Story Behind the Song: “Stubborn Heart”

“Stubborn Heart” is a song about the conflict between the head and the heart. You know how it goes: The head tries to reason with the heart in matters of crushes, infatuation, love, passion, and various other thinking/feeling conflicts. The heart doesn’t want to hear logic, though. It’s into feelings, even at the risk of being broken somewhere down the road, which, incidentally, is what the head was trying to warn it about in the first place. And the head will have a big, “I told you so!” ready anytime it is proven right, which is most of the time.

Perhaps the biggest case in point is that whole “love at first sight” thing, where you meet someone and instantly feel some kind of connection. Only you don’t know the person well enough yet to know about big incompatibilities. Or, worse yet, you “know” (i.e. in your head) there are some big, maybe even huge, incompatibilities, but you look the other way because of “that feeling thing”.

Okay, you get the idea. Before we get to the actual story behind the writing and recording of “Stubborn Heart”, perhaps you might like to have a listen and read through the lyrics:

The Story Begins

It was Tuesday, July 9, 2019. I’d finished getting my August 2019 pop rock album, The Road That I Must Take, into the distribution cycle a week or so earlier. The last portion of that part of that project had involved putting together artwork, alongside dealing with various administrative tasks. The next phase would be focused on how to get the word out about the album, but I was eager to take a break for some more creative musical activities.

Among the recent music business opportunity listings from TAXI, an independent A&R service I’d rejoined late in 2018, there was a listing seeking adult contemporary songs. It was due at the end of the next day, which obviously didn’t give much time, but the listing suggested even a piano/vocal demo might suffice, and the short deadline would at least mean the “interruption” to switch gears had a finite time limit.

The big question was whether, starting from a blank slate, I could come up with something worthwhile within less than 36 hours. While I’d managed to deal with some pretty short writing and recording deadlines in the past, there have also been times where I’ve managed to more or less sit there staring at a blank page, not coming up with any worthwhile ideas, or at least not getting to a finished song and recording, in the face of these short leash deadlines. Time pressure can be a big help for forcing quick decisions, but it can also be a major stumbling block for getting inspiration to flow.

The Concept

While I was starting from a blank slate on the writing front, I’d actually had a conceptual idea on a topic for a song while taking my morning shower that day. I’d jotted down a few notes after drying off:

Forgot the phrase I had in mind, but something about the heart’s getting its own way or having its own ideas in the battle of heart and mind in a romantic attraction situation. Specifically, logic might say a person is wrong for you, and you should not be interested, but the heart and emotions keep pushing closer and closer to the other person, for example imagining a relationship’s progression, making semi-overt advances (e.g. flirting, seeing one another more, etc.), and so on.

What I want isn’t good for me.

Definition of insane: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

That probably sounds a bit intellectual. The idea I’d had was actually a lot more nebulous (and thus the likely reason I “forgot the phrase”), and sort of a heart-inspired thing. This was my head trying to translate that idea into something resembling the starting point for seeking some more concrete inspiration. If we were talking about planning a vacation, it might be the equivalent of deciding to go somewhere to photograph wildlife, but not having even thought about an actual destination (Costa Rica? Yellowstone? The Serengeti?).

Trying to Get More Concrete

Once I began actively trying to come up with some more concrete ideas, I started playing with word associations, trying to come up with a potential title. Most of those included the word “heart” (e.g. “My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own”, “My Heart Won’t Let Go”, “Clueless Heart”), but some just tried to give the impression of the heart’s being in control without using the actual word (e.g. “Unbending”, as in, “my heart’s unbending,” or “Talking to a Wall”, as in “trying to reason with my heart is like talking to a wall”).

I probably spent an hour or two in this exercise and came up with 27 possible titles in all (or at least that I jotted down), most of which I either didn’t like very much or thought wouldn’t fit the genre (e.g. felt more like a country song title). “Stubborn Heart” was actually number 17, but it didn’t initially sell me sufficiently to stop looking for title ideas and start writing the song.

I don’t recall why I initially gravitated toward “Stubborn Heart”. Perhaps it was just that it was among the “cleaner” (i.e. less wordy and/or less corny) options that also seemed a good fit for my conceptual idea. I suspect I may have just felt I had to go with something to get off the dime if I was going to have any prayer of finishing something by the deadline.

I do know that, once I started leaning toward “Stubborn Heart”, I did some research on how the phrase had been used, and I also tried searching to see if there had been existing hit songs that had used the title. On the latter count, I came up with a 1957 recording by country singer Kitty Wells as the most prominent possibility. Beyond being far enough back, and obscure enough, to not be on today’s radar, it also went in a very different direction from what I had in mind (which was decidedly a good thing in the service of trying to be original).

