Words by Stacy Pandya
Liz Rose is drinking green juice with her breakfast when she turns to me with a sparkle in her eye, “Jack face timed me the other day and said, ‘I like your sweatshirt, Lala! It’s red.’”
She smiles and scrolls through photos of her grands with an adoration that’s obvious. Directly after the Grammy Awards, her plan is to fly to Sweden for a European tour, and she is going to miss them so much. I can’t help but wonder if the grandbabes realize Lala is one of the greatest songwriters in the world?
I met Liz a year and a half ago at a songwriter’s workshop she hosts for NSAI (Nashville Songwriters Association International). I worked for weeks on my application and audition tape. Since that time, she has mentored me along with a group of songwriters we call The Rosettes, inviting us to her hillside home in Nashville for supper—the same home that some of the greatest country songs ever were written in. There, she lends Lexi James a swimsuit for an evening cannonball, teaching us to write better songs and helping advise our careers.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” she asks, taking a bite of her toast. I tell her I have an invitation to a few parties, and she nods approvingly, then adds slightly stern “Get to those parties.”
I nod and yank my shirt sleeve down to hide the goosebumps that are suddenly covering my arms. I can’t help it, I try to hide my inner fangirl, but every 30 minutes my brain flashes to 2016.
A bowl of strawberry ice cream is melting on the coffee table while I stand with my face inches from the tv. I lay my forehead on the cold screen and remember using the hem of my t-shirt to clean off the wet droplets that trickled from my eyelashes. Tears were blurring the paused image of Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey, and Lori McKenna accepting the Grammy for Country Song of The Year.
As ya’ll know, I’m prone to dramatic displays of emotion, but this is honestly something I never knew I would share until now. I was alone, and nobody knew my tears dripped down the tv that night but me. Maybe the Universe saw? Was it God? I think I must have hit rewind 300 times that night, watching the Love Junkies take over the songwriting world—and while I can’t recall everything they said exactly, the overflowing message to every music girl in the world was YES YOU STILL CAN, SISTER! DON’T GIVE UP! GIRL, YES YOU CAN! And ever since then, I’ve had a Girl Crush. That’s the song they wrote.
The truth is, everybody is starstruck by someone, and for me it’s always been the songwriters. I always connected with the quote by celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe when she said, “I knew I was supposed to be in fashion when everyone was obsessed with the supermodels in the 90s and all I could think about were the designers.”
About that time, a beaming Laura Veltz in yoga pants, nominated for co-writing Speechless by Dan and Shay, waves from across the terrace of The Sunset Marquis Hotel. This place is a legendary rock n’ roll haven, known for hosting generations of creators. The Keith Richard’s Gym might be my favorite part of the property, where Richards worked out regularly with a beer and a joint in the 90s. Courtney Love famously scrawled poems in lipstick on her villa’s door the night Kurt Cobain passed away, and Billy Bob Thornton lived there with Angelina Jolie (and Laura Dern) in the early 2000s. A recording studio fills up the basement. Thornton once said famously, “This place embodies the days of The Sunset Strip and Rock and Roll all rolled into one, where you have a community of artists. It was everything you’d ever dreamed of, like they built this place specifically so if you wanted to live the life you read about in books, this is where you come to do it.”
As I glance around the iconic scene, I pipe up with a question. “Hey, remember when Oprah adopted all the little girls from Africa and they all couldn’t believe it?” I ask, and we laugh.
“Yeah.” Liz says in her Texas drawl.
“I feel like that right now.” I say.
She smiles and I notice a slight shift in her face, a micro-expression that turns a little more serious. “Make sure you tell all the girls I miss them. Make sure ya’ll are all writing, a lot.”
I tell her we are. About that time, Tracy Gershon, stops by the table. Tracy is Brandi Carlisle’s publisher, and she wears many other industry hats. As we chatter along, she tells me my story reminds her of the Chinese finger trap. When you stop pulling so hard and struggling against it, the Universe opens up. I like her so much, and I love this metaphor and make sure to never forget it as long as I live. With a kind smile she jotted her number down in my notebook without me asking and told me to text when she gets back from vacay. Liz tells me to make sure I do that.
