Scared Great: Being Nervous (and Humiliated) is Good For You

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Illustration by Cristina Spanò

In 2008, I was driving back to Brooklyn in a blizzard from a gig in Northampton, Massachusetts. I had just opened for a band called Architecture in Helsinki. I had the whole place dancing, sold seven CDs and was paid $50 by the venue. Things were good. But now, I was risking my life in a storm because I had to get back for my day job in human resources at Citibank corporate headquarters in Long Island City, Queens.

The next morning I received two pieces of news. First, thanks to the collapsing economy, I was basically fired along with our whole group. Second, Citi was going to give me some severance and health insurance for a while.

This was terrifying—and liberating. I didn't know how this could all work long-term without that paycheck twice a month. I had a cool(ish) band. I wrote songs about me and put them on records that not a lot of people bought. I took myself very seriously. I toured a little and was sure my true audience wasn't even born yet. No one said no to me or told me, "That sucks." The one thing I did have was a great manager. Although he had made about 2 cents on me, he was committed. He told me to "start working with other writers that are better than you."

I was petulant about co-writing, though. I refused real advice. But something clicked when I had about $100 in my bank account and a new baby. I started to go on what we call co-writes in New York City and Nashville, all on my own dime. I waited at one session for a guy who had a couple hits in the '90s to get off the phone with his interior decorator for two hours. I had guys dressed head to toe in white "explain" to me the "rules" of songwriting. Co-writers suggested I take their online courses.

It was embarrassing being so low on the totem pole after being kinda cool for a sec. But gradually, I became humbled when I started to get in rooms with professionals who write every day. And it turns out they weren't any less soulful or brilliant than the hipster waiting for inspiration in his Brooklyn walk-up (ahem, me). I was desperate and felt out of my league, and sometimes still do.

Then, in a weird twist, a country artist named Heidi Newfield cut one of my songs, "Wreck You," and her debut album ended up selling close to 300,000 copies. My royalties were more than I had collectively made in my whole music career. And just like that, I was the dog that caught the car.

I grew up in New Jersey in a nice family. I didn't know any artists or creatives, but I always loved music and thought I'd be in show business in some way. As it turned out, when I was 18 I met my birth mother (I had always known I was adopted), who was a successful songwriter with her sisters in a band called The Roches. Maggie, my biological mom, had written their first big record.

What I learned through her is that, even when you're successful, writing songs and putting them out there is difficult, challenging and sometimes humiliating. Almost none of them go anywhere. Then the humiliating part started happening to me. One prominent reviewer wrote up the Heidi Newfield album my song is on (yay!) but noted my song was not very strong (boo!). (Eight years later, that same song was nominated for a Grammy, so that's something to think about.)

My friends in Brooklyn were unimpressed I was making slick "new country." But the royalties that song made gave me a chance to keep scrapping and learning. Even though it wasn't a ton of money it kept me in business and in the game really.

Anyway, some advice: Show up. This week, I'll fly to Nashville to write songs with some of the best writers on the planet knowing full well most of them will probably never get recorded. I'll come home to Vermont and work with a bunch of kids at my daughter's school writing their first "official school song." Then I'll go to song camp for a major pop star, and wrap it up tweaking songs for a band that plays bluegrass covers of '80s hits.

I'll be out of my element so many times that it's frightening. But as Coldplay says, "Nobody said it was easy."

My Brooklyn friends (and my previous self) hate it when I say that.

Felix McTeigue is a Grammy Award-nominated record producer, songwriter and musician

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