Elizabeth Lane
Elizabeth Lane won the 2023 Young Songwriter Award, part of the Bernard-Ebb Songwriting competition; courtesy of Lane

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Every year in April, artists in the DMV compete with original songs to win the Bernard-Ebb Songwriting Award, a prestigious title that comes with a monetary prize, and for the adult winners, paid recording time. 

The award is in honor of Fred Ebb, a songwriter who began his career in 1953 and went on to write music for Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli. Ebb also worked on a number of musicals, including Cabaret and Chicago, and helped write the famous song “New York, New York, first recorded by Minnelli and later by Frank Sinatra.

The awards are largely organized by Ebb’s niece Cathy Bernard, a lifelong lover of the arts and president of HCM Corporation, a real estate management and investment firm.

The Bernard-Ebb Songwriting Awards are unique, pulling in artists from all styles and genres, and the competition is fierce. Hundreds of individuals send in their music in hopes of standing on the stage for the finals. This year, the April 21 show featured five adult and three high school musicians who ranged in genres from R&B to folk. Each adult competitor performed two original songs, but it was Baltimore native R&B singer Joshua Lay, who walked away with first place, winning $10,000 and gifted time at Innovation Station Music, a recording studio in Annandale. 

Though Lay received the night’s biggest win with his poetic musings on love, he wasn’t the only one collecting the night’s awards. Rising artist Elizabeth Lane competed in the Young Songwriter Award, the division of the Bernard-Ebb contest for high school students. She impressed the audience and judges by singing her original song “Lost and Found” with a backing band. She won a plaque and an award of $2,500.

Lane, 17, is a senior at Alexandria City High School. She learned about the competition from her longtime friend and the Young Songwriter’s previous winner, Marian Hunter, but didn’t initially consider entering.

It was her voice teacher, Taisha Estrada, who helped Lane find a change of heart. “[Taisha] brought it up to me and told me I should apply,” Lane says. She began practicing and preparing her own songs, hoping that her theme of finding oneself would resonate with the judges.

Lane began studying piano when she was 5, but her heart wasn’t in it. She quit the weekly lessons and daily practices when she turned 13 and took a two-year break from classical piano music. But during the pandemic, she found herself drawn to singing and piano again. Soon after, she began working with Estrada. Lane says her parents encouraged her to get back into it: “They were tired of hearing me sing under my breath, so they signed me up for voice lessons,” she says.

Estrada encouraged Lane to try writing her own music, and she gradually began playing piano again and picked up guitar, which has since become her main instrument of choice. Now, she’s created her own unique style of music—calm indie pop largely driven by vocals. Lane’s style highlights how the musical accompaniment is designed to complement her soulful lyrics. 

And writing those lyrics is where Lane usually starts her creation process. “If I opened up my notes app right now, it’s a bunch of different words and ideas I have throughout the day. Sometimes those will turn into something bigger,” she says. 

When she has lyrics, Lane starts to play with the melody and add in the musical components—usually beginning with guitar or piano. She enjoys creating a duality in her music. “If I have sad lyrics, sometimes I make the melody or rhythm more upbeat,” she says. 

For her award-winning song “Lost and Found,Lane used a metaphor comparing the physical space where items are lost to losing a relationship and finding herself. The track is driven by piano and is lyrically focused on internal rhyme schemes. It’s a beautiful composition that sounds just as great live as it does online, where it’s available on Spotify.

Lane has several other songs available for streaming. She also released two singles in 2022 with Baffin Records, a label based out of Northern Virginia. 

For the Bernard-Ebb Songwriting Awards, Lane was accompanied on stage by Colin Sidley (bass), Henry Meade (piano), and Austin Loman (drums), who stepped up to play when the original drummer had a last-minute conflict. She met her bandmates through music school, and she plans to play with Sidley at another upcoming show. 

Even though Lane is no stranger to live performances—she’s graced the stage at DC9 and Jammin Java—she was still nervous before the awards show. “It was a heightened situation,” she says. “I was so anxious going into the performance. I wasn’t expecting to win at all.”

Lane is grateful for the monetary support and hopes to put the funds toward recording new music. In September, she’ll be attending the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she plans to study film and music. For now, though, you can still see her play locally. Tonight, May 26, Lane returns to Jammin Java; Indigo Thursday opens. 

Elizabeth Lane, @elizabethlane, plays at 8 p.m. on May 26 at Jammin Java. jamminjava.com. $15–$25.