In 2017, songwriter Phil Madeira lost the love of his life to cancer.
“She was amazing and she was so, so loved,” he tells American Songwriter from his home in Nashville about the ten-year romance that ended in tragedy. “We experienced an amazing love together.”
And yes, it still hurts.
“It’s not a tragic sort of grief, but yeah, I miss my former partner,” he admits quietly. “I had been grieving for a long time. From the moment I found out she was terminal, I was grieving.”
But for an incredibly skilled writer such as Madeira, pain comes with its share of creativity. It’s a pain that spins up sparks that ignite into songs. And yes, these songs will soon be featured within the confines of a piano-heavy, emotion filled album appropriately called Open Heart.
“My story is one of having an ‘open heart,’ even when that heart needs to endure tragedy and heartbreak and staggering loss,” says Madeira, who is set to release his new album on, rather appropriately, Valentine’s Day. “It’s about relationships and breakups and sicknesses and getting older. The way I operate…is I create. The pain always finds its way to the page or the instrument.”
Driving solo as a writer for the first time since his 2018 release “Providence,” Madeira has spent the last two years drawing from his grief to create songs that he says he wrote for his grieving heart, songs off of “Open Heart” such as “Rock On Your Shore,” “Requiem for A Dream” and “Remember Me.”
And while these songs have served as somewhat of a salve to his broken heart, the pain is still there. And yes, it’s a pain that he still finds rather hard to speak too much about.
“It was a short illness, maybe 9 or 10 months long,” he begins. “She told me around Christmas of 2016 about the cancer but I was told not to tell anyone. It was like a collision of guilt and illness and love that I couldn’t speak about. My voice was taken away from me during that time.”
So, Madeira stayed silent.
“I didn’t want my kids to become my support group but I just didn’t know where else to go with what I was feeling,” he remembers. “I was essentially told to place my worry and my tears somewhere else. It was a horrible time.”
And while his longtime companion convinced him that she would beat the cancer (‘she told me she was going to live for 10 more years.’) her health started quickly declining.
“In July, I was actually allowed to see her,” he recalls. “It was so painful. It was sweet and horrible and beautiful all at once.”
During that emotional meeting, Madeira said he was sorry. He told her that they had collectively ‘messed things up.’ And then, he told her that that they, as a couple, had the opportunity to go out strong.
“I wanted to be there for her 24/7,” he says. “I wanted to be the one there at 330am. I wanted to be that person at the end. After a decade of being partners, all of that should have fallen to me and not the kids.”
And then, he never heard from her again.
She died eight weeks later.
“I wanted to love her through all of that,” he remembers quietly. “We all have regrets. Maybe I would have played it differently. And lets just say pride can lead us to make wrong decisions. We humans are capable to extraordinary goodness and extraordinary error.”
After a time of anger and curse words and profound sadness and profanity-laced prayers and unrelenting grief, Madeira would fall in love again…’or something like it.’
And then, he would write again.
“I didn’t want to lash out,” says Madeira, who has long served as one of Emmylou Harris’ most trusted sidemen. “I just wanted to tell a story. I didn’t have an ax to grind. I just wanted to tell my truth.”
The songs that are now included on Open Heart to best serve as a healing balm for not only him, all those who have experienced this sort of pain, and all those who most certainly and rather inevitably will in the days and months and years ahead.
“I have gone through what every human goes through,” he says. “I think at the end of the day, this album is a comfort. There is a sweetness to this record. Sometimes life is not going to go the way you planned it. And sometimes, that’s ok. I’m grateful for my life. I couldn’t tell this story without living it.”