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).

World Autism Awareness Day – Inclusive Quality Education For All

Given that the theme for this day was only announced by the UN a week or so ago, this isn’t as prepared as I would’ve liked; I would’ve liked more time to work on it, to organise my thoughts on the topic. ‘Cause this week has just been chaos, both in reality and emotionally: I had to leave my cats at a cattery, pack for my trip to the US, fly to Boston, go to a concert there, and then fly to Nashville, where I’ve been super busy. And all of that has been very stressful. So it’s not ideal but I’ve done the best I could with the time and emotional energy I’ve had.


Given that the theme set by the UN this year is ‘inclusive quality education for all,’ I thought I’d write a bit about my experience in education as a young autistic woman. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was twenty so, while my years in school were obviously affected by my being autistic, we didn’t know that that was the cause.

During primary and secondary school, things were pretty okay. I loved learning so that was never the hard part for me. I was shy – painfully so (P.E. and drama classes were cause for weekly distress) – and I was exhausted by being in school but otherwise I think it was fairly normal. For the most part, I was a high achiever: I learned to read and write well very quickly; I was top of the class in most subjects (some of which I tried hard in but some of which I seemed naturally good at); I was in my school’s ‘gifted and talented’ stream for multiple subjects. I was left to myself a bit, I think; I guess there’s a logic to the idea that you don’t need to help a smart kid be smart but then, in the long run, said smart kid doesn’t learn how to learn, if that makes sense. I picked things up very quickly so no one ever really taught me how to study; once I got to the harder stuff, I started to struggle.

Things were fine until sixth form college, when that problem really kicked in. But still, I pushed through: I worked harder, I exhausted myself further. But I thought there was something wrong with me. I thought I was stupid, that I was missing something; it never occurred to me that something like ASD meant my brain processed information differently, that the combination of the undiagnosed ASD and my all-consuming attempts to keep up were having a detrimental affect on my physical and mental health, or that I wasn’t being supported as I should’ve been. I had individual teachers who were kind and understanding but the institution itself offered no support at all. By the time I was taking my A Levels, I was so burned out and worn down that I was right on the edge of a breakdown. I ended up taking a gap year between the end of sixth form and the beginning of the university as I tried to get a handle on my spiralling mental health.

I went to the same university for both my BA and my MA (although with a few years in between), mostly because it allowed me to pursue my greatest special interest (songwriting) and study it in depth. I was diagnosed with several mental health problems during my first year of the BA and then ASD between the first and second year, which was when my university became more open to supporting me (it is worth pointing out however that I had to fight for almost every step because they simply didn’t understand why I needed what I told them I needed). They had what was called a Student Support Agreement that was supposed to be sent to all of my tutors before classes started so that they knew the difficulties I struggled with and what sort of accommodations I might need but I’d often introduce myself to a tutor and they’d have no idea what I was talking about.

In general, most of my tutors tried to understand; they were as accommodating and supportive as the university would allow them to be. They wanted to know; they wanted to understand; they wanted to make things easier for me (obviously not easier than it was for everyone else but to put me on the same level as my peers so I wasn’t disadvantaged). And while, I don’t mind – and even at times enjoy – educating others on Autism, it took a lot of energy to have those conversations at the beginning of every semester, sometimes multiple times. (It’s also worth pointing out that having those conversations can be really enjoyable when the person wants to learn but it can be a totally different story when you’re having those conversation out of necessity and the person isn’t really engaged.) It wasn’t until the last semester of my Masters that I worked with a tutor who was neurodivergent herself and it was a completely new way of experiencing education; feeling so understood and accommodated was amazing and that was definitely reflected in my work.

But while the individuals were open, for the most part, I felt like the institution wasn’t particularly interested in my experience as a neurodivergent student. It’s a small school so there were never that many of us (or there weren’t when I last spoke to them about it) because there weren’t that many of us in general and I don’t think they saw us as worth investing in (as in, it wasn’t financially worthwhile to educate all of their tutors on Autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions for just a handful of students) despite the benefits it could have for all of the students and for the tutors themselves.

