Liz Miller is a nurse from the area of Philadelphia and New Jersey where if you’re driving to attend advertising focus groups, as my co-workers and I once were, you’re not sure which state you’re in half the time. And if you’re lost after dark, as we were, you end up repeatedly passing a glowing sign that says, in the most butch tone ever achieved in cheerful red neon, “TRENTON MAKES THE WORLD TAKES.”
The first time I met Liz, there was no question she was the funniest person in Nashville at that moment.
We, the fellow seminar attendees, were happy to TAKE.
One evening, after one of the sessions, I was driving a group of four or five songwriters to dinner in my old Volvo station wagon. Liz was telling stories. She told us she uses her humor in her job: "When patients come into the ER, and they’re all shook up, I tell them, ‘Oh, you’re not that bad. I’ve seen a lot worse. Look at my face. This is my “This isn’t so bad” face. Just remember, you’re okay unless I make this face: [in my rear view mirror I could see her contort her mouth and eyes, like a killer in a campfire story risen from the back seat].’"
Her wit (quick), TRENTON-ish chutzpah (or what we non-coastal people assume is chutzpah), accent (she calls me “Cholly”), personal warmth and friendliness—she’s not at all abrasive, I hasten to add, in case I’ve given that impression—have landed her a lot of co-writes.
Once she talked her way into a co-write with Richie McDonald, one of her songwriting/singing/performing heroes. She tells of having her publisher (she has a publisher) make the arrangements. She flew to Nashville, rented a car, drove out into the country and began to suspect she was lost. A woman in a pickup truck recognized her as a fish out of water and flagged her down. It turned out to be Mrs. McDonald. “You coming to co-write with Richie? He’s expecting you,” and gave her directions.
“When I shook Richie’s hand, I told him that I was going to act ‘normal.’ He could tell I was holding in a meltdown,” she told me. “He smiled and said ‘Thank you,’ like I was giving him a gift or something.”
She played a group of us the song they wrote, which Richie had personally demo-ed in his home studio.
It sounded like she had turned on the radio.
Liz also tends to win contests. She writes songs, enters them in contests, and wins recording time and mentor sessions and money and stuff.
I enter contests, too. Once I won a set of guitar strings from a Billboard contest. I got a finalist certificate from The Great American Song Contest. The next year from Billboard I won a pair of blue-blocker sunglasses, which was nice. My wife looks nice in them. She wore them to a third grade football game, and showed me how they affected the color of all the uniforms: Oh look! My son’s Vikings jersey isn’t purple! And I don’t know what color that Dolphins jersey is!
So that was, y’know, fun.
Probably the entry fee for the contest was more than the glasses would have cost at CVS, not counting the demo costs.
But hey. Blue blockers.
Normally what happens is, I pay to enter the contests—lusually about thirty bucks, sometimes more or less, about the same as buying pizza for the family—then a few weeks later get this email from the website I enter from: “Your Status Has Been Updated.” Then I log in to the site and it finishes the thought: “Your Status Has Been Updated To Not Selected.”
Despite spending a fair amount of time constructing sentences and looking for better, more efficient ways to say things, I have to say I love that lumbering phrase, with its android-doesn’t-understand-why-you’re-upset awkwardness. The I-don’t-know-what’s-going-on-I’m-just-reporting-a-neutral-fact passive voice—"Your Status Has Been Updated"—manages to get the heart leaping, hoping briefly, imagining the best. Then at the end of the full sentence, hopes are crushed again.
It’s like that Kinks song, when the “union man” looks like he’s approaching Ray Davies’ narrator in a line of people who want work, ’and the sun begins to shine/But then he walks right past and I know that I have to get back in the line."
Liz’s status is updated to “Selected” much more often than mine.
Naturally I pitched Liz some ideas for co-writes.
One of them worked for her, and by God, she wrote it. Pretty much all I provided was the idea, and a short while later back came this e-mail with the song lyrics:
I bet you thought I forgot about the song.
Attached is the rough lyric and idea and the music is very rhythmic country pop. You may not see how it fits until you hear the cadence but it’s very cute. Perfect for Sara Buxton or any hip country girl. I’ll mp3 you the rough of the tune as soon as I record it.
I won a week of free recording at E Labs multimedia in Madison Wisconsin. I may demo the song there. However, this doesn’t come with session players and that will cost. I don’t know how much yet but are you willing to pitch in for a good cheap demo?
Let me know,
A few days later came an e-mail with an mp3 of her singing the song:
Okay, let me just preface this by saying I’m sick. I assure you that the song will sound ten times better when done professionally.
That being said, I need to flesh out the melody in the bridge and also play around with certain phrase placements. The bridge was thrown together in too much of a hurry. Let’s fix the melody and get the right exact words.
Let me know what you think.
This is a girl song. My daughter loves it.
Sorry for taking over.
She had written a very emotional, sexy song. I rarely write real emotional songs and never write sexy songs. I was pleased, of course, and maybe a little uncomfortable this far out of my usual songwriting zone—which I tell myself is a good thing.
It was definitely a “girl song.” She’s played it for lots of people, who like it, she reports. But there are a couple of areas that need work.
So when we both recently ended up at the same place at the same time in Nashville, we sat down to work on the song—she had gotten a critique that suggested that the second verse could be sexier.
We were borrowing a friend’s living room.
She sat on the couch.
I sat in a chair across from the couch, a glass of water and my foot on the coffee table between us.
As it happened, earlier that afternoon I’d started feeling sick—right before I was suppose to share a song during a guitar pull at our friend’s house, actually: I could feel the ill coming on, and tried to use telepathy to hurry up everyone ahead of me. It turned out I was coming down with the flu—I drove the trip back to Indianapolis with a 103° temperature listening to a Suzanne Vega greatest hits CD over and over and over, on repeat, for five hours. “Blood Makes Noise” and “99.9° F” in particular spoke to me.
I hadn’t made a big deal about feeling bad that day, though if you had been monitoring me you’d have noticed I was making fewer and fewer wisecracks.
I don’t think Liz realized how bad I felt.
We both got out pens and paper.
The song is called “I Miss Us.” The basic idea I had pitched her was, y’know, as you get older and get kids, bills, and a demanding job you sort of lose the feeling of being a couple. Liz had turned it into a story about a woman who gets stuck at a long red light behind two lovers, who are kissing until it turns green, which makes the singer realize how far Life has taken her from moments like that.
“How about this… a rhyme for ‘Let them have their moment in the dark’…” Liz got started.
I suggest rhymes: "Park, spark. Remark. Put the car in park. Somewhere a dog barks… maybe a multi-syllable word that ends in ‘-ark’… disembark… Joan of Arc… " I was getting woozy.
“Okay, well, it doesn’t have to be ‘in the dark,’ we can end that line differently,” she suggested, and immediately came up with a change that wound up having a subtle double entendre.
From the kitchen, our friend called in, “Oh, I like that.”
I was sitting there feeling bilious, trying to co-write a sexy song that is totally not my style, and not helping at all.
Liz kept at it. I tried to keep up.
Eventually I confessed that I wasn’t feeling well. I know Liz was disappointed that our big chance to sit together and work on the song was a bust—she was still doing it all.
It was official when I stood up and said I thought I needed to sleep. The flu was causing me to bail on an honest-to-God Nashville co-write, something I don’t get to do very often.
I felt like a wimp. It wasn’t like I was coming down with cholera. As a nurse, I know she’s seen much worse.
At least she didn’t make that face.