I'm starting to feel like May is just a bad time for me. Or maybe a good time. Or just a time.
It's May 2018, and I'm releasing my first full-length solo album.
In May 2017, I released my now defunct rock band's first full-length solo album. That same month, my girlfriend dumped me, and my band dissolved.
In May 2016, I announced the crowd-fund for my rock band to record that album. The night before the crowd-fund launched, my boyfriend and I broke up. That boyfriend was also the drummer in my band. We had lived together for a year. We had been dating for five years. Our band had been together for six.
I thought about backing out of the crowd-fund that night. I wish I had. But it would have been difficult. We'd already signed a contract with a recording studio that had helped us with marketing, including email newsletters, all of which had already gotten sent out a week ahead of time by accident. If we canceled the project, we'd have to pay the studio to get out of the contract. (I can't find the contract anymore, but I think we would have had to pay $5,000.)
I made the wrong decision. I spent the next year of my life paying for it – just, not with money. The crowd-fund raised $13,078, which at the time was more money than the recording studio had ever managed to raise for any band they'd agreed to help. We recorded an album that sounds incredible. I never listen to it.
June 21, 2016
We had wrapped up the crowd-fund and the album was underway. I hadn't told anyone except my family and close friends that Zach and I had broken up. I didn't want to go public with my misery and regrets. I didn't want to admit, even to myself, that the band was already over before we had even started recording anything. In my head, I thought there must be some way for the band to continue. After all, our friends and family had just given us thousands of dollars, and they all loved the band. They wanted it to continue. I didn't want to let them down. Or myself.
I couldn't have easily kicked Zach out of the band, either. Not after the crowd-fund launched. A third of the people who'd contributed money were his family and friends, some of whom had bid on personalized high-level rewards, like the cover song videos. Crowd-funds tend to succeed on the personalities and popularity of their hosts, and that's definitely what propelled ours to over-funded success. Also, Zach had co-written many of the songs on the album, and he even sang leads on one of them—a love song I had written for him right before we started dating, when our future looked bright.
I felt stuck. At least I wasn't stuck in a bad relationship anymore, but in a way, I also still was.
So, on June 21, 2016, I wrote two songs in one day. I wrote “Press Release,” a song about how I hadn't told anyone that Zach and I had broken up, and the shit show that my anxiety-riddled brain imagined would ensue if I ever did.
I also wrote “Ghost Girl,” which speaks for itself: Remember when you were happy? Remember when you still thought things were gonna work out? Ha, ha, ha.
Back then, I didn't think those songs would end up on a solo album. I figured it could be a two-song EP, if I ever bothered to record them at all.
I'd like to invite you into my head. There's some traumatic shit in here, though, so you might want to skip this part.
So let's say it was your idea to move in with this guy. But, let's say, within a few months, you realized you'd made a mistake. The red flags in your relationship had transformed into blaring klaxons. But, again, it was your idea to move in. Your idea to sign the contract with a recording studio. It was like the worse the storm raged, the harder you held on.
Let's say you had lots of reasons to dump him. So many that it's embarrassing to list them all, but when your friends ask, you offer up one or two: he cheated on you, he kept not paying rent, he wanted kids and you didn't ... after all, you two would be awful parents, based on how your relationship and your rock band had been going. But let's say there was another reason that you didn't really feel like telling anyone besides your therapist. Let's say that he kept trying to choke you during sex.
This escalated at a snail's pace over several years. He would do a variety of little things, increasingly bigger things, that hurt you in bed. When you protested, he would apologize and say he hadn't meant to do it. He'd say, sometimes, that he couldn't believe he had done it, almost like it had been someone else. You'd even laugh about it together, sometimes, like it was a game of telephone and he had just misheard. Which, of course, he had. So, it would never happen again! Of course not. But then it would.
You got real good at convincing yourself that it was all some big misunderstanding, even though you had told him your boundaries and hard limits over and over. You'd dated people who were into sexual power exchanges before, and so you knew how to negotiate boundaries, or at least, you thought you did. It wasn't like he was blowing past these boundaries in a big way, either. He would cross the line slowly, methodically, carefully... just for a second, blink and you'll miss it. Then, the next time, just for a minute... and so on. It all built up to the choking.
When you reminded him about those pesky boundaries you'd requested, over time he started to get defensive instead of apologetic. One time, a fight culminated in him shouting, “Are you saying I raped you?” Somehow, you ended up consoling him for something that he had done. Of course not. Please don't feel bad! Let's not overreact about this minor communication issue!
Sometimes he gets moody, you'd say to yourself, to your friends. But it always turns out to be nothing.
