I’m Cheryl B. Engelhardt. As a music composer and new age recording artist, I have discovered that the cross section of creating music and its intention is the core of my mission as a composer: to provide experience through my own experience of composing.
Which is why I made an album on a cross-country Amtrak train trip (and was the first person to do so).
This particular experience resulted in a collection of nine meditative compositions (new age, ambient, and spa) titled The Passenger and includes collaborations with GRAMMY-winning artists Lili Haydn, Sangeeta Kaur and Danaë Xanthe Vlasse, world-renowned flutist Sherry Finzer and Dallas String Quartet.
The Passenger was 100% composed and produced on the train and has already become a #1 best-selling album on Amazon.
And I can say proudly, it is one of a handful of ambient albums composed, mixed and mastered entirely by women.
So let me tell you the crazy story of how it all went down…
I’m a voting member of the Recording Academy and at the end of 2021, I was looking to book a flight to Los Angeles from NY to attend the 2022 GRAMMYS.
Flights were expensive so I joked about taking a train, which led me down a rabbit hole into discovering the world of cross-country train trips. I was smitten with the idea of this journey, booked my ticket out, and kept it, even after the GRAMMYs were postponed.
I then had the thought that I could use the time on the train to create my next album, as I do well in isolated spaces with deadlines.
Where better to find creative momentum than on a train picking up speed every few hours, going from 0 to 60 or 70 miles per hour across the plains of America, up the mountains of Colorado, or along the shores of California?
This train trip was all aligned with my mission as a composer: to create a unique and special experience for the listener, which, for me, happens most authentically when the person creating the music is having their own unique experience.
I’m not saying that I couldn’t have sat in a big studio and created truly impactful music. But my process, and why I create music, is to experience partnership with something outside of myself, and I do that better when inside a unique experience.
I was scheduled to leave on my first Amtrak leg of the trip on January 22nd of 2022. I booked a room for the journey – Amtrak calls them “roomettes” – and I was determined to make these spaces my oasis.
Then, two weeks prior to my departure, my dearest friend and collaborator, Kevin Archambault, died of stage four cancer.
It is wonderful to have a private room for a variety of reasons, the least of which being that I was grieving. Kevin was someone with whom I had created and produced a musical, had been a part of a dozen other musical productions, and he was that friend who saw me, all of me, who lit up a room and everyone in it no matter what was going on for him.
Having my own room on the train was a gift – it allowed me to heal and process, and also ugly cry whenever the light struck a certain way, or I was awoken from one of the many dreams where Kevin was in attendance.
Over the course of the out-bound journey, I started composing. I created 3 tracks on the first day between Poughkeepsie and Chicago, which set the pace for the rest of the trip. The idea was to get to LA with a completed record, then fly home.
I decided this would be my first full-on ambient record (all sounds would be from synthesizer samples, none of the songs would have lyrics, overall, a big departure from my usual acoustic piano + vocal layering approach).
What did I bring to make an entire album?
Not much! I had my laptop, a small keyboard (it looks like the tiniest piano) that connected to my laptop via USB. I also brought a few different sets of headphones that I used so that I wasn’t disturbing any passengers.
I would play the tiny piano and tell my program (Logic Pro) what sound I wanted to hear – a cosmic synthesizer? A French horn? Maybe a harp… and then I would play the parts on the itty bitty piano.
While I was on track (see what I did there?) to finish the writing, by the time I got to Chicago (19 hours in), I knew I wanted, nay, needed more time. I could feel myself eating, praying, loving my way to a healed heart, a new direction as a New Age artist, and a much needed break from the monotonous days in my home studio.
Not even halfway through the outbound trip, I canceled my flight home and booked a return train trip, increasing my total time on a train from 5 days to 9. (Yes, 8 nights in a sleeper car, worth every last lost wink of sleep.)
I wrote the music mostly in my roomette while heading West. But I also took my little setup and composed in the dining cars and in observation cars when it wasn’t too crowded.
I temporarily named each song for the time of day I wrote it with plans to include my fans in the song-naming process later. I could tell that my early morning tracks were really affected by the dreams of the previous night’s spotty sleep.
“Monday Morning” and “Tuesday Before Dawn” are the most somber pieces I wrote on the trip. Though someone listening may interpret this music as something else. My hope is that this music fulfills a need for the listener, even if that need was not the same as mine was when I wrote it.
Early on, I had created a word for the year, and that word was Passenger with the intention of getting better at going with the flow, releasing control, and having the grace and confidence of someone who is, well, a master passenger. The title of the album reflects those sentiments.
After arriving in Los Angeles, refreshed from a short break from the rattling and moving train, I boarded the Southwest Chief for the three day journey back to Chicago.
I used the Eastbound trip to coordinate with collaborators, including GRAMMY-winning artist Lili Haydn who plays violin on “The Beautiful Bridge”, a phrase she said to me on the phone when she called after hearing about the loss of Kevin.
GRAMMY winners Sangeeta Kaur and Danaë Xanthe Vlasse provided vocals and piano, respectively, for the pieces “The Zephyr Remembers” and “The Message”. Danaë told me she channeled my relationship with Kevin and created phrases like “Kevin Loves Cheryl, Cheryl loves Kevin” and turned each letter into a note. Those notes became the piano melody you hear on that song.
When I got home, I mixed the record and sent it to Kim Rosen at Knack Mastering. I shared a few small snippets with my fans and asked them to share words and phrases that the music brought up.
I took notes on their ideas (over 70 of them!) and used them to name a few songs that were still nameless (or rather, had temporary names like “Saturday Sinner”). We landed on names like “The Misty Cosmos”, “The Ambient Love”, and “The Light That’s Left”. Soooooo New Agey.
I also started designing the album cover and the art for the singles and ran a poll with my fans to narrow down the design.
The album releases to the public on April 22, and I can’t believe it’s been less than four months since first having that sassy idea to forgo a flight and opt for a train trip to get myself form New York to Los Angeles.
It turns out I’m not a terrible passenger, and trusting my instincts, going with the flow, and letting someone else drive opens up a lot of space for me to process, heal, and create in ways I hadn’t thought possible.
10/10 recommend lying down in a sleeper car roomette while the countryside passes by and just be a passenger.
Listen to The Passenger below and purchase it here.
Thanks for listening!
Words by Cheryl B. Engelhardt // Follow her on Facebook + Instagram