I Believe In Nashville

Apparently I’m incapable of doing things halfway: I went from barely leaving the house to going on an almost three week trip to the US. The songwriting festival, Tin Pan South, was starting up again and I’ve been going every year since 2016, to write songs and network and just learn from the best songwriters in Nashville. I was utterly terrified – about the COVID risk, about how even a minor bout of COVID could affect the trip, about all of the uncertainty and anxiety that I was going to feel every day without having a true safe place to return to and recharge, etc – but I felt like I had to go. My Mum and I were as careful as we could be: we wore masks pretty much all of the time (being autistic makes that hard but I did the best I could) and we went through so much hand sanitiser. I was practically showering with it. I cried pretty much every day (whether from anxiety, stress, or exhaustion, I don’t know) and I was on my knees by the end of the trip but it was amazing and a lot of really cool things happened.


BOSTON

We flew from London to Boston, which was relatively simple – my anxiety aside. I’d already burst into tears at least twice before we actually left the runway. I was very anxious about COVID (and there were so many things that already made me anxious that now had an entirely new context because of COVID) and about flying (it’s not my favourite thing) and I think I was just really overwhelmed by everything ahead of me. The flight felt ridiculously long and while I was relieved to be back on the ground (and eventually into the hotel where we could take the masks off after wearing them for so long), I was immediately overwhelmed by being abroad, by all of the differences. Getting to the hotel room and being able to just collapse was a great relief.

Months earlier, I’d bought tickets to the Bleachers show where they’d be playing their album Strange Desire from start to finish in the hope that I’d be able to combine it with the Nashville trip – the date was, after all, pretty close to when Tin Pan South usually took place. So I chanced it and by some stroke of luck, it worked out and we made our connection in Boston with a day in between to go to the concert. I had no idea what the disabled accommodations were going to be like but, on the whole, the venue and staff were great, which made the concert possible for me and it was incredible.

I still don’t know if I can describe the concert, beyond saying how amazing it was. Charly Bliss were a really fun opener and I’m very excited for them to release the new songs they played; those were the ones that I really got into. And Bleachers were just fantastic. Jack Antonoff in particular was just like an endlessly ricocheting ball of adrenaline; I barely got any photos of him that were in focus because he was just in constant motion. It was so incredibly special to hear songs like ‘Wild Heart,’ ‘I Wanna Get Better,’ and ‘Like A River Runs,’ all of which I love so much. It still feels kind of unreal, like I can’t quite believe I was really there.

The next day, we struggled up – I felt completely wrecked by the concert – and caught our flight to Nashville.

NASHVILLE

When we got to Nashville, we took a couple of days just to rest and to allow me to collect myself. I was exhausted and a few days holed up in my Airbnb – where I didn’t have to worry about wearing a mask or the risk of COVID – was absolutely needed. And while there are always things to see and exploring to do in Nashville, we’d decided to keep our excursions to our highest priorities; we wanted to minimise the risk of exposure to COVID so that we could do all of the things that we really, really wanted to do.

So those first few days were spent chilling out, watching TV, catching up with my diary, and listening to Maren Morris’ new album, Humble Quest. I think I’ll forever connect it with Nashville now. Between listening to it as I flew into the city and watching her Amazon Prime show that first weekend, the album’s setting will always Nashville.

The show was great and I cannot wait until she comes back to the UK. I’m already in love with this album.

SONG SUFFRAGETTES 

My first show back was a big one: Song Suffragettes’ 8th Anniversary show. Usually a Song Suffragettes show consists of five girls and they go around three times, performing three songs each (in total), before closing the show with the cover song performed together. But for this song, there was the first round of five girls who each performed twice plus a cover, a break in which THE Nicolle Galyon interviewed THE Kelsea Ballerini, and then a second round with five more girls who each performed twice as well as a cover song. It was a long but very excellent show.

