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  • Mental Health, Healing, and Redemption Flow From Becky Buller's 'Jubilee'
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Mental Health, Healing, and Redemption Flow From Becky Buller’s ‘Jubilee’

May 15, 2024

Mental Health, Healing, and Redemption Flow From Becky Buller's 'Jubilee'

With her work as a songwriter and as a sidewoman, Becky Buller made a name for herself long before she became a bandleader. In 2015, after becoming a mother, she realized the need to control her own schedule and reluctantly began a touring career under her own name. But for someone more comfortable outside of the spotlight, the pressure and stress of leading her own project took its toll and in 2020 Buller found herself in a mental health crisis.

Her new album, Jubilee (available May 17), chronicles her journey through depression in the form of a song cycle including instrumental interludes. This project was initially commissioned by the FreshGrass Foundation and was recorded almost entirely live with Buller’s band. The music is beautiful and vulnerable – and the group’s chemistry and musicianship shine.

In a BGS interview, Buller opens up about what triggered her mental health breakdown, about the stigma around mental health care, and how she found her way out of the dark through medication, songwriting, therapy, and prayer.

This album was commissioned as a long form composition by the FreshGrass Foundation for debut at their 2023 Bentonville, Arkansas festival. How was your experience as a writer working in a song cycle/conceptual format, versus previous songs and albums that you’ve written?

Becky Buller: I almost always follow the muse where she leads. Having an assignment generally tends to squelch my creativity. I’m so grateful to the FreshGrass Foundation for commissioning me to write this piece, but I’ll admit, after I hung up the phone last fall, I did panic a little bit. But once I settled on the topic for the cycle and decided that the previously unreleased song, “Jubilee” (co-written with Aoife O’Donovan), would be the seed I would plant and water to cultivate the entire project, the rest of the music came to me pretty quickly.

Tell me about your connection with Aoife – how did that come about, and where did it lead the project?

She and I were talking at the 2019 Newport Folk Festival about writing together at some point. She was there touring with I’m With Her, and I was there with the First Ladies of Bluegrass as part of a historic all-female Saturday night headliner set curated by Brandi Carlile, which included folks like Yola, Sheryl Crow, Linda Perry, and Dolly Parton.

Once I got back home, I ended up sending Aoife the first stanza of “Jubilee” and she said the idea of needing a rest resonated with her. We started writing “Jubilee” just before the pandemic shutdown, finishing it in December. Ironic that we were singing about needing a rest… and then we got one! [Laughs]

[Laughs] You manifested it! But the rest for you – it didn’t really help? From your bio it seems like it caused a crumbling of sorts?

No, I don’t know how to rest.

I’m the same. I find that when I have time to think it can be very confronting.

That totally resonates with me, it exposed all the cracks in my foundation.

I was really interested in the line, “She’s been told that she’s absurd,” as a potential crack in the foundation – the idea of the separation between an artist and a human. That one could feel respected as a musician, but not as a person… where is that line coming from for you?

Or not respected as either…

We all have so many voices and opinions whirling around us. Some louder than others. Some speak honey, some poison. Unfortunately, and more often than not, I tend to fall victim to the poison, trying my best to get others to change their opinion of me. Fruitless, I know.

So you’re speaking about personal and professional critics who you feel don’t respect you and your art, that type of chatter, seeing negative feedback or commentary?

I’ve always been more comfortable in the background.

Interesting! So how did you end up leading a band?

I was terrified of leading a band! There were folks that got mad at me, because I wouldn’t start my own band. I didn’t know how I would fund it. I definitely didn’t think I could handle the stress.

What made you decide to do it in the end?

I was a side person for the first half of my professional career. Wrote a lot of songs cut by colleagues and heroes in the bluegrass industry. In 2011, I took a break from the road. In 2012, Jeff and I were expecting [our daughter] Romy. That fall, I joined up with Darin & Brooke Aldridge’s band and toured with them for two seasons… We had our baby girl in March 2013.

I recorded a solo record, my first in 10 tears and my first with Dark Shaddow Recording. It officially came out October of 2014. By that point, Romy had started walking and Jeff and I determined that I needed to be able to create my own schedule. I was under contract to the label to sell a record, so I needed shows…

So I gave my notice to Darin & Brooke, held my nose, and walked out on the water. I’ve had my own band since 2015.

When I started the band, I also started going to a Christian counselor. I knew the stress of running a band would be too much for me… it helps. It helped untie all sorts of knots in my brain. Even after all of these years, I will wind up in situations where I feel myself leaning in a certain negative way and I’m so grateful when I catch myself and say, “No, I don’t have to think that way anymore.” But the counseling wasn’t enough when the world shut down.

I totally understand what you’re saying about the schedule. It’s so interesting how being a mother in some ways necessitates being a band leader rather than a hired gun on tour. It’s something I think about a lot, because you need control. But also, man, that’s a lot to take on at once!

It is. And I’m so grateful for a tight community of touring mamas who get it. My folks are working on moving to Tennessee, but up ‘til now, they’ve been in Minnesota and unable to help us much. I’m so grateful for the beautiful Tennessee family God planted me in. We also have the best neighbors and church family. I couldn’t do what I do without their love and support.

I wanted to thank you for your openness about mental health on this record. I saw in the liner notes that you said medication has been a really helpful part of your healing. I also take medication for mental health and I feel there’s a lot of stigma around it. Often on the road, I’m surrounded by folks self-medicating with drugs and alcohol who are afraid to take prescribed medication for their mental health issues. How has medication helped for you?

The culture I grew up in was very against prescription medication for mental health. More faith and prayer and less self-pity, that was supposed to take care of things. I’m like the fellow in the Gospel of Mark who fell at Jesus’s feet, crying out “I do believe, help my unbelief!”

Like you, I’ve also been around a lot of musicians who are self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. I never want to wake up not knowing where I’ve been, etc. For these reasons, I was afraid to take medication.

But in mid-2020, I literally felt something in my brain pop. I couldn’t make complete sentences. I couldn’t write my own name correctly. I needed the medicine to help me begin climbing out of the hole I was in.

My doctor is also a musician and understood where I was at. He told me to give him a year and we’d get it sorted out. And he was right. In the late summer of 2021, when we found a medicine that I responded to, it felt as if a cinder block was lifted off of my head. I know getting to debut at the Grand Ole Opry on September 3, 2021, was also a huge validation, and part of my healing journey.

Thanks so much for sharing all of this, Becky! You’ve made a beautiful record and one that I think will help a lot of people feel less alone in facing their own mental health journey.

Photo Credit: Shayna Cooley

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Mental Health, Healing, and Redemption Flow From Becky Buller's 'Jubilee'
Mental Health, Healing, and Redemption Flow From Becky Buller's 'Jubilee'