Toby Lightman Biography
While the quantized beats of 2004’s Little Things reflected Lightman’s dual infatuations with hip-hop and rock, Bird On A Wire is carried by sultry manmade grooves and super-tasty musicianship courtesy of producers Bill Bottrell (Sheryl Crow, Shelby Lynne, Van Hunt) and Patrick Leonard (Madonna, Jewel, Natasha Bedingfield), each of whom helmed roughly half of the album. Bottrell and Lightman supplied the guitars on the tracks he worked on, once again using members of his Tuesday Night Music Club, while Leonard, a virtuosic keyboardist, called on former Prince cohort Wendy Melvoin to play bass and some guitar. “An amazing group of musicians played on this record,” Lightman marvels. The soulful instrumental performances make a perfect match with Lightman’s sophisticated material and masterful vocal performances, both of which bear witness to the epiphany that led to her exponential growth pattern—an epiphany that occurred during the months she spent on tour, opening for Howie Day, Gavin DeGraw, O.A.R., Marc Broussard and, on one memorable evening, Prince.
“After being on the road for a year and a half,” the diminutive artist explains, “I fell in love with the live aspect of performing, and relying on humans rather than programmed computers. It was then I decided I wanted my music to become more organic.” Inspired, Lightman immersed herself in the records of great soul singers like Donny Hathaway, Bill Withers, and Aretha Franklin, and this listening provided her with the equivalent of an advanced degree in her lifetime of musical studies. “Now I’ve become a real snob about it,” she says. “These artists are the crux of everything that’s come after them; it’s so genuine and pure. They helped me see that if the song and the vibe are there, you don’t really need much more than that.”
Lightman couldn’t wait to bring these revelations to bear on her own writing, but she knew herself well enough not to force the issue. “I let it happen naturally,” she says, “because when you think too much about it, you tend to become too purposeful in the message. Going back to my first record, I’ve wanted to be truthful in my writing. I don’t write party songs; every song I write comes out of a real experience.”
Growing up outside of Philadelphia, Lightman went her own way when it came to music, listening to hip-hop and rock, but also falling in love with Stevie Wonder and devouring the Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James records in her father’s oldies-dominated collection. Encouraged by her high school music teacher, Toby started to train her voice by working in various choral groups. She made her solo debut at graduation, cutting loose on Paul Simon’s neo-gospel anthem, “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and bringing some in the audience to tears. When she returned from her freshman year at the University of Wisconsin, where she was studying broadcasting, “I started going to jazz clubs in Philadelphia and singing the only two songs I knew,” she says with a self-mocking laugh.
Not long afterward, Lightman taught herself to play guitar (she’d studied violin as a child) and started writing songs of her own. Later, during her college years, in a spur-of-the-moment decision of unprecedented boldness for an academically achieving suburban kid, she took off a semester to spend four months in Bangkok as a singer in a pick-up band of Philadelphia musicians. The experience built her confidence and heightened her desire to take the ultimate plunge, but she went back to Wisconsin, beefed up her course load and got her degree along with her class before heading to New York and taking a job bartending, while pondering her next move. She had no idea how to proceed, but resourcefulness and luck can combine in magical ways.
“One person told me to get a package to her friend at Nettwerk Management,” Lightman recalls, “so I sent her a picture and the one song I had. She was listening to it on her computer as one of the managers, Ari Martin, walked by. She called me up and said he wanted to meet with me, and I was really skeptical because I’d already met a lot of people who were just a lot of talk—it’s really easy to find a lot of talk in the city.” But they met, Martin became her manager and he hooked her up with producer Peter Zizzo, who’d helped develop Vanessa Carlton and Avril Lavigne. “Peter understood what I wanted to do at that point with beats and the rock elements,” she explains.
Martin and Zizzo circulated the demos Lightman had worked up with Peter, and a few labels expressed interest, so a solo showcase was organized. Among those who RSVP’d was Andy Karp, who’s now Atlantic’s head of A&R. “I’d heard of Clive Davis and Tommy Mottola, but that was about it,” Toby says about that fateful day. “So I didn’t know who this guy was and didn’t think it was a big deal at all, which was confirmed when he walked in with his softball uniform on. I said to Peter, ‘You gotta be kidding me—this is who you were excited for me to play for?’” But she played for Andy, and he called minutes afterward on the way to his softball league to say he wanted to sign her. “All of that—manager, production deal, label deal—happened in about six months,” she says, sounding like she still doesn’t quite believe it.
Little Things got its share of acclaim and established Lightman as a newcomer worth watching. But few realized the breadth and depth of her talent. That will likely change when people experience Bird On A Wire.
Lightman titled the album after a 1969 album of the same name by her late uncle, who encouraged her and offered sage advice after she’d decided to make music her career, at a time when everyone else was waiting for her to come to her senses. Fortunately for the rest of us, she never did.