The first round consisted of Ava Paige, Autumn Nicholas, Kalie Shorr, Ava Suppelsa, Lanie Gardner, and Mia Morris on percussion (she also played a song in this round – a rewrite of Fountains of Wayne’s ‘Stacy’s Mom’ from the point of view of Stacy, which was hilarious). They were all great but, as I think is the case with every songwriters’ round, there were some that resonated with me more than others. I’ve known and loved Kalie for years so I always know she’s going to be my favourite (if you haven’t listened to her music, please check her out – she’s very special) but I didn’t know the others and found I particularly enjoyed Ava Paige’s songs too. I also loved the cover they did, ‘abcdefu’ by GAYLE, and I’ve had it on repeat ever since (along with ‘Humble Quest’ by Maren Morris).

After the cover, they cleared the stage and set it up for the Nicolle Galyon and Kelsea Ballerini interview. They are both just such cool people and have achieved some incredible things; it was very inspiring. Nicolle asked some really interesting questions and Kelsea shared a lot of fascinating, inspiring, and encouraging stories and advice. And then they played a couple of songs that they’ve written together – ‘i quit drinking’ and ‘half of my hometown’ – as well as telling the stories behind the writing of them. It was a really, really cool experience and I feel very lucky to have been there.

The second round was made up of Emily Brooke, Caroline Watkins, Lauren Hungate, Madeline Merlo, Peyton Porter and, again, Mia Morris on percussion. I particularly liked Emily Brooke; I’ve seen her before and I really like her music. And they all told great stories about what inspired the songs.

It was an amazing show and experience and it was a great reintroduction to Nashville. I also got to reconnect with the people I know at Song Suffragettes (and those who I’ve spoken to online but not met) and that was really, really nice. I was kind of scared that, after three years away, the previous years of building relationships might have ended up meaning nothing but that completely wasn’t the case and I’m really grateful for that.

TIN PAN SOUTH

As I said, Tin Pan South is the big reason for coming to Nashville and I had some amazing shows on my list. There were some very tough choices too, great rounds that I struggled to choose between. But I think I made the right choices, for me, for this trip.

I could write about every single show in a ridiculous amount of detail but then we’d be here forever. So here are my highlights of the week…

  • Caylee Hammack – I first saw Caylee years ago and she was so good that I became a fan on the spot. She’s fantastic, both as a singer and a songwriter; I loved her songs then, I loved her album, and I loved the songs that she played during the round. And she’s hilarious. She’s also absolutely lovely: we spoke before and after the show and she was just such a sweetheart.
  • Nicolle Galyon – One of the rounds I went to was the Songs and Daughters round, made up of writers from Nicolle Galyon’s female focussed label, Songs and Daughters. Nicolle was fantastic (although I wish she’d played ‘We Were Us’ but then she does have a huge list of amazing songs to choose from) and even though, I’m kind of in awe of her, I did have a short conversation with her after the round and she was really lovely.
  • Madison Kozak – Madison was on the same round as Nicolle Galyon. I first saw her years ago and fell in love with her and her song ‘First Last Name.’ She did play that one, which made me very happy, and I loved every other song she played on the round; I can’t wait for her to release them.
  • Emily Shackelton – I’ve been a fan of Emily Shackelton for years so I was very keen to see her live again. I love her songs and she’s got a gorgeous voice; I’m so excited for her to release new music soon. I got to speak to her briefly after the show, which was really nice. I hadn’t gotten into the groove of talking to new people again (remember, COVID aside, I’ve just come off three months plus of being home alone while I tried the ADHD meds) so I felt kind of awkward and like I’d forgotten how to do the whole social thing but she was kind and generous with her time and I really appreciated that.
  • Kalie Shorr – The whole round made me laugh harder than I ever have at a Tin Pan South show and Kalie was just hilarious. I loved every song that she played and I loved the stories she told about them so that even the songs I already knew felt different because of the new insight. She’s a brilliant writer: she’s funny, smart, and empathetic, which makes for some really unique and just beautiful songs. I first met her in 2016 and we’ve talked on and off over the years but it’s usually through social media since we’re on different continents so it was really nice to connect and have a real conversation face to face.
  • Natalie Hemby – Natalie is one of my favourite Nashville people. She’s one of my songwriting heroes, she’s a wonderful person, she’s hilarious, and she doesn’t take shit from anyone. She was on her last song, I think, after a stunning round when she gave me a shout out in front of the whole audience and all of the ridiculously amazing and deeply respected songwriters on stage. She introduced me and said some really lovely things, which was just so sweet of her. (She actually invited me to sing too but my Autism brain short circuited due to the sudden change of plans and I couldn’t do it. I don’t think I could’ve told you the lyrics to literally any song at the moment, including songs I have personally written, let alone the song she was playing at that moment. I’m trying not to kick myself for it – it’s just how my brain is.) We got to catch up afterwards, which was really lovely. She really is the sweetest.
  • Notable mentions to both Jeffrey Steele and Chris DeStefano – Both of these guys put in amazing performances that I couldn’t not mention them. It’s funny because they’re so different from each other but they are both such compelling performers, performing very different but incredible songs.

