Cheryl B. Engelhardt is an accomplished artist in many different areas of music and entertainment. A singer, songwriter, composer, indie musician, and speaker, she also runs an online series of programs called ‘In The Key Of Success’ that helps other musicians find fulfillment in their creative careers through powerful communication and self-awareness, and is the host of the popular musician mastermind AMPLIFY that helps other indie artists navigate their careers. Having received degrees in Biology and Music from Cornell University and studied orchestration at Juilliard, she studied biology in college with the intention of going in research, specifically marine life. Life had other plans for her though. After spending several months working as a Scuba Diver for the United States Geological Survey, she landed a job at a New York City commercial editing house, which led to a job at a jingle composing studio where she became a composer and music supervisor. In writing music for Fortune 500 companies’ commercials, she discovered a love of performing, which led her to form a band and release her first album. With a strong DIY/independent ethos from the start, Cheryl’s success as an independent artist over the years has made her a sought after speaker for music business panels and podcasts. She has released four piano-pop albums since 2004 and released her 5th album Luminary last year, her first foray into the realm of New Age Music. The album represents music for mindfulness, focus and growth, written as a way for her to become the source of her own light, happiness, power and peace and is comprised of live, raw sounds, containing only her voice, piano and bells. She traveled to and recorded the album in a mountaintop studio in Crete, Greece after applying to and being accepted into the Mudhouse Artist’s Residency. Cheryl also made her first foray into theater, and is the co-writer of a musical with writer/director Kevin Archambault called ‘Boiler Room Girls’, with plans to feature it on Broadway. Cheryl also received the amazing opportunity this year to perform a choral piece she wrote 3 years ago (for the social justice choir she participates in called Voices 21C) called “The Listening”, based on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” denouncing the Vietnam War. After the murder of George Floyd, multiple choirs reached out and wanted to sing “The Listening” as a virtual collaboration, thus forming The Listening Choir. During a prior performance of the piece in California, Cheryl met Donzaleigh Abernathy, the goddaughter of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, who sings one of the solos in the choral collaboration. The choral piece also features Wes Felton. On March 26th, she released her latest single “Unwind”, her first solo lyrical song in 4 years, from her upcoming album to be released in July. With plans to release her album, work on new music and choral compositions and to make final edits with Kevin Archambault on The Boiler Rom Girls, Cheryl has given her fans plenty of exciting things to look forward to! You can connect with Cheryl B Engelhardt via the following links:
You received degrees in Biology and Music from Cornell University, studied orchestration at Juilliard and worked as a composer for film, ads, theater and choirs. You have said that you studied Biology in college with the intention of going into research, specifically marine life, so what led you to change course towards music. Was it an intentional choice or was that just the direction your life tok?
It was definitely semi-accidental. In my first job out of college, I was scuba diving for the government doing water quality research. We were working on a river around November and the river froze, so we had like a month off. In that month a friend of my mom’s, who was a videographer and web designer, asked me to help produce some videos and write music for these videos for a website for a hotel in Rome. He said “Come to Italy with me for a month and we’ll film all of this stuff and edit it there”. The hotel was owned by The Vatican, so we stayed in a monastery, literally, and I was like “This is what music can do for me? This is way cooler than being underwater 24/7” (laughs)! One thing led to another from there, and I just never went back to the science job. I mean, I had a very good relationship with my boss from there and he said I could always come back. Every 5 years or so he posts a picture of me with, like, my scuba goggles on, which is just the most unflattering thing, on my Facebook page and is like “You’re still welcome back”. I’m like “Ok. It’s like 20 years later but I see you” (laughs). That led me to come back and be like “This is really interesting” and just talked to people in NYC and started to get internships and assistantships at commercial houses and production houses and doing video editing. One thing led to another, where I met the owners of a jingle house and recording studios and I sort of got into the industry that way.
What can you tell me about your love for composing music, whether for films or commercials or different things like that, and also for writing your own solo music? Are there parallels between the two processes for you or do you take completely different approaches?
