember exactly how she said it but it was basically - Ella Mae, you have a light about you. You have that special thing we can’t ignore. That sentence has come to haunt me because of the bizarre paradigm that I think we all, young in the industry, fall prey to at some point. The big figures love your light. They know they need it. They know it’s special. But by God, they will put you through things that dim it, dull it, sully it, until you almost forget you can shine at all.
X was drawn to that light, so were my managers, and so were my fans. You know what that presence was? God’s grace. Innocence. Talent. Purity. Unabashed desire for art. I had about 99% of it intact back then. I still have God’s grace, but as for the rest I’d say I have about 15% of it left, with little bits I’ve given away strewn down music row hallways, Charleston cobblestones, and Midwestern highways. I’ve given pieces to collaborators, strangers, friends, crushes, and enemies. But isn’t that what an artist does? That said, the refueling years I’m in now are a welcome, blissfully different pace that is so good for the soul.
What I Didn’t Know
Here’s what I didn’t know about the motivation to sign me: Scott Borchetta wanted to prove he could break another female artist. He wanted to know (and for everyone else to know) that Taylor wasn’t just his one in a million. That it wasn’t just her – it was what he saw and what he could do. I don’t doubt that they were impressed by me because I could sing and write and because of “Hero”, but in some ways I was a pawn from day one.
The other thing I didn’t know was that Scott was bitter that he didn’t get the rights to the Footloose soundtrack. He was beat out by Warner, who loaded it up with their own roster. My song was actually, by some miracle, the standout track, so by snagging me, he sort-of got the proverbial last word.
And here’s the other truly bizarre thing I didn’t know: Taylor Swift was incredibly upset that Scott would sign another gangly, 16 year old, curly headed, ink-pen-stained-handed girl with a guitar, because she liked being the only one and did not attempt to even pretend to be supportive to other female artists at that time. She only let male acts support her on tour, and was not aligned with any Nashville female artists until some years later.
Let me pause for a second. I realize that probably sounds incredibly jaded and a whole lot like mudslinging. To tell you the truth, I am a bit jaded. And I also am still so humbled by my experiences and lack so much confidence that I have trouble telling my friends, family, and the whole internet that a huge pop-star personally disliked me. Like, who am I to even be on that radar? I still feel these things. You can believe me or not, but I swear to you that I am telling the truth as I know it.
When Taylor toured in support of her album Speak Now, she did something very interesting. I can’t fully explain it without defeating the purpose of the identities I’ve tried to be cautious with. So, suffice it to say that she knew who I was close to and brought he/them closer to her. Word got around that I was close to this person, so she pulled him closer… possibly to pull us apart, spite me, or learn more about the music being made. There was more to it than that, and this is a bold claim, but it is credible from all that I know. I have to leave out a lot of the details here, but we’ll just say that the timing of these events was uncanny.
No Hunger Games for the Hungry
As I developed at Big Machine, another huge movie placement opportunity surfaced with the dawn of The Hunger Games series. I had read the books and love them. The soundtrack had a very similar sonic aesthetic to my previous placement and project, so it was a shoe in. Lightning did strike twice… or so I thought. A very strange thing happened. I submitted a song called Girl on Fire, which was said to be placed in the film. Then, I got word that T Bone Burnett wanted my voice on a different song, which I would be flown out to LA to sing on. You may not know who he is, but if you do, you realize that this was an absolute dream.
The first problem was that X did not want to be cut out of the production, and encouraged me to fight for the song of ours, rather than the song with T Bone. I was caught in the middle, but ultimately everyone agreed that it was worth it for me to follow my gut and go to LA. Even X couldn’t begrudge me that experience in the end. The trip was planned. I was so excited. This could be the moment that I worked with a real collaborator... one who was a legend. One who didn’t see me as a kid. One I didn’t have all this personal backstory with… but then it happened.
I got a call from my manager about two days before I was supposed to leave for LA. Scott had called and he and Taylor decided that instead of her song with The Civil Wars being included on the soundtrack along with my song, two of her songs would be included and none of mine. Yep. I was crushed. The blow to my pride was significant, but we’re also talking about the loss of my opportunity to work with a legendary producer, and what would’ve almost certainly been a six-figure payday. Gone - with little more than a snap of her fingers.
To add one more layer to the weirdness, that second song of hers that replaced mine was almost a verbatim rip-off of something X was involved in creatively. This is another area where I cannot say more, but suffice it to say two camps were globally non-impressed with T-Swizzle that day.
But, in a matter of weeks, there were more exciting things to do. I suppose I shook it off, as it were.
There were several monumental moments during my time at Big Machine that I have to pause my slight jadedness and say a huge thank you to God, my family, and my own strength for. I debuted on The Grand Ole Opry, where Emmylou Harris introduced me and I got to share the stage with she and The Civil Wars - who debuted on the same night. I sang at two major NASCAR events. I shared stages and bands with Martina McBride, Rascal Flatts, Hunter Hayes, and so many more. I will admit that some of these memories have negative connotations because of things surrounding them, overtones of uncertainty, and who I chose to share some of those moments with. However, some of them were very special. My whole family came to see me at the Opry. NASCAR put me up in a room at the Wynn resort in Vegas with remote control curtains and a Jacuzzi tub for two, all to myself at 16.
In the end, I have to say that even Scott did mostly right by me. Taylor has probably forgotten all of this, why wouldn’t she? It was not all roses, but you have to understand I wouldn’t trade the good moments for the world… truly. In fact I don’t even know that I would have wanted to know how it would all go down in the end. As Garth said, I might have missed the dance.
There is so much more to tell… look for how I left the label, met my husband, moved out, worked a million jobs, and became a real songwriter in part three… coming soon.
If you’re reading this… man, I love y’all. Thanks for letting me use words to heal.
photo one courtesty of http://susanlloydphotography.com/