I’m currently (somewhat belatedly) showcasing each track from my latest album Coming Home in a “behind the song” blog series. I hope some listeners find it interesting or helpful. “Running on Empty” is the fifth track. For convenience, the lyrics and YouTube & Spotify streams are at the bottom of this post.
“Running on Empty” was one of my rare songs that came together relatively quickly. I don’t just use metaphors in songwriting; I use them naturally in my own thinking, to clarify my feelings or experiences or sometimes just for comfort. So one day when I was thinking or journaling about my music career, this metaphor just popped into my head, of being on a trip to a particular destination and not knowing if I had enough gas or resources to get there.
At this point I feel like I need to defend myself a little bit, because most people who either are DIY musicians, or who like DIY music, love to talk about how success and money don’t matter because playing music is just about being creative, expressing yourself, etc. To the point where, whenever I talk about long-term growth goals and things like that, I get a lot of patronizing comments trying to invalidate basically the entire concept of having ambitions and the resulting feelings of disappointment. Let’s set aside the obvious counterargument that you need money to survive, and while it’s all well and good to say “just work a day job and do music for the love of it,” those day jobs take a ton of time and energy away from music and limit the opportunities you can say yes to, and while it’s the norm for plenty of talented working musicians, that doesn’t make it suck any less.
But for me, the counterargument actually goes a little bit differently. Believe it or not, my primary purpose in writing and playing music is not to express myself or be creative. It’s to express myself to other people and to build connections through it. So if I’m only writing for myself — if I’m the only one who’s listening and the only one who cares — for me, it’s fundamentally not worth it. It’s fundamentally pointless. And while it is nice having 5 or 10 or 20 people who truly care, I dream of the day when there are hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands who are passionate about my music, who get my lyrics tattooed, and who have positive interactions and a whole community with each other built around my music.
I know that many people will still scoff at this dream and say I should just be satisfied because I’m writing music and expressing myself, but oh well, this is how I feel. Connection and community are what make music beautiful and special and worthwhile to me, and I long to play an actual role in that aspect of it. It is the main reason I’ve been obsessed with music for my entire life, and it’s the main reason I’m obsessed with making music now. And I’m totally on board with the idea that you should try to feel happy and fulfilled with yourself and your life as it is, no matter how it is or what you ultimately want. It’s just easier said than done, and probably easier for some people than others. For me, it’s one of the hardest things in the world.
So this is all just a long-winded way of saying that when I talk about a “destination” in my music career, I’m generally not talking about making a certain amount of money, winning an award, or getting signed to a big label. I’m just talking about reaching a tipping point where I can actually say that a significant number of people care about what I’m doing, that people are listening, and that my music actually matters, at least to some little corner of the world.
(By the way, the “resources” and gas in this metaphor, for me, represent the traits needed to succeed in music and to truly build a thriving fan base. I suppose I’m mainly referring to talent and charisma, though I know that luck plays a role too. Hard work is the one thing I will definitely give myself, though!)
On the other hand, the crux of this song is that even if you never reach your destination or ultimate goal, it doesn’t mean you still can’t enjoy the journey. Chasing this dream for the past several years, I’ve already had many priceless adventures that I never would have had if I’d been settling into a safe and secure life, and that means something to me. If I keep chasing this dream for the rest of my life, I’m going to smile on my deathbed at all the memories and adventures I’ve had. I’m not going to look back with boredom and dissatisfaction and have to ask myself, would my life have been more interesting and fulfilling if I had chased my dreams? That is how I am choosing to live my life already, and while I might never get even a modicum of what I want out of it, what I get back still has some correlation with what I put into it. In other words, back to the metaphor, “no matter where I stop, at least I got to feel the wind in my hair.”
I was quite pleased with the concept and lyrics of this one. I also came up with some really good harmonies in my opinion, which took me many tries to get them sounding as I wanted. The electric guitar chords and subtle (virtual, of course) strings that come in later were easier to create, but I also like what they add to it. Actually, this is another one of my favorites! I will say that truly being proud of and enjoying your own song as a listener is worth it. It might not be “enough” for my greedy brain to feel completely fulfilled and happy, but it’s one of those little victories to check off along this journey that could end at any time.
Sometimes this whole thing
Feels like I’ve gone on a road trip
Without the resources
That I actually need to make it to my destination
Still don’t know if I’ve got what it takes
But I feel like whatever I can give I already gave
And I don’t know how much farther I can go
Running on empty
But I won’t give up until the engine blows
I don’t even know if I mind where I end up
When I reach that time
I’ve heard it said that it’s about the journey
And that just might be
And I know I’ve always wanted to get there
But wherever I stop
At least I got to feel the wind in my hair
I’ve already made it so much farther
Than I ever dreamed in my early days
You never know until you try
That little tank might just make it all the way