That’s a great question! Even when I was very little, I’ve always played the piano and always really liked writing piano music. I remember my mom, when I was probably 5 or 6, was sitting in the room where I was practicing and she asked “What does an elephant sound like?”, and I’d go really low on the piano. And then she’d ask “What does a mouse sound like?” and I’d go to the higher up end of the keys. So I always sort of associated stories and images with music. We used to mute the cartoons playing on tv and I’d try to play along with what the music should be on the cartoons, and so I have this very embedded idea that music pairs with storytelling. I never really wrote songs with lyrics until even after college. I just couldn’t quite get the lyric thing. It was always about, like, unicorns and rainbows (laughs). I took some poetry classes in college and that helped a little bit. With writing songs, I thought “Oh yeah. That could be fun to do” while I was working at this recording studio. I had a free studio and figured I might as well try some of my own songs, so I put a band together and we did some gigs just to sort of practice being a cohesive group. I was like “Oooh. I like this performing thing. Ok”. So that kind of became a thing that I did. Now I’m doing a lot more instrumental and composing and New Age work. I love working with the voice and with choirs and have always been an acapella dork, but it’s nice to be able to have a little more freedom than the pop song format and to tell the story and go on a journey, rather than go on a journey than come back to the chorus. I do have 4 piano pop records out, but it was hard to pull those lyrics out and tell those stories. That’s all to say that I think the film scoring and me as an artist, whether that’s Pop or New Age or whatever, that the story telling and enhancing emotions or bringing out emotions that you want to have is sort of the foundation for both of those things. Even with just writing the score for a commercial, you’re trying to take the listener or the viewer on some journey and enhance some desired emotion, and I think that that’s the job of the composer, to enhance that story. As an artist, it’s kind of always been the same for me.
Having had so much success over the years as an indie musician, you have become sought after as a speaker on music business panels and on podcasts. You also do ‘In The Key Of Success’ and ‘AMPLIFY’ where you help other indie artists find their voice and have succession their careers. What can you tell me about your approach to music and what you feel is an important part of being a successful indie musician?
I think the biggest thing for me is just being really clear on what I’m going for at any given moment. That clarity is something that I think a lot of musicians, and independent musicians especially, don’t have because they see bigger artists doing it one way and say “I guess I should do that” and “I guess I should be trying to get more likes on Instagram”. Some of those things are part of the picture, but they don’t actually matter. They’re not the endgame. So there’s this misdirection of time and effort and productivity that gets lost in the “Here’s what I should be doing” versus “This is a goal for me. This is a milestone I want to experience and I also want to experience the process to get there and now I just need to talk about it and tell my fans and tell the people who are invested in me.” For example, “I want to chart on Billboard”. Ok, cool. That’s all about sales so we have to get people to pre-order and pre-save, and that sort of work, the before it comes out work, versus “I wanna get on Spotify playlists”. Ok, cool. Then we need to attack from a pitching standpoint. So there are different conversations to have depending on your goal. Everything that I coach in my membership, which you mentioned AMPLIFY, all of that is “What is it that you want right now?” and “Are you taking actions directly to get it or are you getting distracted?”.
With it being so easy for artists to forge ahead with their careers without a label or management, what role do you feel that labels and other parts of the bigger industry play currently?
Um. I have no idea. I’m so not plugged into labels, nor do I care about them. I know that once they get an artist that’s making them money, they’ll pour money in and sort of perpetuate that cycle of getting people on the sales charts and all of that stuff. So there’s an element of money. I think to go after that when you’re not making your own money is not going to be interesting to a label. It feels like a perpetuating cycle that is kind of a “chicken or the egg” conversation (laughs). I’m super not interested in giving up any rights or having someone control the direction because I pivot a lot. To get locked into something is just not something I have ever been interested in. To me, anyone who is on a label is sort of in the bigger stratosphere realm. Any indie artists that I know right now who are on tiny labels, they’re doing very minimal stuff for them. It almost occurs to me that they are still indie artists and it’s like “What are you actually getting out of this other than you can say you are on a label?”. So I don’t know. I’m not really plugged into that!
Last year, you released your album Luminary, which was your first contribution to the New Age genre. What led you to want to record the album in Greece and what can you tell me about the Mudhouse Artist Residency?
