After enduring a traumatic brain injury, a lot of things changed for Cristabelle Braden. She put her education on hold so she could heal, relearning how to do essential tasks like dressing herself and taking a shower.
A few months into her rehabilitation, Braden’s parents started to notice her working on songs. Not only had Braden not written a song before her surgery, she often struggled with aphasia, or difficulty finding the right word. Yet, Braden was able to communicate in song, writing deeply personal lyrics about the feelings surrounding suffering such an injury.
Now 11 years after her injury, Braden is gearing up for the release of her fifth studio album “Start With Hello.” Braden will perform songs from the upcoming album, as well as older tunes, when she visits Emmaus Road Cafe on Saturday.
Braden, now 25, grew up in Delaware. There, she attended her church’s youth group, where she played games with other kids her age.
During a game of Red Rover, Braden hit her head on a concrete wall, causing severe swelling in her brain. She was a sophomore in high school.
Braden, who now lives in Allentown, Lehigh County, doesn’t remember the first year and a half after her injury. She struggled immensely with short-term memory.
“I was like Dory in ‘Finding Nemo’,” Braden says. “Like, I would literally forget that I ate breakfast and I would eat like four or five breakfasts in the morning.”
Her parents tried to help her keep a positive outlook.
“My mom says that we would focus on what I can do rather than what I can’t do,” Braden says.
Her father purchased her a guitar, and Braden taught herself how to play. The recovery process wasn’t always easy, and music provided an outlet for the isolation Braden felt.
“I felt like I was constantly disappointing my family and everyone around me because I could never remember anything,” Braden says. “I just felt really scared and alone. So, a lot of my songs were coming out of those places.”
Eventually, Braden found the confidence to try performing her songs in front of an audience. She opened for Delaware singer-songwriter Ray Seemans at a Christian bookstore. Seemans was so impressed with her performance, he invited her to join him as the opening act for all of his shows.
Audience members started inquiring about how they could purchase a CD, a project Braden never considered previously. She recorded her first album during her senior year of high school.
Braden said doctors had braced her parents for the worst, suggesting that she wouldn’t graduate from high school and likely would be dependent on them for the rest of her life.
Braden not only completed high school, but graduated from Lebanon Valley College in 2015 with a double major in music and religion. At Lebanon Valley, she deepened her love of jazz music, which she notes as an influence in her original work. She also is inspired by the singer-songwriters her father introduced her to as a child, such as James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel and Alison Krauss.
These days, the prevailing message of Braden’s music is one of hope. “Light in the Dark,” a single from “Start With Hello,” is about finding hope in a difficult time. Braden recorded “Start With Hello” at Yackland Studios in Nashville with producer Stephen Leiweke.
“If I can make a difference in one person’s life, then it’s worth it. ... I don’t want anyone to ever feel as alone as I felt,” Braden says.
She continues that mission through Hope After Head Injury, an organization Braden founded that works with traumatic brain injury survivors by providing support and connecting them to resources.
Braden has represented the organization at several events, including giving the keynote at the Mayo Clinic’s Traumatic Brain Injury Conference and speaking at the Brain Injury Association of Pennsylvania’s conference at the Lancaster County Convention Center and Marriott.
She also hosts a live chat every Tuesday night in a Facebook group, allowing people with brain injuries to tune in from the comfort of their own homes. Braden says going out in public can be overstimulating for some people with brain injuries.
She deals with this herself when she performs at concerts. She might wear ear plugs before her performance to block out extraneous sound, or she’ll wear a hat to help with light sensitivity. Braden says rest is imperative both before and after her performances. But she continues to tour because she loves it.
“Just because you had a brain injury doesn’t mean you can’t reach your goals,” Braden says. “You just might have to do it a little differently.”