Cidny Bullens returns reborn…personally and professionally
It’s enough to successfully establish one stellar career in the music biz, but it’s practically unheard of to claim two.
Granted, when a musician starts out as part of a successful band, and then opts to go solo, a second helping of success may result. But when an artist brands him or herself one way and then starts over… well, suffice it to say it can be confusing.
The only example that readily comes to mind is Prince, who inexplicably decided to refer to himself as a symbol and subsequently became known as “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince,” before reverting back to Prince later on.
For Cidny Bullens, formerly known as Cindy Bullens, the changeover wasn’t quite so simple. In fact, it wasn’t simple at all. Bullens, an artist with a respectable 40 year career and any number of star-crossed associations — Elton John, Rod Stewart, Gene Clark and Bob Dylan among them — underwent a gender transition and reemerged as both a man and a musician with plenty more music to share. His new album, Walkin’ Through This World, finds him detailing his story, offering up his soul and expressing the conflict, controversy, redemption and fulfillment that Bullens eventually achieved by becoming the person he believed he was all along.
“Transitioning from one gender to the other is not for the faint of heart,” Bullens laughs while clearly restating the obvious. It was a point originally stated in his autobiographical, one-person show “Somewhere Between: Not An Ordinary Life” that he took across the country from 2016 to 2018. In documenting his remarkable career, it expresses with both candor and comedy the toils, turmoil and triumphs that accompanied his journey, both personally and professionally. An award-winning documentary short, The Gender Line, followed in 2019, reaping its own rave reviews during its screenings at film festivals world-wide.
VIDEO: Cidny Bullens “The Gender Line”
“I knew when I transitioned that I had a story to tell that was fairly unique,” Bullens explains. “I also knew I wanted to start my story in 1974 when I arrived in Los Angeles and met Bob Crewe and Elton John and then had my little 15 minutes of fame in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Then I got married, had kids, lived in Connecticut and Maine, and did only sporadic things in music that didn’t go anywhere, except when I went to Nashville and recreated myself. I talk about the death of my daughter Jesse in 1996 which impacted me in ways nothing else can. I wanted to do the show as a bridge from Cindy to Cidny. I especially wanted to tell the story in a way that was honest, truthful and accessible. It became a human story. It’s funny and sad, and I sing songs from my earlier albums that tell the story of my transitioning from my earlier life. It’s not just a story of a transgender person. I wanted it to give a sense of something deeper that would resonate with people.”
Then again, this is an artist who foresaw it all — inadvertently at first and then with actual realization later on — with his Grammy-nominated signature song “Survivor.”
VIDEO: Cindy Bullens performs “Survivor” on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert 1979
Indeed, Bullens has been a survivor in more ways than one. When he arrived in Los Angeles, he was in his early twenties. He had a promising start by signing with a succession of record labels — Casablanca, United Artists, MCA, Blue Rose, and MC Records among others. His 1978 debut, Desire Wire, became one of the great “sleeper” albums almost immediately on its release. Other successes followed — a role as a back-up singer on ex-Byrd Gene Clark’s classic No Other album, backing vocals on Rod Stewart’s seminal record Atlantic Crossing, and three tours with Elton John (who also recruited him for his Blue Moves album), and, perhaps most impressively of all, the lead vocals he provided for three songs from the soundtrack to the movie Grease, an album which was later nominated for a Grammy as “Album of the Year.” He was in such demand in fact, that at one point, he was forced to make an overnight choice between another tour with Elton John and taking part in Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. (For the record, he chose to go with John).
To cap it all off, Bullens garnered a Grammy nomination of his own a year later for the aforementioned single, “Survivor.”
“That song was a precursor for my own life,” Bullens reflects. “Little did I know when I wrote that song in my mid-twenties that I really would have to survive some pretty rough stuff in my own life. But as it turned out all these years later, here I am and I did survive. I had some sense that I was someone who would stick to it. I don’t mean the business. I mean life. I grew up with some of that attitude. The song became the stamp of my entire life, although funnily enough, it was my very first single.”
A series of solo albums followed, works that included any number of impressive contributors — Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, John Hiatt, Delbert McClinton, Rodney Crowell, Bryan Adams, Radney Foster, and Bill Lloyd, among the many. He also helped form a supergroup of sorts, the Refugees, featuring longtime friends Wendy Waldman and Deborah Holland. The group released two full-length albums, Unbound (2009) and Three (2012), and followed them with a recent EP.
Nevertheless, taking considerable time between recordings has always been part of Bullens’ MO. (“I love to say I take ten years between albums whether I need to or not,” he chuckles) Indeed between the release of his second album Steal the Night and his third offering, the self-titled Cindy Bullens, there was an expanse of ten years. It was five more years until he released another follow-up, Why Not? And it was another five years after that until the release of 1999’s Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth.
