Cindy Bullens realized early on that she wasn’t like other girls. “I knew since I was 3 or 4 years old that I was in the wrong body,” the singer-guitarist says by phone from Portland, Maine. “Not for one moment did I ever feel fully female. … Even when I was pregnant, I would laugh. ‘This is like an out-of-body experience — here I am, a man, with another being [inside me].’”
Gender dysphoria didn’t stop Bullens from being recognized as one of the more promising and brash young female pop-rock vocalists to emerge in L.A. in the late 1970s, just ahead of a new wave of female musicians who would bring an unofficial close to the generally male-centric classic-rock era.
Nor did it prevent Bullens from receiving unexpected critical acclaim when she returned after a long absence from the music scene with a starkly personal comeback album, 1999’s Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth. But it took a convulsive event — the death of her 11-year-old daughter, Jessie Crewe, from cancer three years earlier — to get her performing again.
The bitter shock of that tragedy also helped to set in motion an eventual name change from Cindy to Cidny in 2012, when the singer publicly revealed that he was a trans man, following hormone therapy as well as a surgery that was paid for by the sale of a beloved piano Bullens bought in the ’70s after touring with Elton John. The announcement was just one of a series of dramatic shifts that have shaken up Bullens’ life and musical career, a process he acts out and relives quite stirringly in a new one-man show, Somewhere Between: Not an Ordinary Life, which he'll present at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica on June 9 and 10.
Much like its title, the revue is somewhere between theater and live concert, as the 62-year-old Bullens interposes acoustic versions of eight of his quintessential songs with engaging, fast-moving storytelling that explains how a clueless kid from Massachusetts found his way to Hollywood in the 1970s and somehow wound up recording with Rod Stewart and Gene Clark and dubbing vocals on three tunes from the Grease soundtrack.
“I had to choose between Bob Dylan and Elton John,” says Bullens, who was briefly a part of Dylan’s infamous Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975 before deciding to travel instead with John for three tours. She was mentored early on by Four Seasons producer-songwriter Bob Crewe and released two well-received solo albums in 1979, Desire Wire and Steal the Night. That same year, she married Crewe’s brother Dan and dropped out of sight for much of the ’80s as the couple raised two daughters, Reid and Jessie.
“I have always been frustrated by my voice and always hated it until now,” Bullens says. “I always had a low voice, but Bob Crewe made me sing in a high voice." Still, he adds, "I am proud of what Cindy did and my voice as Cindy.
“I was worried about losing my voice when I started testosterone,” he continues. “I didn’t want to shock my vocal cords. … There was a period for about a year when I didn’t know where my voice was going.” Not only did Bullens have to adjust musically by tuning down his guitar a half-step and transposing his old songs into different keys, he also had to deal with the very real risk of losing friends and family over his midlife metamorphosis.
“People have been incredibly supportive,” Bullens says, referring both to his one-man show and to his transformation. “If I lost half the people in my life, it was the half I don’t see anyway. I’ve had nothing but support, but that’s not to say my family and some of my friends weren’t concerned about what would happen in my life."
At the time of his transition, Bullens was also in the middle of recording an album with The Refugees, a rootsy folk-pop trio with fellow singer-songwriters Wendy Waldman and Deborah Holland. He's continued to work with them as Cidny. “Instead of three women, it’s two women and a trans man,” Bullens says. “The new songs are in my Cidny voice, and we still blend together beautifully. … It’s always an adjustment, including the pronouns. My brother still doesn’t know what to call me.”
Bullens says that his older daughter, Reid, has a certain “sadness about losing her mother in the way that she knew her mother,” but she was also one of the first to encourage the singer’s transformation. “I still wear the same clothes I’ve always worn,” he says. “I think 100 percent of people recognized the man in me all along. My daughter said, ‘It’s not like anybody’s going to be shocked!’”
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After getting inspiration from watching several of comedian Billy Crystal’s one-man shows, Bullens decided that the best way to come out as a man was through a theatrical performance. “I knew I had a story, but I didn’t know how to put it all together,” says Bullens. He workshopped the raw material with director Tanya Taylor Rubinstein, who helped the singer shape his memories with discipline and focus in a collaboration that eventually evolved into a romantic relationship between the duo.
Bullens not only had the nerve to make the change but, with the assistance of Rubinstein, he’s figured out a way to tell his story and find “a life out of the ashes” following the devastating death of his daughter Jessie and the makeover into his true identity. “Everybody has loss,” Bullens muses. “It’s a human story that’s not typical. … If one person sees trans people in a different light, that’s a good thing.”
Somewhere Between: Not an Ordinary Life is at Highways Performance Space, Fri.-Sat., June 9-10. More info at highwaysperformance.org.