From heartache to inspiration: One man's lessons in writing love songs

Editor's note: Chad Elliott first told this story on stage at the Des Moines Storytellers Project's "Love: Stories of companionship, desire and commitment." The Des Moines Storytellers Project is a series of storytelling events in which community members work with Register journalists to tell true, first-person stories live on stage. An edited version appears below.

Let me set the stage for you: I am lovesick in South Dakota.

I’m riding in the backseat clutter of a 20-year-old, rust on white Dodge Dynasty. My older brother is riding shotgun while our adventurous younger friend is at the helm, gripping the red leather steering wheel, which shivers at the speed we are going.

We are flying west from Iowa toward Missoula, Montana.

Missoula, Montana, where I had only recently dropped out of grad school to feverishly write love songs. Crazy amounts of love songs, like, ”wondering if it was safe for me to be among the general population” amounts of love songs.

These songs had but one muse. And she was still there, in beautiful Montana.

Song writer Chad Elliott shares his story during the Des Moines Storytellers Project on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, at Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines.
Song writer Chad Elliott shares his story during the Des Moines Storytellers Project on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, at Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines.

Like Don Quixote, I had found my mission in a Dodge Dynasty. I would ride out into those mountains, and heart beating like a timpani inside my chest, would finally declare my undying love for her in song.

Yes, I would warble out my best sonnet — and win her heart.

We arrived in Missoula in the early morning. My two travel companions were going hiking. I went to the trailhead with them, but I turned back to town, reciting what I would say when she opened the door.

I even found myself picking tiny purple flowers along the roadside — it was sickeningly sweet. As I got closer, I began to feel the anxiety and rush from my unfolding surprise.

But the surprise was on me. I learned at that moment my muse was actually 500 miles further west, moving in with her ex in Seattle.

I walked away from her old house, searching for a way out of the embarrassment and pain. My heart sank. My cheeks were still flush from the original anticipation. I walked alone, defeated, back up the hill toward the trailhead.

And that’s when it happened: A tiny melody fluttered to life in my imagination.

I began lightly humming the first verse to a brand new song:

I picked a purple flower for you, I left the gold ones on the hill. I picked a purple flower for you and I left it on your window sill ... an element of surprise, with the sun up high in the air, I rang your bell about three or four times ... but you were not there.

And it was at this moment I realized: Music can make the bullshit of life. Totally worth it.

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What I've learned writing love songs for two decades

I write love songs for a living. I write other songs as well. But mostly, I write love songs.

For 24 years now, I’ve poured my heart and soul out to audiences in coffeehouses, churches, bars, weddings, backyards, American Legion halls and everywhere in between.

What I have learned after decades of singing songs from the heart is that there is an art to writing love songs.

My lovesick trek to Montana illustrates the first lesson in the art of writing love songs: there must be vulnerability and longing. In order to truly make a connection with a listener, we must dare to play the fool. And boy, have I.

Another lesson in writing a love song: oversharing is essential.

My love songs are snapshots of my personal life, like pages from my leather bound journal. Sometimes literally.

Song writer Chad Elliott shares his story during the Des Moines Storytellers Project on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, at Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines.
Song writer Chad Elliott shares his story during the Des Moines Storytellers Project on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, at Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines.

And there is this: A love song will almost always mean different things to different people.

The best and saddest song I ever wrote is a song about my divorce. The irony is, I’ve been asked to sing this “divorce” song for two weddings and an anniversary celebration in Mexico.

I was flown to Mexico to celebrate a couple’s anniversary, by singing about the most heartbreaking time in my life ... as this happy couple danced the night away.

The song itself was written about a conversation that I believed only applied to me.

But anyone who has been through a divorce understands, especially when children are involved, there is a sort of awkward dance in the post-divorce conversations over the phone, as each party tries to move forward while still honoring the family that has now transformed into something new.

In the Midwest, we stick to safe topics like the weather. Hence, the title of this particular song "How’s the Weather?"

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I’m baffled at the process a song goes through, from the rough draft of a melody, to the recorded version of the song, and finally into the listener’s ears.

It’s like the chain of people whispering a secret down the line until it comes to the last person and it has completely transformed into something entirely new.

