Something wasn’t right and Nell Maynard knew it. She had just started medical school, on her way to becoming a doctor like both her parents, but couldn’t shake the feeling she was on a path she didn’t want to be on. “I was on this really linear track,” she said. “But I realized at some point that I didn’t want to be a doctor, and I ended up leaving. It’s not that I specifically left because I knew I was going to go be a songwriter. I left because I realized I was there for all the wrong reasons.”
After moving across the country twice, Maynard settled in Nashville and found her place in its thick of relatively new, but rapidly expanding, LGBTQ and pop music scenes. Six months later and she has wasted no time getting to work and making connections in Music City. A song co-written with Nashville pop artist Stasney Mav has already been released, with another handful in production.
Behind the Setlist caught up with Maynard over the phone to talk about her love for songwriting, how she’s seen Nashville and its music scene change even in the short time she’s been there, and how she maintains balance and stays motivated in the midst of a challenging industry. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell me about the decision to leave medical school and pursue songwriting. Those are such vastly different things.
I always was a songwriter and knew I wanted to spend at least part of my life immersed in it. I wanted to be inside the art and inside the songwriting world, but I was on this other track. Leaving medical school was obviously an incredibly terrifying decision, but I realized at some point that no one was going to make songwriting happen for me. I was going to have to be the one to do it.
So I left the East Coast and moved with my partner at the time to California, because she had a job there. I started going to songwriting workshops and open mic nights and started writing with other people a little bit. I started thinking about songwriting in a way that I had hoped always existed, but I had never set aside the time to do it until I left med school. That was when I realized I guess now’s the time.
With both of your parents being doctors, how’d they handle it?
They’re mostly entirely onboard. There’s some lack of understanding now and then, which is totally allowed. They see me, and respect me and love me, even though I’ve made different choices than they made, and I’m so grateful for that.
The funny thing is that neither of them really create. My dad used to write poetry when he was in his 20s, but other than that having creative pursuits was not something I learned from them, which is fine because I learned other important things. But it’s weird because creating is this really important part of me that just kind of bubbled up and made itself known.
And once you know it, you can’t put it away.
Amen. You really can’t put it away. And I tried. I understood that by going to med school, I was making a choice that denied myself happiness. It’s funny because writing brings truth out of you. Sometimes you don’t know that you know something until you read what you’ve just written and it comes back into you from the outside.
When I left med school I went back through all this writing I’d done in college—songs and essays and poetry and whatnot—and looked for signs of, “Did I straight up know that I didn’t want to be a doctor and that this choice was sacrificing my own happiness?” I found this song that I wrote the summer after my first year of college that was about a concert I’d been to that was amazing. The lyric I wrote was, [sings] “I have found heaven / It looked nothing like I thought it would / So naturally I threw away the key / Happiness is not for me.” [Laughs]
That was totally 19-year-old me being like, “I know what I love and I’m very actively choosing something else.” Finding that lyric four years later, I realized that I knew! I knew all along!
And how did you get from California to Nashville?
After being in California for a year and a half or so, the relationship I was in ended. I traveled for a little while after that. I planned to move to Denver at the end of the summer, but then I went to a songwriting retreat in August by a woman named Judy Stakee, who was Senior Vice President of Creative at Warner Chappell for 20 years. She retired a few years ago and now does these retreats all over the world. They’re three to five days long, and you basically just go and co-write with a bunch of people. So I did one of those in New York at this retreat center in the Adirondacks.
It was amazing. For the first time I was around people who cared as much about songs as I did and who cared about making the best songs we could make. They’re people who love the art enough to set ego aside and see what happens. That’s also where I got a little bit of a glimpse into the industry and learned that being a songwriter is a career. You can write songs all day and go to sleep at 9 pm. I was like, “That’s what I want!”
My thought was that if I moved to Denver, I might just sit in my apartment and write songs alone and wish that I were co-writing with people like that. And where are those people? They’re in Nashville and L.A. I didn’t want to move back to California, so in September I moved to Nashville.