Oh, and of course, he was still charming. Still hilarious. Still your friends' favorite party guest. And still your favorite, too! Still the guy you fell in love with. It was hard to imagine having to go anywhere, do anything, without him. Everyone loved the band, and his presence in it specifically. It couldn't have succeeded without his charisma, and neither would you – not at your music, or at anything else.
Anyway, most of the time, the sex was great. It was just that, sometimes, it wasn't. Once a year. Or, every few months. Then, every month. It never came with any warning, and it seemed impossible to stop it without causing an even bigger fight. Without you, somehow, getting blamed for upsetting him by bringing up the whole “by the way, I hate when you do this specific list of things” situation.
Telling him that he had hurt you would, somehow, hurt his feelings. His pain over getting confronted would get positioned as worse than whatever you'd just endured. It was your fault for not saying something sooner (even though you had). You were the one making him feel bad. You never quite understood how he kept pulling that conversational reversal off, but he did. You'd be the one who would have talk him down, play mediator against your own pain. Eventually, it seemed easier to just lie there and wait it out.
Sometimes, over dinner the next night, you'd try a new tack at the same careful conversation. You'd say, your voice so gentle and almost sprightly, that your body still hurt. Just a little bit. Ha ha. And that it was fine, and everything, but maybe we could just stop doing this particular set of things, those things you hate? He would avoid eye contact and the topic at hand, almost baffled at times, like he'd forgotten you were a person and not a doll that he could bend into any position. But, you'd sigh with relief, the oversight had been corrected once and for all. It would be fine from now on, thanks to this conversation. Weeks would pass. And it would all happen again.
Let's say you had spent six years writing songs together. Five years sleeping together. And let's say that you found it almost impossible to reconcile the good memories with the few really bad days. Even as those days increased in frequency. It didn't even feel real, most of the time, because it just didn't match up with the rest of what you knew about him. This was the guy who'd hide his eyes during horror movies, who couldn't stand to watch any media with violence against women. He's not the type at all. You love him. Everyone loves him. What's not to love?
Had any of this really happened? It couldn't be how you thought it was. You'd convince yourself you'd been in the wrong, somehow, until it happened again, and you'd be staring down the reality of it. Right! This again. This happens, too, sometimes. Your face crushed into the pillow, you'd debate what to even say this time. I guess the last conversation just didn't do the trick, you'd think to yourself, with eerie lucidity.
Even after the breakup, it seemed rude to ruin everyone's image of him. To impose on everyone else's collective good memory with the few snatches of bad memories that only you and your therapist knew about. Everyone still liked the band so much, and the album, and also him. And who could blame them? Plus, you had to finish the album anyway. And now, you wanted to give them some explanation for why the band would never do a reunion show – and why you still seemed so angry, all the time.
But did anyone need to know the actual reason? Why even feel compelled to share it? Would it serve as some justification for why you'd been such a shell of a person for two years, so incredibly hard to be around? Why your mood had swung wildly between joyful denial and extreme depression and self-sabotage? Why your migraines had increased, why you'd had to find two new therapists in two years, why you'd signed up for a meditation class? Or would it just be another example in a long string of bad events in your life that your friends must already be so sick of hearing about?
Hadn't you already been with assholes before, after all? The guy who drank too much and punched your friend in the face, broke that other guy's arm, made you worry for his safety (and yours) every time he partied too hard? Or the guy who responded to your refusal in bed by unfurling a roll of duct tape to tie you down? Isn't this on you for having such incredibly, impressively bad taste – even after years of therapy and reflection about those previous guys? How did you let this happen to you again, exactly? And, come on, was any of it really that bad, especially compared to those other guys? It's not like this would ever stand up in a court of law. Sometimes his words, “are you saying I raped you,” still echo in your head.
And... are you? Memory is faulty, anyway. He probably remembers it all very differently, and it's fucked up for you to act like you remember it all perfectly, or like you were never at fault. If it were really that bad, you would have left. You certainly wouldn't have signed that contract. Made so many compromises. Laid still, debating if each twinge of pain mattered enough to push him off and have yet another fight.
At the time, though, you somehow could hold the knowledge in your head that what was happening was wrong, and that it was escalating rather than improving. That if your friends knew, they'd be scared. That, someday, somehow, you would have to dump him, as soon as you could figure out a way to do it. You stopped picturing the wedding you'd have, or the two of you growing old together. When you thought about your future, you imagined yourself alone.
Your life with him had started to revolve around his moods. The two of you did whatever he wanted, but the list of things he wanted to do seemed to get shorter all the time. By the end, there was just one thing left: playing music. And that always seemed to be in threat of disappearing. It felt like one bad day between you could destroy it all. So you held on even tighter. The bad day didn't have to come. Not yet. It would come later, sure, but who knew when? Until that day, you could always make another compromise.
