Toby Lightman's style and voice are turning heads

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'Little Things' shows off her writing and singing

Music: in concert, CDs

May 13, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

As she walks the streets of New York City on a "really pretty" afternoon, Toby Lightman talks about pushing herself. The pop newcomer is on her cell phone, discussing her debut, Little Things: the music and her involvement in its creation.

"You get one chance, and there is no turning back," says Lightman, who plays the 9:30 Club tonight and the Recher Theatre tomorrow. "I was in the studio every day coming up with the parts, playing the guitar or telling people which parts to play. I was into the whole process."

The CD has generated quite a buzz -- mainly because of Lightman's powerful pipes and distinctive phrasing. It also doesn't hurt that she's easy on the eyes: a thin, stylish 25-year-old blond whose vocals are warm, assured and soulful without falling into cliches. No Mariah Carey-like melisma and strained high notes. At times, Lightman, who wrote or co-wrote all 12 songs on Little Things, evokes the noisy rock-pop of Res, the vocal tartness of Nelly Furtado and the earnest soulfulness of Lauryn Hill. But Lightman's sound, accompanied by her bright acoustic guitar playing, is her own: real, exuberant, brimming with feeling.

"I listen to so many different kinds of music -- to old soul to hip-hop to classic rock," she says. "So it's hard to pin down my influences. Subconsciously, all of it comes out during the writing and singing, I guess: Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige -- there are so many."

The Philadelphia-born, New Jersey-raised singer-songwriter-guitarist didn't grow up in a musical household. Her father owns an environmental protection company; mom is a representative for a greeting-card company. Her folks were marginally into Top 40, doo-wop, blues and jazz. But "it wasn't a family that bestowed its musical tastes on me," Lightman says. "My uncle on my dad's side is a folk singer. But I just kinda got into music on my own."

As a child, she studied violin and fell in love with Stevie Wonder records. But Lightman didn't seriously think of music as a career option until college. While a student at the University of Wisconsin, the artist sang in cover bands and learned to play the guitar in her spare time. Lightman also started composing her own songs.

After graduation, she moved to New York to make a name for herself in the notoriously tough (and often crazy) world of pop. A chance meeting with Wyclef Jean led him to produce the singer's demo, which found its way to Peter Zizzo, the producer who helped guide the careers of Vanessa Carlton and Avril Lavigne. He surrounded Lightman's expressive voice and guitar with highly marketable production, and the artist signed with Lava / Atlantic Records early last year.

"We spent nine months on the album," Lightman says. "If you spend nearly a year recording an album, you hope you like it. I do, by the way."

It is a likable CD, though Zizzo's productions -- flat programmed drums, echoing synths and jarring electric guitar solos -- sound dated and frustratingly bland at times. Soul-inspired riffs and embellishments permeate Lightman's vocal approach on "Coming Back to You." And Sheryl Crow comes to mind on the swaggering "Voices." Lightman's energetic singing makes the most boring moments bearable, and she shines when the busy instrumentation melts away -- leaving just her voice, guitar and a subtle rhythm track: "Front Row" and "Everyday" are highlights.

Walking around the city she calls home these days, Lightman sounds confident. The media buzz about her album, the warm reception on radio, the regular rotation on MTV -- all of that is just fine. But her chief concern is keeping it real, staying true to her artistic spirit.

"My main goal is to be me and not make just what's hot at the time," Lightman says. "If people like it, my career will keep going. It's that simple."

Toby Lightman opens for Josh Kelley at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. in Washington, tonight at 7:30. For more information, visit Tomorrow night's show at the Recher Theatre, 512 York Road in Towson, is at 8. See www.recher for more details. Tickets for both shows are $14.

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