AUTISM AWARENESS WEEK / DAY

It was World Autism Awareness/Acceptance Week and World Autism Awareness Day while I was away and, knowing that I’d be busy in Nashville, I’d prepared a series of posts to put up on my blog. I also posted this on Instagram:

OTHER FUN THINGS

While I didn’t do a whole lot more than go to shows, I did do a few things that are specific and special to Nashville…

  • SEEING FRIENDS – Over the years, I’ve made a handful of friends in Nashville and I’m still nurturing new relationships. I didn’t get to see everyone that I would’ve liked to but I did get to see some of my songwriter friends, some of my friends at NSAI, and some of my friends at Song Suffragettes. With three years since my last visit, it was really, really lovely to reconnect with all of these people and hopefully I’ll get to see the others next time or via technology in the mean time.
  • PANCAKE PANTRY – Chocolate Sin from Pancake Pantry is one of my favourite things to eat so I was very excited to finally get back to Pancake Pantry after so long. It was even better than I remembered and I had to remind myself to eat slowly enough that I could breathe. It’s not often that I enjoy food that much so it’s nice to experience that, something which I assume other people experience more often.
  • THE CANDLE BAR – I love my candles from the Candle Bar and I’ve managed to stretch my last one over three years by being very stingy about using it so I was very excited to get a new one. But then we got there and that particular fragrance wasn’t on the shelf. I was in the middle of feeling overwhelmed by what I should choose instead – none of them were really grabbing me the way my favourite does – when my Mum asked about it and they said they’d be putting it back on the shelves the next week but could pull it out for us since they had it ready to go. That honestly made my day. The pink pepper grapefruit candle is the only candle that I’ve ever really loved and since Mum loves it too, we made two to take home with us. I’m very excited to be able to burn them a little more liberally again. The woman who ran the session was lovely and full of fun information about candles and the candle making process and I just had such a good afternoon.
  • COMMODORE GRILLE – It was on my first adventure in Nashville that I discovered the Commodore Grille’s excellent chocolate brownies and it was on one of the few trips out to eat that we went out and got one. Well, one each. It was so good and I’m so glad we were able to find the time to do it.

SONG SUFFRAGETTES

I did manage to get in a second Song Suffragettes show while I was in town, which I was very grateful for. This round was made up of Jillian Dawn, Sam Bowlds, Olivia Faye, Elana Jane, Paige King Johnson, and Mia Morris, Mia being the only one I knew previously. They were all great – they always are – but I think my favourites were Jillian Dawn and Paige King Johnson; their songs just spoke to me more deeply than the others did for some reason.

On the whole, the travel had been good. I had disabled assistance at all of the airports and until the trip home, that was great and had made the whole flying ordeal a lot easier. But on the return trip, everything kind of went to hell and it was a bit reminiscent of ‘a series of unfortunate events.’ I almost had a meltdown on the flight from Nashville to Dallas because of a mix up with the seats, which was horrible.

And while the Dallas to London flight was okay (I mean, it was long and cold and uncomfortable but nothing went wrong), everything went wrong from the moment we landed, from problems with gates to confusion with the disability assistance to the freaking coach home. And by that time, we were both so tired (and I was so overwhelmed and stressed out) that I was definitely moments from bursting into tears. But we did eventually – eventually – get home.


It’s been about a week since I got home now and I’ve been a bit of a mess. The jet lag hit me hard, on top of my exhaustion from the trip itself, and my mental health hasn’t been great. I guess I’m just feeling really overwhelmed, like all of my feelings have been turned up to eleven (I mean, even more so than usual).

