Recovery and Rediscovery

How Kelly Buchanan healed from a brain injury and regained a musical identity she thought she’d lost.

November 21, 2022

Earlier this year, singer, songwriter, and music teacher Kelly Buchanan B.M. '02 and her band released their first album. But for Buchanan, this milestone is anything but a beginning.

Buchanan spent the years after graduating from Berklee in 2002 building up a fanbase for her riot grrrl–inspired rock music in New York City, releasing her debut album and developing a network, one that included Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne), with whom she would often cowrite songs.

By 2008, her second solo album was finished; it had a release date, and hundreds of mailers were stamped. But before its actual release, she incurred a traumatic brain injury while playing street hockey that left her unable to speak or walk. In addition to not knowing how long her career would be on a hold, Buchanan grappled with bigger existential questions.

For many of those recovery years, her main concern was survival; thinking about her relationship to music had to wait.

“I lost the ability to sing and play music, everything. It felt like losing a sense of identity,” Buchanan says. “I feel like, to a certain extent, we all define ourselves by the things we do. When you are unable to actually do any of those things, you're like, ‘How do I get a sense of self and who I am?’”

Instead of reaching others through her music, others reached out to her: She received hundreds of cards wishing her well, and donations to help with the long road to recovery. Over the next decade, she worked constantly on healing. “I kept pushing through it because there is no other choice,” she says. “It was either get up every day and do physical therapy and work really hard—or just give up. I choose to survive.”

For many of those recovery years, her main concern was survival; thinking about her relationship to music had to wait. “So, I can't write a song [but] I also couldn't walk in my house by myself and make myself dinner,” she says. “Who cares about being able to sing or play guitar?” 

And yet, this year, Buchanan and her new band, the Dimestore Dolls, released their debut album, Wooly Mamas, which the group promoted with a string of tour stops, landing the album in the top 20 on college radio charts. 

But the road back to her musical identity began years before Wooly Mamas came out. In 2012, she started teaching private music lessons, and later she founded MusiCorps, a nonprofit organization in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, that offers full scholarships to students who otherwise can’t afford lessons. 

The words “full recovery” almost don’t do justice to her journey of healing and rediscovering music. For instance, she can sing a full octave higher than she could before her accident, and she says that her guitar playing has improved dramatically. “When I was able to start doing music again, it was amazing, and tons of songs poured out,” she says.

Beyond her sheer will to recover, she found her way back to music through fans, fellow musicians, and her students. Teaching, she says, made her think of the way that children learn by playing. “It's a way that people have always learned, I imagine. I'm not a historian, but before we were writing stuff, we were singing songs and telling stories. And songs would be ways to remember things.” 

Singing, for Buchanan, is an indispensable tool for healing, and she uses it in her teaching as much as in her own music. So, while a song such as “The River Obey,” from the new album, is about heartbreak, it’s hard not to hear echoes of Buchanan’s resilience in it. “I say blow my life down,” she sings on the track. “I’ll sing a song as it goes.”

This article appeared in the fall/winter 2022 issue of Berklee Today

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