Updated: Sep 22
One of my first (of many) embarrassing moments on stage in 2006 at the age of 32 or so was telling the truth about what I thought was a long term relationship ending after 3 months. I was all serious in setting up what I call my "happy-break-up-song" 'Never Wanna Live Without' and there was no way people couldn't laugh at that. After quickly realizing the absurdity of my love life, I realized I had a joke, even though I still didn't really know what was so funny. That moment has since turned into one of my most told jokes about my love life on stage.
But that moment, and the song still didn't change how I was in relationships. And it would be another 9 years before I would finally sit down and simply write the scariest song I've ever written - 'Say No' - in the living room of a kind strangers home in Bavaria, Germany while on tour in January of 2015.
I must say there's no doubt destiny was involved in me writing this song. For many reasons, but a couple to start are simply the circumstances in which it was written. For example, though I normally had a place to stay organized in advance of shows, on the night of that particular show I hadn't seemed to get that organized and was kind of going by the seat of my pants. And as destiny would have it, as I pulled up to the gig, I randomly met one of the former organizers of the event that I was performing at and she offered me a place to stay right away without me even hinting that I needed one. I still don't know how that happened. That's happened only a handful of times in playing hundreds of shows. Sign number two is that she ended up being an artist herself, a painter, and was living with her boyfriend who was also a musician, a stand up bass player. The energy in the morning after the show was one of total creativity and flow. I could just sit down and write. They understood the process and were totally supportive. This could not have happened if I had stayed with someone who had wanted to chat in the morning and kick me out because they had to work.
That morning after the show, the sun was shining brightly into the apartment but it was winter so there was a cozy feel inside to contrast of the cold outside. I was feeling introspective and melancholy and there was a dissonant chord I'd learned from a Mat Kearney song that I was playing around with that fueled the feelings more. I was about a month removed from yet another on/off-feeling short-term relationship that I was trying to convince myself of or at least come to terms with, and I needed to write about it. I was feeling frustrated, confused, sorry for myself and anger and I had no holds barred in expressing that sentiment. In hindsight, I was wanting to control things that I couldn't control.
I've always written from my heart but what came out of me surprised me because for the first time ever, I saw the cynic in me that I'd never let myself see. I had no idea it was there despite my suicidal fantasies only 4 short years before at the age of 29. I had been, and was still blind to myself and the words coming out of me on the paper in front of me were shocking, scary and flat out depressing.
But more scary. Who was I? I always believed in love. I was always looking for 'the one'. I thought I knew what she would look like or be like when I met her. I was just 'unlucky' and waiting for 'the one', looking for the 'ultimate sign' that I had found my soulmate. So what was all this stuff about 'writing off love' and giving up on it and just faking it? What kind of song was I writing and more importantly was this really how I was viewing love? I wanted to change the lyrics. I didn't want to say that I 'had nothing to offer' - that was just embarrassing and 'not me'. I'm 'Mr Believe in Love'! What was going on here? But in this song I couldn't stop myself from stating the truth. Truth I didn't want to see. Truth I was ignoring especially when dating.
So here's where more destiny fits in the picture leading up to writing this song. I used to coach songwriting to teenagers in middle and high schools from 2005-2010 and one thing that became clear to me in the difference between songwriting in 11 year olds and 17 year olds was clarity of message due to fear. The older the children were, the more fear there was. Fear of judgement and fear to be honest with oneself. But then I realized that they weren’t the only ones who had this fear - I did too. That’s why sometimes in my early songs I lyrically hid what I wanted to say by being vague and opaque to peoples criticism that they didn't 'get it' and my defense of saying that it 'wasn't for everyone'. Bla bla. I didn’t want people to get it because then they’d ‘see me’.
But something funny happened when I didn't hide. My songs had impact because people could see me and see themselves in me and connect. So I made a rule for myself and everyone who I coached in songwriting: "If you’re afraid to write it, then you have to write exactly those words. Whatever you’re afraid to say in your song, that’s what you have to say. That's your job as a songwriter - to expose yourself." It worked. Not only were songs much more powerful but there was healing brought to everyone who was able to do it.