Nashville Looks Good On You

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This trip to Nashville wasn’t exactly what I’d expected. I’d had this vision of going out there and writing a load of songs and going to show after show after show and seeing all the friends I’ve made out there. I managed to do some of those things – and I’m really proud of what I achieved – but my mental health really dominated the trip, much more than I’d hoped it would.

We got off to a pretty rocky start when I forgot to take my medication the night before we flew out. We had to leave at two o’clock in the morning so I never really went to bed and therefore my nightly routine was disrupted. Plus I was excited and nervous and just generally all over the place. We got to the airport and I couldn’t even walk the distance to security, I was so completely out of energy. I thought it was the lack of sleep and stress of travelling but I physically couldn’t do it. We ended up asking the airport staff for assistance and they were absolutely amazing, at every airport we travelled through over the trip: they got me a wheelchair and took me wherever I needed to be, getting me early access to the planes, and so on. It was so helpful and honestly made the whole thing possible. I don’t know what I would’ve done without their help. It took a few days to recover and it was only then that we realised what had caused it.

The reason we go at this time of year is because the Nashville Songwriters Association International hold the Tin Pan South songwriters festival, where hundreds of songwriters perform songs that they’ve written. They have a great mix of famous and up and coming so you get a lot of different, beautifully written songs. All of the shows that I went to were good and some of them were fantastic. My favourites include Lori McKenna, Alyssa Micaela, Emily Shackelton, Hannah Ellis, Natalie Hemby, and Travis Meadows. They were truly incredible.

There were a couple of other musical highlights too. By some wonderful coincidence, Kelly Clarkson was playing the Bridgestone Arena while we were in Nashville. I’ve always wanted to see her and I’ve always wanted to go to a show at Bridgestone. And to make it even sweeter, Kelsea Ballerini – who I LOVE – was opening. So it was perfect. The show was amazing and I had a blast. Totally a bucket list moment.

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The other musical highlight was getting to see my friend, Caylan Hays, perform. We’ve written together several times and on my last trip, she came to see me play a gig and by another beautiful coincidence, she was playing on the last night of our stay. She was fantastic. She’s such a talented writer and I love her voice. Throw in some gorgeous electric guitar and I was in love. You can check out her music here.

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And of course, I got to go to two Song Suffragettes rounds. I love this organisation with my whole heart and so it meant so much to me to see both shows while I was there. They – the people who run it and the girls who play – are so inspiring and I hope I can play with them again someday.

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I had several writing sessions while we were there and for the most part, they were a struggle. I love the people I was writing with dearly but my brain still isn’t right: a casualty of my depression and the medications I’m taking. We’re still trying to find the balance where I’m emotionally stable and not creativity stifled. Still, I’m trying and I so appreciate these writers for having patience with me while I work through this. I also got to spend some time with friends, old and new, and they really inspired me in this dark patch of my life.

But throughout the trip, I really, really struggled. My anxiety was so high that I actually had trouble breathing and my depression was so overwhelming that I found myself falling apart (even in public places, which I’m usually able to avoid doing) multiple times. There were lots of tears and lots of Diazepam; it was very hard. I struggled desperately with wanting to go home and I was battling suicidal thoughts (helpfully described by Claudia Boleyn as, “my brain trying to kill me”) for most of the trip. In truth, it was a bit of a nightmare but there were some really great moments that helped me manage it and of course, I had my wonderful people (my Mum and my writing partner, Richard Sanderson) there to support me. The trip wouldn’t have been possible without them.

Also, shout out to Pancake Pantry for teaching me what it’s like to get excited about food.

Goin’ Back To Nashville, Thinkin’ ‘Bout The Whole Thing

Ten points if you understand that reference.

As many of you know, I was in Nashville from 1st April to 11th April so here is a post all about that: the travel, the being away from home, some of the things I did, and how I felt about it all. A big part of this is that I do just want to write down some of my thoughts about it but I also think that documenting these experiences as a person with Autism, as a person with mental illness, could be helpful, especially when there is so little information and testimony about living with these issues.

