On the page, Cynthia Daniels is a two-time Grammy Award-winning recording engineer who has worked with the likes of Julianne Moore, Paul McCartney, Alec Baldwin, Blythe Danner, Julie Andrews and Sarah Jessica Parker.
But on a recent Friday morning, she is simply Cynthia, walking her dogs around her neighborhood in East Hampton as she reflected on her first time sitting in a recording studio as budding producer.
At first, she was petrified — and then she transformed.
“For me, to be in a recording studio for the first time was like living a dream that I’d had since I began listening to music, which was to be in the space where music was coming most alive,” she said. “For me, I got to see bands and entire string and horn sections and listen to them in the room, and it was like a celestial awakening.”
For entrants in the Sag Harbor American Music Festival’s “Young Musicians Initiative,” they could walk away from it with a similar experience, too. The grand prize of the contest — open through June 30 to Suffolk County bands and solo artists between ages 15 and 26 — is a recording of one song with Daniels at her MonkMusic Studios, to be released as part of a promo EP distributed to radio stations and premiered across social media.
And the prizes don’t stop there.
The top performer in each category — which include vocal, instrumental, band, and composition/songwriting — will receive a professional video of one song produced by LTV, a cash award for professional development, a musical mentor, and a paid performance at the 2021 Sag Harbor American Music Festival, according to founder Kelly Connaughton Dodds.
“Either they’re getting ready for school or they’re getting out of school and needing professional experience, and we have the tools to do that, just drawing from our immediate music community,” she said. “It’s helping the next generation of musicians — and that’s so important.”
The festival, now in its 10th year, is no stranger to showcasing young talent, from bands including Red Tide, InCircles and TubaFRESH, to singer-songwriters Sara Hartman and Sofia D’Angelo — both who have gone on to have burgeoning musical careers, noted Connaughton Dodds, who added that all applicants to the contest will receive a master class with Inda Eaton.
“My message to young musicians out there would be, send it in,” Connaughton Dodds said. “This is not like ‘American Idol,’ nobody’s going to be judging you and showing it to other people. Just send what you’ve got. We’re on your side, we’re cheering you on, no matter what. That’s what it’s about. It’s about support and making those connections in our community, and sharing the love.”
For $5 per entry, musicians can apply in more than one category, and submissions must include a link to a YouTube video or recording of an original song or composition, which will be reviewed by the program committee — Randy Brecker, Michael Clark, Kerry Farrell, Joe Lauro, Eaton, Connaughton Dodds, and Daniels.
“It takes more than talent,” Daniels said. “It takes a confluence of an awful lot of things: talent, hard work and I think for me, in my own career, opportunity — luck, even. Without those things coming together, incredibly talented people fall by the wayside, and we’ve all seen it in every level of the arts.”
Ten years from now, Sag Harbor native Chase Allardice has a very simple goal for himself: to be able to make a living with his music. At age 19, the singer-songwriter and rising sophomore at Berklee College of Music has already dedicated more than half of his life to his art — and he has no intention of stopping.
“I think music is everything and music is everywhere and music is in everything,” he said, “and you can really make a song out of the simplest things.”
The entrant in the Young Musicians Initiative, who started taking lessons at age 6, finds music in every facet of the world around him — from phrases overhead in passing conversation to the jingle of the New York City taxi to melodic prose in his book of the week. At the moment, it’s a collection of stories by Jack Kerouac.
Then, he ruminates on all he’s absorbed and, only at night, can he finally expand his thoughts into lyrics.
“If I won anything for something that I wrote, I would be very surprised,” he said with a laugh. “It would be really cool. I don’t consider myself to be a very outwardly extroverted person, I’m very much a private type of life leader. I’m excited to see what everyone else has been submitting. We live in a place that is so artistically unique. I’m really intrigued to see if there’s a secret Olivia Rodrigo in this competition that no one’s heard of yet.”
Referencing the virtually unknown, 18-year-old talent whose debut single, “Drivers License,” recently skyrocketed her to international stardom, Allardice is careful to focus on his own music and trajectory, leaning on his current favorite songwriters — Jackson C. Frank and Vashti Bunyan — for inspiration.
“Those two people have really inspired me to keep writing music every day and not give up and go crawl in a hole,” he said.
As Daniels puts it, “If you’re an artist, you create — that’s gonna free your soul.” The key is to keep going, seek out experience and put the music into the world, which is where she comes in.
“What I can do is to help people love themselves and their own music more by helping them find their voice at whatever stage they’re at in their career,” Daniels said. “It’s a long road. You need to find out if you have it to stay on it, if you desire to stay on it — if you have the courage to stay on it and belief that what you’re saying is something you need to say, whether there’s anyone listening at this moment or not.”
That revelation can come when an artist steps into a recording booth for the first time, sees the red light switch on, faces the discomfort and translates what they’re feeling into song — whether they get it on the initial try or not, Daniels said.
And in her space, without judgement, she said.
“We all fail and we all fall down and we all get up again. We have a lot of courage and resilience in the human spirit. So if you’ve got something that’s holding your spirit, ride the tiger,” she said. “Expect nothing, be ready for anything. It’s not a bad way to look at your whole life, really.”
To enter the Young Musicians Initiative, visit sagharbormusic.org/youngmusicians-initiative.