Susan Cagle
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Susan Cagle


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The best kept secret in music


"MTV You Hear It First- Susan Cagle"

Many aspiring musicians cut their teeth on the streets, but 25-year-old songstress Susan Cagle headed underground, deep into the heart of New York's subway system, to get her soul-bearing tunes out to the masses. À la Mary Lou Lord, she plugged away for years down below, pulling impromptu gigs on platforms filled with cranky commuters.

The Aruba-born singer/songwriter persevered with her busking, developing a loyal following. Cagle's pure vocals and raw talent were evocative enough to stop hundreds of people in their tracks as she poured light into the Times Square and Grand Central stations with her bright, hopeful songs. And they still are, as Cagle continues to perform underground to this day.

"We've had so many adventures with the police shutting us down in the middle of our set because we'd have like 500 people watching us," said Cagle, who performs with a small band that includes her sister Caroline on bass and her brother Jesse on guitar.

It was at the Herald Square station that the singer received her big break last year, catching the eyes and ears of producer Jay Levine. He landed Cagle a meeting with the heads of Columbia Records, who subsequently signed her.

Susan Cagle photos
"I went to see her and there were hundreds of people around buying her CDs," Levine recalled of the first time he met Cagle, who had already sold more than 30,000 copies of her self-made CD. "Her voice was so unbelievable, so positive and uplifting in such an unlikely place ... she was like a diamond in a pile of rocks, hypnotizing everyone who passed."

Cagle, the second oldest of 10 children, honed her skills at an early age. Her parents — members of a fringe religious sect called the Children of God — would bring their kids to street corners to sing for passers-by, and by the ripe age of 4, Susan was clearly the breakout star (she started playing guitar at age 7). But never wanting to settle down, the Cagles trotted across the globe, and by the time she was a teen Susan had lived in more than 11 countries, including Venezuela, Greece, France and England. Craving a real place to call home and clashing with her parents' beliefs, Cagle cut ties with her family and moved to New York to pursue her solo career.

"In everyone's life, they have to make a choice to step out on their own and follow their own path," she explained. "I'm a very independent person and when I left, I felt bad ... but at the same time I felt like I had to do my own thing."

There's hardly anything conventional about the performer, whose 10-track major-label debut, The Subway Recordings, was cut from live gigs held during rush hour in Times Square and in the wee hours of the night at Grand Central station.

"It's almost like I did it for the city of New York in a way," she said of the disc, due May 23, which serves as her homage to Gotham's gritty underworld. "It's for all the people who came to see me and supported me all this time."

After witnessing the 9/11 attacks — the catastrophe happened just weeks after she made the big move — Cagle penned a handful of uplifting songs to help inspire the dejected city.

"After that day, I just thought that I had to do something," she said. "It was a real mourning period for the city, so I went out and just started playing songs about encouragement ... and that really touched me because for the first time in my life I felt like people were really listening to what I was singing."

"Manhattan Cowboy" is a heavier-sounding ode to the people who risked their lives that fateful day, from the firemen to the volunteers, while "Stay" is a more heartwarming track about wanting to leave the city behind but gathering the courage to push through the dark times.

"Everyone comes to a point where you've had enough. It's stressful. People get to you and you just want to give up and get away, but 'Stay' says stay around a bit longer and see how you can make a difference," Cagle explained of the universal themes that line her songs.

Other joints like "Dream," which she wrote on a rooftop, and her first single, "Shakespeare," are more lighthearted fare that mirror her unflagging optimism.

"When I'm like 80 and people come up to me and say, 'Hey, Susan, I listened to your song and it really encourages me. I was going to give up my life but your music made me want to fight harder,' that's all I want," Cagle said.
- Brandee J. Tecson, with reporting by Matt Paco


The Subway Recordings


Feeling a bit camera shy


Spend enough time riding the rails in New York City's subways and you'll stumble across scores of guitarists and vocalists, drummers and flutists, violinists and saxophonists. Some better (or much better) than others, they head underground to make their living or just to play or often both. Every once in a great while you catch a busker whose songs and singing are clearly better than the subway, who whether they know it or not yet is about to catch the ear of an unsuspecting record exec, and be hoisted out of the gritty underworld and dropped into a recording studio.

Susan Cagle is one such performer. Yet, Susan wasn't unsuspecting. If anything, she has long resisted her eventual ascent to the proverbial next level but more on that later. For the past few years, the singer/songwriter/guitarist has been on the cusp of a breakout and her transition from subway platform to stage and studio begins with The Subway Recordings, an impossibly hooky full-length live CD which marks Susan's debut release for Lefthook/Columbia. With songs assembled from two distinct live performances--one in NYC's famed Times Square station and the other in the subway beneath Grand Central--the rootsy, heartfelt disc showcases Susan's voice in its purest form.

Since 2001, Susan has been a fixture on the Gotham subway circuit, attracting large crowds and selling over 30,000 self-issued homemade CDs at such regular spots like Union Square, Grand Central and Times Square stations. And, it was actually in the Herald Square subway station at 34th Street where she was discovered by Jay Levine (Lefthook Entertainment) and shortly after, became Steve Greenberg's first signing as President of Columbia Records.

"I dont know how it is for other people when they get signed and start doing things professionally," says Susan. "But for me, the fact that I got a deal is so dramatic and so big, because I had such an unusual upbringing and story."

Growing up, Susan traveled the world as a child, learning to sing and play music while barely out of the crib. Raised in a family of musicians who performed together on street corners and in subway stations, Susan (the second oldest of ten brothers and sisters) began taking solos before she was four years old and she picked up the guitar at age seven.

By the time she was fourteen, she had lived in Venezuela, Mexico, Greece, Italy, France, Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland and all across the United States from California to up and down the East Coast and had traveled as far west as Hawaii and as far east as communist-era Czechoslovakia. She started writing poetry and listening to the likes of Lauryn Hill, The Cranberries and Sheryl Crow.

Setting her sights on New York, where she had a few friends from a previous visit to the city, a scared but excited Susan arrived just weeks before the terrororist attacks of 9/11. "The whole feeling of New York just changed," says Susan. "It felt like no one, including me, wanted to make music anymore. But then one day I thought, I'll just go out and play, for myself, for my own sanity and to do something happy just to see if some people would respond to the music."

Tentative at first having never before performed solo, and unsure how she would be received her fears subsided immediately: "It was just so amazing. Sometimes I would play late at night where people would be grouped together waiting for trains going in different directions on the same platform and I would get a huge crowd. And you could feel it. I felt like I was singing just for them. I felt like I was able to touch them in some way through my music."

Remembering his first encounter with Susan, Levine says, "I had a gut feeling that rarely comes that this was something. I had to throw 100% of my energy into. She was a diamond in a pile of rocks, something beautiful and true shining out in the dirty station, hypnotizing everyone who passed. She was real, raw, unpretentious; she had urban soul with a heartland accessibility and a stunning voice." The Subway Recordings introduces Susan to the world at large with sweet songs filled with love and loneliness. The catchy Shakespeare is based on her penchant for asking a potential Mr. Right if they like Shakespeare. "What better test is there to see if theres something worth getting to know under that hot exterior?" says Susan. Meanwhile, a lonely Susan got the idea for Be Here, in which she sings to an imaginary lover, while playing at the 59th Street and Columbus Avenue platform one night. And the Afro/Celtic rhythms and soaring melody of Dream which was written on a rooftop in Williamsburg one summer night.

"Doing this right now, at this levelit means that after all the years, and all the struggling, and everything Ive been through, it was all worth it because now I can take what I've learned playing in the subways and translate that into my performances onstage and in the studio. I want people to be encouraged by my story, and know that if