“Nobody in my family knows where my voice comes from, exactly,” Tonya
Mitchell admits. “I’m definitely the only musical one in my family. The first time I opened my mouth to sing, I think I shocked everyone.”
Eighteen year-old Tonya will likely surprise a lot of people with her debut,
I Represent, an R&B-tinged pop tour de force. That Tonya, who comes from
tiny Huron, Tennessee, has gotten this far without formal voice or dance lessons or the usual stint in the Mickey Mouse Club is a tribute to both to the power of her dreams and the power of her remarkable voice. Tonya has been singing since she was old enough to talk, startling her family by singing along with Debbie Gibson and Tiffany songs on the radio. “Once my parents realized I could actually sing, they started putting me in talent shows,” Tonya remembers. By the time she was seven years old, Tonya, the daughter of a homemaker mother and a famed local magician father known as Cowboy Louie, was recording makeshift demos at Barbara Mandrell’s studio, and making the rounds of talent shows and county fairs in the south.
For a young girl in a small town in the days before the teen pop explosion, there weren’t a lot of options. Tonya paid her dues singing country covers at fairs and banquet halls. “Most of the time I would only sing country back then, because there wasn’t so much pop music around, especially not where I came from,” she remembers. “But I grew up singing along to pop songs, and I’d always loved Mariah Carey and Toni Braxton, and being a pop singer was what I wanted all along. It was hard a lot of times, but there was never a question of my doing anything else.”
Tonya Mitchell was discovered in 1998, while singing at a regional benefit for St. Jude’s Hospital. “I had a cold that day, and I didn’t even want to go,” Tonya, who was then fifteen, recalls. “After I finished singing, a man came up to me and said he really liked my voice. He said Justin Timberlake from ‘N Sync was his grandson, and that maybe he could help me. This was back before ‘N Sync got really famous, and we were just like, ‘Who’s that?’ ” Tonya didn’t think much would come of it, but the encounter ultimately led to a meeting with Just In Time Management’s Lynn Harless, Timberlake’s mother. Tonya eventually signed with Universal Records and in short order entered the studio to record her twelve-song debut.
The process was easier than she thought. Each track was recorded in two
days-without the usual bells, whistles and massive layers of gloss that accompanies most pop releases. Remarkably, each track she recorded made the finished version. “I didn’t grow up in this business, and I didn’t know much about how things were done,” Tonya says now. “I certainly didn’t know anything about how records were made. Everyone told me, ‘Oh you’re gonna have to record thirty songs just to find ten that they like,’ but they took the record as is. I didn’t know how unusual that was.”
For Tonya, who graduated high school early and has spent the past few years
commuting between Orlando and Tennessee, the release of “I Represent” serves as the wondrous end result of years of struggle and sacrifice. “When I saw the finished version of my record for the first time, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this! It was just the best thing in the world,” she says. “When I went back home and told all my friends I was putting a record out, a lot of them didn’t believe me, but they believe me now!”
I Represent will make a believer out of everybody: The disc brims with unforgettable pop tracks reminiscent of those by Tonya’s heroines Mariah Carey and Aaliyah. “Little Too Late” is an aching, agile love ballad that belies her age; “Wasted Breath” is a vaguely futuristic pop gem. The first single, the effortlessly catchy “Broken Promises,” is also the first song Tonya ever made for the record. It may be the song that lies closest to her heart, “But everything on this record is me,” Tonya says. “Everything is something I’ve felt, that I can relate to. I think a lot of people will feel the same way about this record. It’s real.”