June 25, 2020 | By Eric Snider
A Pet Project
Colleen Cherry creates personalized songs about people’s pets. She once wrote and recorded 61 songs in a week.
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When SPCA Tampa Bay held a fundraiser in mid-May — including its first virtual pet walk — Colleen Cherry, who had been working for the animal welfare nonprofit for six months, wanted to do something special. After mulling it over for a bit, the versatile singer, actor, songwriter and ukulele player came up with an idea — an offer that pet owners would find hard to pass up.
She’d write a personalized song for each pet, and charge — wait for it — $5 per. Cherry got flooded. At the end of a week, during which she wrote and recorded 61 tunes, she had raised $1,440 for the SPCA. (That comes out to $23.60 a song, because many of the delighted donors gave more than a five spot.)
At the time, Cherry was working the phones full time in client services for the SPCA’s Tampa Bay Vet Center in St. Pete. Her regular job as volunteer program manager had been put on hold due to the pandemic. “I’d work a full day, come home, bust out the ukulele and write songs,” she says.
It went like this — people posted photos of their pet on Facebook and followed up with some details about their beloved critter. Cherry then tapped out some lyrics on her laptop, recorded the ditty on her iPhone in one take, quickly put together a photo slideshow in iMovie, then posted it all on Facebook. She averaged around 10 tunes a night. Most of the material was about dogs and cats, of course, “but there were a couple of birds, and one about ducks,” Cherry says. “A mom had a daughter who loved ducks, so I made her a children’s song about ducks.”
Cherry created one for Channel 13’s Chief Meteorologist Paul Delegado that includes the lines, “whether sunshine, rain or fog, I’m here for you, I’m Brody the weather dog.”
How, you may be wondering, does someone summon the creativity and energy to write and record 61 short pieces of original music in a week? Cherry says she did her best to come up with a different melody for each number, but there was certainly repetition involved. And she relied on familiar sets of major chord changes.
She also had an ace in the hole. “I do musical improv, where you have to make up songs on the spot,” she says. “My brain is kind of trained to write a song very quickly. Plus, in musical improv, the audience might give you one word. With my pet songs, I had a lot more to work with.”
Cherry, 31, grew up in Seminole and attended the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School, then earned a Bachelor’s degree in performing arts from University of Tampa. She worked full-time for American Stage in various roles for nearly four years. As an independent performing artist, she’s worked as an actor, singer and theater teacher. Since 2016, Cherry has been a singer and associate producer for The Florida Bjorkestra, a 20-piece ensemble of Tampa Bay musicians that develops and performs tribute concerts to pioneering pop artists.
She is serious about musical improvisation, a fun and often funny micro-genre that straddles the musical and theater worlds. Cherry and a dozen other improvisers make up the house team at American Stage called Definitely Not Murderers. In the second week of March, four members of the troupe were scheduled to perform in the New York Musical Improv Festival, which draws teams from around the country and overseas.
The coronavirus pandemic had quickly become a very real thing. Broadway abruptly shut down the morning of their departure. Sports leagues suspended play. Concerts and festivals were canceled. Yet the Bay area improv group received emails from festival organizers saying the show would go on. Cherry and company jetted up to New York. When they landed, each activated their cell phones and found an email saying the event had been canceled.
The Airbnb in Harlem was paid for. Rescheduling a return flight was expensive. They decided to stay. So — what to do for four days in Manhattan as an ominous virus descends on the city? One of the teams had rented a rehearsal space in midtown and invited the performers to gather there “to do a little bit of our acts,” Cherry says. “Then we went across the street and got drunk together.”
She had a terrific time. Until she didn’t. “When I got back, I wasn’t feeling well,” Cherry says. “I had a slight fever for a couple of days, then — I didn’t know this was a symptom at the time — I lost my sense of taste. I thought, ‘Am I depressed and don’t like the taste of food?’”
Suspecting she had Covid-19, Cherry self-quarantined for two weeks, but did not got tested. She recently took an antibodies test and the results were positive for the virus. Self-isolation is no fun for anyone, but Cherry’s personal lockdown came with an extra tinge of disappointment. “I’d been single for awhile, and I met a guy,” she explains. “We went out on two dates. When I got back from New York, I told him, ‘I’m pretty sure I have Covid, so I’ll see you as soon as I can.’”
Cherry emits a mirthful laugh. The coronavirus did not sicken the budding relationship. She and her boyfriend Naresh Singh, an astrophotographer, spend most evenings at his home, often joined by Eleanor Rigby, the dog Cherry adopted in January. (All the canines in her family have Beatles-related names.)
The SPCA has restarted its volunteer program, so she’s back running it, albeit concerned that the recent spike in Covid-19 cases might shut it down again. Cherry’s pet-tunes fundraiser was so successful that she turned it into a side hustle. For Other People’s Pets Songs, she’ll write an original song about a critter for $25 and include a slideshow in the background for an extra $10. A portion of the money goes to the SPCA.
Because she received quite a bit of local media exposure for her charity effort, Cherry’s extracurricular gig got off to a hot start with, she says, “about 45 songs.” Business has slowed, largely because Cherry has stopped marketing it aggressively. “I haven’t been inspired to do it much with [all the civil unrest] in the world,” she says, a bit glumly. “It doesn’t seem like the time to write about dogs.”
When I suggest that doggie ditties can make people happy, and provide a respite during troubled times, she pauses and muses, “they do make people happy.”
For those interested in getting a customized tune for your pet, whatever the species, Cherry is glad to deliver. It’s easy. Go to her website to find out how.
You can hear Colleen Cherry performing all kinds of songs on youtube.com
Enjoy these videos of some of Colleen’s favorite Pet Songs