This thought came to mind as I stood there on a terracotta-tiled veranda in Ixtapa, Mexico, as two smiling lovers danced beneath the palm-leaf umbrella 10 feet away from me, I sang these very personal lyrics:

How is home? How’s that job? How’s that child that you and I brought into this world?

How he’s grown and how he looks so much like you and me together ... How’s the Weather?

I go on to describe a thunderstorm approaching, and how a love story ends.

Fireflies above the corn, greek-columned clouds up in the sky forewarn me while reading a book, not written but it was born, from a belief, like a relief into the pressure felt between you and me, for years on end ... but that’s the end.

How does that turn into a marriage song?

With all that said, I have learned to embrace, and even cherish, the very diverse perspectives on this, my best and saddest song.

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A song can return to teach the writer a new lesson

One last, important quality in the art of writing a love song: a good song has its own power.

I wrote a song years ago that I thought was just a throw away song. I recorded a rough demo of it, but didn’t give it much thought after. I played it live, but it never felt like it lived up to the other songs I had written.

But people seemed to really like it.

Its title is “Shining Stars.” I thought at the time I was writing another selfish love song, to only one person.

But sometimes, songs hold their own power. More power than the author knows. Sometimes they grow and wander into other people’s hearts only to return again to it’s creator proving how worthy they are by the lives they have touched.

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I realized this about “Shining Stars” when I found myself singing it for the funeral of my future mother-in-law.

Six days before our wedding, my wife and I received the terrible news that her mother, who had just turned 60 years old, had passed away in her sleep in the hours before dawn. We spiraled into grief and confusion. Our wedding was postponed as families from near and far exchanged their travel plans to pay condolences instead of congratulations. It was gut-wrenching.

But we found comfort in the process of planning a celebration of life for her. My mother-in-law was a meticulous planner. She had even made a “going away” file for the day that she would pass in which she planned the entire service already. Knowing how she would want the ceremony was a huge burden that was lifted from the family.

As we went through the details, I saw the words — "Music: Chad - Sing 'Shining Stars.'”

I was gutted. I was humbled.

I knew she liked that song. I had sung it for her upon request several times at my shows but to have it as the song for her life? Well, that made me pay more attention to this song I had scrawled in my journal years ago.

What was so special about this love song as it related to her life?

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I was so moved and extremely nervous to sing this old song of my own in front of the crowded gymnasium — in front of her own parents, husband, children and grandchildren.

I broke down halfway through, but pushed on and finished the song.

Song writer Chad Elliott shares his story during the Des Moines Storytellers Project on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, at Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines.
Song writer Chad Elliott shares his story during the Des Moines Storytellers Project on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, at Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines.

I sat back down with my soon-to-be wife. She patted me on my back, told me I did wonderful and she crossed her legs. And then I noticed on her ankle: The familiar tattoo of a simple star, the same tattoo that all of the women in her immediate family wore upon their ankles before I’d even met them — including my late mother-in-law.

Shining Stars: Suddenly, it all made sense.

I had learned a valuable lesson through this as a writer: Keep the window open for a song to have its own power for the listener. And let the song return to you and teach you, the writer.

All in all, this life I’ve chosen as a writer of love songs has rewarded me in the most unexpected ways.

I have found more connection to humanity through the pursuit.

The lyrics, the melodies, the performances all serve as tools to connect with other’s hearts. I’ve dedicated my life to describing the interior world we all share. This has offered me many chances to understand the mysteries of love.

But they still remain just that: A mystery that beckons me to keep writing. To keep searching.

And hopefully one day, this tapestry of songs I have written will provide a deeper answer to simple questions like, “How’s the weather?”

ABOUT THE STORYTELLER: Chad Elliott is an award-winning songwriter, painter, sculptor, poet and children's book author from Lamoni, Iowa. Lauded as "Iowa's Renaissance Man," Elliott has been traveling coast to coast performing original songs and teaching creativity in schools for more than 20 years.

The Des Moines Storytellers Project is supported by Xtreme, powered by Mediacom and Noah's.
The Des Moines Storytellers Project is supported by Xtreme, powered by Mediacom and Noah's.

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This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Des Moines storyteller gives insights into writing love songs