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Local songwriter heads for national competition

By Rick Koster

Publication: The Day

Published March 01. 2013 4:00AM   Updated March 01. 2013 6:31AM
Peter Huoppi/The Day
Cyra Morgan performs her song "Sanctuary" during a video shoot for The Day at Perks and Corks in Westerly on Feb 25.

Though a relative newcomer to the music business - she only seriously delved into professional songwriting a few years ago - Cyra Morgan quickly became wary of the competition aspect of the business.

"I'd become very tired of contests," says Morgan, seated in Perks & Corks coffee and wine bar in Westerly. It's Monday - the day before she'll fly out to Los Angeles as one of 10 finalists in the Guitar Center's nationwide "Singer-Songwriter 2" competition. "They're so deflating. I don't like the self-promotion; it doesn't feel comfortable to me ... (It's like it comes down to) the person with the most friends."

Fortunately, though, after a friend sent her information about "Singer-Songwriter 2," Morgan thought about it and decided to go ahead and submit a homemade video of a performance of her song "Sanctuary."

On Saturday in Hollywood's Hotel Cafe, Morgan and her nine competitors will each perform their song in front of a judges panel, which includes multi-platinum producer John Shanks. The winner will receive $10,000, an array of equipment, an appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" and the opportunity to record a four-song EP with Shanks, a six-time Grammy nominee who has worked with Van Halen, Colbie Caillat, Keith Urban and Nelly Furtado, among others.

Even if she doesn't win, the trip to L.A. is an unexpected and welcome validation for Morgan. After all, more than 12,000 musicians entered the contest.

The selection process was multi-platformed. First, submissions were ranked through the use of WHOOZNXT, a leading digital music company that tracks an artist's fan growth across top social networks and music portals. Each of the contestants were ranked based on their online fan growth during the first round.

In the second round, Shanks reviewed the songs and profiles of the top-ranked 140 artists and selected 10 finalists.

"I think I hoped something like this would happen," says Morgan, the only finalist from New England. "I've had my days where I perform to my imaginary Grammy audience or on the late shows. Every musician thinks about that. But the difference between hoping for it and trying to visualize it and it actually happening ... well, I'm still trying to accept that this IS happening."

A Rhode Island native who divides her time between New York City and a house she bought in Pawcatuck nine years ago, Morgan, a lifelong music fan and self-described romantic, decided to try songwriting as a method for dealing with emotionally intense periods. As such, she eschewed the more typical newcomer's method - that is, learning and performing material by other artists - and immediately focused on original material.

"For me, songs come when they come, and it's generally when I'm having a really emotional time," she says. "Some of the really deeper songs I've written have come because I can't contain the emotion, and managing it becomes difficult for me. It's a catharsis."

Tentatively, Morgan began to perform in New York City. She also recorded her work at home with music software Propellerhead. She released an independent EP, "Sanctuary," and started posting songs via online music distribution, streaming and sharing platforms like Soundcloud.

One of the aspects that persuaded her to enter the Guitar Center contest was that part of the evaluation centered on the entrant growing a fan base through social media. And while that angle was precisely the sort of thing that had soured Morgan on such competitions, her Soundcloud following had grown organically and substantially.

Still, once she'd submitted the "Sanctuary" video, she basically put the Guitar Center competition out of her mind - at least until she received an email that said she was being strongly considered.

"Even then, I held my emotions in check," Morgan says. "Then I got the official phone call. I was just so excited."

In Los Angeles, there are plenty of activities for the finalists. In addition to lodging at Loews Hollywood Boutique Hotel - hard to the Sunset Strip - they'll get a visit to the Fender Custom Shop as well as a private tour of Henson Studios in Hollywood, where they'll meet and spend time with Shanks.

Morgan says she's also looking forward to the free time she'll have.

"I love to people-watch and take in cities, so that will be fun. I'll hang out and maybe go shopping," she says.

As for Saturday night?

"Yes, I'm going to be nervous," Morgan says. "I'm going to try NOT to be nervous, but I'm being realistic, here." She laughs and pauses. "It's scary ... The one place that I feel safe to be vulnerable is when I'm writing or performing. I'm putting my soul on a plate and serving it up to the masses. It's intimidating, but there's something about it that I think connects."

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