Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.
Felice So we want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.
Peter This week, we’re talking to an award-winning musician whose remarkable 3,500-mile journey across the United States sets a benchmark in the music industry this spring. Cheryl B Engelhardt composed, recorded and almost entirely produced her new album, appropriately called The Passenger, while being just that: on a train from New York to Los Angeles.
Felice You’re a singer-songwriter and you know about film scores and Broadway musicals, advertising jingles and New Age mindfulness records. You’re a classically trained pianist turned composer turned rock chick. How did you first start your music career?
Cheryl The career definitely different than music, the hobby and the skill. But the career definitely started after I graduated from college. I actually got a double degree in music and biology – I thought music was the hobby, biology was the career. I was getting into science. I had a job scuba diving for the government, doing water quality research, and we had a little bit of time off after about six months of that job.
A friend of my mom’s heard that I also loved music and said, ‘Hey, would you come to Rome, Italy with me? I got hired to create a website for a very beautiful, exclusive hotel and we need videos and we need music for those videos. Would you come do all the video and music content creation?’
I said, ‘Sure.’ So I spent a month in Rome and I never looked back to the science stuff. I was like, ‘This is where music can take me; this is very cool.’ So I went, I moved to New York City and my first job was interning as a messenger in Manhattan for a commercial house that does the editing. Through them I got to meet the music houses that put the music to those edits.
Any time I had to deliver a package to them, I’d say, ‘Do you have any job openings?’ literally every single time I visited them, and this one house after 11 months was finally like, ‘Well, we have an opening at the front desk for a week. Why don’t you try that?’ I tried that and then they ended up hiring me as their tech. Then I sort of moved my way up and started composing after hours – after the ‘real composers’ went home – and started winning spots like writing music for these commercials, presenting it and getting it on air.
That led to me to creating more of my own music, doing some film scores on the side, creating my own music with a band on the side. So I left the jingle house world to really pursue my own career, tour with the rock bands. I did four albums that were piano, pop, rock, before I got into more of the meditation New Age music, which is where I’ve been for the past five years. So that’s kind of the nutshell story.
Peter Your new album is quite extraordinary. It’s coming out in April this year, and it’s very different for one extraordinary reason. Will you tell us about that?
Cheryl I made it on a train, entirely on a train.
Peter I mean, how can you make an album on a train? And wherever you went, was there a place you went from/to, or was it several journeys?
Cheryl Very good questions. When I reached out to Amtrak to let them know I was doing this, the first question was, ‘Well, you know, you can’t disturb the other passengers.’ I think they were imagining me bringing a drum kit in, a bass and a guitar and bongos and things. But the music that I was creating was ambient music, music for meditation, music for healing.
The whole idea came from looking at plane tickets. I live in New York and I wanted to go out to Los Angeles for the Grammys that were supposed to be in January of this year and they ended up getting postponed until April because of the pandemic. But I was looking at plane tickets and I thought they were just so expensive. I said, ‘This is ridiculous. I should take a train.’ And I kind of said it like: ‘Hahaha,’ and: ‘Hmm, who does that and is that a thing that people do?’ And I went down this rabbit hole. I’ve never been on a train overnight, but I’ve always loved trains.
I toured through Switzerland and Germany exclusively on a train with my band solo seven times. I love the train from where I live in the Hudson Valley to New York City goes down along the Hudson River. It’s just beautiful. I had a train set when I was a kid; I just always loved trains. So I went down this rabbit hole and realised that it’s a thing you can do – from New York to Los Angeles there’s several ways to get there across the country via Chicago, through Chicago. I did a bunch of research and learned that the route west through the Rocky Mountains was just supposed to be breathtaking.
I said, ‘Ok, let’s do that.’ It was five days out. I thought, ‘Well, what if I what if I try to make an album on the train?’ I looked up like, is this a thing that people do? There is a woman that about six years ago, she did it on over 17 days across Russia, the Russian train, there’s been a country band that made an album just in train stations across America, but no one has done an album on the five-day cross-country trip. So I was like, ‘What if I did that?’ I work well in small spaces and with a deadline. So I went from New York to Los Angeles. The Grammys got cancelled early January, and I decided to keep my ticket. That same week my best friend passed away.
