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  • Deborah Straszheim

Heartbreak and the Story Behind a Song


If you write songs, you know pain.

Why do I say this? Because for whatever reason, songwriters, like most creative people, seem to feel the highs and lows of life with more intensity than the average person.

On the one hand, this can be a curse. If you’re intense, reflective and feel things deeply, you can despair.

On the other hand, it’s a blessing. Because it’s exactly this quality that drives you to write, whether words or music, gives you empathy and makes your words relatable. You write almost because you have to. You have to get it out.

Songwriters make reference to this all the time. Perhaps the most obvious example is Anna Nalick’s, “Breathe (2 AM)” She sings: “2 a.m. and I’m still awake writing a song, if I get it all down on paper it’s no longer inside of me, threatening the life it belongs to.”

Think of all the songs about heartache, pain, loss, haunting memories and drowning sorrow in a bottle. It’s so universal it’s almost cliché. Only it’s not. Because there are always new ways to write about old pain. Just like there are always new ways to look at love. If it weren’t so, there would be nothing new ever written.

Even angry songs have their roots in pain. My daughter and I got started songwriting this way. We both had relationships that ended in shocking fashion, one right after the other. I’d been convinced, utterly convinced, that the man who ultimately walked would be the last person who’d ever hurt me. Then, within weeks, she was similarly devastated and shocked.

Suddenly, there we were; she in her 20s and me in my 40s, in this pain. I lay awake in my bed, sobbing. She cried and cried. It was beyond horrible.

Then we got mad. And we started to write. Her first, then me quickly after. I recall vividly the day she called with the riffs for the song released this week. She sent them to my phone and said, “OK, Mom. I want the song to be called, ‘She Can Have Him.’”

“All right,” I said. “What do you want it to say?” By then, I knew all of the details of her relationship and she knew all of mine. We had plenty of material.

“I want it to say, ‘I don’t want him, she can have him, he’s an asshole,’” she said.

I thought for a minute. “Dear, I’ve got that covered,” I said.

Of course, you can’t write a song that says, “He’s an asshole.” I mean, you could, but it would never sell. But more importantly, it doesn’t say anything.

Better to say how he was an asshole. Even if you know, as I did, that I made my own mistakes in the relationship. We all do. But as I mentioned, songwriters reflect. That’s part of the pain.

But back to the song. Instead of, “He’s an asshole,” I chose, among the lyrics, “He’ll stick around to get some, even when he knows they’re done…” because that is, indeed, low.

After I sent them, she replied with a grinning devil face Emoji.

“Too mean?” I asked. “Or just mean enough?”

“Just mean enough,” she replied.

And we laughed and laughed together. It was like coming back, slowly but finally, to life.

Breathe (2 AM) ~ Anna Nalick

She Can Have Him ~ Cassie Urbany

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