During rush hour last Thursday in the Times Square subway station, Susan Cagle, a pretty, shy-seeming 26-year-old, sang folkie pop songs backed by a cute band that turns out to be composed of three of her siblings. Some commuters paused to listen, perhaps wondering if busking can lead to anything beyond the dollar bills filling up Cagle’s guitar case. For her, definitely. After playing underground for five years, Cagle was doing this set as the kickoff promotion for The Subway Recordings (Lefthook/Columbia), in stores May 23. She’d been discovered playing at Herald Square.
Cagle grew up performing: Her parents were missionaries with a kinky, cultish sect called Children of God. On their return home to New York between trips abroad, the musical family would sometimes play in the subway system. After Cagle decided post-9/11 that the peripatetic Evangelical life wasn’t for her, it was only natural for her to hit the Herald Square station to “test my mettle” as a solo performer. “I was like, I just want to go out and play right now, so I went at rush hour and just played on the actual platform where the trains would be rushing by on either side. It would be really nice in between trains—really quiet, good acoustics. People could hear all the words.” Soon enough, she auditioned for the MTA’s official Arts for Transit performers program. But being in the program didn’t necessarily prevent territorial strife. “There were a lot of rivalries,” she says. “Those guys who dance, sometimes I’ll have to challenge them for the spot. They’ll all encircle me, and I’m like, ‘Listen, I’m going to do it no matter what!’ ”
The best place to play? Union Square (“The audience is younger, cool people”). But Rockefeller Center was always a bummer. “The police would always stop me because the [station agent] would complain.” Cagle says she has sold 30,000 copies of her self-released debut album—and met a boyfriend who introduced himself at Grand Central. Record producer Jay Levine met her on his commute. He helped with songwriting and recorded some demos. The Subway Recordings was cut from live sets at Times Square and Grand Central. “We picked those two spots because of the way they’re shaped,” she says. “You have to think about acoustics, miking your amps, making sure the vocals are clear over the subways.”