Tin Pan South 2020

As someone who considers Nashville their home away from home, I was devastated when my trip was cancelled due to the pandemic. I knew it was the right, safe thing to do and I honestly wouldn’t have considered going, given the potential to get stuck there, but I was still incredibly upset. Even though it can be a very stressful time (with all the unknowns and potential for surprises), it’s one of my favourite parts of the year; I was hugely disappointed to miss out on Tin Pan South, Song Suffragettes, seeing my Nashville friends again, visiting my favourite places, and so on. So many things were cancelled but that was one of the hardest.

I knew NSAI were hoping to reschedule Tin Pan South for later in the year but as the pandemic went on, that looked less and less likely. But then they announced that they would be holding an online version of the festival, which was very exciting. There were considerably less shows than usual and some of the big names that always play were missing, which was unexpected, but I assume that that was to do with technical or pandemic-related issues. It was just a bit sad because there were certain people I was really looking forward to seeing again. But oh well. Hopefully I’ll get to see them next time.

I’d thought that I would have to get up in the middle of the night (never have time zones affected my life as much as they have in the last six months) to watch the livestreams, which I wasn’t particularly looking forward to, but then I discovered that the shows were available on the website the next day so I could at least attempt to get some real sleep and then watch the shows during normal waking hours. That was a very pleasant and much appreciated surprise, making my experience of it as a virtual festival so much better than expected.


TUESDAY

I didn’t end up watching any shows from the first night. Both Tuesday and Wednesday were very long, stressful days for me and I just couldn’t manage anything more than I absolutely had to do. Fortunately there wasn’t anyone that I was desperate to see so it wasn’t a disaster. I would’ve liked to browse the livestreams afterwards to potentially find new (to me anyway), awesome songwriters – that’s always one of my favourite parts of the festival – but as far as I can tell, the livestreams only stayed up for twenty four hours and they were gone before I had time to look.

WEDNESDAY

Aaron Barker, Jim Collins, and Mignon – I’ll admit that it took me a while to get used to Tin Pan South looking like my university lectures rather than a songwriters’ round. That definitely threw me more than I’d expected but I did still enjoy it. Mignon was the draw for me: she was great when I saw her back in 2017 (I think) at Song Suffragettes and she was amazing in this round. She was definitely my favourite. I really loved ‘I Got You’ and ‘Story of My Heart’ was a close second.

Desmond Child, Erika Ender, and Victoria Shaw – This one had some really good performances (especially Desmond Child singing ‘Livin’ on a Prayer,’ although I still have to see him perform it at a live round one day – I bet the atmosphere in the room is amazing!) but it felt very much like a series of separate performances glued together. One of the best bits of these rounds are how the performers interact and join in on each other’s songs and I really missed that.

THURSDAY

Chris Barron, Jeff Cohen, and Toby Lightman – This show felt much more like a Tin Pan South round, with the writers chatting and joking around. I found myself smiling A LOT. The reason I picked this show was Jeff Cohen: I’ve met him a few times and seen him perform at various similar events and not only is he a great writer, he’s also a genuinely lovely guy. So I was really excited to see him play again. Toby Lightman was an awesome new find; I loved all of her songs but I especially loved ‘Breathe In.’ Chris Barron was probably furthest from my musical tastes but he was a great performer and had some hilarious stories to tell about the songs and about touring. So I really enjoyed that show and I think a big part of that was because it felt like a real show.

Kris Delmhorst, Mark Erelli, and Lori McKenna – I really enjoyed this round and I think a big part of that was that it was an actual songwriters’ round: it was the three of them in a room together. The conversation and interaction was so real and natural and that was really nice to see. I always enjoy seeing Lori McKenna perform and I love how she talks about songwriting. She played ‘People Get Old’ and ‘Humble and Kind,’ which I’m pretty sure is my favourite of hers. It’s so simple but so beautiful and so emotional, so heartbreakingly sincere. I also really liked Kris Delmhorst; I thought she was awesome. I especially loved her first song, ‘Wind’s Gonna Find A Way.’ They ended with ‘Girl Crush,’ a song I really dislike so I stopped the stream there. I wanted to finish on a positive, inspired note, which I knew I wouldn’t if I listened to ‘Girl Crush.’

FRIDAY

I didn’t end up watching any of the Friday shows. The combination of lots to do and trying to fight off a headache just made it one thing too many to manage. Plus there wasn’t anyone I felt super strongly about seeing. So I just took the day off from Tin Pan South, especially as there were three shows on the Saturday that I needed to pack in.