I also decided to keep the ticket. I really needed to get away; I’ve been in my studio for the entire pandemic, two years, and but also was so exhausted, just emotionally watching, you know, my friend had cancer and it was so sad to watch that progression. I needed some healing and I was like, ‘How can I travel, which takes so much energy but also just literally lie down all day long and have people bring me my food.
Turns out a train across the country is the ticket to see the world, see the country at 100 miles an hour, but also be able to literally lie down all day long with your computer and your headphones and have someone bring you your meals that you could order, which is extraordinary. So it was a very healing, beautiful, creative trip. I ended up halfway through that trip out. I cancelled my plane ride home and decided to take a train back because I just loved it so much. The record was done by the time I arrived in LA, but I just decided that I wasn’t done… there was more learning, more observing, more resting to do so. It ended up being nine days total on the train.
Felice Well, writing an album in five days sounds very quick.
Cheryl It was very quick. So I had a little teeny keyboard that I brought with me. I am a piano player so I easily can play things into my computer. And then I have this program called Logic and I can tell the programme, ‘Ok, now I’m going to play this, but I want it to sound like a harp,’ or ‘I want it to sound like a weird galaxy synthesiser or a violin.’ So I would always be composing on this little keyboard that was plugged into my computer, and then I had headphones on, so I wasn’t disturbing anyone.
Most of the composing was in my room, but I would go to the cafeteria, the observation car, which was all glass, really beautiful. If it wasn’t too crowded and I would bring my little set-up there and the way I compose this album was very improvisatory, meaning I just would put the click on and hear a little metronome, like: ‘Tik-tuk-tuk, tik,’ and I would just sort of play along and play around. I played a lot with the sounds and I just let the beautiful scenery inspire me. I would wake up and I would have a little melody in my head. I had a lot of dreams of my friend.
I composed mostly in my room, but I did notice that the songs I wrote in the beginning I didn’t know what to call any of these pieces of music as they’re just sort of things coming to me sounds. So I would just name them the time of day, like Monday breakfast, Sunday sunsets. But I noticed that the pieces that were earlier morning: Tuesday sunrise, were definitely a little more melancholy, a little more sad. I would wake up from these dreams that I had, my friend that passed away was in every single one of my dreams, which is one of the reasons I wanted to stay on the train. I felt like he was there.
So yes, writing it came, it was an improv, sort of: let’s just see what comes out. I wasn’t thinking too structurally, I just played a lot with the sound and I let the sounds dictate, when I hold it down for this, it kind of does what I want. So I want to hold that down long enough to get to the whomp at the end. So that would dictate some of the tempos and I just let things flow.
I mean, the album is called The Passenger and it was my word of the year that I picked early in January with the idea of ‘what does it look like to stop trying to control and force things and go with the flow?’ And so I really wanted that to be embodied in the music. So it was a very flowy process and it came much more easy. I thought I would be rushing, but I got 12 songs completed. The album will have only nine of them because I loved nine of them and I liked the other three, so they didn’t make the cut.
Felice Did you have a favourite bit of scenery that you went through that produced your favourite track?
Cheryl Well, that’s a good question, I should go cross reference. My favourite scenery for sure was once we got past Denver into the Rocky Mountains, headed towards Sacramento, and it didn’t even feel like I was looking at scenery. It felt like I was part of the scenery. Just out the window was the Colorado River, frozen, and there was a herd of about a hundred elk running across this river.
Every time we had what they called a smoking break or a fresh air break, which is ironic to me, I would get out and I would bring wet paper towels and I would wash my window so that I could just take really beautiful photos. And, you know, because they get dirty and they get streaked with moisture and whatnot. So many people were like, ‘Well, come do mine,’ and, ‘Are you getting paid for that?’ But I was like the person on the California Zephyr that was cleaning her windows every time we stopped.
Felice So did you have your own carriage? Your own room?
