Cheryl Engelhardt sits at her piano in her home studio.

Cheryl Engelhardt ’02 Is a Rising Star in New Age Music

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Cheryl Engelhardt ’02 was in the midst of a meditation retreat when the nominees for the 2023 Grammy Awards were scheduled to be announced. A musician and composer, she was hopeful that her album The Passenger would be a contender in the category of New Age, Ambient, or Chant Albums.

Resisting the temptation to ditch the session—as it happened, a meditation on miracles—she turned off her phone.

But just minutes before it was to start, a fellow attendee rushed up and shared the news: Engelhardt was nominated. She made a quick, ecstatic call to her mother before the lights dimmed and she and 2,000 others took their seats.

“And then I had to just be with myself for two hours,” recalls Engelhardt, who lives in New York’s Hudson Valley. “It was crazy.”

The Passenger is Engelhardt’s third foray into the new age genre, and her seventh album overall. Notably, it had a strong connection to the Grammys even before it was nominated.

A voting member of the Recording Academy, Engelhardt had planned to attend the 2022 ceremonies in L.A. with her best friend and musical collaborator. But he died of cancer shortly before the scheduled trip, and the Grammys were ultimately postponed due to COVID concerns.

Album cover of the Passenger by Cheryl Engelhardt depicting a bird flying over a mountain landscape.

Engelhardt opted to travel west anyway—by train, alone, using the journey to process her grief and channel it into her music.

The Passenger (which ultimately didn’t win the Grammy) was produced entirely during that nine-day round trip—mainly within Engelhardt’s tiny train cabin, with occasional sessions in the dining and observation cars. Created using just her computer and a tiny keyboard, it was a significant departure from her usual layering of synthesized and acoustic elements.

Engelhardt mixed the album in her newly renovated home studio—which was featured in a December 2022 New York Times story about musicians who built their own soundproof facilities during the pandemic.

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“Initially, The Passenger may seem like a quite sad album,” a review in New Age Music Guide observes. “Then you will realize that sadness is just one of the feelings in the mix, where the most powerful is gratitude. Gratitude for the people around us (and even the people who are not around us anymore!), gratitude for being on this wonderful trip, and gratitude for being alive and able to create. … It is, simply put, a jewel.” 

To listeners who aren’t fans of the genre, the term “new age” may conjure the gentle melodies and nature sounds that accompany massage sessions or yoga classes. But Engelhardt posits that it has far more to offer beyond relaxation. 

“When done correctly,” she says, “new age music gives you space for whatever emotion you need to experience at the moment—to let that emotion arise.”

New age music gives you space for whatever emotion you need to experience at the moment.

Growing up in Stamford, CT, Engelhardt sang in school choirs, performed in musical theater, and started piano at age three. In the College of Arts & Sciences, she double majored in music and in biology and society, aiming to work in marine science—but gravitated toward classes in scoring and editing, where she’d bring videos to life with her music.

Her first job out of Cornell was researching mussels in the Delaware River with the U.S. Geological Survey. But during a seasonal break, she landed a gig composing music for digital marketing videos for a Vatican-owned hotel, a job that came with lodging in a Roman monastery.

“I had my own Rapunzel-like turret,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘This is a little bit cooler than being underwater.’”

Relocating to just outside NYC, she changed her professional focus to writing music for the screen.

She took any jobs she could get—mostly scoring amateur horror films—before landing a staff position with a company that edits commercials. 

Eventually, she began working in a “jingle house”—a studio that composes background music for commercials—where she scored ads for brands like Lysol and Lowe’s. Her favorite: a Honey Nut Cheerios commercial with viral sensation Grumpy Cat.

She remains an active commercial and film composer—for much bigger clients than in her B-movie days.

Cheryl Engelhardt on stage playing ukulele and singing.
Engelhardt in her rock-pop days.

“I write to support whatever the story is, or whatever energy the company wants the viewer to feel,” Engelhardt explains. “That’s what the music can help elevate.”

In addition to scoring, before working in the new age genre she spent more than a decade recording and touring as a singer-songwriter in the soft rock-pop vein of Sheryl Crow and Sara Bareilles.

It was her first fully instrumental album, Luminary—which she recorded during a two-week artist residency in Greece—that made Engelhardt a number-one new age artist on iTunes and Amazon. 

She topped the digital charts again with her second new age album. Titled A Seeker’s Slumber, it opens with a nod to Engelhardt’s Cornell years: a slow-building, energizing track, laden with harmonized vocals and piano, called “Ithaca.”

Top: Engelhardt in her home studio. All images provided.

Published September 18, 2023

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