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— Brandee J. Tecson, with reporting by Matt Paco

Many aspiring musicians cut their teeth on the streets, but 25-year-old songstress Susan Cagle headed underground, deep into the heart of New York's subway system, to get her soul-bearing tunes out to the masses. À la Mary Lou Lord, she plugged away for years down below, pulling impromptu gigs on platforms filled with cranky commuters.

Watch Susan warm up the NYC VMAs by going underground for a six-song set.

See why it might be time for Susan Cagle's big break.

The Aruba-born singer/songwriter persevered with her busking, developing a loyal following. Cagle's pure vocals and raw talent were evocative enough to stop hundreds of people in their tracks as she poured light into the Times Square and Grand Central stations with her bright, hopeful songs. And they still are, as Cagle continues to perform underground to this day.

"We've had so many adventures with the police shutting us down in the middle of our set because we'd have like 500 people watching us," said Cagle, who performs with a small band that includes her sister Caroline on bass and her brother Jesse on guitar.

It was at the Herald Square station that the singer received her big break last year, catching the eyes and ears of producer Jay Levine. He landed Cagle a meeting with the heads of Columbia Records, who subsequently signed her.

"I went to see her and there were hundreds of people around buying her CDs," Levine recalled of the first time he met Cagle, who had already sold more than 30,000 copies of her self-made CD. "Her voice was so unbelievable, so positive and uplifting in such an unlikely place ... she was like a diamond in a pile of rocks, hypnotizing everyone who passed."

Cagle, the second oldest of 10 children, honed her skills at an early age. Her parents — members of a fringe religious sect called the Children of God — would bring their kids to street corners to sing for passers-by, and by the ripe age of 4, Susan was clearly the breakout star (she started playing guitar at age 7). But never wanting to settle down, the Cagles trotted across the globe, and by the time she was a teen Susan had lived in more than 11 countries, including Venezuela, Greece, France and England. Craving a real place to call home and clashing with her parents' beliefs, Cagle cut ties with her family and moved to New York to pursue her solo career.

"In everyone's life, they have to make a choice to step out on their own and follow their own path," she explained. "I'm a very independent person and when I left, I felt bad ... but at the same time I felt like I had to do my own thing."

There's hardly anything conventional about the performer, whose 10-track major-label debut, The Subway Recordings, was cut from live gigs held during rush hour in Times Square and in the wee hours of the night at Grand Central station.

"It's almost like I did it for the city of New York in a way," she said of the disc, due May 23, which serves as her homage to Gotham's gritty underworld. "It's for all the people who came to see me and supported me all this time."

After witnessing the 9/11 attacks — the catastrophe happened just weeks after she made the big move — Cagle penned a handful of uplifting songs to help inspire the dejected city.

"After that day, I just thought that I had to do something," she said. "It was a real mourning period for the city, so I went out and just started playing songs about encouragement ... and that really touched me because for the first time in my life I felt like people were really listening to what I was singing."

"Manhattan Cowboy" is a heavier-sounding ode to the people who risked their lives that fateful day, from the firemen to the volunteers, while "Stay" is a more heartwarming track about wanting to leave the city behind but gathering the courage to push through the dark times.

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"Everyone comes to a point where you've had enough. It's stressful. People get to you and you just want to give up and get away, but 'Stay' says stay around a bit longer and see how you can make a difference," Cagle explained of the universal themes that line her songs.

Other joints like "Dream," which she wrote on a rooftop, and her first single, "Shakespeare," are more lighthearted fare that mirror her unflagging optimism.

"When I'm like 80 and people come up to me and say, 'Hey, Susan, I listened to your song and it really encourages me. I was going to give up my life but your music made me want to fight harder,' that's all I want," Cagle said.


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