Cheryl Yes. You could have been in coach seats which I can’t sleep in, even on planes unless I’m completely horizontal – I’m just one of those people. So red eyes are my nightmare. But then they also had roomettes. They called them ‘roomettes’ and it’s like – if you’ve seen a Harry Potter movie – they’re the car where you step into the door and then there’s two seats facing each other. And an attendant would come in at night and and put the seats down and it turns into a bed and there’s all this lovely bedding. And then there’s also a bunk that folds down. So you could technically have two people in there. I think two people would have been extremely tight, but I ended up having those seats made. I kept the bunk up and I just used it like a bed, like you would work in bed, sitting up. And I didn’t bother the attendant to come in and turn it back into seats because I could just go sit in the observation car.
They also had bedrooms which are definitely bigger – I saw a family of four in one of the bedrooms. So I had this smaller of the rooms and it locks from the inside. You have your own little plugs and lights and anyone that’s in a sleeper car, which is what they call those ‘roomettes’, the bedrooms, got meals, complimentary meals with your ticket so you could go up to the dining car. The dining car got a little crowded on a couple legs and, you know, everyone’s got their masks off so I was uncomfortable. But because of COVID, you could tell the attendant in the morning the meal orders that you want and they would just bring them to you at their convenience, which was super great. So you had a couple of options there, if you were staying in a room.
Peter Did you talk to your fellow passengers much? They must have thought you were kind of a strange hermit hidden away?
Cheryl I definitely kept to myself. Some of the reading and research I had done…it’s such a great trip to get to know so many different people with different destinations, and I really didn’t feel like that was the purpose for me. I am very friendly; I love to meet people and their travels and hear about what other people are doing. But for this trip, I really was barely keeping it together emotionally. It was only two weeks after my best friend had passed away and so I was there to do some internal reflection and let out whatever was going to come out creatively. I also knew that I didn’t have a ton of time to do this, if I wanted to create this album. So I didn’t really feel like I had time to spare, especially if I felt like writing. I wanted to go with that inspiration.
So I talked to my attendant. They had different attendants, people that were in charge of the sleeper car at any given time. I was curious about how the whole system works and found out some things, but I did really keep to myself. I had headphones on a lot. I did ask someone to take a video of me composing. And she was really great and curious and she shared a little bit about what she was doing.
But yes, I didn’t really talk to a lot of people – that wasn’t the energy I was feeling, and also with COVID and when you’re unmasked, it’s mostly because you’re eating and trying to get in and out, so there was that kind of energy going on. It was right after the big peak as well, after the holidays, because I started the trip January 22nd. So all the mask mandates were still there and especially on the train, which I think they still are. So yes, I kept to myself.
Peter I’ve never done it by train, but it’s a very long way from one coast to the other. I hitchhiked it when I was a teenager many, many years ago, and that seemed like a very long way then. Were you conscious of how far it is and what a different place Los Angeles is compared to New York City?
Cheryl Yes. I was tracking and I had a page that I created on my website that my fans could track where I was. It was like a real time update, train app thing that you could see where along the journey you were on. And so I was following that as well to sort of see, you know, delay. I mean, I didn’t care about delays because I was like, ‘Well, when the train gets there, the train gets there. Delays are good for me, I have more time to write.’
You know, the planes are always so like Nebraska and Kansas and that whole like the Midwest is just such a vast, different…space is just different there. I mean, Los Angeles my sister lives there. I’ve visited, I’ve stayed in Los Angeles for months at a time. I know the city very, very well. So arriving there felt like, you know, coming to my second home a little bit. But the country is…it’s really amazing to be able to travel inside of the country and not have to deal with international anything and still get such a variety of landscape, cities and towns and the mountains and the plains and all of the things that are in the songs and all that.
Felice So this is an instrumental album, no singing, obviously? You probably couldn’t have sung on the train?
Cheryl I did bring this little microphone. I have this great travel microphone, in case I was inspired by the sounds of the train, but I wasn’t, it was just very noisy. I was not inspired by the sounds of the train. I love to take source sounds; like I’ll pluck on the piano. My last record had a lot of John Cage type of composition techniques. I didn’t take the microphone out the whole time.