The flight out was smooth. In the literal sense, anyway. But about an hour before we arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina, I started sneezing. I didn’t think much of it until we were walking through the airport and it still hadn’t stopped. And then my nose started to run (this is gross and probably too much information, but it was like water was just leaking out of my nose) and all the sniffing I was doing to try and stop it gradually gave me a terrible headache. So that was a struggle. And it just wouldn’t stop. By the time we arrived in Nashville several hours later, I had the beginnings of a migraine and was practically useless. Fortunately, I was travelling with my Mum and one of my best friends, Richard (who is also my writing partner), so I could hand over responsibility and focus on staying upright. We got to our accommodation and I fell asleep as soon as I sat down (getting back up and walking to the bed was the most asleep I’ve ever been while awake and, no joke, I laughed hysterically until I fell asleep). The jetlag got me good – I was so tired that I fell asleep in the middle of the afternoon every single day – and I still hadn’t gotten myself in sync by the time we were flying home.

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Before I get on to the rest of the trip, I have to say that none of it would have been possible if my Mum hadn’t come with me. This was my third trip to the US and she has been with me each time, sometimes working and sometimes taking a holiday – she freaking deserves one with how hard she works, at everything – and I could not do it without her. This probably deserves it’s own post but in short: she helps me keep my anxiety under control, helps me process everything that’s happening, removes the stress around food by either being there to catch me when I fail at it or completely assuming responsibility for it… She is the certainty I need when every other thing around me is uncertain. All of these things make it possible for me to be functional, let alone make the most out of the trip and the opportunities I’m presented with. She is a complete superstar and I’m so, so grateful.

Another thing that I think is important to mention is how much I struggle with food when I travel. I have huge, huge anxiety around food (see my recent post) and there aren’t many things I can manage. I remember thinking, before my first trip, that there would finally be things I could eat but my perception of the food was wrong; I was convinced I’d gain loads of weight but I actually lost more than half a stone. Since then, both me and my Mum have been more prepared: we travel with things like rice cakes (one of my staples), shop on the first day, and never rely on restaurants or venues. So, this time, we made a huge thing of Stir Fry at the beginning of the week and I basically ate that all week. I know that some people would find that boring but for me, it was comforting to know that there was a meal a day that I wouldn’t have to worry about. Sometimes that’s all I can manage so I need to know that it’s something I can eat. Again, a major shout out to my Mum for supporting me with that. And to Pancake Pantry for getting me excited about food.

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The reason for going at this time of year is the Tin Pan South songwriting festival. Over five days, there are a hundred songwriters’ rounds where all of these incredible songwriters play their songs – some famous, some never released – and tell the stories that inspired them. As a songwriter, it’s the most amazing and motivating experience. As you guys probably know from my playlist post, I saw so many people that I was so excited by but I’m not sure anyone is interested in that, given that this is primarily a mental health blog. Let me know if you would be interested in that. But having said that, I can’t not mention some of them: Natalie Hemby (one of my all time favourite songwriters) was incredible and hilarious; Alyssa Micaela and Emily Shackelton were wonderful; Abby Anderson’s ‘History’ was one of my favourite songs of the festival; the show with Jeff Cohen, Kara DioGuardi, Jamie Hartman, and Ingrid Andress (one of my favourite finds of the week) was mind blowing and definitely a highlight; and Nikita Karmen was another great discovery. All of the shows were fantastic though and I felt so lucky to be there. I felt (and do still although my mental health has crashed since) so, so inspired and can’t wait to write new songs having learned so much.

And on that note, I got to hang out and write songs with one of my favourite people in Nashville. Her name is Caylan and we met during my first trip to Nashville in 2016. We wrote one of my favourite and most personal songs several days later. She is such a beautiful songwriter and again, we wrote some really cool songs and it was so, so nice to see her again. I also did some writing with Richard, which is one of my favourite things to do.

The biggest, most exciting part of my trip was playing a Song Suffragettes round. I’ve been following them on social media and watching their shows on Periscope for years now and I have always been so inspired by their mission to promote these incredible up and coming young women in country music. I’ve always done my best to see the shows in person when in Nashville and it has truly been a dream of mine to play at one of their rounds. And on this trip, that dream came true. It was nerve wracking but it was one of the most positive experiences I’ve ever had and definitely so in the last year: everyone behind the show was so lovely and the other girls were so sweet and so welcoming. My performances weren’t perfect but I’m still proud of them and I felt so, so honoured to be there. It was inspiring and motivating and so special. We finished the show with a cover of ‘Delicate’ by Taylor Swift, which we’d put together in the back room before going on stage and, again, that was really fun. Oh, and the video of that is now on YouTube!

