5 Self-Care Tips for Songwriters

Padriac Farma
February 29, 2020

Emily Shackelton ’07, who has written hits for Carly Pearce, ABC's Nashville, and American Idol, offers advice for surviving the highs and lows of a songwriting career.

Emily ShackeltonEmily Shackelton ’07 holds the coveted title of professional songwriter. On a journey that took her from Biwabik, Minnesota, to Berklee College of Music to Nashville, Tennessee, Shackelton has seen the peaks and valleys of pursuing a career in music. After receiving the BMI Foundation’s John Lennon Scholarship while at Berklee, she found early achievements with featured songs on American Idol and ABC’s Nashville. In 2017, she landed her first no. 1 song with Carly Pearce’s “Every Little Thing,” which topped the Billboard Country Airplay chart. Today, Shackelton enjoys a steady stream of work and accolades, but she still faces the challenges of carving out time for friends and family, making space for creativity, and dealing with the eternal question: what’s next?

We sat down with her to get her insight on how she engaged in self-care throughout her career, and how to handle life when your nine to five runs 24/7.

1. Keep Things Light

My husband and I moved to Nashville about six months before the Great Recession of 2008. We definitely tried to keep things light because it was a really tough time to become an adult and pursue a passion-career. All of Nashville shut down at that time, and it was pretty bleak. We had our electricity shut off a couple times. We would play the game of trying to find any spare change we could in our tiny apartment, and then we’d take it all to the grocery store and see what fun things we could get to make a feast with that $9 and change. We’d play Marco Polo in the aisles of Walmart, or just listen to music on our phones together. Those early memories helped me hold on to my dream.

2. Look for the Little Opportunities That Keep You Going

Remind yourself constantly that you are an entrepreneur and a small business owner. When you’re going for a career like this, you don’t suddenly get a song on the radio. The little things always kept me going. As I was leaving Berklee, I won the John Lennon Scholarship. Two years later, I had a song that won the American Idol Songwriting Competition. A few years later, I had my first song on a national TV show. It was those little tastes of success that kept me feeling like I was moving in the right direction, even if it wasn’t moving as fast as I wanted.

3. Get out of Town

When you play in a big music town, the audience can be very straight-faced. Performing can feel surgical. After about five years in Nashville I discovered the power of booking out-of-town shows. Finding those different concert series really fed my soul and reminded of me how the songs I write can move people. I started realizing there is a purpose to these songs, and that I was connecting with people. It can feel like you’re doing meaningless work when your publisher is owning all your songs and none of them are seeing the light of day, or you’re trying to connect with A&R people. But it certainly helps to play for crowds that love your music. Performing in different areas was the key to me realizing I have a finger on what people want to hear, even if they’re not able to hear it on a record yet.

When I look back, getting let go from my first publishing deal was one of the best things that happened to me.

—Emily Shackelton ’07

4. Build Your Core Community

Doing gigs in town is a great way to make relationships. I made some of my best friends and favorite cowriters through writers’ rounds and even open mic nights. It’s a great way to hear what other people are doing, and then you can stick around and try to introduce yourself afterwards. I still have two of my very best friends and closest cowriters I met doing writers’ rounds.

I also really worked on building up an important core group of friends to lean on. My husband and I were a part of a group of six couples and singles that we cultivated a little community with. As different places would open up for rent in our neighborhood, we would recruit other friends and we built this neat neighborhood feel. It became our Nashville family.

5. Let Yourself Feel the Ups and Downs

When I look back, getting let go from my first publishing deal was one of the best things that happened to me. I let myself be sad, and I spent about three days on the couch in my sweatpants. I ate a pint of ice cream and watched a lot of TV. On the third day, I sat at my computer and wrote an email to Liz Rose, who had been a cowriter of mine. After one of our first sessions, she just very flippantly threw out, "Gosh, I wish that you weren’t signed. I’d love to start a publishing company with you." I always kept that in the back of my mind, and on the third day after I was dropped, I reached out to her, and I still write for Liz to this day.

I’ve tried to encourage younger writers to not freeze their lives around their dream. For so long, I lived so much in the future, thinking, "Once this happens, I will be happy," or, "Once I can pay my bills every month, then life will be much easier." Now I look back and think about how sweet those times were. How I can look back and laugh and miss playing Marco Polo in Walmart at midnight. Being present in that season of life is the way that you can most honor that nothing lasts, and there’s nowhere to go but up. You just keep going.

Emily Shackleton’s album Late Bloomer can be found on iTunes, Spotify, and most main streaming platforms.

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