There’s a world of difference between pop stars who sing other people’s songs, and female singer/songwriters who truly touch your soul. With a voice that’s powerful, passionate, endlessly expressive, and full of contagious energy, Toby Lightman is just that type of artist—one who will undoubtedly surprise and captivate those who listen to her Lava Records debut, Little Things, slated for release in March 2004.
Toby’s deeply soulful rock groove, which can best be described as blending elements of Sheryl Crow and Lauryn Hill, has earned her favorable comparisons from popular breakthrough artists like Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige to classic singer/songwriters such as Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt.
Toby’s unique vocal style seamlessly incorporates a broad range of influences. “Besides my rock and soul influences, I’m into a lot of jazz singers like Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald,” Toby offers. “I loved the way these singers could scat, or riff, and I found myself trying to do that with my own voice. That may be why some people think my songs have an R&B element in them.”
If asked, Toby will tell you that her earliest musical memory dates back to growing up in New Jersey, just outside of Philadelphia. “Unlike the kids around me, I wasn’t really into any one type of pop music. I remember being six years old and watching a TV special on violinists like Itzhak Perlman, which I guess made me a bit different from the rest of the 1st graders,” she laughs. Toby played violin beginning at age six and was given the opportunity to use that talent during the recording of “Frightened”, the album’s classic ballad. “I haven’t played much since I taught myself to play the guitar, so it was cool to have a chance to play along with an orchestra on my record. “The funny thing was, instead of being surrounded by fellow students, I was playing with old Russian men who loved my song!”
“Growing up,” she continues, “I liked what was hot at the time, like Madonna and Def Leppard. But my older sister turned me on to classic rock like Crosby, Stills & Nash and Led Zeppelin, while my dad was always playing 50’s doo-wop records. I eventually gravitated toward some of the more current soulful rock bands, like Blues Traveler and Black Crowes. I really liked it all. Throughout college at University of Wisconsin, Madison, I got into a lot of hip-hop and R&B like Mary J. Blige, Fugees and The Roots, and became curious to see how I could combine the soulful, classic rock and hip-hop that I loved into in my own style.”
Toby actually discovered her singing voice by accident. “In high school, a friend of mine suggested we enroll in a vocal workshop class so we could just fool around, sing and hang out,” she recalls. “What ended up happening, however, was that the teacher noticed I had some talent and kept encouraging me to audition for more advanced choral groups. I kept getting accepted and that’s when I realized, ‘Okay, maybe I can sing.’”
“The first time I really experimented with my voice, was during my first public solo performance,” she continues. “I sang a gospel-ized version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” at my High School graduation and I had the chance to just sing my ass off instead of being restricted by all these choral rules.” Toby remembers the experience as intense. “People were actually crying. It was really powerful. After that I thought, ‘Maybe I should try doing this.’ “
Inspired by her all time favorite singer/songwriter, Stevie Wonder, Toby began writing her own songs in college. “He had these songs just pouring out of him and I loved the texture of his voice. I hadn’t attempted to write my own material up to that point, because I wasn’t sure I could do it, and I had a very low tolerance for sitting still and trying to write. The more I got into Stevie Wonder, the more inspired I felt to write songs and let my own inner thoughts come out.”
The activity inside Toby’s head is what gives Little Things its shape and sound. Concerned with universal themes as well as matters of the heart, a highlight of Toby’s songwriting is the uncommon eloquence of her personal, yet somehow universally resonant lyrics. Songs like the richly nuanced, contemplative “Everyday” and the album’s dark energetic opening track, “Leave It Inside” detail Toby’s inner dialogues. Others, like the album’s first single, “Devils and Angels,” are based on everyday experiences. Toby’s striking, emotionally rich voice commands attention, whether she’s delivering a tender ballad or belting out an anthem. From the soulful rocker, “Coming Back In” to the hypnotic undercurrent of “Front Row” or “The River” and the breezy, funk rock of “Devils and Angels,” Little Things is an astounding debut with the feel of becoming a classic album.
Toby admits that the process of recording Little Things brought her increased confidence in her songwriting ability. “I didn’t think my songs could have that kind of an impact until I started getting a reaction from people during the sessions. It was just such a great feeling to hear people say, ‘I totally relate to what you’re talking about.’ One person told me that after hearing the album, she thought, ‘Finally someone’s saying what I’ve been thinking. No one else has said it like that before.’ That’s one of the best compliments I’ve ever received, because I’m not trying to go over people’s heads lyrically. I just want to tell it like it is and say, ‘Well, this is how I think.’ You can take from that whatever you want and have your own interpretation of my songs. After all, what would be the purpose of music if we couldn’t make it our own?”