Yeah. So a year before…I recorded the whole thing at the end of 2019. In 2018, I was just getting kind of bored and kind of just wanted to escape things. I was just in a bad place. I was like “How can I do this without full-on leaving?”, so I applied to a bunch of composer residencies for, like, 2 and 3 weeks to see if I could get accepted and disappear (laughs). I worked out a lot of that crap over the year. You apply to these things and they let you know , like, 6 to 9 months later if you got in. I was like “Oh I handled all that but I’m going away for a couple of weeks. Bye!” (laughs)! So that’s honestly what got me to apply, if you want the cold, hard truth. And then I just said yes and I showed up. The Mudhouse Residency is all visual artists, like sculptors and painters and filmmakers, and there were 13 or 14 of us, I think. It happened to be a group that was all women, except for one guy…there was a couple there who were working together and they were also the only musicians. So it was me and this one couple, and then everyone else had their own studios. I got there and they were, like, “Here’s your workspace” and it was this big, stone room with a grand piano in the middle of it. I was planning on just writing a choral record, actually writing the text for a choral record that I wanted to eventually record with some of the choirs I work with. I saw this piano room and listened to the piano and the stone and the reverberation and was like “Ok. We’re gonna do a piano record here.” I had only brought a small microphone and a laptop and was like “Ok. We’re gonna figure it out and just do it and I’ll do some vocal stuff and play around with it and morph it.” I already had the idea of wanting to create some sort of soundtrack that would help people struggling with anxiety, which is something I’d experienced, and knowing that a lot of meditation music out there either puts you to sleep or it’s too melodic and you’re not actually getting to be present. The music is taking you away, and it feels like that’s a nice thing but it’s actually not helping you process anything and fix anything. I did a bunch of research and decided I wanted these 6 minute pieces to sort of start out almost sounding like sadness or anxiousness or tension, and then over the 6 minutes allowing your brain to latch on, keeping you present to your own thoughts, but just there enough to take you on a journey to end up on a more hopeful or peaceful or happy place, depending on what piece it was. Each piece has a different intention.
You mixed the record in Upstate NY and have said that was the first time you had ever mixed your own record. What was that process like for you and what can you tell me about figuring out the song titles and song order and reaching out to you fans for their help and insight?
Yeah. So I got into another composer residency later in the year, so I decided to mix the record there and brought 6 different headphones and different ways of listening, knowing I wasn’t going to be doing it on huge speakers. I also knew that this was how people were going to listen to this kind of record, that people that were struggling with anxiety weren’t going to be sitting in a studio with huge speakers. They would be like “I need to plug my earphones in right now”, on a plane or wherever. So I was like “It’s ok that I’m mixing this on a variety of headphones.” That was the first thing that was different. Also, there are no lead vocals. There are no lyrics or lead vocals and there are no drums. Drums and lead vocals for me are always the hardest to mix, so that’s why I had always hired out my pop records and worked with mixers. While yes, I can mix and have mixed my own commercials and film music, there’s no lead vocal or big drums that need to sound really cool and current. Also, mixing the record was part of the composing project and the process, and what side of the brain you were hearing one thing and how it moved and the panning and reverbs and effects I was doing. That was all stuff that I couldn’t direct someone else to do because it was all in my head. That’s one of the reasons why I mixed it myself. The word of my year was Luminary, in 2019, and it really stuck with me. I knew I wanted to call the record that, with the definition being the source of light, specifically a celestial being like the sun or the moon. So I sort of got on this moon kick and this light kick and was in Greece, so I had this sort of mythology. Each of the 10 tracks, I started with the intention of like “Ok. Is this releasing something or attracting something?”. Each song has a background and a set of affirmations that I recited to myself before I sat down and wrote it, that was either attracting abundance or love or releasing anxiety or negativity. Each track had a single theme like that. Based on that theme, I would just go down a rabbit hole of research. I would look at, like, what’s the happiest astrology and one story would lead to another and then to another. They just kind of showed up in different ways. There’s one track called “Bioluminescence”, which is something that we got to experience in Greece one night, where the organisms that night in the water would light up when you’d throw a rock or stepped in the water. They would react. So there was something about reacting versus not being reactive necessarily, and so that piece of music was really about just having peace within no matter what’s going on around you. I thought “Bioluminescence” worked for that. Then there was another rabbit hole I went down where I found out that Eos is the Greek Goddess of dawn and I was such a night owl in writing this record. I actually had to record everything at night, because in the daytime in Greece the cicadas were so loud that my microphone was picking up on them. I was recording at night and mixing at night and so much stuff was happening at night. That might be one of the reasons I just gravitated towards the moon. I was like “What’s the opposite of dawn?”