As a music lover since childhood, I am always delighted to discover artists that had not crossed my radar screen. The source for much of that melodic magic is my favorite radio station, WXPN which broadcasts from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. World Cafe is one of its signature shows. As I was listening a few weeks ago, I caught the voice of a seasoned performer that I was astounded I had not heard until that moment. Her name was Cindy Bullens, who with a simple switch of letters and not so simple life transition, is now Cidny. When I looked at photos prior to embodying his male essence, I saw the same twinkle in the eye and welcoming smile on the face of a person who had lived as a woman, married a man, birthed two daughters, and tragically lost one at age 11. As an androgynous-looking woman, institutionalized sexism prevented the skyrocketing professional success afforded her more feminine appearing contemporaries.
These events did not define him, but rather, enhanced the core of who he had always been. When I read recent articles and watched a video called The Gender Line, I smiled and cried along, as he told his story of love and loss and at the end, agreed with him that it all unfolded as “a friggin’ miracle.”
Has music been a long time passion for you?
Music has been a passion for me for my entire life. Even as a little kid I remember actively listening to the music of my parents–big band music and jazz mostly. I had a sister who was eight years older and a brother who was five years older. I remember hearing Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and my the man who first really influenced me, Little Richard. It was the rhythm and the raunch that I loved. I was four when I first heard Little Richard’s WXPN”Tutti Fruitti”. I knew then that I wanted to make THAT kind of music.
What did you grow up listening to?
My biggest influences as a pre-teen and teenager were The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. The Beatles for songs, structure, and harmony, the Stones for energy, attitude, and performance. Also, all of Motown, Atlantic, and Stax-Volt R &B artists. The core of my love of music comes from the blues, rhythm and blues, and Gospel. I know that sounds strange coming from a white, middle-class kid who grew up in rural Massachusetts–but it’s true. The very first LP I ever bought, at the general store, was a Lightnin’ Hopkins record. I don’t know where my love of Black American music came from–but I feel like I was born with it. That’s not to say that I didn’t appreciate or learn from artists like Joni Mitchell, or Neil Young. I did! Joni Mitchell taught me how to stretch into new musical territory, both on guitar and piano. She also blew my mind open to a whole new way of thinking about song lyrics. She even more than Bob Dylan, in that respect. Dylan was more cultural, Mitchell more personal, which is my thing.
Have your tastes changed over time?
Not much! Give me good ol’ rock ‘n roll, blues, or any well written provocative song. Make me move or make me feel.
What does it feel like to create something that touches so many lives?
Well, I don’t set out with that intention. I have to tell my own truth. My songs are pretty much like my personality: what you see is what you get. Not much mystery to it (though sometimes I wish there was!) After my 1999 album “Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth” came out and got such a wide-reaching heartfelt reaction from folks–I realized that I could not have written those songs (even under the same circumstances of losing my daughter) any sooner than I did. I truly believe those songs–which came directly from my soul, with no thinking or crafting–are universal because of a combination of my accumulated skill as a songwriter, the depth of my experience, and quite simply, grace. The fact that anyone could relate to the feelings in those songs has been a huge gift to ME. I hope the same will be said about “Walkin’ Through This World”, though I know it’s completely different.
You have performed/recorded with musical legends such as Bob Dylan, Elton John, Gene Clark, Rod Stewart, Kiki Dee, Bonnie Raitt, and Lucinda Williams over the years. What was it like to be immersed in that lofty energy? Did one, in particular, stand out for you?
To be around extreme talent, genius in some cases, and fame is indeed quite an experience. Especially for a young person. First of all, my bubble got burst pretty quickly around fame when I went on the road with Elton John. Elton and I became fast friends and at times I got to witness what happened with him behind the scenes. Don’t forget there was no one more famous than Elton John in 1975-76. And fans then weren’t like they are now, where any famous person can walk down the street without being bothered. Back then, he would get mobbed constantly. He couldn’t go anywhere in public. It was tough for him. But being in the presence of his huge talent is awe-inspiring. Yes, I’ve gotten to hang with a good number of famous people in my life. A few have truly influenced my life. Elton is one. I adore him.
A huge loss in 1996 was life-altering. I’m so sorry that you experienced it. Can you please share about the death of your daughter and how it impacted you?
