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From A Distance

| February 3, 2011 | 28 Comments

The story behind the Grammy-award winning “From A Distance” and the miracles a song can bring, as told by the writer, Julie Gold.

In 1978, at the age of 22, I came to New York in pursuit of my dream of being a songwriter. And while dreams are essential, they don’t pay the rent. For years, I worked various temp jobs while gigging at night and sending songs out whenever possible. I demonstrated vacuum cleaners, Mr. Coffees and toaster ovens. I worked the flea markets, as a proofreader, for a dentist and at a venetian blinds factory.

It was a struggle. No health benefits. No money for recreational purposes. Desperation. Self doubt. Fear. We all know what that’s like. But, all the while, I clung to my dream like a life preserver. I knew why I was born, and no one could discourage me from reaching my mountaintop. I was willing to die trying. Honest I was.

I finally gave in to taking a full-time job as a secretary at HBO in 1984. It was a smart move. Ah, the magic of a steady paycheck. In my spare time and evening hours, I was of course still gigging, writing songs and dreaming my big dream. Now, however, I didn’t have that horrible daily struggle of keeping my head above water financially.

In 1985, just before my 30th birthday, my parents sent me the piano I grew up playing. I had just served as a juror on an emotionally trying case, my brother had just married, and I was questioning my life to date, wondering what my future could possibly hold.

I took the day off work to be home when my piano arrived, and I remember how it glistened in the sun as the movers lowered it off the truck. My piano. My truest love and friend. My confidante. Back together again after all these years.

It came into my little, one room apartment and fit just where I hoped it would. The movers told me that it had been on the truck for 24 hours, so I had to give it a chance to settle. They said I couldn’t play it for a full day. So there we were in the same room, unable to make music. I remember hugging it and polishing it. Then I went to bed. My bed was a high loft bed, and I looked down on my piano all night to make sure it was really there.

The next day I sat down and “From a Distance” just poured out of me. On one hand, it took me two hours to write. On the other hand, it took me 30 years. Pick whichever hand makes you happy. I love them both.

I sent “From a Distance” around to all my contacts. As usual, most did not even reply. Those who did found fault with my song. My friend and fellow songwriter Christine Lavin loved it and requested copies to send around to her friends and contacts. Within two weeks, my scratchy demo was getting radio play thanks to Christine. Then I came home one day to a flashing message on my answering machine. There was a gentle, unknown voice identifying herself as Nanci Griffith. Christine had sent her the song, she loved it, and was asking to record it.

Nanci recorded “From a Distance” on her first album for MCA. I remember sitting at The Bottom Line the first time I saw her perform it live and observing her audience sing along. That’s when I realized that my life would never be the same.

Nanci sang that song all over the world, and I was still very much a secretary. She would call me at work from Belfast and tell me how the song was affecting people around the world. She took me out on the road with her several times, just so I could play the piano as she sang that one song. What incredible moments we shared. Me, away from my day job and in the spotlight with a beloved world-class talent. Me, getting love and honor from total strangers all because of one little song. Me, basking in the light of my life-long dream.

On June 16, 1988, I played Carnegie Hall with Nanci. All my relatives came up from Philadelphia to share the miracle. Most of them, including my mother, are immigrants. In many ways, I am their American Dream. What an amazing dream it is. As I write this, I can’t even believe it’s true. But it is. It really is.

Even with all this glory, however, I was still a secretary. I still lived in one little dark room. I still barely made enough money to survive. Believe it or not, I was depressed and despondent. I remember crying on the phone to both my parents (who, incidentally, were never anything short of supportive, encouraging and fully loving with regard to my dream). On this occasion, I remember my desperation and how they tried to console me with a stereo pep talk. It didn’t work. Finally, they asked what they do to help me feel better. For the first and only time in my life, I asked them to please pay my rent for six months. They agreed, and July 7, 1989 was my last day of work at HBO. I walked down Sixth Avenue, crying all the way. Free at last.

They were the best six months of my life. Finally a musician full-time. I made my hours. I wrote my songs. I called. I mailed. I pitched. I played. I prayed. I sent songs to every singer in the world. I walked tall. I felt good. I received my first royalty check from Nanci’s foreign performances of “From a Distance,” and that bought me another six months of freedom.

During this time, I received a call from Marc Shaiman, who identified himself as Bette Midler’s musical director. She was making a new record, and, in their search for songs, they called Stephen Holden at the New York Times for suggestions. Stephen told Marc about “From a Distance,” Marc called me, I sent the scratchy demo, and Bette recorded it.

People seemed to love it, and I won a Grammy for Song of the Year in 1991. Here I was still living in one dark room, no money, uncertain of my future, and yet my song was on the radio and I had won a Grammy. If that isn’t a dream come true, what is?

I am now 55. I live in a beautiful condo with air, light and a view of my beloved New York, the city of dreams. I earn my living as a songwriter. I have hugged Burt Bacharach. I have dined with Lamont Dozier. I have met Paul McCartney. I have chatted with Carole Bayer Sager. I have laughed with Cyndi Lauper. I have heard “From a Distance” in many languages. I have felt it in Braille. I have heard it on music boxes and in elevators. I have read it on greeting cards and in children’s books. And it has been played for astronauts in space. It is nothing short of a miracle, and I am never anything but amazed and grateful that the miracle happened to me.