SATURDAY

Phil Barton, Seth Ennis, and Liz Rose – I really enjoyed this round because the three of them were just having such a great time, just having so much fun, joking around and being silly. They really didn’t let the virtual format put a dent in their show; they completely went to town, acting like they were playing Glastonbury and it was just so much fun to watch. I’ve always tried to go to the Liz Rose show at Tin Pan South so it was really cool to see her perform again, even if I have heard her perform some of the same songs before. I think I’ve seen Seth Ennis a couple of times now and he’s always great. I love his voice. But in this particular round, I think my favourite had to be Phil Barton. He just had so much energy; he was almost bouncing off the walls and it just made me smile and laugh and feel good. And there hasn’t been a lot of that to spare recently. He played ‘Skin & Bones’ (Eli Young Band), ‘Why Baby Why’ (Mickey Guyton), and ‘A Woman Like You’ (Lee Brice), which were all great. It was a really, really fun show – definitely the one I smiled most during.

Ryan Griffin, Carly Pearce, Riley Roth, and Emily Shackelton – This one was a very emotional show given that it was a tribute to busbee (an amazing songwriter who died last year, for those of you who didn’t know). It was very emotional with many of the writers performing important songs they’d written with him or songs they’d written about him since his death. Of the four of them, Carly Pearce and Emily Shackelton were my favourites.

Carly played her first big song, ‘Every Little Thing,’ which she’d written with and was then produced by busbee. Before playing her second song – a new one – she told the story of its inspiration: they were all at busbee’s funeral and Barry Dean was making a speech about him, talking about how it was just like him to have to get to Heaven first so that he could get the lay of the land and find all the best places to show his loved ones when they joined him. She just heard the song in that and pulled out her phone to write it down – she knew that, out of everyone, he wouldn’t have minded. The song was called ‘Show Me Around’ and it was absolutely stunning. I was in tears from the first few lines; it was a beautiful tribute but so heartbreakingly sad. Her final song was the last song that busbee had worked on, called, ‘I Hope You’re Happy Now.’ It was really powerful but I don’t think anything could’ve beaten ‘Show Me Around.’

I’ve seen Emily Shackelton before and I always try to see her if I can. She’s a gorgeous writer. She played ‘Doin’ Fine’ (Lauren Alaina), which is a song I love and then a new song, which I think was called ‘Killing Me’ that was super emotional. And then, before her last song, she spoke briefly about busbee. She talked about one of the last times they’d texted and she’d asked him whether he was writing anything. He replied, “I don’t think I’m gonna make any more music here, but I hear echoes of eternity.” That phrase has just enthralled me, ever since I heard it. From everything they said about him, he sounds like an incredible human being. She played a song she’d written not long after his death as she was trying to deal with all of her emotions, called ‘Raining For Months.’ It was so sad and so beautiful. She seemed especially emotional and I just wanted to reach through the screen and give her a hug.

Both Ryan Griffin and Riley Roth were good too; I particularly enjoyed Riley’s ‘Parents’ and ‘I Did This To Myself.’

It was a truly stunning round. It’s hard to choose a favourite because they all varied so drastically in mood and intensity but I think it’s safe to say that this one had the biggest effect on me and will be one that stays with me. I wish we could’ve all been there in person but since we couldn’t, I’m just so grateful that we could experience it at all. It was really special. Really, really special.

Chris Destephano and Emily Weisband – I immediately picked out this round because I love Chris Destephano. He was great: he told some great stories (and some great jokes) and delivered some really powerful performances. And Emily Weisband turned out to be a stunning new find (for me, at least). All of her songs were gorgeous but I particularly loved her unreleased song, ‘Sinning With You.’ It was just so delicate and beautiful. I also loved her performance of ‘Older Than I Am’ (Lennon Stella) and I definitely related to parts of ‘Getting Good’ (Lauren Alaina). It was a really, really good show, a nice balance of the first and second shows of the night and the perfect end to Tin Pan South 2020.


So it was a week of pretty incredible and emotional shows. Tin Pan South has never failed to inspire me and apparently the virtual experience doesn’t change that. Of course, it wasn’t the same as the normal in-person experience – it didn’t have that same magic that you get from being in a room with these other people who are so passionate about songwriting but that’s not exactly surprising. But having said that, it was still so wonderful and so special and I’m so grateful to NSAI and everyone who worked to make it happen because I absolutely loved it. Tin Pan South is one of the highlights of my year and I feel so, so lucky not to have had to miss out on it as I’ve had to miss out on so many other things. This year, we’re all making huge compromises and having to come to terms with months worth of missed opportunities and stolen joy and I’m just so grateful that this experience wasn’t one of the things taken away by the pandemic and lockdown.

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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