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After the show, we went out to the lobby to meet and talk to anyone who wanted to talk. That turned out to be a real highlight. I hadn’t expected anyone to want to say more than hello since it was my first time playing and no one would’ve known me before the show but so many people came up to me and the conversations we had were and are very special to me. Two of the three songs I played are incredibly personal, including one about my experiences with trying to get help with my mental health, and these are the songs that seem to really connect with people. I’ve had people come up to me, tell me what it meant to them to hear these songs, and share some amazingly personal stories. It blows my mind that a little song that I wrote in my friend’s front room on a Thursday afternoon has made people feel safe enough to share these really important things with me. I’m so honoured. That whole night was so special to me. A massive thank you again to everyone behind Song Suffragettes for all you guys do and thank you, thank you, thank you for inviting me to play.

The last couple of days were a bit of a blur after that but my last activity in Nashville was a memorable one. We went to The Candle Bar to make our own candles, something I’d seen on Instagram and really wanted to do. I really, really struggle with candles because of how sensitive to smells I am so I was excited to find out whether I could create a candle that I could not only tolerate but also enjoy. Because you’re pouring out the fragrance and the wax, you are in control of how strong the candle will smell; obviously you want to be able to smell it but this made it possible to add slightly less of the fragrance so that it won’t be overwhelming. It was a really fun experience, simple and chilled and interesting. I had commitment issues over which container to use and had to change once I’d chosen the fragrance because the colour of it didn’t match how it smelled, but choosing the fragrance was easy: there were only two that I liked. I ended up going for the pink pepper and grapefruit because, as a smell, it had no sharp edges, if that makes sense. There was nothing jarring about it. Since I’ve been home, I’ve only lit it once but I really like it. It’s subtle, which is perfect for me, but I can still smell it and it does actually smell like the fragrance I chose. So I’m really happy with it and would definitely recommend the experience.

And then it was time to go home. Usually I dread going home but after the roller coaster of emotions that I went through on this trip and having the kittens waiting for me, I was ready to go. But it was still hard. I’ve jokingly compared my love for Nashville to a long distance relationship but fortunately, I know it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. I’ll be back and it will be there, waiting for me. The plane ride home went fine, although we took extra precautions and I wore a mask for most of it. I felt ridiculous but I kept reminding myself that I was trying to avoid more illness and discomfort, that I am allowed to take care of myself.

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Before I sign off, there are a couple of other things that I wanted to mention and the first one is about the emotions throughout the trip. The first half of the ten days was really hard: I was overwhelmed by anxiety and struggling to stay ahead of a particularly bad episode of Depression, my self doubt was paralyzing, and I just had this overwhelming longing to go home where I felt safe and less like I was going to fall apart at any second. It was horrible, but fortunately it did pass (although it’s come back in full force since I’ve been back) and I was able to enjoy the rest of the trip apart from some anxiety (which is totally normal – I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t anxious, and very anxious at that). The lows were very low and the highs were very high, as usual. And with everything on top of that, I was completely and utterly exhausted. So it was definitely a rollercoaster.

The other thing I want to say is that it was vital that I had some time out from it all. I’m going to write a ‘tips for travelling when you’re autistic’ post but I also want to include it here. With all the emotions, the anxiety, the walking and standing, etc, I had to have some recovery time. Apart from the times where I just fell asleep on the sofa, we would watch TV together (shout out to Episodes and Queer Eye – highly recommend both). I tried to ignore the little voice in my head that kept telling me I was wasting the trip by doing that but I tried to remember that I was doing it to ensure that I could make the most of the trip. It’s hard to see it that way sometimes. But without rest, I wouldn’t have been able to go out every night – sometimes to two shows – and I wouldn’t have been able to write the best songs I could and I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the experience. So yes, if you need to take breaks, take breaks.

And that’s it for this post. I hope it was interesting, that there were a few helpful things in here. I have lots of blog posts on the go or in the planning stages so I’ll talk to you all soon!

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