Anyone who has suffered the loss of a child, spouse, sibling, parent, friend, even a beloved pet, knows how hard it is to get rid of that lump in the throat every time memories start rushing in.
There’s no telling how long that feeling will last. It could be six months, a year, two years, even three. It’s different for everyone. It may never truly go away, but eventually the pain does subside and life goes on, albeit with a hole in the heart.
Maine-based singer-songwriter Cindy Bullens could write a book on the subject. Instead, she has written an eloquent, impassioned album derived from personal tragedy.
“Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth,” the first release on former Mercury head Danny Goldberg’s Artemis Records, is an emotional, uplifting paean to Bullens’ daughter, Jessie, who died of complications from Hodgkins’ disease three weeks shy of her 11th birthday in February 1996.
The album, released Sept. 7, hasn’t eliminated that lump in Bullens’ throat, but it did give her a new sense of purpose.
“I had lunch with a friend today, and she said, ‘You know, your voice sounds stronger. You sound really good. A year ago, you were not like this at all,’ ” Bullens said recently. “These songs are inspired by Jessie and written about her and my loss of her, so there’s a direct connection with Jessie. So it has meaning for me personally, but it also has meaning for me because the reaction I’m getting from people who’ve had losses in their life has been very, very meaningful to me, very touching, almost to the point where it’s very humbling that people have shared their deepest thoughts with me by e-mail, by letters, thanking me for writing these songs and telling me how close the songs are to their own experiences.”
It didn’t come easily for Bullens. For several months after Jessie’s death, she was deeply depressed and directionless. The last thing on her mind was writing a song about the heartache she was enduring.
Then one day, as if prodded by Jessie’s spirit, Bullens instinctively picked up a guitar and let her emotions flow into what became the title track. “I didn’t plan on writing a song when I sat down with my guitar that particular day about four months after Jessie died,” Bullens said. “It just kind of came out and I didn’t resist the actual inspiration to write it as it was coming out, but I couldn’t understand what the hell I was doing. I was sobbing. I couldn’t believe I was writing a song about the death of my own child.
“If you listen to the songs, like ‘I Gotta Believe in Something,’ it was written in the low, low point after Jessie’s death. I really didn’t know at that time how I was going to continue living. I just wanted to die. But I found out something about myself during that time of depression, that I couldn’t just lay down and I couldn’t live as a dead person, if you know what I mean. I wasn’t going to physically kill myself, and therefore, then I couldn’t live as a bitter person or depressed person.”
What kept her motivated was knowing that she had to be there physically and emotionally for her other daughter, 17-year-old Reid.
The most difficult song to write, Bullens says, was “As Long As You Love (Scarlet Wings),” in which she speaks to Jessie through the verses and Jessie responds in the choruses. Reid sings the part of Jessie on the album.
Bullens called on several friends to contribute to the project: Beth Nielsen Chapman, who lost her husband to cancer five years ago, connected her with producer Rodney Crowell; Bryan Adams sang harmony on the title track; Chapman and Bonnie Raitt sang background on “I Gotta Believe in Something”; Crowell sang on “Water On the Moon,” and Lucinda Williams backed “The End of Wishful Thinking.”
The response nationwide has overwhelmed Bullens. She appeared on NBC’s “The Today Show” in August and has received four-star reviews in the Tennessean, New York Post and Billboard, to name a few.
“I had this lunch today with a friend, as I mentioned, and I was trying to explain to her that it was the strangest thing in the world to be getting so much positive attention for something you had done and at the same time, the bottom line is, it’s about the death of my daughter,” Bullens said. “I can’t quite find a word to describe my feelings about it. I am very glad that this is something positive that people are getting from both musically and emotionally. The emotional part of it is, it’s never not going to be about Jessie’s death.
“Whenever I get up to sing these songs, there’s nothing that’s going to be routine about it for me, even if I play the same 10 songs every single night on tour, because every time I open my mouth to sing ‘I had a dream that I was falling and you came to rescue me’ or ‘Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth,’ it is about this child who I don’t see when I get up in the morning anymore, who I can’t hear, who doesn’t come and kiss me good-night. It is difficult, and it’s a little schizophrenic.
“If this album becomes successful, it’s difficult to think that my success is based on the death of my child. Now, it isn’t, really, because it’s based on the songs and what I’ve done with this experience. On the other hand, I must tell you, not to sound esoteric or anything, to me I think it’s about a bigger picture now. This is not all about Cindy Bullens and my music; I’m just following a plan here that I think Jessie has laid out for me. I’m going to get up everyday and keep doing it.”
Does Bullens’ name sound familiar? Fans of the movie “Grease” know her well. She didn’t appear in the 1978 box-office smash, but she sang “Freddy My Love,” “It’s Raining On Prom Night” and “Mooning” for the soundtrack album.
“One of the cool things for me about the renewed popularity of ‘Grease,’ I had not told my kids that I had done it. It never came up,” Bullens said. “Then Reid, about five years ago, went to camp for a couple of weeks. She was 12 years old. She was laying on her bunk and she’s listening to the Walkman with one of her bunkmates and the tape of ‘Grease’ is playing. Well, I hadn’t told her anything. She calls me up on the phone, ‘Mom, I was listening to this tape and I said to myself, ‘Oh, that sounds like my mom.’ ‘ She jumps off the bunk, grabs the cover of the cassette tape and screams ‘It is my mom!’ I love that story.”
A year after “Grease,” Bullens made her solo debut with the United Artists album “Desire Wire,” which featured the minor chart hit “Survivor.” Imagine Bullens’ surprise when, months later, she learned “Survivor” was nominated for a Grammy Award for best female rock performance.
“I can only remember that I was up against my friend Bonnie Raitt,” Bullens said, laughing, “and I know that Donna Summer won that year (for ‘Hot Stuff’) … for rock? Can you believe it? The one time I get nominated, Donna Summer wins. Just my luck.”
BWF (before we forget): Catch Cindy Bullens on the Web @ www.cindybullens.com. … The Cindy Bullens album discography – “Desire Wire” (United Artists, 1979); “Steal the Night” (Casablanca, 1980); “Cindy Bullens” (MCA, 1989); “Why Not?” (Blue Lobster, 1994); “Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth” (Artemis/Blue Lobster, 1999).