I was able to collaborate with a few really amazing instrumentalists, one of whom is a Grammy winning artist, Lili Haydn. She’s a violinist, but she also is a beautiful vocalist. And so I sent her the bass track and I said, ‘Hey, do you have any ideas you want to put on this?’ While I was still on the train, I was emailing at the stops when the wi-fi was decent, I would email her the MP3 and she said, ‘Yes. And I also think I could do a little vocal thing that might help the violin on this.’ So there technically is a vocal on It’s Not Mine and it was not recorded on the train, but it was produced while still on on the train.
But yes, there’s no no lyrics. I can’t say that there are no vocals on the record, but it is definitely what I would call it an instrumental record. I would call it ambient and New Age is really the genre that it’s been hanging out in. It’s been available for pre-orders and within 18 hours it hit number one on Amazon as a best seller New Age album, which just blew my mind. So there are people that want to listen to this kind of music, which is great.
Felice Can you explain for our listeners that don’t know, what is New Age music?
Cheryl The most known New Age artist that you might have heard of is Enya. And she does vocals, and a lot of it’s like ethereal music. There’s a lot of healing music and meditation music inside of the New Age genre; ambient music and electronic music can also be found inside New Age. New Age is like the overarching genre of piano solo music that’s not necessarily classical. There’s a lot of crossover things that could be considered New Age. It tends to be that the music is really about the process and the intention behind the music. Usually there’s finding peace or a healing intention in the music, so sometimes it can feel a little woo-woo. But I think it’s music that is a little bit softer. You’ll find a lot of New Age music on focus playlists and sleep playlists and meditation playlists or stations, if you listen to any of those that generally can be considered New Age music – I don’t know if that helps define the genre a little bit.
Felice Which instruments do you play apart from the piano?
Cheryl Yes, piano is definitely my main instrument and normally in recordings other than this one, I use vocals a lot. I use the vocals as an instrument and I’ll do weird things in the production and the mixing electronically. I do play…you can see a tiny little ukulele here and I love different percussion things, but my main instrument and sort of mode of composing is definitely the piano.
Peter It sounds to me like you actually not only wrote the album and recorded it, but you produced a whole album virtually on the train.
Cheryl I did. The only thing I didn’t do on the train was mix it. Mixing is slightly different than producing. So composing is coming up with the actual musical content, and yes, I did that all in the train. And because I was creating an electronic album, I was producing it as I was composing it. Sometimes a songwriter will write a song and then bring it to a producer and the producer will say, ‘Ok, it needs a guitar here, and then it needs a banjo here and it needs a harmonica here,’ and that’s producing it. It’s taking the actual melody of the song and turning it into the track.
So I was doing those two things simultaneously: I was composing and producing at the same time, working with the collaborators, saying, ‘Here’s what I’m looking for you to do, here’s the sheet music for this.’ Then they would send their tracks back and I would work it into what I had created. That’s me also producing. Mixing is when it comes time to really say, ‘Ok, how does this sound? Does the piano need to come out a little bit louder than the bass here? Does this synthesiser…is there an annoying tone that we need to tone down?’
I needed to do that not on the train, because on the train there’s a lot of low rumble. Like when I say low, I mean frequency versus a high-pitch bird. So it was hard for me to tell…ok I’m playing a synthesiser but I couldn’t tell if the low rumble I was hearing was part of the synthesiser sound or if it was the train. So I needed to do the mixing in my studio where I could really hear all of the frequencies and know that it wasn’t. When I got back to my studio, I was like, ‘Oh, I thought that song had a lot more bass in it, but I guess it was just train rumbling that I was hearing.’
So I mixed it and then I sent it to Kim Rosen at NEC Mastering, and mastering is the final step, and that’s really getting each track on the album to sound the same volume and prepare it for streaming services like Spotify and Apple and Amazon, so that it’s the same volume as as the tracks that are on those platforms. So that’s what mastering is. So mixing and mastering happened afterwards, but the composing and production and the recording essentially all happened while on the train.
Felice Have you travelled a lot for your career?
