“Songbird” Kicks Off Season 5

Philly's live singing competition returns with old favorites and new twists

Season 5 Contestants.   
Season 5 contestants

Last Tuesday at Tabu Lounge & Sports Bar, the popular Songbird series kicked off its fifth season by showcasing 20 local performers seeking to solve the competition’s tagline — “The Search for Philly’s Best Singer.”

“It’s become way more than just a singing competition… it’s become an institution,” said Josh Schonewolf, the event’s creator. “It’s a really fun way to see amazing musicians perform every week under the veil of a competition.”

Songbird received 320 audition videos this season; opening night only featured 18 singers from that talent pool. This year the competition also welcomes back four ‘all-star songbirds’ from season 4 who Schonewolf believes deserve a second chance. Two of the four were chosen on opening night.

Schonewolf says he has a simple method for narrowing down the field of applicants: “I think of it as: ‘Who the hell would I wanna get off of my couch on a Tuesday night and support?’”

One singer is eliminated each week. Besides earning the title of the city’s top vocalist, the winner collects $2,000 in cash.

Each week has a theme. The first week traditionally kicks off with “Show Me What You Got,” where singers select their inaugural ballads. Week two of season 5 will focus on tunes by “Famous Philly Singers,” while week three covers the sounds of David Bowie. For performers, whose styles encompass everything from Broadway to pop to R&B, the idea is to approach each assignment with a personal touch.

“I tried to make every cover [sound] like an original song, like something I would write,” says Keely Sibilia, the winning Songbird of season 4. She majored in jazz vocal performance at The University of the Arts. “I knew if I sang a song exactly like the recording, I wouldn’t stand out.”

Sibilia has found her voice’s quality and career on the rise since being named “Philly’s Best Singer.” The Los Angeles native has landed a number of gigs and has an EP debuting this spring. “I was already doing okay, but now that Songbird happened, it really just filled everything out,” says Sibilia. “It really did make me grow as an artist and as a musician.”

She returned to Tabu’s stage Tuesday night as the opening act before taking her place as one of this season’s six judges. Champion ukulele player Eric Jaffe and third-place America’s Next Top Model contestant Cory Wade Hindorff will serve as head judges. Sibilia will rotate into the remaining judge spots along with Songbird season 3 winner Kaliea and season 3 finalists Robert Alexander and Tara Hendricks.

“It’s a beast of an event,” says Schonewolf. “I never thought it would take off like it did.”