. The Goddess of the moon is Selene, and in mythology she and Eos are sisters. My sister is such a morning person and she actually met me in Greece and took the photo of me that’s on the cover of the record. So she has this little bit in the record, so to call the first track sister of Eos, I was really just talking about myself because I’m the sister of Eos. I sort of put she and I into this piece without actually being like “This song is dedicated to my sister” (laughs). So there are definitely things like that. The names were really fun to come up with. In reaching out to my fans, I said “Hey. I know there’s a lot of people in my fan base who are into yoga and mindfulness and I would love to let you listen to these mixes before they are mastered and help me figure out the order based on, like, energetically what do you feel comes where?”. I wasn’t just going to give them out. They had to fill out a form. I ended up having 13 people that I let have access to the files and then they had to answer some questions. I had 11 pieces and was like “Which one doesn’t fit?”, because I knew I only wanted 10. I wanted it to be an exact hour of music, for like a yoga class or a meditation. They all really helped me, especially the people who were yoga instructors. They were like “I think having calm in the beginning that sort of builds up and having more upbeat ones…I mean, upbeat is relative, of course…in the middle and then sort of taper out again towards the end and leave the more hopeful ones at the end. That’s sort of how the record ended up going.
What inspired the album artwork? Who did the artwork for the album?
I used a couple of different people. I started with this one guy but he wasn’t quite getting it. I knew he was using a lot of stock imagery, so there wasn’t a lot of flexibility for him to change it. I ended up last minute just going with those who printed the CDs because they have a design department. I loved the idea of collecting moons. One of the tracks is called “Moon Harvest” and is really about manifesting and putting your intentions out there, so I liked this idea of this person who was just collecting all of these moons that had been plopped around the ocean and collecting them in her little boats. I wanted something striking. The New Age genre, in general…there are a couple of genres of music where stuff just looks really outdated and tacky and self-done with terrible old fonts. I was like “I want to level up my branding.” There are a couple of New Age albums that were in the pool for Grammy, in the first round of the ballots for Grammy ballots, where I was like “I love this branding”. With most of them I was like “Who did this?” and just wanted to make sure it did not look like the typical DIY New Age album. I wanted it to also really represent and reflect the New Age, sort of mystical, self-reflective, awareness, growth, be your own light messages.
You also created your own Luminary Journal that you made after purchasing a lot of journals that were either too hefty or not enough. What can you tell me about that process and the importance of journaling for you?
Early on, I struggled with panic attacks that happened about once a month for about 10 years straight. I finally was like “Ok. Enough!”, and that was maybe 4-5 years ago. I started to do some research, going back to my science days, and was like “What is going on with my amygdala..my fight or flight?” and one of the first things I really saw a lot about was just training your brain to look for the good rather than to worry about what’s not working. Essentially, that’s gratitude. I kind of got into the habit of writing three things every morning that I was grateful for, but then also writing down the one thing in the past 24 hours that was my favorite moment. I loved that, because I started to look throughout the day, like “Ooh. Is this going to be my favorite moment that I write down tomorrow, or is this?”, instead of “What’s going wrong?” or “What’s going to go wrong?”. My anxiety was very future based and worry based. I did some reading on that, which led me to start to examine meditation. Meditation for me is really just acknowledging and hearing the thoughts and the voices that were my anxiety, that I was trying to resist and suppress and then they come out in this unwanted format for me, which was panic attacks. I started meditating 5 minutes a day and started keeping track, and as of today, I’m on my 1, 023rd day. It was just under 3 years ago when I started this whole morning routine of writing in a gratitude journal. The other last piece of that is jotting down whatever I can remember from my dreams, because there was some science that I came across that said that’s your subconscious either solving problems or expressing something. So if you can hear that and acknowledge that, then that’s going to get mitigated, whatever that thing is that you are dealing with. I looked for journals where I could write this stuff down and not have to write out every morning “Three things I’m grateful for”, “My dreams from last night”, “My favorite moment from the last 24 hours”, “The one thing I’m going to do today”, because I also like planning and productivity. I didn’t want to have to write what all of my prompts were, but the journals that had all of that in there were these long, lengthy prompts in writing and I didn’t want to write essays in the morning. I found one gratitude journal that had just one line a day, but I didn’t feel that was quite enough. I made the Luminary Journal that has, like, 2 days on one page and is very short and takes about a minute to 2 minutes if you want to do it really well. It has a couple of check boxes for movement and a couple of blank spaces so you can put in your own thing if you’re doing, like, a 30-day no sugar thing or a pull-up challenge, and you can write your own check box thing. Then I started writing why I thought each of the elements I put into the journal were important, based on the science I did. That turned into a couple of essays and those essays turned into basically a little introduction to the book. The journal has some book in it. I’m actually doing a second version right now that’s a little bit longer. I think it’s a third of a year right now. The whole Luminary process has been just creating stuff I thought I needed that I couldn’t find after looking for it. I didn’t think this was going to be the one record that got the most success and hit the charts and did all the things I had tried so hard to do with my pop stuff (laughs), and this feels really good to write to. The new record I’m doing now is sort of combining all of the things that I did in Luminary with the pop and the choral, but it’s in the New Age realm still.
