Alumna's Song Clinches American Idol

Lesley Mahoney
May 29, 2008
Emily Shackelton
Photo By Bill Gallery

Berklee alumna Emily Shackelton was feeling a bit lonely in Nashville and in need of some cheering up. So she did what comes natural to her: she wrote a song. That song, "Dream Big," cheered her up more than she could have imagined.

In the sing-off between this season's two American Idol finalists, Shackelton's song was heard by millions of viewers; David Cook chose "Dream Big" from 10 aspiring songwriters' works for his penultimate performance as he faced off against David Archuleta. At the last minute, thanks to a friend's encouragement, Shackelton submitted her tune (five minutes before the deadline) to the American Idol Songwriter Competition. While Idol fans didn't choose "Dream Big" as the winning song—to be performed by the winner at the finale and go on to be recorded and released—they secured it a spot in the top 10.

In the end, Cook stole the show and won the title as this year's American Idol; meanwhile, his take on Shackelton's song held steady on iTunes, even making the No. 1 and No. 2 spots on the top songs list.

Shackelton, who moved to Nashville after graduating in May 2007 to pursue her songwriting dreams, was ecstatic and incredulous. "I loved the song from the moment I wrote it, I just didn't think it was an American Idol type of song," says Shackelton, who recently completed an internship at Warner Chappell Music, the publishing arm of Warner Music Group, and has since been looking for publishing deals.

"It was really awesome. I was jumping up and down in my living room," she says of watching Cook perform her song. "It was really neat for the first time to hear another artist perform one of my songs in their own interpretation." In Cook's case, he took Shackelton's pop/country tune and injected his pop/punk style, changing up the arrangement and one line of lyrics: replacing "girl" with "boy."

Thanks to Cook's selection, Shackelton is getting noticed more and more. She had been garnering the attention from some publishers, but nothing like what has come her way as a result of American Idol. "It has sparked the next step in my career," she says. Meanwhile, her Myspace page has seen 40,000 new visitors since her song debuted on national TV.

While she's hoping "Dream Big" will see even more play, perhaps as a track on Cook's first album, she hasn't lost sight of the power of songwriting, which is what brought her to this calling in the first place. "It's about great music that has the ability to touch people," says Shackelton, relaying how after hearing the song, one woman with terminal breast cancer contacted her to tell her how much "Dream Big" moved and inspired her.