There is life before Jessie’s death and life after Jessie’s death. There is little connection between those lives. Of course, the people (except for Jessie) and the places are the same, but I am not the same. Jessie’s father and sister are not the same. Our extended families and our close friends, Jessie’s 10 and 11-year-old friends are not the same–ever again. The impact of the death of your child, regardless of age, can not be explained or described in a paragraph or two. It takes years to breathe, to think, to laugh, to observe life going on around you without pain. There is no hell that can be worse than LIVING on after your child. But my Jessie is relentless, in death as she was in life. She would never take no for an answer. Ever. Whether at 2 or 6 or 9 years old, she’d just look at you, then close her eyes and stick out her bottom lip, fold her arms, whip her head around in a harumph, and walk right past you to go do whatever it was you said no to. (She didn’t always get away with it mind you. And I would have to hide my smile many times while trying to stay resolute.) So she decided (it’s my belief) that I had to write an album in the first two years after her death about my own grief. It’s a long story of how it all came to be (described in the “Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth” album booklet) but after I wrote the first three songs in the first nine months, I became compelled. Then a series of miraculous happenings opened up the way for me to write and record all ten songs and have the album released worldwide. All this without my will, or my even wanting. The gift of those deeply inspired songs, that album, led me to be of service for the next 15 years to bereaved parents, colleges and universities, hospice, medical, nursing organizations, and many other places. That album also became my biggest commercial success and shot me back into the music business, after many years, as an artist. All leading to where we are today. Jessie is one powerful angel. Notice I say “is”.
How have you evolved as a person since you first realized that your gender assigned at birth was not the one you felt was your true identity?
Well, I first “realized” it when I was four years old. So my whole life has been lived with that knowledge. I just didn’t ever think there was any way that I could transition–for different reasons at different points in my life. (The word “transgender” and the term “transition” are relatively new in our society. Those terms emerged in the 1980s. So the way I thought about myself for most of my life was that I was “a boy/man in a girl/woman’s body”). A young friend who I hadn’t heard from for two years called me out of the blue and told me “she” had been transitioning for a year and was now living “her” life as a man. (I use the female pronouns here because I only knew her then as a woman). My brain exploded. I literally fell to my knees after I got off the phone and sobbed. I cried with happiness for him. But mostly I cried for all the years I’d lived without experiencing, without being my own true self. When I got up off the floor, I knew there was no going back. One more time, I was compelled. When I look back nine years now to the month (Septemer 2011), I realize that I finally, finally had what I call the “psychic space” to address that core part of myself without any other circumstances, personal responsibilities, or outer hindrances to stop me. My daughter was grown with her own family, I had been single for years, I was beholden to no one. I had to find out who I truly was. Have I evolved in nine years? You bet. Changing genders is not for the faint of heart! It’s terrifying and hard. For me, the inner and physical changes were welcome and for the most part easy, the social and the public aspects were extremely difficult. And I had a LOT of support! Still, I was 61 years old when I started. The path was not exactly paved before me. It took a few years to feel fully like “Cid”. But I am SO much myself now. I never realized how much I compromised to be a good “Cindy” until I started to become “Cid”.
I heard part of Walking Through the World on World Cafe recently. Can you please describe the release and the message you would like for it to express?
There are two “The Gender Line”–one is the video of the first single from the new album “Walkin’ Through This World”.
The second is a 13-minute award-winning documentary short about my life. This film was taken from a feature documentary called “Invisible” (to be released in 2021) about gay women in Southern music. The director TJ Parsell and the producer Bill Brimm came to see my one-person multimedia theatrical show “Somewhere Between: Not An Ordinary Life” in Nashville in June 2018. (There is a line in my show where my daughter raises her palm and turns it perpendicular to the floor, takes her other hand to show me what she means and says, “Mom, you’ve always been on just this side, the female side. Now you’re moving over to just THIS side: the other side of the gender line.”
That’s where it all came from to begin with. ) After the show, TJ asked me if I would be interested in being filmed for the feature. (I was a woman writing songs in Nashville in the ’90s.) In September that year, TJ and crew came to Maine and filmed me for “Invisible”. In May 2019, he called and told me that he was taking my segment from the film and making it it’s own documentary short. It has screened at many film festivals around the world in 2019-20, garnering several awards. (And oh by the way, during the filming, TJ suggested that I write a song called “The Gender Line” and there came the final inspiration for the whole album.)
Is there anything you would like to say to those who may be reading this and contemplating their own transition?
As I said before, changing genders is not for the faint of heart. I do know that If you KNOW you are living in the wrong body–I say it that way on purpose because the gender spectrum is very wide–then assess your life now first. What support systems do you have in place–therapeutic, medical, financial, and of course personal. Find all the support you can get in all those areas. There are so many more resources now than there were even ten years ago. Take advantage of them all! I have no regrets.
Photo Credit: Travis Commeau