You also co-wrote a Broadway musical with writer/director Kevin Archambault called ‘The Boiler Room Girls’. What can you tell me about the musical and the inspiration behind it?
Kevin is one of the most brilliant human beings on the planet, and he approached me 6 years ago, I guess now, and said “Hey. I have this historic thing that I’m fascinated with. Do you want to write a musical with me?” and I was like “I will do anything with you. Big, fat yes!”. We just really dug into the story. It is about the 6 women who were behind the Chappaquiddick incident with the Kennedy’s in the late 60s. After Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, a year later Ted Kennedy hosted a party in Chappaquiddick, MA and one of the 6 boiler room girls, who were the 6 women working on Bobby Kennedy’s Presidential campaign, drowned in a car. It’s one of the unsolved mysteries of the Kennedy curse. The movie Chappaquiddick came out and Ed Helms was in it and it’s telling the story all from the mens’ point of view, but there are these 6 women and one of them died but the other 5 are still alive. They’re big lawyers and publishers and have big lives, but none of them talk about this incident. There’s not a single interview, so they’re holding a secret and we wanted to explore what that could possibly be. We did a lot of research. We did 5 years of research, and then we met once a week for a year, writing…he wrote the book and I wrote the music and lyrics. In the fall of 2019, literally right when I got back from Greece, we went through a month of rehearsals and production to put up this first draft of it. It was just going to be a reading. We both work in this community theater, that is just one of the most generous communities ever, and the reading turned into “Let’s stage it” and the staging turned into “Let’s costume it” and the costumes turned into “Let’s get a band”, so we did a full production of our first sort of draft of this. We were tweaking up until 2 nights before opening night and finally the cast was like “No more changes!”. That went up in September of 2019 and last year our intention was to do a lot of edits. We had some amazing people in the audience and had some amazing feedback. About 300 people saw the show and we had forms for people to fill out and give feedback, and it was an extraordinary process. We now have a lot of stuff that we want to redo. Then Covid hit. Kevin works with this theater, so it was like “Ok. We’ve gotta go into keep-the-theater-alive mode”, so we kind of had to put everything on hold. It was good timing, because I had Luminary to deal with. We are now coming back to those edits and looking at ” Ok. What’s next? Are we doing a digital production of this for the next round?”. But, we do have our eyes set on Broadway when it opens again!
You also recently wrote the choral piece “The Listening”, which you were asked to compose 3 years ago originally by the social justice choir that you participate in called Voices 21C. What can you tell me about being asked to compose the song and what that experience has been like for you?
