A few short years ago, Cheryl B. Engelhardt, armed with her biology degree from Cornell University, got a cool government job that found her SCUBA diving with research teams. But the minute she had an opportunity to compose music, the lifelong pianist—who was playing Beethoven at age three and began composing her own material at five—took off the gear and jumped into competitive waters of the music industry, first as a composer for websites, then as a jingle writer and music supervisor for Bigfoote Music. She then took the ultimate plunge as a full-time DIY indie singer-songwriter, a creative leap of faith that has made her one of NYC’s fastest rising stars of 2007. Just as the title of her acclaimed new CD implies, for Engelhardt, life is about risktaking, living and making music in the present, and most of all, Craving The Second.
The versatile, Harlem based artist’s mix of heartfelt and hard-hitting piano driven songs and dynamic ambition has led her to become a popular presence on the club scene in Manhattan, where she performs regularly with her band at The Knitting Factory, Cutting Room and her main venue, The Bitter End. That’s also where she performed “Keep,” the soaring, infectious first single from Craving The Second after it made the Final 12 out of 4,000 entries in the first New York Songwriter’s Circle contest. The song also placed well in the Billboard and VH1 Songwriting contests. Last April, she joined many of the city’s top up and coming artists as part of the 1st Annual Musicians For Mobility Concert, a show at the Crash Mansion that she organized to raise money for the Arthritis Foundation. She also helped organize her peers to participate in the annual Arthritis Walk.
Engelhardt’s far more than just a local musical hero, however, touring this past year up and down the East Coast (Washington, D.C., Philly, Boston, Portland, ME) and gigging at Los Angeles hotspots like Key Club and Molly Malone’s. Last summer, she performed before 4,000 fans at the Blue Balls Festival in Lucerne, Switzerland, and this coming February and March, she is booked for a ski resort tour in Colorado.
While her self-produced 2004 debut album Shoes Off and Run was a product of sheer determination that radiated incredible potential, Engelhardt truly hits her creative stride on the more distinctly pop-oriented Craving The Second. The project, which is currently available at CD Baby and iTunes, includes performances by numerous A-list NYC musicians, including drummer Shawn Pelton (from Saturday Night Live and Sheryl Crow’s band), who Engelhardt originally met while working at Bigfoote Music. At one point, Engelhardt makes a fascinating detour from the keyboard-focused vibe of the disc with “We,” a track she constructed line by line with only her voice building towards a five-part harmony. Ironically, when Keyboard Magazine chose her in 2006 as one of their “unsigned artists of the month,” the article focused on that song, the one she did without a keyboard.
“I think the key to staying fresh and honest with my writing is that I don’t have a specific technique when I sit down to compose a song,” she says. “The title Craving The Second also refers to this rush to get something great out and make an impact,” she says, “and as it developed, I realized that these songs are all based on amazing, sometimes joyful, sometimes painful, moments in my life. One song that I wrote about a lover who cheated on me was actually inspired by my anger at someone I was working with, but it’s the same emotion. The track ‘16 Walls’ is sort of my message to the world about the ways we all put up emotional barriers to protect ourselves. That’s the song that has gotten the most emotional response because people connect with the idea that if we barricade ourselves too deep, we’ll miss out on great life experiences.
“Many of my songs have a yearning feeling to them, and Craving The Second is also about the drive of working hard on this album and finally getting it out there. On a more personal level, it’s about having my heart broken once and waiting now for that second person to sweep me off my feet and love me forever. I think so many people can relate to that.”
Looking back on all of the unique career choices that led her to Craving The Second, Engelhardt is happy that, even in the midst of those exciting deep-sea dives, she missed her first love of playing the piano. “Whether I’m playing for 15 people on a slow night at a local club or in front of thousands at a festival, I’m the same artist, singing from my heart and sharing the same stories and jokes,” she says, adding with a laugh, “and if I’m in a place where there may be a language barrier, I always have my drummer to keep the groove cool. It’s really all about connecting with people. One time I was playing at Quincy Market in Boston and a girl who looked like an uninterested punk rocker in the audience slipped me a note telling me I was so brave, and such a strong inspiration. That kind of moment is what makes every choice I’ve ever made seem just right.”