Singer-songwriter Emily Cavanagh reaches out with personalized songs
From her New York City apartment, singer-songwriter Emily Cavanagh is reaching out to help people feel a little less alone during the pandemic. She’s doing this the way she knows best – with music.
With a degree in jazz performance and a Master’s in Social Work, Emily is a performer and a music therapist – supporting homeless people, people with dementia, seniors, young adults aging out of foster care, and others. But due to COVID-19, much of this was on hold.
Emily was particularly moved by stories of the many people who were alone in the hospital due to COVID. “I just woke up with this idea that I could write songs for them. The idea that you could send love to people through music was something that just grabbed me.”
She started by sending her cover version of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to a patient who was alone. From there she’s kept creating personalized songs – both covers and originals – for hospice and hospital patients, health care workers, and families who have lost loved ones.
Since she officially launched the initiative, A Song For You, in May 2020, she has created and sent more than 150 songs – each written or chosen specifically for a particular person. And she does this all for free.
Emily says this project is a natural fit for her background. “Social work is about hearing someone’s story; music is about telling one,” she says. “In some ways, writing for other people is almost easier, because you get to tell their story, instead of telling your own.”
When Mission Hospice volunteer coordinator Craig Schroeder heard about the project, he knew what a gift this would be for our patients. Emily has since created songs for Mission Hospice patients, family members, clinical team members, and volunteers. “Emily is phenomenal,” he says. “She has a huge heart, and as a social worker, she knows what a difference her music is making.”
Craig requested a song for a young man with cancer who was nearing the end of his life. “One day his mom was really struggling, and I knew that was the time to share Emily’s song. It brought tears to the whole family – it really was a piece of grace.” The song became so special to the young man’s family that it was played at his memorial service.
“You’d have thought that Emily had known this young man for years,” says Mission Hospice social worker Tess Murphy. “It really speaks to who she is as a songwriter that she can go so deep and make a song so personal.”
Emily describes a song she wrote for a father with terminal cancer. She set to music some words written by his 15-year-old daughter, and he was able to hear the song before he died, with his daughter at his side.
Emily also wrote and performed an original song for one of our hospice patients who wanted to be married on Valentine’s Day. Her recording was a prominent – and moving – part of the ceremony.
“Because staff in hospices and hospitals are doing so much, I keep it simple. I chat with a social worker or chaplain, and they tell me a bit about the person who most needs a song, whether it’s a patient, family member, or caregiver. I ask about the person, their background, what message is appropriate, and what kind of music they like.”
Based on that conversation, Emily creates a song just for that person. She’s such an experienced songwriter that she can typically write and record a song in 3-5 days. Emily sends the resulting music files via text or email, making it easy for social workers, nurses, and family members to share the songs.
The project has become so popular that she’s recruited dozens of fellow musicians to join her, including Grammy-nominated and award-winning singer/songwriters. With Emily’s lead, they’ve produced well over 75 original songs, and more than 30 personalized cover songs.
Emily is committed to keeping the music free. “As artists, we’re especially hurting right now,” she says, “but I just don’t feel right making money off a pandemic.” She says that within a year or so, she’d love to find donated studio space for the recordings, and to turn the project into a nonprofit.
“I am so grateful that I’ve been able to start this project that keeps me busy and creative, doing things for other people,” says Emily. “I’m from a large family – I have 57 first cousins – and not being all together has been so hard. Doing this work gives me a real sense of community. I’m so happy to be contributing in my own way.”
“It’s like divine intervention,” says Tess. “Emily gives people the gifts that they desperately need. It is such a gift when people are feeling so alone.”
Bottom photo by Zafar and Mazhar Sheriff