As for the former count, I came across two key types of hits. By far the most numerous didn’t relate to the exact phrase, but rather the notion of a stubborn heart, specifically resisting God, as discussed in various biblical passages. The other was a blog-like article, written by Rania Naim, called “10 Things People Don’t Realize You’re Doing Because You Have a Stubborn Heart”. Reading that article really sold me on going with “Stubborn Heart” because the list of traits and behaviors it covered seemed to provide some good insight into the situations I had in the back of my mind in coming up with the concept for the song.

Let the Writing Begin

I spent the rest of the 9th trying to come up with some actual lyrics, starting with a chorus. One of my earliest lyrical snips that would eventually have its first line replaced, albeit not until the next day, read:

I’ve got choosing the wrong one down to an art
Thanks to my stubborn heart

As the late afternoon and evening progressed, I was making some progress, but I was also getting skeptical of my ability to finish something to submit by the deadline. At the end of the day, I had a draft verse and chorus. As best I can deduce from my notes at this point, the draft chorus at the end of that first day read:

It’s not some moments of insanity
My mind knows you won’t be the one for me
It’s just this stubborn heart that leads me wrong
(And) Starts me heading toward a sad song
My mind knows just how this will end one day
But (if) I’ve got choosing the wrong one down to an art
No faulty logic’s leading me astray
[[You can/Just/I] blame/(It’s) just] my stubborn heart

In case my notation is confusing, parentheses mean the word is optional (e.g. the line with the first instance could be either “And starts me heading toward a sad song” or just “Starts me heading toward a sad song”). The brackets suggest “either … or” for any slash-separated choices within them (e.g. that last line could be either “You can blame my stubborn heart”, “Just blame my stubborn heart”, “It’s just my stubborn heart”, or “Just my stubborn heart”).

I likely had some head melody started by this point, though the differences in rhythmic patterns at the end of the chorus from where the lyric eventually went suggest I hadn’t refined it yet. As for the draft chorus lyric, it’s got most of the semantic content that ended up in the final version, albeit reworded and rearranged in terms of sequence.

It’s much harder to deduce the state of the verse lyric at the end of that first evening from my notes. It may well have been the same as that part of the final lyric. If not, though, it would have at least been closer to that final version than the chorus lyric’s draft was at that point.

Day Two

At the start of Wednesday, July 10th, I was feeling sufficiently hopeless about the prospects of getting something together by the one-minute-before-midnight deadline that I’d decided to attend an on-line meeting that I thought was scheduled for 10 AM. It turned out, however, that the meeting was actually scheduled for 6 PM. I decided I may as well continue working on the song. I could decide later whether I was making enough progress to warrant skipping the meeting (which I could catch in a later replay) in order to try and finish the song and a demo recording by the deadline.

As it turned out, I’d made enough progress on the song by mid-afternoon that I decided to keep going. Earlier in the afternoon, I’d put together a rough drum track and a temporary virtual guitar track to help myself flesh out some melodic ideas. By mid-afternoon the lyrics and melody were sufficiently far along that I started tracking lead vocal parts, adjusting the song side further in the process. I finished the tracking then started building a composite lead vocal from the multiple takes prior to taking a break for dinner.

After dinner I still had to finish building the lead vocal for the demo, then tune it. It was still feeling iffy on making the deadline, but I kept at it. Once I had the vocal done, I had to redo the virtual guitar part, add a quick synth part, and mix the rough demo to a level I felt would be good enough to pitch for the opportunity.

In the process of doing all this, I realized that I’d put the song in too high a key for my voice, with the result being that the recorded vocal really wasn’t up to snuff. However, I’d never make the deadline if I had to record it again at this point. Thus, I’d have to choose between giving up on the pitch altogether or pitching it “as is” (or at least as good as I could make it in time for the pitch), hoping the demo would suffice despite the vocal issues. I went for it.

Just how bad was the vocal? Here is a clip of that original demo from the start of the song through the end of the first chorus so you can decide for yourself. My apologies for any aural pain inflicted (and any appropriate legal disclaimers to limit my responsibility in the matter):

The bottom line is I made the deadline, with about a half an hour to spare. A week later I’d learn that my song had been rejected. The reasons given were that it was stylistically off target (i.e. not modern-sounding enough) and that they felt the music in the verses and the chorus were too similar.