Cheryl I have. I know a lot of musicians that have travelled a lot more than I have, and I know a lot of people that have travelled a lot less. So I’m not someone who has the travel bug. Like I don’t feel like I really need to get out and try, I am such a homebody, but music has taken me to really cool places and I have started to see myself as a traveller and I can navigate train stations and airports and flights and using points and like I’ve become good at travelling. So I have to say yes to that question.
Felice And you’ve toured with your band?
Cheryl I have, about six years. I think we stopped about…when I shifted from touring and doing the pop stuff with them. I got a couple of film scores, feature films, which really are hard to do from the road; you need to be sitting with a monitor and watching the film and composing. So when I got started getting into feature film scores, that had me say, ‘Okay, let’s pause with the touring on the road.’ And then I just stuck around and became more of a writer. I started working with choirs, and then this meditation music and New Age music really started to call to me and it’s not really band music.
Peter So what was the band called? Will the band be known in Europe as well as America?
Cheryl Just my name, Cheryl B Engelhardt.
Felice And how many albums have you written so far?
Cheryl The Passenger is the seventh. The first four were the singer-songwriter pop, all lyrics, me singing and playing with the band. And then my first New Age album was Luminary, and it was written on a tiny little mountain town in Greece. It was a composer residency, and it was this beautiful little stone room with a piano in it. And I said, ‘Ok, I have two weeks and I’m going to make a piano album.’
It was the first of this sort of New Age genre with no words, no, no singing. I did sing on it. But again, just sort of as an instrument, using my voice, doing lots of high ‘aahs’ and things and that album without really thinking, I thought it was just sort of a project for me and I put it out and it was the first one of my albums after trying so hard with my pop music, it was the first one to get on sales charts and radio stations and all these, you know, in inside of that genre. And I said, ‘Oh, maybe this is maybe this is a space I should explore.’ And so then I did a second one, which was my sixth album last year, and I wasn’t planning on doing another album this year, but this train trip kind of just said to me, ‘Yes let’s just do it.’
Peter Seven. So what next?
Cheryl Oh, goodness. Well, the album hasn’t even come out yet, so I mean, what next? When the album comes out, I’ve got sort of a big goal to see if I can’t get on the Billboard charts for New Age, which is very hard if you don’t have a record label doing things for you. But I’ve been told by a little insider birdy that I’ve been close in the past, so I thought this could be a fun album to try.
Always going for a Grammy nomination. It’s always worth the try to see: ‘Ok am I creating something at that level?’ But I’ve got a couple…I do a lot of work with Social Justice Choir, so I’ve got a few commissions that I’ll be working on later in the year. My friend that passed away, Kevin Archambault, he and I wrote a Broadway musical, and before he passed away we worked on editing that, we produced it so we have some feedback. So I have some marching orders to continue working on that. It’s called Boiler Room Girls and it’s about a Kennedy conspiracy from the sixties. So I am going to be working on that with him, giving me some divine whatever he gives me from the heavens. So that’s definitely on the docket for this year as well.
Felice How does your job fit in with your husband’s job? He’s a mountain guide.
Cheryl It does not at all. I definitely need a lot of space when I’m in creative mode and it works that I married a mountain guide who travels a lot. He follows the weather, so in the winters he has to go where there’s ice in order to ice-climb and ski. And he’s home in the falls, in the springs and in the summers. When there’s not a pandemic, he travels to places like Mont Blanc or the Tetons. So we get some time together and then we go off and do our thing.
I think it’s one of the reasons why we do work is he’s got this passion called the mountains, and I’ve got this passion called the music – and we understand. I have gone rock climbing, he used to play the trumpet in high school. So I think we both know about 5% of what the other person does, which is probably enough to just get it and then say, ‘Ok cool, have fun.’ So it works.
Felice Do you ever travel with him?
Cheryl Yes, definitely. I mean, the places he goes are some of the most beautiful places in the world. He used to work summers in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, and I would go there and sort of camp out a little bit. Chamonix in France, which is a little town that’s at the base of Mont Blanc, I would go there and basically sing the beginning of Beauty and the Beast: ‘Little town full of little people,’ you know, with the little baguettes and, you know, the bumps everywhere. And I’m like, ‘How can you not be singing this song every single day when you’re in this town?’ So I do love travelling with him there. My work brings me to cities like Nashville and Atlanta and Austin, and he hates cities. So he rarely travels with me, but I feel like I get the good end of that stick.