It was interesting. Andre De Quadro had said, “Our program for next year is going to be called “Break The Silence”, which is a line from the speech, and we need a piece that has that in it. Here’s the speech from Martin Luther King Jr. Study it. Here are the lines I think you should pull from it.” I did some research and found out that The King Estate is very tight with their copyrights, so I couldn’t actually use any direct quotes and decided to write the text myself, inspired by the speech. So I listened to the speech a bunch and read it over and took notes and really tried to extrapolate my own interpretation that could be applied to this piece. So he helped me edit it and we kind of got this to a point where we could try it out on Voices 21C, who are so great, and we worked out the voicing’s and everything in it. Andre said “You know, I just want something that could be an opening piece and really have impact.” It starts with this big, dissonant chord and the word ‘Violence’…’Violence’, Silence’, ‘Violence’, ‘Silence’, almost like they are the same. Like, your silence is as bad as, or equivalent to, actual violence. And then the whole meaning of the piece being, if we can just listen to the other side. We don’t need to be the loudest voice in the room. We just need to listen to the voices that haven’t been heard and just get on the same page, in terms of the fact that we can just acknowledge what the other person is saying. But yeah. We performed that piece. It debuted in Mexico City and there were choir directors there who heard it and took it to their choirs. It got performed by 250 students in the All New England Choir competition. It’s been performed in all sorts of different places in NYC and San Diego. When it was performed in San Diego, I got flown out there to do a workshop with the San Diego Choir at the University of San Diego. In the audience was Donzaleigh Abernathy, who’s Martin Luther King’s goddaughter, and her husband Dar who had been a fan of mine through internet things. We all got to meet and stay in touch and she had a lot of praise for the song, which was just extraordinary. Then last year, a bunch of these choirs were reaching out, especially after the death of George Floyd and everything that was happening, and thought it might be good to record this. I said “Anyone who wants to, who has sung the song before, let’s do this.” I reached out to Dar and Donzaleigh and said “Donzaleigh, would you maybe want to sing?”. I think it was actually Dar, her husband’s idea. She actually said “No, you should get my sister. She’s an actual opera singer in Germany” and I said “Yeah, but I know you and you know this song and you know me”. We had a bunch of amazing conversations and hour long talks just about social injustice and things she’s experienced in her life, like when she was 10 and remembering overhearing her dad and Martin Luther King and John Lewis discussing the march and who was going to lead what section. Just extraordinary. I could not believe…like, how am I now suddenly getting to experience this piece of history firsthand. It was just so humbling and she was so gracious and beautiful throughout the whole process, so it was amazing to have her as a part of the story. Everyone that was involved, we had a couple of Zoom calls, which we called impact discussions, to talk about the piece as people were reviewing it and learning it. We had section leaders and conversation leaders. We talked about “What is The Listening?” and “What does it mean?”. Or “The Listening is…” and everyone would go around and finish the sentence. Everyone was sort of on an equal and collaborative playing field on those calls. It was really extraordinary to participate, not just creatively for the video and the recording, but also as a community, especially during Covid and this crazy uprising that we are now experiencing again.
I can’t imagine the stories she told!
I mean, she’s been very generous and doing a lot of interviews. She was interviewed by People.com about her participation in the song. All the interviewers are having the same reaction, like “Oh my gosh! What stories you have!”. So she’s been telling a lot of them around the press that we’ve gotten, because the song released in February, so in February there were a lot of, especially because it was Black History Month, there were a lot of people talking to her about her experiences with “The Listening” and of being in that era growing up with those people around her and being in the center of that.
You will soon be releasing your new single “Unwind”, which is your first solo lyrical song that you have released in 4 years. What can you tell me about the song and your process of writing it?
Sort of going back to the whole storytelling thing, I started looking at my entire career as a story. Part of the motivation was that I’d had this great year with my New Age album that had no words on it and now I’m releasing this epic, choral-meets-pop social justice piece that’s very lyrical and very much about the text. I was like, how do I connect these two and where do I go from here? I knew that I wanted to do another New Age record, maybe slightly more lyrical, maybe not. I like to write poetry and have definitely been in the “What is the patriarch and what’s my relationship to, like, men messing with my power?” sort of thing and seeing a lot of that in our culture right now, especially with white male violence and stuff. I had this poem that felt very personal and intimate, like “you can’t unwind me. There’s no room under my skin”. Like, there’s no room for you. You can’t get under my skin. It was a little bit of a declaration for myself, but it was also an invitation to love the bridges. What if you loved instead? What if you could be loved? Because a lot of this comes from a childhood trauma of probably not feeling loved. I sort of tried to write this poem that was nebulous enough that anyone could relate to it, but also it was my nod towards the “F the patriarchy!” (laughs). It felt like it was in line with the social justice mode, but also felt like me as an artist and also was weird enough that it could go on New Age. I sat down at my piano and tried to sing along. I had the words already written. And then I had this loose piano thing and I sent it to Chris Griffin, who’s mixed most of my records, and he was at my wedding. He’s a good friend. I was like “I need to connect my dots. And I think I can do this but I think you might be able to do it better.” So he produced the song and when he gave me the final product, I was like “Yeah. That’ll do!” (laughs)! I think that will be the most sort of pop, lyrical, epic track on this new record, which will be called A Seeker’s Slumber. I think that the idea of the record is what do you need to say throughout your day to kind of clear out the anger, angst or disease, in order to be able to lie down and have some sleep. And there are some sleep tracks and New Age kind of resting tracks, but there are also some tension-y filled things and some other collaborations. There are some nods to Mother Earth. There’s a piece that will be coming out in a couple of months, around Mother’s Day, called “Mother Gaia” that features Joanie Leeds, who just won a Grammy for a children’s record. It’s feeling like there’s a story arc that’s connecting the social justice work with the music for mindfulness work, and also letting my pop artist come out just a little bit!
