Happy dancing to sad songs

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Kate Rawlins smiling at the camera. Photo credit: Grace Wride

Most transformative conversations in my life have occurred with people I’ve known intimately. Best friends, roommates, parents, siblings, etc. Up until a couple weeks ago, I had never had one with a person skirting the line of acquaintance and friend — my brother’s old roommate’s ex-girlfriend to be precise. And yet, I am a changed person because of a roughly 20-minute conversation I had with Kate Rawlins.

A few days before the life-altering discussion, she messaged me on Instagram, asking me to take photos of her to pair with a song she’s releasing soon.

She picked me up in her Subaru, the light coating of mud signified a recent outdoor excursion. I hadn’t realized how long it’d been since we last talked until her energy level slammed into my mid-evening aloofness. I was underprepared for the sheer thrill to live Kate Rawlins brings everywhere she goes.

Some people exude sunshine. Their words send rays of light to their surrounding areas. The world seems to be a magical place for them, full of birds singing and cotton candy clouds and absent of red lights or gum on sidewalks. They seem to float on air and for a second, while you’re with them, so do you.

Kate Rawlins is one of these people.

She asked me about my life as though she kept notecards of notable small talk in her back pocket. I did my best to keep up with her enthusiasm. I swapped what I remembered from our last run-in at a Christmas party my brother threw. She divulged how much she loves being single and shared her plans to study abroad in Spain.

She also told me about the destination we were headed to. A little while ago she’d driven by the most amazing yellow flower field — it reminded her of the canola fields that engulf Washington in the summer — and said it would be the perfect place to take photos.

The field was perfect. We set sail towards a sea of yellow, her light-colored shirt tied her into the space splendidly. The setting sun painted the world in a golden overcoat, she radiated through my viewfinder, her blonde hair seemed to cling to the light. I couldn’t help but occasionally squeal, knowing these shots would delight her already delighted self.

It didn’t take long to get the photos we needed; I occasionally flipped my camera around to show her the images. She joined in my high pitch noises, and we danced around at our own good fortune. We only stayed in the rural oasis for a little over 30 minutes.

The first verse

On the way home, the sun continued to sink down to unseeable skies and light the world in pinks and oranges. A song I couldn’t quite place that brought vague images from middle school played quietly in the background. I asked her about the song she wrote. She took a deep breath as though she knew a lengthy story was about to spill out of her.

Rawlins has hundreds of half written songs, but only two completely finished ones. The first she wrote as a freshman in high school and the second is from earlier this year.

She started writing it in the Honolulu airport and completed the song while flying through the clouds. She filled the small airplane desk with notes of perfect lines and rhymes. The song came seamlessly; the verses, the bridge, the chorus all came together in a way she’d never experienced before.

Her inspiration came from personal experience and long lunch dates with friends sharing similar difficulties. Lyrics had always helped her understand her feelings better (particularly the works of Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo), but rarely had they come from her own inception.

“I cannot express how much music and lyrics of other people have helped me put my emotions into words and express and feel them,” Rawlins elaborated.

She left the plane with something of her very own creation, a song leaking with vulnerability and her own tears. She became determined to share it, but that process didn’t start immediately.

She tiptoed around most of the specific lyrics or tune of the song, yet I managed to sneak a single line out of her brain:

“If I could be anyone else, I’d choose to be you.”

The chorus

She dropped me off at my apartment and I ensured her I’d send the photos as soon as possible. Not only because I’m incapable of holding off from editing new photos, but because the quicker I edited them, I hoped, the quicker she’d release her song and I could listen to it.

Photo credit: Grace Wride

While hearing about her song-writing process enthralled my music-loving attention, the life changing conversation came a couple days later when we met up to chat some more. I had questions about the recording process and what music has meant to her.

I asked her about the process of producing a song, I know some artists struggle with getting lost in the technicalities. I was pleased to hear this wasn’t her case.

The recording process took three days. The first experience was magical. The producer played her background track, so she could focus solely on singing. They got the recordings they wanted in a few takes, but that didn’t stop Rawlins from asking to sing it again, just for the joy of the experience. She said it was like hearing herself in HD.

“Definitely a standout experience of my life,” Rawlins said with her seemingly ever-present grin. “It was one of the most therapeutic things I’ve ever done.”

