In an effort to help people cope with illness and grief, a Flathead Valley-based nonprofit has paired songwriters with breast cancer survivors to tell their stories through music. The result is “Paint Them All in Gold,” a five-track debut album from The Great Blue Song Project set for release on May 20 (see box for details).
“The mission of the organization is to inspire people to live their best life no matter how much time they have left,” said Jamie Wyman, who founded the nonprofit in 2018. The group matches individuals and families with singer-songwriters to create music.
While Wyman has always been interested in giving others a voice through her songwriting, the idea to focus on breast cancer survivors came after she noticed her former work supervisor had been posting about her treatment journey on social media.
“I wanted to do something to help her,” she said. “I thought it would be cool to give a fuller picture of what other people might be experiencing in going through breast cancer.”
Wyman knew her former boss wasn’t alone and that she couldn’t be the only singer-songwriter willing to help. She started The Great Blue Song Project and began reaching out to fellow musicians and survivors who could be involved.
More than a year in the making, their inaugural album includes well-known Montana songwriters such as Brett Holmquist and Halladay Quist, daughter of Rob Quist.
“I hand-picked some songwriters that I knew were really good songwriters and also would be capable of holding space for somebody telling them a hard story to hear.”
After the songwriters were matched with survivors, Wyman held an orientation with the entire group to go over the general process and provide a few suggested interview questions. The musicians all used their own individual processes for songwriting and the survivors all had their own personal experiences, making for a diverse range of musical styles and a wide variety of messages in the music.
“Dying to Survive,” an upbeat pop-rock anthem with powerful vocals by Lio Nicol, was inspired by three-time breast cancer survivor Andrea Cameron’s story.
In Cara Alboucq’s “Find the Silver Linings,” sultry, jazzy vocals compliment an acoustic guitar for an optimistic take on going through chemotherapy. The song was inspired by Julie Grimm, who, after beating breast cancer and a brain tumor, started a company in Golden, Colorado, that makes planner books for cancer patients going through treatment.
Holmquist was paired with survivor Arlisa Houston and wrote “Go Slow,” a folk-rock tune with a slower tempo and lyrics like, “Gather ‘round for the fight of your life.” “Paint Them All in Gold” is dedicated to Houston, who passed away on Oct. 29.
The album opens with Wyman’s song, “I Didn’t Know,” which was inspired by Lee Griffin, her former supervisor.
“She wanted people to know that their life was going to change,” Wyman said of the message in the song, adding Griffin struggled with not being able to work while sick and began to question what her purpose was. “Her identity is really attached to her work and she couldn’t do that anymore.”
Lyrics like, “I could have used a roadmap,” and “I’m trying hard to hold on to who I was, but nothing’s going as planned,” illustrate how cancer left Griffin feeling lost in her life.
The debut single, “Don’t Give Up,” features multi-instrumentalist Quist, and has a country-rock, soul sound with lyrics like, “Remember the fire inside your dreams,” and “Don’t let the fear factor be your master.”
Quist was paired with Maureen Ann Cadell, a two-time breast cancer survivor and bass player based in Columbia Falls.
After a double mastectomy, Cadell was able to get reconstructive surgery, which she said changed her life. She’s now an advocate for survivors in the Flathead Valley. Wyman connected with Cadell at an open house for women who had been through reconstructive surgery and asked if she’d be a part of the project.
“I told her, ‘I’m on board.’ I will do anything I can to help women get through this,” Cadell said, adding as a bass player herself, she was particularly excited to work with Quist. “She came out to the house to do an interview and four hours later, we had laughed, we had cried. Talk about finding sister love immediately.”
After their conversation, Quist asked Cadell what she wanted to tell other people going through breast cancer.
“I said, ‘Don’t give up, don’t let it consume you.'”
A few months later, Cadell invited Quist over for a jam session to celebrate her birthday and Quist presented her with the lyrics and chords to her song, “Don’t Give Up.”
“I got to sit there and play bass. I got halfway through before I started bawling,” she said, adding the entire party was in tears. “It was absolutely amazing to hear how she put my story together.”
Like all of the survivors involved, Cadell said she wanted others to hear her song and know they’re not alone in what they’re going through.
“When I was diagnosed, I was devastated. I thought, ‘I’m going to die, it’s over with, I’m done,’” she said, adding she didn’t have any support at the time. Eventually she started telling others about her situation only to realize so many were living in silence as well. “I talked to so many women that didn’t share, that didn’t let it out. It’s not something to be ashamed of.”
Wyman said with a global pandemic going on, she hopes the album can be a comfort to more than breast cancer survivors.
“The whole point is to help people through illness and grief and the whole country’s experiencing that right now,” she said.