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'Idol' runner-up Crystal Bowersox looks back, ahead

By Denise Quan, CNN
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Crystal Bowersox reveals dark childhood
  • Season nine "American Idol" runner-up Crystal Bowersox has released her debut album.
  • The singer-songwriter discusses her difficult childhood and how far she's come
  • Bowersox, a newlywed, also talks about whether she'd like to have another child

Editor's note: To hear a longer version of the interview, you can subscribe to "Soundcheck Uncut" on iTunes or go to

Hollywood, California (CNN) -- Crystal Bowersox is center stage at S.I.R. Studios in Hollywood, rehearsing two lines from her new single over and over: "You'd come home with bourbon breath, Jack in the air. And when you broke my bones, I told the school I fell down the stairs."

They're the most disturbing lyrics on the title track of her rootsy debut album, "Farmer's Daughter," and she wants to make sure the sentiment is punctuated.

"This is the sob story that never happened on 'American Idol,' " the Season Nine runner-up confides during a break. "The whole album is just my diary -- dealing with child abuse, and alcoholism, and just a dark childhood that I had dealing with my mom and our relationship and everything. So it's pretty blunt, it's in your face. It's, you know, putting it out there."

"Farmer's Daughter" features eight songs penned solely by Bowersox, as well as a pair of co-writes. One of them -- "Mason" -- is a duet with her husband, Brian Walker, about building a life together. The couple performed it at their October nuptials.

Unlike her "Idol" colleague Lee DeWyze, whose band is made up of hiply styled twentysomethings, Bowersox's backing musicians are mostly veteran road warriors who've played with Billy Joel, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and Bon Jovi. Only her bass guitarist, Frankie May, is a holdout from her childhood near Toledo, Ohio.

The guys tease her like a little sister, and Bowersox gives it right back. At one point, she launches into a warbly Michael McDonald impersonation. Moments later, she good-naturedly spars with her manager over song choices for TV appearances. It's a standoff, and an onlooker jokes that someone's going to come back with a black eye.

"No," Bowersox says serenely. "I'm a lover, not a fighter."

Bowersox recently spoke with CNN about her debut album, her difficult childhood and whether she plans on adding "mother of two" to her already hectic schedule.

CNN: Some of the lyrics on "Farmer's Daughter" are pretty moving.

Crystal Bowersox: It's all true. I always say that, you know, my mom had it tough. My parents divorced when I was 2, and she was a single mom trying to raise three kids on her own, and she didn't always deal with her frustrations the best way. She's a much better grandmother now than she was a mother for me.

CNN: You still have a relationship with her.

Bowersox: Writing the song ("Farmer's Daughter"), for me, was a healing process. I took all of the anger and the energy that I carried with me, and put it into that song. It's no longer inside me. When I perform it, it all floods back in. As soon as the song's over, it's gone again. I haven't forgotten, but I've definitely forgiven my mom. She's a good lady.

CNN: What was her reaction when she heard the song?

Bowersox: She's like, "Why is that the first thing you have to say to the world?!" I was like, "Sorry, Mom. Maybe you'll thank me if I can start helping you out a little more. Bring some money in, and you won't complain as much." (She laughs) But she actually came around and told me -- she was like, "It's a gorgeous song. I just wish I didn't know who and what it was about." It's bittersweet for her. It stings a little, but she's doing OK.

CNN: Are you ever afraid of repeating patterns?

Bowersox: I'm pretty self-aware when it comes to that. If I start to feel little things boiling up inside of me, you know -- you walk away.

And my husband's great. (She married longtime friend and fellow musician Brian Walker in October.) We're constantly laughing. Our house is full of love, and I'm not worried about repeating those things.

I definitely learned my lesson from my mom. She's a very strong, independent woman, and she doesn't take crap from anybody, and that's what I love about her. I've taken that and incorporated it into myself. In that sense, my mother did a great job. I feel like I'm a strong young woman, and I feel like I'm a good mother. We're doing all right.

CNN: I'm still shocked that somebody like you ended up as a contestant on "American Idol," because you're not the stereotypical contestant.

Bowersox: "American Idol" is a fast track to fame, for sure. But when I had my son in 2009, and I was playing the same bar gigs and coffeehouses and things -- 50 bucks a night, you know, you can't raise a kid on that. I wanted my son to have all of the things that I was lacking growing up. He definitely has the love, but now he's got a race car bed. That's awesome, and it's because I sucked it up and went and did "Idol." I'm very, very happy that I went through the whole process.

CNN: You said from the beginning that you wanted to give your son a better life.

Bowersox: My son saved my life. Before him, before I knew I was pregnant, I was just in a very dark place in my head and in my life -- and broke and depressed. I was still playing music, but I just wanted to -- I wasn't sure I really wanted to stick around, you know. And he just gave me a purpose, as a child does for parents. It's like now you have this being, this thing, that you have to care for. It was a beautiful surprise, and right at the right time. It wasn't planned, but it was the perfect time, and saved me.

CNN: Do you want more kids?

Bowersox: Yeah, I do. They're fun to make. I do want more kids. Maybe just one more. My luck, I'll have twins. (She rolls her eyes and laughs.)

CNN: You recently got married.

Bowersox: I'm really happy right now. My husband's great. He makes my coffee every morning. He's a talented singer-songwriter. That's how we met, you know. In the Uncommon Ground. It's a cafe in Chicago. They have a great open mic every Monday, and we'd both go there. We've known each other for three years. He's got the song, "Mason," on the album. He had written the song in 2008 (she later added a bridge). He wrote it for me, and I never believed him for a long time, but I believe him now.

CNN: Is your diabetes under control?

Bowersox: Yeah, for the most part. Sometimes I'll wake up in the morning, and I won't feel well, and I'll be like, "Oh no, I missed something," you know. I've been on the edge a couple of times, but I try to stay on top of it, as best I can. Managing a household, and my son, and now this music thing -- you know, interviews, and traveling all the time. It's pretty hectic, but I feel good.

CNN: How do you manage the insulin?

Bowersox: I have an insulin pump here (reaches around the back of her waist). I wear it 24/7. You refill the cartridge.

CNN: Growing up, you had a lot to deal with. And you're spoken of bullying, too.

Bowersox: It wasn't easy in high school. You could blame the victim, and say it was my fault because I was a weird kid, or I tried to do different things with my hair and clothes, but that's not an excuse. Kids should always be able to be themselves, and feel safe in their environment, and I didn't always feel that way -- and then dealing with things at home, as well. I'm not sure why there's this anger in the youth, but we need to talk about it. Kids need to get help if they need help, and bullies need to be helped, as well.

CNN: How did you grow up to be someone who seems to have her head on straight?

Bowersox: I wasn't always who I am now. When I was younger, I acted out and vented my frustrations in different ways. I was kind of a difficult kid. A little light bulb came on when I was 17, and I realized, "I'm 17. In a year, I don't have to answer to anyone but myself, and the only person that I'm hurting now is my family and myself." I was hurting the people I loved.

CNN: What were you doing?

Bowersox: Uh, I don't really want to talk about it. (Laughs) I wasn't a great kid. I was doing a lot of things. When you're a kid, you might be picked on for your differences. When you're an adult, employers, colleges, friends -- people look for differences when you're adult, and that's what makes you shine and stand out.

CNN: Do you feel like things are on their way?

Bowersox: Where I am right now is a blessed place to be, but I feel like there's a lot more coming my way. And it's about time! It's about time.