The bridge

Rawlins uses songwriting as an outlet for her emotions, but sharing and understanding her feelings didn’t always come naturally. A year ago, she lost an important relationship. She realized that working through this loss would be painful, she wanted to feel it this time around.

“There was a time in my life where I shut out all emotions. I said to myself, ‘I don’t wanna feel sad.’ Therefore, I didn’t feel happy, frustrated, I never felt confused … I just didn’t feel anything. So, when I decided — after lots of therapy hehe — to actually embrace emotions I was like, ‘This is so fun, I love it! I’m not afraid of being sad, I’m not afraid of being scared — I love it all. And I think it’s all part of the human experience.”

This is the conversation that altered my genetic makeup — well at least my mindset. Kate Rawlins, a perfect ray of sunshine, has felt intense sadness and enjoyed it.

Kate holding her guitar and grinning.
Rawlins holding her guitar and grinning. Photo credit: Grace Wride

She explained that accepting her feelings wasn’t an easy process. It took practicing mindfulness, time and lots of self-given grace. She used to hate the phrase “happiness is a choice,” but after lots of self-reflection and conversations with friends and family, she began to see the merit behind it.

“That quote pissed me off so much,” Rawlins said shaking her head. “I was sitting there so freaking depressed and they’re telling me happiness is a choice? I didn’t really understand what that meant, but now I know you really do choose the thoughts that are in your head. You have 100% control of your thoughts and how you perceive things, so you have control over your happiness.”

Self-aware and intentional thoughts were the start of her reaching a place where she doesn’t shy from feeling sad or angry. Now, Rawlins relishes in the excitement of a never-ending playlist’s worth of feelings.

“I’m someone who is probably considered dramatic. If a boy breaks up with me, I throw a funeral for that boy. I just let myself be so sad and do all the cheesy chick flick things of being sad.”

I sat on the couch mesmerized by her declarations of self-compassion and the importance of feelings. Especially since I had spent the day before this conversation beating myself up for a random spike of anxiety and sadness. I immediately labeled these feelings as ridiculous. Rawlins made me realize that we don’t need to label feelings as “good” or “bad.”

We don’t have to define ourselves by our bad days. We don’t even have to define ourselves by our good days. We’re humans who feel feelings. Not feelings who just sometimes feel human.

Rawlins continued to describe how she came to accept her emotions throughout the conversation.

“Find the exciting things in every single day and I think that comes with embracing emotions and all the emotions you feel during a day,” Rawlins said. “If you feel them and embrace them and heighten them, it’s going to be a more fun life than if you’re just scraping by. I like being really high and really low.”

She raved about how much she loves helping other people come to this understanding. She didn’t want to “toot her own horn,” but she explained situations where she’s helped friends through breakups by focusing on this mindset.

I asked her if she had a favorite piece of advice to give people. She surprised me by immediately stating a Pinterest-like quote of her own invention.

“Ride the rollercoaster of your emotions and it will be the funnest rollercoaster of your entire life,” she stated unflinchingly. “That is my mantra, I tell people that all the time.”

The final verse

After our light conversation on feelings and the nature of humanity, I returned our focus to the song of the hour. When would she release it?

“I’m still deciding,” Rawlins explained. “Because I am not proud of what I have right now — I’m not! Just found out last night.”

I wondered what had changed the past few days to incur such uncertainty from someone I was certain to be the most confident woman I’ve met. It came down to the same fear we all share at some point: vulnerability.

“I just didn’t understand that it would be so scary because that is all song writing is — being vulnerable with emotions.”

Embracing her own emotions proved a manageable task after a year of diligent effort. However, Kate’s song illustrates a deeply personal story. She shared that her primary concern is people misinterpreting its meaning in her life. She thinks people will assume the song is about someone it’s not.

She posted a couple of the photos I took later that day. Stumbling upon my own work made me smile. I saw Kate’s seemingly ever-present grin and felt grateful to know that it’s not so ever-present at all.

Some people feel deeply. They throw birthday parties for the universe and laugh too loudly in overpriced restaurants. They also sob in their beds over losses they couldn’t control and slam doors when they need to. They don’t quiet their emotions.

Kate Rawlins is one of these people.

Thanks to her, someday I might be too.