Having said that, when I started the Masters I was introduced to the person brought in to support students with Autism and ADHD. I was feeling really optimistic about going back to uni – that progress was being made – but I hadn’t even known her a month when her actions triggered the biggest meltdown I’d had to date in the middle of a busy London train station, which was a traumatic experience. After that, I never heard from her again and found out from someone else that she’d transferred me back to Student Services without her ever saying anything to me. And all of that was with her training and experience. So I didn’t have a lot of faith in their efforts after that. I’m still talking to them though and I hope that I can still help them make the university experience better for neurodivergent students. They could – and they should – be doing more. With so many neurodivergent students dropping out of university, more needs to be done and I think the starting point is teaching the teachers.

I think it’s worth pointing out that I am in a fairly privileged position: I’m from a white, middle class family with a good support system and I went to good schools throughout my time in education. I was also able to go to university and had support from home that allowed me to do that in the way that was best for me. I was (and am) very lucky. But despite all of that, education has been an incredibly distressing experience.


Ultimately, everyone in education needs to know more about Autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions; knowledge and understanding is the only way that the education experience is going to get better for neurodivergent students. All of these institutions have been built on ableist foundations and I don’t have the answers on how to fix that but I do know that, without the knowledge, nothing will ever change.

A Love and Hate Relationship with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Being autistic is complicated (to state the obvious). It’s never just one thing, in my experience at least. It’s not even one thing on one day, one thing in one moment. It’s good things and bad things all wrapped up together and while I can advocate and applaud ‘Autistic Pride,’ I’m not sure I’m there yet. But I can appreciate the good and the bad and so, considering it’s World Autism Acceptance Week, I thought I’d post something about just that: the good and the bad and learning to live with them…


Autism, as we know, is a neurobehavioural condition so the traits associated with it are right down in our wiring, just like the rest of our personality traits: being autistic is at the very core of us and everything else is built upon that foundation. There are some things about being autistic that mean a lot to me, things about myself that I love and value, including…

  1. A NEED FOR AUTHENTICITY – Obviously I can’t control whether or not other people act authentically but I need to be authentic. If I act differently to how I feel, it has a negative impact on my mental health and on my happiness. So, to be happy and mentally healthy, I have to act on how I feel and be who I really am and it’s in following that rule (for lack of a better word) that I’ve had the best experiences and created the things I’m most proud of. As I said, I can’t make that choice for other people but I do think that, on the whole, I get on better and make stronger connections with people who are authentic.
  2. PASSIONATE ABOUT THE THINGS THAT ARE IMPORTANT TO ME – If I love something, I love it with everything I have. I will fully immerse myself in said thing; I actually find it hard not to. That can sometimes make doing normal, day-to-day things hard because all I want to be doing is engaging with this thing I love but I’d rather love wholeheartedly than feel ambivalent about stuff.
  3. LOYALTY – When I care about somebody, I’m all in. I’ll do anything for my friends, sometimes to a pretty extreme degree: like, once I improvised travelling home from Nashville because my flight was cancelled and I’d promised a friend I’d be home for something or like, once I woke myself up every hour to check whether a friend who was in hospital had tried to get in touch because she was scared about being in hospital alone at night. Putting that much into a friendship or relationship does mean I’m more likely to get my heart broken (and it already has been) but like all of the things that matter to me, I’m never going to want to care less about people. I mean, on the bad days, sometimes I do – it would make life easier – but, as a person, I like that I care that much. It’s not always easy (or healthy) but overall, I always think it’s better to care more than less.
  4. STUBBORNNESS – I am stubborn as hell and sometimes it’s a pain; sometimes I can’t let things go even when I want to. But being stubborn has also gotten me through a lot of hard stuff and helped me make a lot of good stuff happen.
  5. IT GAVE ME PURPOSE – All I want to do is make the world a little bit better. That’s all I want. I hate seeing people unhappy or things not working so I’m always looking for ways to help and make things better but the world is a big place with lots of problems and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless. But finding out that I’m autistic, that gave me a place to start and the more I’ve learned, the more I want to help make being autistic an easier, less harmful, and ultimately better experience. And that’s what I’m trying to do, whether that’s with this blog, my music, or by trying to improve the accessibility and understanding wherever I go.

