#MeToo Prompts Female Songwriters To Grapple With Their Own Experiences Of Harassment | Nashville Public Radio

#MeToo Prompts Female Songwriters To Grapple With Their Own Experiences Of Harassment

Jan 23, 2018

The allegations of sexual misconduct that have ricocheted through Hollywood and other industries have largely missed the Nashville music scene. But in private conversations and online forums, many female songwriters say they've had moments with collaborators that border on harassment and even assault.

Among them is Laurel Sorenson, who moved to Nashville at 18 to study music at Belmont University. Now 23, she invites a former classmate, Katie Crone, over to her house almost every week to write. They make coffee in the kitchen, then head upstairs to the loft, where Sorenson keeps a keyboard.

On one December morning, they were writing a song about a fight Sorenson had with her boyfriend over her past relationships. Crone prompted her to go deeper.

" 'You're dredging up the past like it's something new, you don't know what you got into, what do you want me to do?' " Crone said, reciting the lyrics. "What would you say next?"

This is called a co-write, an almost mythical method of making music in Nashville. Two songwriters sit alone in a room, swap personal stories as fodder for lyrics and — if the session goes well — end up a few hours later with an original song.

"The whole point of a co-write is very vulnerable," Crone said. "Let's talk about your breakup, let's talk about your feelings. Let's get really emotionally intimate."

Emotional intimacy — or getting to the truth, as songwriters often say — is where the magic happens. At its best, it's where hit songs are born. But it's also where conversations can veer away from the artistic and into the uncomfortable. Sorenson says male co-writers have used the intimacy of co-writing to ask her about things she wouldn't talk about with almost anyone, like explicit relationship details.

"If you're talking about love or sex or relationships or whatever, it allows them to talk to you inappropriately in a way that's hard to tell where the line is," said Sorenson. "It's weird because for the sake of the song, it's like, 'OK, we can talk about this, and I'm chill, and I am open.'  But at the same time, it doesn't feel professional."

There was one particularly egregious experience, where the person Sorenson was writing with asked her to go to a show with him afterward. This seemed like a normal, professional invitation — they were both musicians, after all. But there, he started to dance with her inappropriately, touching her and trying to kiss her neck. 

She escaped to the bathroom and called a friend to pick her up.

Between that experience and feeling generally on edge during other co-writes, she realized she didn't want to share her vulnerable side with male songwriters.

"It was not really a conscious decision but more of just like something that I put into practice — I don't really write with men anymore," Sorenson said.

'Sleep With Me, Or I Won't Talk To You'

For most women, cutting themselves off from men isn't an option. Co-writing is a networking opportunity. It's how songwriters find future producers or collaborators. Working with anyone who's further along in their career could be helpful.

But in WPLN's reporting for this story, several women mentioned circumstances in which they'd agreed to a co-write, thinking it would help them professionally, only to realize their male writing partner had ulterior motives.

Some women ran into experiences like Sorenson's, where a male co-writer seemed to assume a writing session was a date or even an invitation for sex. One woman had a co-writer who kept placing his hand on her knee, even though she kept moving it away. Another said a collaborator started calling in the middle of the night to talk.

Or, in Sarah Clanton's case, the line was crossed via text message.

Clanton is a singer-songwriter who plays cello, often plucking it like a guitar. Just after she moved to Nashville three years ago, a songwriter she admired took an interest in her.

"I was told that, you know, 'Oh my gosh, you're just so talented,' and, 'Let's talk about your career,' " Clanton said. She was thrilled to have found a champion so quickly in Nashville. "And I thought, 'Oh, I've got this kind of mentor. You know, he's got connections, and he believes in me.' "

But then he started texting her with increasingly sexual messages, until — "he was like, 'Sleep with me, or I won't talk to you anymore.' And he's like, 'Don't tell anybody about this,' " Clanton said. "And, literally, I didn't tell anybody this until the hashtag #MeToo started going around."

Nothing quite so aggressive has happened since, Clanton said, but she also has an advantage now: She has a publishing deal, which comes with a team that helps her set up on co-writes. Her publisher, Bobby Rymer with the Writer's Den Music Group, says the industry is small enough to know who the troublemakers are.

"Your ears perk up once you hear it, and they damn sure perk up if you hear more than once," Rymer said. "I believe 99 percent are good, but that 1 percent sure does get around a lot."

Starting To Speak Out

It's unclear, of course, how big of an issue this is. Statistics on sexual harassment in any industry are scarce. Bart Herbison, the president of the Nashville Songwriters Association International, a formidable trade group that advocates for the rights of professional musicians, said no instances of sexual harassment during co-writes have ever come to his attention.

But in a private Facebook group for Nashville female musicians, women periodically swap stories of inappropriate collaborators, and sometimes call them out by name. Both Sorenson and Clanton said the recent cultural conversations about sexual misconduct prompted them to speak publicly about their experiences.

Attorney Stephanie Taylor says she's happy to see more musicians talking to each other about harassment.

"Some people think they have to put up with it, and it's just par for the course. I hope that this #MeToo movement is helping more people realize — no, it's not," she said.

Taylor has been a part of that shift. She's one of the attorneys who's represented country singer Katie Armiger in recent years. Armiger first accused her former label of having a culture of sexual harassment after they sued her for breach of contract. Now she's being sued by the label again after she said she was groped by radio DJs as a young artist and told she'd have to "get over it."

But as independent contractors, most songwriters don't have any kind of legal recourse, Taylor says. And that means, if women don't want to deal with uncomfortable situations, they may just leave Nashville.

"I'm sure that there are people that have left songwriting because of the experiences they've had," she said.  "That, to me, is the real shame of it."