The night before the crowd-fund launched, he said he had to talk to you. You told him not to say anything. You didn't want to have the fight that you knew would end in a breakup. But he ignored your protestations, your request to put off the conversation until some other time. He had to unload his guilty conscience. His feelings always seemed to come first.
The problem, he explained, was that he'd been pursuing some other girl. It wasn't even his idea to end it with her, though. She'd decided it had gone too far; she told him to stop. She told him to go to therapy, a suggestion he took as the ultimate shameful insult. He cried as he told you; he said he felt ashamed. He wanted your absolution, your forgiveness, more than anything. He still loved you, and he'd only now realized how much he loved you.
He didn't even like choking you. He didn't even know why he was doing it. He was just so fucked up, so turned around, but he saw that now. He didn't want to go to therapy, or anything, but... okay, how about couples counseling? What, you don't want to do that? You don't think this relationship is worth fighting for? Come on! He's finally making a compromise, here!
You stood up and walked outside. You sat on the pavement and cried. You knew you should have broken up with him long ago. You had been hugging something dead and rotting.
The crowd-fund was going to launch at midnight. Only a few hours away. Maybe... if those announcement emails hadn't already gotten sent out by accident. Maybe... if the studio hadn't needed all of that money to dissolve the contract. Maybe...
You had laid still and waited it out before. So accommodating! Why not make one more compromise? Would it really be that bad?
July 4, 2016
I wrote “Bad Feeling,” which also ended up being the first song that I recorded for the album. It's one of the only songs on the album that didn't change at all (lyrically or melodically) since the day that I wrote it, and the instrumentation hews close to how I write all of my songs (on a piano). I waited for a thunderstorm and recorded the rain myself through the window.
I spent a lot of nights driving myself to and from the recording studio alone. I always pictured this song accompanying me as I drove home in the rain, in the dark. At the time, I would get annoyed at myself for feeling bad, but then I'd have to remind myself, again and again, that I had a very good reason to feel bad. I've got a bad feeling... it's you.
I didn't think it would take a full year to record the studio album and get all the crowd-fund rewards sent out. I thought maybe it would take a few months. But no. It took a whole year. I should have expected that. It always took us a long time to do anything.
I don't know what other bands are like, but for us, writing music came as a constant challenge. I love the songs we wrote together, but each one took weeks or even months of arguing to come to fruition.
We played great live shows, though. We told jokes and made people laugh. Sometimes people wondered why we couldn't write songs faster, or record them faster. We just couldn't seem to complete anything. Zach would insist he wanted to record all of our songs himself, but he'd get caught in a spiral of decision-making and perfectionism. Recording music lends itself well to this endless cycle.
I thought that signing a contract with a recording studio would force us into a specific time frame. It did, but rather than serving as an inspiration for the band to become more dedicated, the contract became the reason why I couldn't quit a project that had long since become unhealthy for me. I think, in my head, I saw the contract as a way to convince myself that everything would be fine. I think I thought it would turn us all into completely different people – like how people get married, or even have a child, in a wrongheaded attempt to fix a relationship with fundamental problems. Naturally, signing the contract exacerbated our problems, rather than bringing us closer together.
Dan's wife got a job in Seattle, so he made plans to move away. This somehow made me even more determined to record the album, rather than taking it as a sign that the band should end. I told my friends and family we had to finish the album before Dan left – that we had to finish it because Dan was leaving.
When Zach and I broke up, I blamed myself for gunning so hard in favor of the studio contract. For asking him to move in with me. For making us all select the wrong choices. For telling all my friends and family how much I had wanted all of this. For reorganizing my life around recording the album. For quitting other projects to make time for it.
But there wasn't a version of my future where it didn't happen. I had it all planned out. I would make it work. I could always make it work. I can be stubborn to a fault when it comes to achieving my goals. It's a good quality when it's a productive, healthy goal. It's bad when the goal involves self-sabotage.
July 21, 2016
I wrote “Never Write A Song” about my internal debate with myself over whether any of this was worth it.
I've gotten to play shows for hundreds of people and seen them dance and sing along to lyrics that I wrote, which is an incredible experience that most musicians never get to have, and that I might never get to have again in my life.
When things were good, things were really good. So good that it was easy to forget that things could ever be bad, or that they had ever been bad at any point. But when things were bad... I would never wish those times on anyone.
Don't join a band. Don't fall in love. It'll only break your heart.
But... if you're me... you'll do it anyway.