But there are also things about being autistic that I hate, that I struggle with, that cause me problems, and upset me deeply. I know it’s not healthy to focus on the difficult parts (unless you’re, for example, working on something specifically in therapy or counselling) but I do believe that acknowledging the negatives is important and validating. Endless positivity is not helpful and can end up being harmful so here are some of the things that I hate about being autistic…

  1. LACK OF INDEPENDENCE – With the sensory issues, fatigue, mental health problems, etc, my independence is severely hindered. And as hard as I work to improve my stamina and my mental health and so on, I don’t know how I’m ever going to be completely independent. If it’s even possible. The idea of living by myself is one that I can’t even really imagine ever being realised. And with that being such a standard rite of passage that holds such weight, it’s hard not to feel inadequate or broken.
  2. FEELING FROZEN – I still don’t really know how to describe this feeling and I can’t say for sure what caused it or when it kicked in but I feel very stuck, particularly in the developmental sense. I feel stuck somewhere between teenager and adult; I feel all the pressure of being an adult but I also feel incapable of doing a lot of the things that make it impossible to meet all of those expectations. All of the things that impede my independence come into play here too, like my lack of energy and my issues with pain. Just existing is an exhausting experience; living as everyone else does feels like an impossible dream.
  3. THE SENSORY DIFFICULTIES (WITH FOOD IN PARTICULAR) – Sometimes just being is really hard. Every light is too bright, every sound is too loud, every smell is overpowering, every fabric is itchy… and so on. It’s not like that everyday, at least not for me. But it is like that a lot. And most of the time, it makes doing normal things like eating, drinking, going about my day, etc, just that bit harder. I would love to not be phased by restaurants for example: to not worry about the fact that there’s probably nothing I can eat, or potentially even drink, apart from water (and even then it usually has lemon or lime or cucumber in it). Even small things feel so complicated. I’d love to be able to just meet a friend for coffee and that be that but between whatever we eat or drink, how loud it is, and all of the other sensory factors (and that’s not even thinking about all the sensory stuff involved in the travelling), it’s just exhausting. And I wish it wasn’t.
  4. THE RESULTING MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS – While we will never know for sure, I (and the mental health professionals that I trust and have worked with for years now) strongly suspect that many of the mental health issues I deal with, are at least partly down to being autistic, and specifically, being diagnosed as autistic so relatively late. Anxiety, depression, OCD, BPD, and ADHD are all comorbid to Autism. Maybe some of them would have developed on their own but I’m sure the Autism did not help and the amount of distress that these problems cause isn’t something I can easily put words to. Every day is a struggle because of them. Let’s leave it at that for now.
  5. THE LACK OF UNDERSTANDING, FROM EVERYONE (INCLUDING MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS) – Everywhere I go, I have to teach people about Autism, even the most basic stuff. From friends, to teachers, to doctors, even to people whose entire job revolves around accessibility. No one seems to know anything, or at least anything beyond the basic stereotypes. There’s almost no decent representation out in the world, in the media (which makes it very easy to feel alone and/or broken) – the vast majority of it is harmful. So many people still don’t even know that Autism manifests differently in girls. Autism is a complicated thing so I don’t mind helping people understand it, understand some of the nuance, but I hate how bad the general understanding is, especially when it’s people who should know better (when it’s part of their job, for example). This is why so many people are diagnosed so late and struggle so much: even the people who should have a working knowledge of Autism don’t and it’s really not good enough.

So, this was a bit more exposing than I’d expected when I started writing. But there it is. Almost a decade later and I’m still figuring out what it means, to me, to be autistic. It’s complicated and it’s hard and some days I’m really proud that this is who I am. I guess the goal is to have more of those days.