When you made the move, how did you get plugged into the songwriting scene so quickly? I’ve heard it can take a while to connect.
There were two people who had been to my retreat who lived in Nashville and I started writing with them pretty much as soon as I got here. The first afternoon I got here, I wrote a song with a friend I had met at the retreat, which felt so perfect. That was why I came.
There was also someone I knew of through Judy Stakee who used to work with her in some fashion. We hadn’t met, but he’s super involved in gay music in Nashville and had already been here for a year and a half. His name is Myylo, and he’s both a songwriter and an artist. He introduced me to some folks, plus I’d go see his shows and meet the other writers in the rounds he played. I ended up writing with some of them and making connections that way. So I luckily didn’t have a hard time dipping my toe in and folding myself into the scene here.
It is about social connections and it’s so non-linear, which is different than all the other worlds I’ve moved in. That is really exciting and terrifying and new. It’s not like if you make this move, this will happen, and then in five months you’ll be here. That’s not it at all. It’s like, you’re going to go to this show, and it might be a fun night or it might be a night that changes everything. And you just have to be OK with either.
I guess that uncertainty is why you hear people say things like, “Nashville is a 10-year town.”
[Laughing] See, I’ve heard that Nashville is a five-year town. I think it’s possible this town is just full of people who enjoy a turn a phrase more than most, so they like to say things like “It’s a 10-year town” or “It’s a five-year town.”
But yes, I have heard that a lot in reference to the music industry. It makes sense to me, because the music industry is not 50 percent music and 50 percent industry. It’s more like 10 percent music and 90 percent industry. Making your way and finding a career is more social than any other world I’ve been in.
So much of it is about who you know, and I don’t mean that in a gross way. It’s kind of lovely. It’s really community oriented. But so often it’s like this: You meet someone at a show. You hit it off in a conversation, and then you write with them and cut that song. Or you write with them a ton and they cut one of the songs that you write together and then they release that. Or two other artists whom you’ve never met saw you at a show, introduce themselves and then you write together. Music is a personal thing and making art with someone takes a lot of trust. Trust takes time. That’s why people say that you have to give Nashville x-number of years to do whatever you’re trying to do here.
Given that, it must be exciting to already have co-written a song [“Strangers” by Stasney Mav] that’s been cut and released. How did that all come together?
I saw her play a show back in October before she officially launched her artist name and project. I was actually there to see a friend of mine play, but she was also playing that round and I was so onboard. She’s so articulate and thoughtful, and her melodies and rhythms are so, so great. I introduced myself and we got coffee. I just was like, “I make what you make and we could make something great together.”
We hit it off and started writing together. A lot of times it’s normal to write with an artist, or write something for them, and have them be like, ‘Yeah, this isn’t something I want to use, but it was fun to write it and let’s write again sometime.” It was exciting for her to be so into what we wrote and for her to release it as her first single. It’s also crazy that some of the other songs we wrote together will be coming out in the next couple months. It’s definitely exciting.
“Strangers” is so unmistakably a pop song. There’s not even a hint of country in it. I’m sure country music will always be a force in Nashville, but it seems like more and more pop and rock and other genres are growing there.
Right. More than a country music town, I would say that Nashville is a song town. There’s definitely a lot of country music here but I’m way more into the pop situation, and that I think is very new. People I know who have been here many years say the amount of pop shows and pop artists is really blossoming. Also as hip-hop begins to influence every genre of music, even musical theater, country is becoming more pop as well.
It sounds like the LGBTQ music scene is exploding, too.
I was just talking with a friend about that. He’s been here for a decade and was telling me how new it really is. All of these LGBTQ shows and showcases that we go to, all the places where he and I always see each other out, he said this didn’t exist a year ago. He jokingly said, “You brought it with you!” I know I didn’t do anything, but it does seem to be blossoming now. I like the idea that I have just such powerful gay energy that every city I go to just turns rainbow. It really made me laugh when he said that.