I went out of town the weekend after Zach and I broke up. I told him to move out while I was gone. But he wanted me to take him back. He packed an overnight bag, but he left most of his belongings behind, as well as an apology note. While I was gone, he and his mother cleaned the entire apartment and moved all of my stuff into places where I couldn't find it. I wasn't impressed; I was angry. He wrote a letter to my own mother apologizing for how he had wronged me, but without specifics. (My mother loved this and told me he was a “good boy.” I hadn't told her the specifics, either.) There was nothing he could have done, at this point, to win me back. We had already passed the point of no return.
Throughout recording the album, though, he kept acting like he was expecting me to go back on my decision to kick him out. I had to see him multiple times a week, so he had plenty of time to make his case. I stayed cold. He kept pushing. By then, I could recognize his boundary-sliding tactics. I found it all disgusting.
There's only one red flag that ever matters: do they listen when you say no?
July 29, 2016
I wrote “Impasse.” I changed the lyrics quite a few times in the months to follow. This is probably the kindest song that I wrote about the situation, since the first couple verses are all about the different compromises that I made over the course of our relationship. I rewrote the second half of the song several months later, when I had more distance from the breakup and felt angry enough to finish the song in a way that seemed more accurate to the way that my feelings had changed.
Dan finished recording his guitar parts and moved to Seattle by the end of 2016. Zach and I remained in Boston, stuck finishing the rest of the album and auditioning a new guitarist for the band... on the assumption that the band would continue.
Part of why I leaned into this lie, both internally and externally, was because I worried that if I told Zach I wanted the band to end as soon as we finished the album and crowd-fund rewards, he would refuse to help me finish those things, either due to anger or sadness or both. I felt like I had to placate him into finishing the project.
Or perhaps I was projecting, and I was the one who would lose momentum, if I admitted to those feelings. I didn't want to have to abandon the crowd-fund and find a way to refund backers all the money we'd already spent.
I ignored my own feelings so often during that year of my life that it still astounds me. I entered deep denial states for weeks at a time, convincing myself that the band was going great and could even go on tour, as soon as the album finished. It wasn't always a lie, either. Sometimes, the band was going great. Our friends and family asked us all the time about when the album would be out. Their excitement and joy made it almost impossible for me to admit that I was on a death march.
When the album finally came out, everyone loved it. People wanted to know why the band wasn't still playing shows, hadn't found a new guitarist yet, why we weren't going on tour together and playing the songs that they loved and wanted to hear. But with every CD that I packed into an envelope for a faithful fan, I felt more and more certain that the dream had died.
Somewhere in the middle of recording the album, I crafted a polite Facebook status explaining that Zach and I had broken up but that we were still recording the album together. I said that Dan was moving away but that we would be trying to find a new guitarist and that the band wouldn't end. I think the fact that I waited so long to go public with the breakup was part of what gave Zach the hope that I would take him back, and I regret that. I regret a lot of things, in case that wasn't already obvious.
I don't even know why I wanted the album to happen so badly. Maybe I just wanted it to exist as an artifact, a record of what had happened to me, in my life, during that time. To be able to show it to people and say, there. That was six years of my life, printed out on a disk. A bunch of silly songs that I wrote with my hilarious ex and my childhood friend about robots and dragons and werewolves. That's the silly and charming life that I led, from age 24 to age 30.
Except it wasn't a reflection of what had happened to me. There were some bits and pieces of truth on there. But most of it was the beautiful fantasy, the love story, the heroic success. The facade.
After Zach moved out of our apartment, I stayed there alone. I filled our spare room, once occupied by his drum set and other belongings, with a collection of keyboards. I kept myself alive with the promise that I could make an entire album by myself. As I recorded and arranged the first five songs that I had written on my own during that year when we'd made the album, I kept coming up with even more songs, and by the end of 2017, my solo album had ballooned out into 11 tracks.
April 21, 2017
In late April, I had been dating a girl since the previous November. By this point, the solo album was almost done, but I felt a lot of dread about my life. I was pretty sure my girlfriend was going to dump me. And I also was pretty sure that, after the album launched, I would dissolve my rock band. I don't think "Solitary Job" was a self-fulfilling prophecy so much as a letter to my future self about the inevitability of my crushing loneliness.
The band was my primary social outlet for a very long time, and rebounding with a new girlfriend certainly helped me get through the final six months of recording the album, but it wasn't a relationship that was meant to last. It felt like my life was on a countdown clock to a rude reality that I had put off facing. As the lyrics say: Alone again. Just a question of when.