But this was definitely much easier said than done sometimes. Fast forward back to January 2015 in the artists apartment and there these words were in front of me; "but I know deep down, I’ve got nothing to offer…" and I immediately got repulsed and scared. I felt pathetic. “I can’t write that, that sounds too pathetic” I immediately had a recoil response and wanted to find something that ‘sounded better’ and more clever. But the preparation and preaching that I’d done over the years showed up in that moment. ‘If you’re afraid to write it, write it’ - echoed in my mind. I realized I needed to write it because it scared me to say it. It opened the door to writing the whole song, which I finished that day and shared with the artist who hosted me.
But it wasn't over with the songwriting part. That was just the beginning.
When I went to perform it live, I was afraid all over again. How was I going to say this publicly? Seriously, it was like getting naked. It took me a year of performing it to really get comfortable singing the song. I cried listening to the recording. I cried writing it. It took a year of my singing it out loud to recognize how worthless I felt and to shed light on that shame and false belief of myself. Truly therapeutic. And it never would’ve happened if I hadn’t written the song.
But what does this all have to do with me being perennially single and then finally finding and marrying the woman of my dreams and being certain of a healthy marriage for the rest of my life? How did this song in particular contribute to a future of certainty in love? How did it all change?
Well first things first. Why was I single or unable to find 'the one' in the first place? Two main things: I didn't know what I was looking for, and more importantly, I was lying to myself for years and it was finally revealed to me in that song. The song revealed how I really felt. My true attitude and feelings toward love and how broken my relationship with my word was.
The result of my lying, was a damaged relationship with my 'self'. I couldn't trust myself because I was not trustworthy. I was prey to myself because I would betray myself over and over not expressing my boundaries or wants and needs. This left me frustrated, angry, helpless and ultimately depressed and cynical.
This song was definitely not the be-all-end-all of my challenges with honesty with self but definitely a turning point in my life towards being transparent with myself as much as possible. Meeting my wife in May of 2016, a year and a half after the song was written, it proved to be the song that guided me to my future love. Continuing with my commitment to 'say what you're scared to say' proved over and over its working power in building trust. With a marriage now firmly locked on honesty, transparency and trust, the fruit of this pursuit has shown both me and my wife that obstacles of any sort only bring us more closely together rather than push us apart giving certainty to sustainability for our lives together. I didn't have that certainty ever about any relationship before.
Now on a full disclosure note, I must admit that the most embarrassing part of the song is how selfish it is. How uncaring it is of the person I'm singing to. I wrote it as a self-pity song and it turns out that self-pity is totally selfish. Who knew.
I entered it into a songwriting competition where they give feedback and they called it out. And I loved the criticism. It was true. When you listen to it, if I’m singing this to someone other than myself, the listener would expect that I’d at least acknowledge them listening in the second verse after talking about my pathetic self in the first verse. The first verse alone isn't enough to be selfish, but the second ignores the person completely. I continue feeling sorry for myself. This takes away from the power of the song but I didn’t change it because I wanted to leave it the selfish way it was written for myself. To expose the selfishness of me and let it die with that song. 'Say No', was a warning song for any person that would think of ignoring the signals that I was sending when dating me at the time. Ironically I sang it to my future wife on the day we met. It didn’t scare her away thankfully, and luckily she saw in me things I didn’t see in myself. So the rule I instilled back in the highschools I was teaching in still stands for me; I look for things I would be afraid to say, and then I say them. This is my rule for songwriting. And 'Say No' was my scariest song to write til now.
I’d written off love, long ago
But I played the part for the show
Cause people never find love true
even though I told myself they do
And it seems that you might like me now
but I know deep down I’ve got nothing to offer
and this you’re gonna soon find out
that I’ll let you down
over and over
Say no to me, listen closely
Just save yourself, save us from me
Cause I can’t say that word
I’ll only make it hurt
Wish I had something to give
Wish I had love to touch you with
Wish I could believe my lies
Then I could sleep tonight
So if you continue to pursue
No matter how hard I try, I can’t tell you the truth
I don’t really understand why
I sabotage myself and every girl that tries
Say no to me, make it easy
just save yourself, save us from me
Cause I won’t say that word
I’m only gonna make it hurt
I know for most its probably pretty easy
but its seems I like to make my life hard
so save yourself this mistake and hit the brakes and let me gooo and
Say no to me, listen closely to you heart
you know you’re having doubts
I’m giving you an out
Cause I can’t say that word
I’ll only make this hurt
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