“Unwind” is the first single from your upcoming album, and you have talked about how the album feels more like you than ever. In what ways do you feel like it represents you as an artist?
I feel like we get told a lot to find your niche. I’ve always struggled with that because I write music for commercials and films and get paid for that, but then I also really love writing for choirs and love orchestration and writing lyrics and music with no lyrics. I wear all of the hats and I don’t want to be the “jack of all trades-master of none”, but for some reason I felt like the elements I’m pulling from all of the things I’ve loved in my career are coming together on this album. The slight nod to social justice and definitely a lot of vocals on this one, whether they’re lyrical or not. The single that’s coming out in April is called “Ithaca” and is just piano and voice, but it’s all “oooh and aaahs” and things but no words. That feels like a nod to me as a composer and arranger versus a lyricist. I’m mixing and producing a lot of the stuff and Chris Griffin is working with me on some of the other stuff. There’s collaborations, which I do love and didn’t do at all on Luminary. So it’s getting to pull in the elements of everything that I love, without feeling like I’m trying to cram everything into an album.
Do you feel like the lyrics were easier for you to write this time around or did you struggle with them as much as you had in the past?
Knowing that I wanted this to be primarily a New Age record, I felt like it a could be a little weirder. “Unwind” didn’t end up being as weird as I thought it would be. It follows the traditional pop format of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse chorus. The other two songs that have lyrics, because as of now there are only 3 out of the 9 songs on the album with lyrics, one of them is a poem with 3 stanzas. The other collaborators, other vocalists, including Joanie Leeds, they just picked one and then they improvised using inspiration from the text that I wrote. It’s a little more of an improvisatory, weird 20th century, kind of model. With the last collaboration, everyone in my AMPLIFY membership…there are several hundred people in the group, and I kind of threw out there “Hey. If you want to contribute something, here’s 8 bars. Here’s a very short stanza text of texts from a four line poem that I wrote.” It’s called “Awacan”, which is Old English for awake. About a quarter of the membership submitted something-string, violin playing, piano playing, vocals, some people singing the text, some people humming. All sorts of different things. So that text is a process where I’m going to take what I’ve got as source audio and turn it into the piece. The text was just…I worked on that poem for a couple of hours and the words are there but it was more about the process. But yeah. The lyrics have been very easy and maybe it’s because there weren’t a lot of them or maybe the pressure wasn’t on it to be about the lead vocalist singing these words.
What’s next for you? What are your plans coming up?
I’m releasing this record in July and then I’m going to do a push for the Grammy nomination, which is becoming sort of the fun joke endgame for me, but without it actually being the end. For me, it’s just a measure of “Ok. Am I producing music that is of the quality that could be nominated for a Grammy?”. It’s a little bit like my compass, so that’s always there. I really am loving this process of constantly creating different kinds of music for mindfulness. I write music for Insight Timer and Simple Habit and different meditation apps, so I think that’s going to be an ongoing creation process for me. It’s really nice to have a place where as soon as I write a piece I don’t need to have a record coming out in order to release it. I can release it to these platforms and then they feature it and thousands of people get to listen to it. It’s very cool to be able to do that, so that will definitely be happening. There will be edits for Boiler Room Girls. I’m definitely looking to work more with choirs, especially as they start to transition back from digital to in person, and working on some choral commissions for groups that are now looking for new music that might actually be saying something impactful. I think that there might be a shift towards diversifying choral repertoire, so I’m looking forward to being a part of that movement as a composer.