For someone whose life story is a bundle of contradictions, Mary Cushman makes music that sounds positively poised and effortless. Her recently released EP, Dumb, showcases her glistening, rangy soprano, which has some serious bite to it. The five songs include unflinching lyrics about conflicted relationships, carried by graceful melodies. On "White Flag," she sings with an off-kilter phrasing with a hint of Björk that gives her accessible pop-rock an appealing strangeness. The transparent "Waking Up"'s vocal is so airy and supple, it's almost jazzy.
Dumb is Cushman's solo debut, but she didn't spring from nowhere — although many might consider her hometown of Paris, near Canton, to be just that. The 25-year-old singer formed Blush with her brothers Andrew and Matt almost a decade ago. By the time they recorded their second CD, 2005's From the Falls to the Path, her youngest brother, Gavin, had joined them.
The band was a natural evolution of the siblings' upbringing. Raised by extremely religious Christian parents who home-schooled them — because "they didn't want us subjected to 'the world,'" says Cushman — the kids had an idyllic rural childhood that included getting up at 11 a.m. and eating pancakes in their pajamas before doing schoolwork, building forts in the woods, and starting piano and music-theory lessons with their musically inclined mother. They became very close as a result.
(Cushman says they're all still close to their parents and she's still a Christian, but she no longer attends church regularly. Her nieces and nephew all go to public schools, and Gavin is openly gay.)
By the time the siblings were teenagers, they formed Blush. At 15, Cushman moved with her parents to China, but begged to come home after a few months to rejoin the band. So she came back to Ohio to live with her brothers, make music, and become independent after her sheltered childhood. While she says that several of her brothers "have no social skills" as a result of home-schooling, Mary thrived in "the world." The band built a strong fan base in the Canton-Akron area for its driving yet tuneful rock, built partly on Mary's outgoing personality and chic, edgy image.
Two and a half years ago, Cushman told her brothers she wanted to take a hiatus. "Andrew wrote the music for Blush, and I wrote the lyrics," she says. "His music was getting progressively harder, along the lines of Audioslave, with lots of intricate time signatures and guitar solos. It was very cool, but I wanted to do more commercial pop-rock."
Cushman took a year off to figure out what she wanted to do next and started recording her ideas. She and Gavin share an apartment in Westlake, so she took her ideas to him and they began to co-write some songs. Gavin provided much of the musical support for Dumb, playing guitar and piano.
"It's something that reflects what I went through," she says. "Before, I felt like I had to be angry and sing about things that upset me, because it was such heavy music. But I reached a point around 21 when I was happy, and I wanted to be a positive influence on other girls. I write about a lot of heartache, but I feel like I'm writing it with a positive ending. It's pop-rock you could play on the radio."
Cushman has been performing shows around the area with her band, which includes Gavin, as well as Andrew and another musical brother, Stephen. (Matt moved to Tennessee.) Their close-knit, isolated childhood gave the siblings a strong bond, so the breakup of Blush left no hard feelings. All have moved on to other projects, often drawing on each other's talents.
"Stephen and I are the most alike," says Cushman. "We like catchy pop tunes. The others prefer heavy music like Alice in Chains and Nine Inch Nails. But they can learn any song in 10 minutes and kill it onstage."
Like many artists, Cushman hopes to make music her career. Her album is being released this month on the local-based Crushtone label, formed by her manager Randy Chase, who also managed Blush. He's getting her regional gigs, setting up an internet marketing plan, and laying the groundwork for a New York showcase early next year.
Hopefully, it will go better — or at least be less gory — than a recent show she played at Musica in Akron. "I had my wisdom teeth pulled two days earlier, and I was on Vicodin," she says. "My face was swollen. I said, 'I can't do it,' and I was ready to cancel. But we did it, and we killed. I was sitting onstage playing the piano and spitting blood, I have no idea why it went so well."
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