As we go over a few more details for the coming year, I can’t help but wonder how I got here, and I suddenly feel the need to do a few cheerleading stunts. Mentally I leap into a few pikes and launch Liz into the air for a flying basket toss. As she completes her triple lay out, I move over to her side of the table to take a picture. Holding the camera up and above, we smile, but she stops me suddenly. “Make sure you don’t get them in the picture.” she says, referring to several celebrities enjoying their breakfast behind us. It’s worth mentioning this room is full of faces anyone in the world would recognize instantly. “They probably don’t want their pictures taken right now.” she says gently.
Honestly, it hadn’t occurred to me anyone other than my hero was in the frame, but this simple teaching lesson felt like an AHA! Moment that I will never forget, since we are talking about Oprah and all. She tells me we are at the Olympics for creators, and I can tell she genuinely respects the community of artists trickled around the room. I know this might not seem like an epiphany to most, but to me it struck like lightning—and here’s what I learned about Liz and myself: First of all, she knows I’m a novice on uncharted waters and kindly directed me through what she knows I don’t know without making me feel bad. It’s generous, honest, and kind. Second, she’s helping me understand every person here is a human being. They aren’t characters to be exploited, not that I was trying to, but I could have done so unknowingly. And it also showed me Liz Rose is a class act that has deep respect for all people, celebrities and non-celebrities like me. She isn’t running the rat race as people in her position are often accused—she’s sitting here with me for Pete’s Sake. But the takeaway is Liz is a wonderful teacher. Her mouth is full of words of wisdom so powerful they fill songs that will go down in history forever, and I feel overwhelmed this Grammy Eve morning to be learning from her.
Earlier that day, I wandered through the Amy Winehouse exhibit and stared into her empty perfume bottle. I noticed the scuff marks on the bottom of her high heels displayed behind glass. I traced the beading of Whitney Houston’s dresses with my finger—and little did we know on this Saturday morning, but tomorrow Kobe Bryant, the man who helped build the Staples Center, would crash in a helicopter with his daughter Giana and 7 other passengers inside.
Celebrities seem like cartoons sometimes because they enter our homes through our television sets, but they aren’t. That night back in 2016, it seemed like an impossibility to ever even come close to knowing Liz Rose, and yet here I am sitting beside her and a miraculous half glass of tomato juice. Our heroes are real people, flesh and blood, just like us. They make mistakes and say wrong things and have regrets like everyone on Earth, so maybe the next time we decide to speak about the famous as if they are fragments of our imagination that can’t be hurt, can’t be embarrassed, or can’t be exploited, maybe think twice. These are real people behind the gilded gramophones. They scuff up their shoes and spray on perfume—and like Amy Winehouse, I also have a bottle of Princess by Vera Wang next to my bathroom sink. And as grandboy Jack pointed out so astutely, Lala puts on her sweatshirt in the morning just like everybody else—oh, and it’s red. He knows his colors.
Recently, The Grammys have made national headlines, calling The Recording Academy into question. As a self proclaimed pre-k level observer of the industry, I’m not here to convince anyone of anything. Like Jack, I’m still learning my way around this world. But what I can offer are the words of a brutally honest person whom I have spent days with in a cramped room writing songs, eating hot chicken, and talking about our kids—and this is what Liz Rose, a true industry insider, has to say about The Recording Academy, and I quote:
“When you realize the time and the care and the work that goes into the nominations and how hard people work for months and months on these nominations, and how long it takes, it’s a miracle to be nominated. Once you have an understanding of the process and the thorough, painstaking work that goes on, you really, really appreciate the honor. The Grammys have nothing to do with chart success. It’s really all about a board of your peers saying, this music moved me. This music is important. This music deserves recognition. First of all, I have to say it’s a miracle to even be a songwriter. Just to say I get paid to be a songwriter is a miracle. Then to have a Grammy nomination? I would never take this for granted! All I can think of is how did this happen?”
And as for me, Liz Rose, I can’t help but wonder the same. Thank you. Thank you for everything.