Moving On, and False Starts

In between submitting the song for the listing and receiving the rejection notice, I tried the song out in public for the first time, delivering a piano/vocal performance at an open mic in Laguna Niguel, California. In fact, I performed it a total of four times during July, and it was going over well. While I’d been distracted by subsequent projects with deadlines, I’d already begun thinking about recording a more polished version of “Stubborn Heart” by late July. I’d been hoping to get a new recording together and released by the end of the year. However, other projects were taking precedence, and that continued to be the case through late October.

I made my first attempt to start on a new recording of “Stubborn Heart” on October 28th, but a whole bunch of technical issues kept me from making any sort of progress, meaningful or otherwise. I also spent a good deal of time on the 29th and further time on the 30th trying to make some headway. Further technical issues interrupted my work, but I made a bit of tentative progress prior to deciding to put the project on the back burner because I wasn’t happy with the direction things were taking.

If those three days in late October brought any meaningful developments, it was deciding that, instead of going for a modern adult contemporary recording, I’d go in a bit of a jazzier direction. While I’d still try for some relatively modern sounds, for example in the drums and synths, I wouldn’t worry about where the recording would ultimately fit within modern genre definitions.

I didn’t even attempt to revisit the recording again until December 3rd, and I again got nowhere with it at that point. Technical problems again had been a factor, However, the bigger issue was some sort of creative block in trying to figure out where to go with the arrangement. While I did a fair amount of experimentation, I just wasn’t getting anything that grabbed me. Between the onset of the holiday season and other projects with deadlines (I ended up producing or remixing something like seven recordings during this period), further efforts on “Stubborn Heart” were relegated to fitting in between the cracks, and that was not sufficient to get past the impasse on the project.

Off the Back Burner

The old year departed, and 2020 arrived, and I was still focusing on other projects. Finally on January 20, 2020, I took a new look at “Stubborn Heart”. I also took a look at the calendar, noting that Valentine’s Day was on a Friday this year — Fridays are the days recommended for releasing recordings these days — and it was on the order of three and half weeks away. Given the song’s subject matter, I started to get excited about targeting a Valentine’s Day release.

Now three and a half weeks might sound like plenty of time to finish a recording, but there’s more to releasing a recording than finishing the recording itself. For example, the song needs to go through the distribution cycle to get it out to the various download and streaming sites, and that takes at least a few days. Cover art is needed before it can even go into the distribution cycle, and the amount of time needed to come up with and execute an idea can vary, but usually takes me at least a couple of days.

I’d also hoped to submit the song for consideration for Spotify’s editorial playlists. The best guidance I’ve heard on that is to try to get it into their hands two weeks prior to the release date, and no less than one week ahead of time at any rate. To get it into Spotify’s hands for consideration means having submitted the release to the distributor (CD Baby in my case) at least a few days earlier, though the exact amount of time for the distributor to turn things around can vary. Two weeks prior to February 14th would be January 31st, and a few days prior to that would shorten my roughly three and a half weeks to less than ten days. How many fewer days I’d have would depend on how quickly CD Baby turned the release around.

Ultimately, I decided to go for it. I’d at least nominally set Valentine’s Day as the release date for a single, treating the project as a priority. While there could be no guarantees I’d actually make the various milestones in time, having a deadline in mind at least gave me the focus to move the project forward.

The Final Stretch

I worked pretty steadily on the new recording of “Stubborn Heart” from January 21st through 31st. I had quite a few technical problems along the way to slow that progress down, but I did get to a final mix late at night on the 31st, and I put the recording up on my website as my song of the month for my February update. I was already a few days behind my hoped for schedule by this point, but I was still determined to make the Valentine’s Day release target.

Next up was creating cover art. This is a case where I had a concept in mind, but where going from concept to actual artwork would challenge my limited artistic skills. My initial thought was to have two cartoon characters, one being a brain and the other being a heart. The brain would be lecturing the heart, and the heart would be ignoring the brain. Let’s just say that a few days of effort proved that I needed to simplify my concept to make it more compatible with what I could reasonably execute, especially if I still wanted to make the Valentine’s Day release.

I was getting down to the wire, and another recording project with a deadline was quickly coming up. It had gotten to the point where I gave it one more day to finish some usable cover art. If I didn’t succeed in that, I’d have to move the release back to prioritize the other project. Maybe it was that added time pressure, or maybe it was the several days of “learning”, but I finished the current cover design in that final day, submitting the single for distribution on February 4th.

Unfortunately, CD Baby took longer than usual to get the “Stubborn Heart” release out through its channels, only finalizing it for digital distribution on February 10th, only four days away from the release date. This did not provide enough time to submit it for Spotify editorial playlist consideration. I did, however, achieve my goal of a Valentine’s Day release.