VIDEO: Cindy Bullens “As Long As You Love (Scarlet Wings)”
“I call it a checkered career,” Bullens reflects. “I thought I’d retire. I was going from one record company to another, and I didn’t think I’d have enough money to promote — whatever it was. I’ve had critical acclaim my whole career and I’m very grateful for it. But I have not broken through. I have not gotten to that place where I was fully out on the road all the time. A lot of that was my own choice. But the music kept pulling me back. The Refugees pulled me back. The Refugees were a very important part of my story. They brought me out of a place where I thought my career was over. It became a labor of love and we had a blast. Plus, we were good. So they helped me have fun again. They were another bridge, musically and emotionally. Ultimately, the music always keeps calling me back. It was my show that actually led me to do this new record and I’m very proud of it.”
That’s evident and understandable. While all of Bullens’ previous efforts have borne an uplifting message of some sort, Walkin’ Through This World resonates well beyond. It boasts such striking songs such as “The Gender Line,” “Walkin’ Through This World,” and “Call Me By My Name,” all of which find Bullens sharing his story in very personal and poignant terms. It also features producer/guitarist Ray Kennedy, who’s back at the helm of a Bullens album for the third time in his career. Other guests include longtime collaborator George Marinelli on guitar and an all-star cast of backing vocalists, including Rodney Crowell, Deborah Holland, Mary Gauthier, Beth Nielsen-Chapman, Siobhan Kennedy and Bill Lloyd. Bullens himself tackles the bulk of the instrumentation, including guitars, mandolin, synthesizer, sitar, and harmonica.
“Ray Kennedy and I have a very symbiotic relationship,” Bullens suggests. “We have the same sensibilities and we feed off each other. I think the songs really convey what I wanted to say. They’re emotionally impactful and there’s some humor in there and they don’t hit you over the head with a sledgehammer. It’s just about me and my life.”
Of course, the fact that Bullens is a transgender individual will probably be the thing that also seizes the headlines, but Bullens insists that his decision to do so was a needed choice, given the fact that from age four on he felt that he had been given the wrong body. “My daughter told me, ‘Mom, it’s not like anyone will notice the difference,’” he laughs. “That’s because I still have the same wardrobe, I still have the same mannerisms, and basically I’m the same person I’ve always been. My hair isn’t quite as thick, and I do have a mustache now however. That’s what I wanted to convey in the show that I’m the same human being. I just wanted to show that I was born in the wrong shell.”
At first, the effect of that change on Bullens’ singing voice was a concern, but having bowed out of the business nearly a decade ago after the release of his final album as Cindy, Howling Trains and Banking Dogs, he had time to adjust. He says that taking testosterone makes the vocal chords thicken, a situation caused by age as well. He also concedes that he lost some of his high vocals and that he sometimes stumbled to find the right notes. “I had to think about what I was singing,” he says. “It was difficult. However that problem passed. I didn’t have to retrain my voice, but I had to find my own limits. I had to learn where it was, what it was, what it sounded like, and how to get it. Obviously I had to change the keys on some of my old material, and write my new songs in keys I can sing. Honestly though, I like my voice so much better now. I use it in a different way. I can have fun with it now. I can play with it more now than I ever could before.”
As an example, he mentions the spoken word narrative he gives in the title track. It’s something he can do now that he never wanted to attempt before.
“I feel all of who I am now,” he insists. “Which is why the song ‘Walkin’ Through This World’ still gives me the chills, since it’s a miracle that I even feel this way.” He says that the support that he received has also been overwhelming. “I have no issue with people calling me ‘Cindy,’” he says. “Some of my siblings still do, but I don’t care. My daughter still refers to me in private as ‘she’ because I’m still her mom. I’m sure that amongst themselves, other people have had various reactions that weren’t always supportive, but if they did, I don’t know that. There are always those people who think that I’ve gone to the devil, that I’m out of my mind. Am I going to have haters? With his album, yes, of course. But I don’t know those people. I don’t expect people to understand, nor I do I expect people to like who I am. But my friends and family are supportive of me and they’re the ones who matter the most.”
VIDEO: Watch Out World: Cidny Bullens
Even so, Bullens has made it his mission to help people find empathy for those that have chosen to take this path so that they can affirm who they really are as well.
“I’m an advocate, I’m an educator and I have started to speak about this at colleges and universities,” he says. “I want to be someone who helps to convey some kind of light on the subject. I don’t expect people to understand. However, what I’d like them to do is to accept this way of being as real and profound and life-changing. Meaning, that it’s part of the human condition. My role today is to serve my community and maybe be some kind of vessel to help people understand, or at very least accept this as something that’s non-threatening.”
That said, Bullens accepts the fact that there can be something confounding about an artist whose core identity has changed, at least as far as the public’s perception is concerned. Making a comeback is hard enough, but after officially changing his name from Cindy to Cidny back in 2011, there’s still the need to reintroduce himself in a decidedly different way.
“Yes, you’re right,” he agrees. “It’s my debut album as Cidny, but my tenth album overall. It is difficult, but it is what it is. That’s the point. It’s a debut album from a long-term artist. I can’t do much about how people categorize me. I felt I had to make an album as who I am now. I think the album stands on its own, but it’s also a cultural statement as well.”
Indeed, Bullens is more than willing to offer himself up entirely — philosophically, artistically and most of all, absolutely honestly as well.
“It’s all out there. I wear it all on my sleeve,” he insists. “I feel like this album has all the heart and soul I put into it.”