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Cambridge singer-songwriter Alisa Amador wins NPR Tiny Desk Contest

Alisa Amador of Cambridge won the national NPR Tiny Desk Contest.Jacquelyn Marie

Alisa Amador, a singer-songwriter based in Cambridge, was announced as the winner of NPR’s 8th Tiny Desk Contest on Tuesday, earning her the headlining spot on the Tiny Desk Contest on the Road tour.

Amador won for her song “Milonga accidental,” performed entirely in Spanish. The 2½-minute acoustic song, which beat out thousands of other submissions from around the country, “is all about embracing what can feel like the contradictions of your life and your identity,” Amador said in an interview Tuesday afternoon.

“Sometimes I feel like I don’t belong anywhere, instead of what I think should really be true. What I hope my music communicates [is] that you belong everywhere,” she said. “The song asks, when will I know how to decipher my purpose, and when will I feel at home in my voice?”


“This song was this attempt at creating a home for myself,” Amador added.

Amador, who released a six-track EP, “Narratives,” last September, earned the praise of the panel of judges, which included Tiny Desk creator and “All Songs Considered” host Bob Boilen, Tiny Desk producer Bobby Carter, Japanese Breakfast singer Michelle Zauner, rapper Big K.R.I.T., singer-songwriter Raveena, singer iLe, and jazz critic Nate Chinen.

Boilen announced Amador’s win on Tuesday’s “Morning Edition” program.

“With thousands of entries it’s always a tough choice, but Alisa’s voice is what puts it over the top for me,” said Boilen in a statement. “I don’t speak Spanish, yet her yearning voice conveyed what I needed to know about her and the song, a song I think of as wondering and questioning one’s place in life. That feeling is also in the spaciousness of her acoustic guitar playing.”

Before Amador’s win was announced to the public, she got a personal call from Boilen informing her of her victory, a video of which NPR posted to Instagram. “I’ve been seriously considering stepping away from music,” she said after Boilen told her she had won, “but I guess I can’t yet.”


Amador said the constraints of the pandemic and limited live performance opportunities were what compelled her to consider a break from music. “My work revolves around being honest and vulnerable, and being honest and vulnerable in front of a computer screen for three years is really hard,” she said. “With this news, I felt like all of a sudden, possibilities were opening up to me that I had felt like they were gone from the pandemic.”

The Tiny Desk Contest, launched in 2014, allows amateur performers to follow in the tradition of NPR’s beloved Tiny Desk concert series, wherein famous musicians like Taylor Swift, Lizzo, and Harry Styles have done short sets from Boilen’s cramped workspace inside NPR’s Washington, D.C., office. Previous Tiny Desk contest winners include Fantastic Negrito, now a three-time Grammy winner, and Gaelynn Lea, who composed original music for the Broadway revival of “Macbeth,” which opened April 28.

“Alisa’s voice and energy is magnetic and so sweet — and I was particularly drawn to her amazing songwriting,” said Raveena, who performed her own Tiny Desk concert in 2019, in a statement. “Anyone can feel something from ‘Milonga accidental,’ no matter what language you speak.”

Amador has submitted a song to the Tiny Desk Contest every year since 2018, but has never submitted a song written and performed entirely in Spanish, her native language. Her mother, who is Puerto Rican and Argentinian, and her father, who is from New Mexico, lead the ensemble band Sol y Canto.


“I’d always been hesitant to send in a song in Spanish to the Tiny Desk contest — I was worried that it wouldn’t be well received,” she said. “I realized in the last few years that it wasn’t serving anyone to hide parts of myself — certainly not me — and to only sing in English would be denying half of my life.”

As the competition winner, Amador will get her own Tiny Desk concert in Washington, D.C., later this month. Hers will be the first in-person Tiny Desk concert since the pandemic — the series pivoted to “at home” shows when the virus took hold. She will then headline shows in D.C., Atlanta, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Brooklyn for the Tiny Desk Contest on the Road tour.

Amador will perform alongside local musicians who also entered the contest (non-winning entries can be seen at tinydeskcontest.npr.org/2022/browse-2022/.) Tickets for the live shows are on sale now at nprpresents.org.

“It feels really poignant to me that my bilingual, multi-genre music is being lifted up and celebrated as American music,” she said, “and as music that people need to hear right now.”

Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com