Peter So Jackson Hole – you obviously go to Jackson Hole when he goes.
Cheryl Yes, that’s one of our favourite places in the world. It is pretty special.
Felice What sort of music do you listen to yourself? What do you like?
Cheryl I am not a big music listener, especially when I’m in creative mode. I’m terrified that I’m going to hear something and rip it off and copy it without knowing that I’m copying it because it was in my brain. And two: when I am in composing mode or creation mode, which is a lot of the year, I need to have some space to not hear anything when I’m all day long working on creating my own sounds. So my husband laughs. He’s like, ‘You’re like the weirdest musician who doesn’t listen to music,’ but I am a fan.
Right now I’m really trying to learn the ambient music Electronic Space as I loved writing this record and I know it was a little bit different than just a typical New Age album. It did go into the ambient space. I’ve been listening to a lot of ambient music and it’s very nuanced, so it takes a close listen to just realise that it’s not just sleep music. So that’s been really interesting for me. I love my pop music. I love my Cerebralis and I love the Goo Goo Dolls and some rock music from the early 2000s – my college days, so I kind of go back to that sometimes. But I love Imogen Heap and I do listen to Enya. I don’t often have music on. Every once in a while I’ll put my dad’s old records on. He loved Dave Brubeck. So I’ll have a Dave Brubeck album, Take Five, playing.
Felice Do you come from a musical family? Do your parents play?
Cheryl Dad was very musical. He was an engineer, but he was one of those people that could sit down at the piano and play anything, but didn’t know where middle C was. He also played upright bass; I have his bass. He passed away about nine years ago, but he definitely passed on some love of music. It might even be the thing that we were most connecting about and connecting through.
Felice Have you any tips for people who want to do what you do?
Cheryl What do I do? I don’t know. I do a lot of things. I’m one of those multi passionate people and I think if you’re a multi-passionate person and there are a lot of things you want to do. I’ve noticed in other musicians…I coach other musicians that are trying to see what their career could look like. And I hate this word, but it is the word that’s coming to mind. It’s to prioritise and pick something and just do it. And it doesn’t mean that you’re saying, ‘Ok, if I pick this, that means I can’t do these other things.’ It just means that you’re going to do this one thing now and give it the gift of your focus and let yourself focus on this one thing and assume that if this thing does what you want it to do, it will actually elevate the other things you want to do. I think that just starting anywhere.
My dad used to say, ‘If you don’t know where to start, start in the middle and you’re that much closer to getting done.’ And he always said it so flippantly and I’m kind of like, ‘But it makes so much sense.’ It really is just ‘start’. So I think that if there’s any, like, ‘I wonder if?’ I have to watch it because when I say I wonder if I should take a train across the country, I wonder if I should tour in Switzerland. And then six months later I find myself in the middle of Switzerland on tour. It’s just you say it and then just follow the words. I think that there’s some trust for yourself, trusting yourself that that idea is not the craziest thing in the world, and maybe it is, but give it a whirl.
Felice If people want to listen to your music or find out more about you, where can they do that?
Cheryl My website is CBE Music, so my initials Cheryl B Engelhardt, CBEMusic.com, and I’m pretty much CBE Music on Instagram and Facebook. So they can you can find me all over the place.
Peter Cheryl Engelhardt, thank you very much for appearing on the show and we hope you have a tremendous success with The Passenger when it comes out on April the 22nd.
Cheryl Thank you so much. You can get it now if you head over to Amazon or iTunes, wherever you listen to music you can preorder it so it shows up on that day, and that’s the best way to help an independent artist.
Peter Can you spell your name?
Cheryl You can search The Passenger with my name, Cheryl, and not have to spell out my whole last name because that will show up anywhere you’re searching, whether it’s Amazon or iTunes or anywhere.
Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to [email protected]. Until next week, stay safe.
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