There is this organization called RNBWNash. Myylo founded that with Jamie and Emily Dryburgh, who both work in publishing here. They’re all gay and started RNBW as a series of house shows. They would put on writers rounds to showcase LGBTQ artists and songwriters, and now they’ve graduated into real venues and out of house concerts.
Their first show was in December and they’ve had monthly shows since at this gay club called Tribe. At each one, there’s usually a couple of writers rounds and then a mixer after, and they just keep growing so much. Everyone who performs is queer in some way or other. Every time they announce a new lineup for a new round, I’m like, “No way, there are three more gay people here? I didn’t know any of those names!” I go and I’m like, “You’re gay? I’m gay!” And honestly, it’s like family. It’s really special to have an organization bringing people together who are already like a big queer family.
With the scene growing quickly and moving into real venues, how has the general community responded?
Since Tribe is a gay club, it’s not like anyone’s walking in going, “What’s with all these rainbows? We came for a honky-tonk show.” But truly, there’s been no pushback. It’s unsurprising there have been queers at the forefront of all forms of entertainment and art and every other field forever. It’s just they were closeted for a long time. But now since nationally and worldwide the culture is thankfully shifting to being a safer place, many more people are out. It seems sudden to some, but mostly in a good way. Like, “Wow, look at all these gay people who are making culture.” So no, I haven’t found any pushback. Nashville feels really safe.
Also, in the context of LGBTQ music, since the music industry is about networking and social connection, it’s really amazing to have something in common with someone right off the bat. It’s not like I’m walking up to someone and all I know is they write songs and I write songs. Instead, we both understand this really important part of one another’s identity. It doesn’t mean that we know everything about each other, and it doesn’t mean we’re automatically going to get along or even like each other. But it does give us a starting point.
Having a built-in community like that must help a little in the greater context of navigating the music industry. Or even in just having the courage to follow creative pursuits.
It helps a lot. But I also think being in Nashville helps because people here realize the value in creativity as an intrinsic good thing. Capitalism is gross and as a society we tend to not value things that capitalism doesn’t value. But because there are so many people in music and so much music industry here, music and art and creativity are also valued in a monetary way unlike in a lot of other places.
From my perspective, it’s important to recognize that my creativity is like a primal cosmic eternal kind of thing. It doesn’t have anything to do with the systems of power that I live in, like the patriarchy or capitalism or anything like that. So to ask for it to pay my bills seems unreasonable. It’s a gift to want to create and to be able to create. To try and mash something ethereal and beautiful and cosmic like that in with our gross economy feels—money and creativity just feel like really different things to me. And I realize Nashville is a place where you get to smash them into being one thing, and maybe I can and maybe I will and that’ll be awesome. But if I always make my money other ways, then that’s also fine and great.
There’s this great poem by Wendell Barry called “Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” There’s a line in it that says, “Be like the fox, who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction.” It’s so good! It’s about the intrinsic value of exploration and the underlying assumption you are valuable and so what you do is valuable. You intrinsically matter. It’s so beautiful and so rebellious to capitalism.
Whether it’s directly in a monetary way or otherwise, what do you think is the best way people can support songwriters so that people like you can continue to create new things and put them out in the world?
Strictly monetarily speaking, if you run a bar or a venue or anything, pay your licensing fees because that’s how songwriters get paid for songs they’ve written. On a more human level, go out and see local people play in whatever city you live in. Nashville’s obviously great for this. It’s really special because it’s rare to see someone get as vulnerable as they do when they share a song that they’ve written. I think it’s pretty healing for the artist and the audience both.
What’s helpful for me specifically is for people to listen to the artists I write with. For example, follow Stasney Mav on Spotify and put her songs on your Spotify playlists. That actually really helps. You wouldn’t think it matters that much, but if you take somebody’s song and put it on a playlist, the algorithm realizes you’ve put it with certain other songs and then it’ll put it on other playlists. It helps it get exposed. And obviously, when you like a song or an artist, tell everyone you know!
For more information, find Nell Maynard on Instagram.