By Claire Walla
Eliza Callahan wasn’t planning on entering the 2011 John Lennon Songwriting Contest. In fact, she entered on a whim, on the advice of a person (whom she’s since forgotten) who brought the subject up in passing.
“It was really easy to enter the contest,” said the New York City native who spends her summers here in Sag Harbor with her parents. “I just clicked submit and, after a week… I kind of forgot I had submitted anything.”
Months later, when the teen was in her high school chemistry class, she got an intriguing note. While staring down at the screen of her cellphone, which she had been using as a calculator, she noticed she had an email alert: “Congratulations, you’re a grand prize winner!”
The announcement didn’t have its intended impact. “It sounded pretty spam-y,” Callahan recollected. But after class she read the email more thoroughly, she found out she had been selected from a total pool of thousands of applicants from around the world, chosen over the top winners in 12 categories — including Gospel, Children’s, Electronic, Hip-Hop and Pop (Callahan herself entered the Rock category) — as the sole winner of the 14th annual John Lennon Songwriting Contest. And she would get $20,000.
“I was so surprised,” she noted rather modestly in an interview last week.
And while it may be surprising — impressive to say the least — that this tiny 16-year-old with long black hair, living right here on Madison Street has received international acclaim for a song she started writing as sort of a lark while sitting on a friend’s couch in D.U.M.B.O. (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), her musical career suggests otherwise.
Callahan began playing the Suzuki guitar (a strict classical style) at age three, when her instrument was the size of a ukulele and her plucking was all done by ear. She picked up jazz guitar at age eight — still her preferred mode of strumming — and gradually transitioned into rock shortly thereafter.
Callahan also began experimenting with songwriting by recording notes and lyrics on Garage Band — a computer program that allows professional, amateur, even non-musicians to record and overlay tracks — at a very early age. She credits the inspiration for her very first song, which she wrote at age seven, to a parrot named Lolita, whom she met on a family trip to Costa Rica. (Lolita was special, Callahan noted. She said “Hola” when you spoke to her.)
Though Callahan has only recently started performing her own songs, she has been a part of the Third Street Music School for about as long as she’s been playing jazz. With collections of other young musicians, the school organizes two performances each year, during which young ensembles play a range of music, often classic rock. Callahan herself has played Hendrix and The Beatles (her personal favorite), and remembers getting her on-stage start with The Kinks’ classic, “Lola.”
“I was an eight-year-old singing about a transvestite!” she laughed.
Now fully immersed in all facets of the process, Callahan speaks of her songwriting with professionalism and the insight of someone who’s been doing this for ages.
“Each song is its own beast, in a way. The hardest part is trying to really figure out what you’re trying to say through the song,” she began. “There are two ways to go: either you tell a story, or the song is [composed of] snippets of stories, but a message comes across, and emotion is portrayed.” Callahan always writes in the latter, more free-form style.
The song she entered into the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, “Bridge Song,” is what she refers to as a “Brooklyn anthem.” Though it was instigated by an afternoon spent mocking the wave of super-trendy hipsters that, in recent years, have spilled out of the East Village and into Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg and DUMBO (to name a few), Callahan said the song grew over two years to become what it is now: a soulful tribute to this young sub-sect of Manhattan’s satellite community.
In a relaxed, breathy droll reminiscent of modern female songwriters like Regina Spektor, Callahan melds words and phrases into drawn-out crescendos. But she embellishes the tail end of her lyrics with a delicate almost vibrato, which nicely caps these drawn-out sounds. The effect makes her voice both cool and impassioned, yet totally in control. The sound compliments the raw guitar, a constant beat somewhat reminiscent of garage rock artists like The Strokes, and before them The Ramones.
“People tell me I’m not singing full, or that it sounds like there’s an effect on my voice,” she explained. They also tell her it sounds as if she’s singing with a British accent, which may be the result of listening to endless hours of Beatles records as a child. “My style [of singing] was not developed purposefully,” she continued. “It just kind of happened.”
The way she describes it, Callahan lives and breathes music. Sure, at 16-years-old and an incoming junior, next year she’ll be spending extra time studying for the SATs — which will put music temporarily on hold — and she said she plans to go on to a small, liberal arts school rather than a music academy after graduation. But still, after more than a decade immersed in sound, Callahan takes her passion seriously.
“I don’t know that I made a conscious decision to ‘be a rock star,’” she said. “I just really love music. It was always around me and I always wanted to play it.”
Callahan is now working on an LP at Headgear Studio in Brooklyn. She said she hopes to use the money she won from the John Lennon Songwriting Contest to get guest collaborators.
“I want a horn section, and I want to pay some homage to Amy Winehouse,” she said. “It’s great that it happened now,” she added of winning $20,000 from the songwriting contest. “Getting a song mastered and remixed is very expensive, so the money will probably go very quickly!”