Category: Behind The Song

Comments (28)

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  1. kato Tom says:

    I play From a distance on my phone memory card for a long time. I always feel comforted.

  2. Terna says:

    So inspiring! I love this song so much. Thanks for the story behind the song.

  3. I have always loved this song, because whenever I listen to it, I feel at peace within me. Thank you for the song and God will bless you more and more.

  4. Tony Shalom says:

    Just finished listening to the Byrds version of your song.

    Thank you

  5. Marcia Hinton says:

    Julie:

    It was wonderful of you to return for our Alumnae reunion and play that world famous song for us! Thank you for being true to your dream and never giving up. I am so proud to know you.

  6. Pat Hogan says:

    I just finished an online meditation with Oprah and Deepak. In the journal follow up, I was asked to sing and dance to a song I loved. I chose From a Distance. Nanci Griffith’s has always been my favorite – I like Bette Midler’s too – but I never knew the story, or writer, behind this stirring song. Thank you Julie Gold ten thousand times over. This song should be sung whenever and wherever politicians congregate. These words, thoughts and hope need to continually go out on the airwaves. The only change I’ve made to the song, to bring it up to date, is I sing “everyone”, instead of every man. Right?

  7. Zazzy says:

    Bette Midler should sing this song in front of all the leaders of the World. And then they might realise that we all are the Children of God. No matter what we look like or what religion we preach. And that this world would be nicer to live in if everyone got a long!

  8. i am listening to it over and over and over again right now and i cant take my eyes of the lyrics. what a message

  9. Cathy Chen says:

    A great song writer who is so nice to others.
    I am glad that I heard her singing here in Taiwan today.

  10. Rebecca says:

    Wonderful story I was touch after ready your story and the song

  11. Les says:

    I just sang this song last Sunday at church. While I dont have Bette Midler’s or even Nancy Griffith’s voice, i saw so many be moved in the congregation. and when I saw that last refrain

    God is watching us (with the US retarded)i felt him go through me. what a beautiful experience.

  12. Dennis Korn says:

    Sometimes I’m filled with anger and self pity, and wanting to give up, and God lets me hear a song like what He gave us though You, and it gives me hope. Not just for me but for us all. God bless. D Korn

  13. LordKandy says:

    wonderful story! Before glory always comes a story. Thanks be to God who cause it to be. The song had been a blessing. Even this morning when I played it.

  14. marsee says:

    I hadnt heard or thought of this song for a long time until someone sang at church today. Gave me goosebumps. Thank you

  15. Nkem Monde says:

    Been listening to “From A Distance” since its debut…can’t seem to get enough of it all these years! Really inspiring and…relaxing in these troubled times. We need to realize that God indeed is watching us!!

  16. I loved watching you tell history of how you wrote this song. I am blessed. I pray all is well with you. God bless you.
    Margaret Keah-tigh Dorsey

  17. Leonard Han says:

    Thank you Julie for a very beautiful message in the beautiful song. You are God’s blessing to the world …

  18. Beatrice moore from Kenya says:

    Julie im only 30yrs .. I really like ur song from a distance ,, infact I played the song on my wedding day ,, wanted people to look at things in different way be blessed u made my day

  19. Robert caitoe says:

    I was hopless n l didn’t know where l am going as at 30years but our song n your story has encourage me ur song is a message from God….

  20. Candy says:

    My husband and I had one in 100 chance to buy the last new house on the market in the area we wanted when we moved to the DC area a few years ago. We were standing in line hoping against hope we would have a chance to buy Within five minutes all other prospective buyers left (it was lunchtime and they got tired of waiting), and when the sales lady returned, my husband and I were the only ones in line. She commented that she’d never seen a huge line like the one that had been waiting disappear like that before, but it must be a sign the last house should go to us. Just as we were ready to sign the contract, we remembered we didn’t have enough money to buy this house until we sold our house in the Midwest. At that moment, our cell phone rang and it was our realtor calling to say he just sold our first house. It sold for enough money we could afford to go ahead with the contract for the new house, and just as we picked up the pen to sign, From a Distance came on the radio in the sales office, and we took that as a definite go-ahead from God. We love the house and thanks for such a great song!!

  21. Annette Overstreet says:

    The Universe sent this song through you to all of us. Thank you.

  22. Ntokozo Khumalo says:

    Thank you so much for this encouragement i just gave upon on my dream because i have tried all i can but i cannot make it so i am more than 30 years and i thought i will be some where by now. But thanks for the encouragement.

    From Swaziland

  23. Amanda Lane says:

    Thank you, Julie, for such a wonderful, positive and intuitive song. It has moved me in the deepest way, as it has a ton of others, I’m sure. I sing and play the guitar a bit, as a hobby, and I love playing your song. And thank you for sharing your story; it lends courage and hope to anyone endeavoring to follow one’s heart.

  24. I’ve seen you sing this at the Birchmere in Arlington, VA (with the Bitchin’ Babes!) What an awesome story!

  25. Tomb says:

    Your story is a manifestation of God’s blessings to one who believes. That song is a miracle song. It is well with you.

  26. David Cooper says:

    Beautiful song!Inspiration to a struggling songwriter!!!

  27. Crys says:

    Beautiful song, bio and writer. Thanks Julie!

  28. phylis says:

    Wonderful story. Great Song. Thanks for sharing.

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