Caitlin Cusack: Carrying on the Memory in Music

It’s often said that suffering leads to great art, but the sheer amount of suffering that singer-songwriter Caitlin Cusack has endured in such a short span of time nearly surpasses what art can help anyone heal.

Suddenly and unexpectedly losing her mother to cancer on her 27th birthday – exactly one year after suffering a traumatic brain injury on her 26th birthday – and having already lost her father less than three years earlier to Multiple System Atrophy, Cusack has had a long road of grief and recovery to reach her debut EP Quiet My Mind (released earlier this year), and her upcoming music video series, You Carry Me, coming later this fall. 

“I’ve written to process the grief of losing them, and I have three songs that really honor them,” Cusack told Revue about the video series. “I’ve been trying to find the best way to share them, and to do them justice, and I think I finally found a project that I think is on the right track.”

Originally from Ionia and now living in Grand Rapids, Cusack plans to return to her hometown on Sept. 20 to partner with the cancer support organization Ionia Community Awareness, to perform at the “Purple Concert,” and film the videos around the area.

“I’m hoping it becomes something Ionia will be really proud of and it will highlight that organization and cancer awareness,” Cusack said. “One of the videos will have opportunities for people to send in names and pictures of people they’ve lost who they don’t want to forget because that is a huge thing in the cancer world, is honoring the people, the memory and knowing that they won’t be forgotten.”

Cusack’s mother was a musician and music director, and shared a musical bond with her daughter, who got her love for piano and singing from her. Ultimately going on to get classically trained with a music degree from Grand Valley State University, Cusack has worked with Tony Award-winning teachers and directors in New York, while becoming known as a performer, voice teacher and theater and music director here in Grand Rapids. 

“It’s hard sometimes when I’m doing this project to not just say it’s honoring mom because she and I shared that musical bond,” Cusack said. “But the songs I wrote also, especially the middle one, is so about how I was feeling after Dad passed. That one’s called ‘Just Out of Reach’, and it’s about how you can want to feel them there, but they’re just beyond the curtain.”

Instilling a love for oldies radio in her, Cusack said her father’s musical tastes influence her pop melodies as a songwriter, something she explored extensively on her EP. And now she’s beautifully blending the two sides of her musical journey, by teaming with the Grand Rapids City String Camp to bring a string quintet to her new songs.

“It’s really interesting because obviously I grew up in that world and was trained and when I started songwriting I felt like I was leaving that world, like I was trying to do something new and I wanted my music to go more towards the pop realm,” Cusack said. “I think pop is more accessible to the general public than, say, classical or musical theater. And so now that I am popping into this world again, like bringing in the classical training and bringing back my roots, it’s really exciting to be putting this whole portrait together.”

While reconnecting with her past musical life in such a positive way, Cusask still suffers from the years’ long effects of having endured a concussion after falling on stage during a death scene of a musical theater performance. Her EP, Quiet My Mind, aimed to help shine a light on the struggles of those living brain injuries, and her first single, “I’ll Be Okay,” did just that, landing on numerous playlists, racking up thousands of streams, and earning her a spot at the first ever “SongCon” in New York, where her emotional performance received a standing ovation.

“I have a lot of gratitude because it has taught me to live life really as fully as I can,”
 Cusack said about living with a brain injury. “I want to be doing as much as I can because I don’t know how much time I have.”

Regularly collaborating with Crooked Tree Creative, Third Coast Records, Midtown, The Stray, and others, Cusack also performed as a part of the Women of Rock showcase at The Pyramid Scheme earlier this year, and plans to tour when her health allows her.

“My brain injury happened, it was a year before the pandemic, and then when the pandemic hit and everyone learned what it was like to have to slow down and retreat from the world,” Cusack said. “So to have learned that, I wanted to soothe people and say, ‘It’s going to be OK if you can accept these changes and just roll with them… I think all of these experiences have made me a better person and more well-rounded. And I have a much more interesting view of what we’re going through in this world as human beings.”