When I was 21, I had a different bad breakup and I played through every Metroid game to keep myself alive. I didn't do that this time; I wrote this album instead. But I thought about Metroid a lot while I was writing it, and that's what this song refers to.
May 3, 2017
I started exercising a lot more in the year post-breakup, and I listened to a lot of pop music and breakup songs while I went running. I came up with the hook for "Form" while on a run. The chorus is a Dragon Ball Z reference, although the lyrics also blend in some imagery of Kerrigan from StarCraft. Overall it's a song inspired by supposed villains and their promised vengeful comebacks.
That's how I felt about myself at the time. By breaking up the band and letting everyone down, and not finding some way to make it all work, I felt like a villain. I felt like I'd let everyone down. I blamed myself for it all. But I tried to find a way to spin it into something triumphant.
August 18, 2017
After the album launched, I sent Zach a long email breaking up the band and also telling him in the clearest possible terms that his behavior towards me wasn't acceptable. I started thinking to myself about what, if anything, I wanted to say to the public about what had gone down between us.
During the recording of the album, I had done my damnedest to push down the worst memories of what had happened between us. I had to, in order to complete that project. But, in the months after the band broke up, it became harder and harder for me to ignore how angry I actually felt.
By August 2017, I was done pushing away my anger and felt ready to experience it instead. The song "Petty" is, as usual, a in-joke with myself about the idea that it would be “petty” for me to care about any of the things I'm angry about.
September 5, 2017
I wrote the chorus of "Don't Make My Mistakes" first, which thematically and lyrically is not so different from “Never Write A Song,” although it's not as even-handed or self-compassionate. It's more desperate, since by this point, I felt like I'd thrown several years of my life into the garbage. Specifically, I was angry at myself for signing a contract that locked me into spending a full year of my life working on a project with my awful ex-boyfriend.
It felt like some sort of fairy tale curse, but I didn't feel like a princess or a damsel. So I made myself the evil witch in the story – the villain. Again, that's just how I felt about myself at the time. I blamed myself a lot as I worked through my shit.
This song almost didn't make it onto the album, because it was my least favorite for a long time. It still kind of is, but at this point, I've made my peace with how I felt when I wrote it.
September 17, 2017
I wrote “It's All Real,” a song about the intense anxiety and loneliness that I felt now that I was single and didn't have a rock band and could barely concentrate on work or friendships or anything else in my life. I've always had anxiety, but burying my latest dose of trauma had made me much more paranoid. I wrote the song and didn't plan to put it on my solo album, which by that point was coming along just fine with nine total songs. I shared the demo of "It's All Real" with some friends and they loved it, though, so I added it on to the pile and rounded out the track list to 10.
October 3, 2017
I wrote “Moon,” a song that I didn't think belonged on this album at first, since it was about my most recent ex-girlfriend and not about my band at all. I have a running joke with myself (that's a theme behind most of these tracks, isn't it?) that I want all of my exes to move to the moon so that I don't have to run into them anymore. I got pretty lucky with this particular breakup, since she did move far away and we haven't spoken since.
I do feel bad about how bitter these lyrics are, though. This gal had the bad luck of being a person I'd crushed on as a teenager (as the lyrics say: ever since I was 19, I had this silly little dream). I was already in an emotionally raw place when she asked me out, and I read way too much into her feelings, which were much breezier than mine. I don't know if it's entirely accurate to describe the situation as a “rebound” so much as just a desperate epilogue to what was already shaping up to be a real shitty chapter in my life. With that context in mind, perhaps it does belong on this album after all.
I didn't actually think I could do any of this on my own. I also didn't think I could play a live show without Zach and Dan. I still haven't, but it's a goal.
This album does not sound as professional as the one that I paid to record in a studio with my band, because I made it all by myself. It didn't cost $13,078 to make. It cost nothing. And everything.
It took me two years to write these 11 new songs and to learn how to record and produce them in the way that I wanted them to sound. The lyrics sound uncertain and angry and confused because that's how I felt when I wrote them. The production isn't very high-quality because I did it all myself, because... that's how I wanted it to be.
It's a big deal to me to show any of these songs to anyone. It's a big deal for me to write these album notes to go along with them. It feels pretty embarrassing, actually, to imagine anyone listening to these songs or reading this story. I'm not sure why I'm putting any of this out there. Perhaps because it feels a little like squeezing the poison out of a vein.
I don't want people to feel sorry for me. Because I don't feel sorry for myself, anymore. I feel proud. I don't need anyone else to feel proud. But if you're going to feel any type of way about any of this, I hope that's the emotion that you land on.
I've already started writing another new song. I guess it'll have to go on the next album. Probably out in May 2019.