On my own terms

27 Nov 2005

Former Canadian Idol finalist, Toya Alexis, chats with Afrotoronto.com on her album S.OB. story and her upcoming role in Crowns


For most of us, we first heard the name Toya Alexis when she sang her way into our living rooms in the initial season of Canadian Idol in 2003. A gifted, charming vocalist, she made it into the top six, although some felt she should have been the ultimate winner. Since then Toya’s been hard at work on her debut album S.O.B story, released in August 2005 under the Plasma label, headed by Canadian Idol judge, Farley Flex.

“I look for people that have world class potential,” says Flex from his cell phone. “Toya is definitely one of those people. She is a really talented songwriter. She loves music and she comes with quality melodies and lyrics to support those melodies.”

Described by Flex, as a “multidisciplinary album with blues, jazz, straight contemporary, r&b, hip-hop, urban, and disneyesque-type ballads”, S.O.B story showcases Toya’s ability as a vocalist and songwriter. She wrote 18 out of the 20 songs.

Drawn to both acting and singing, Toya’s latest project finds her playing the role of Mabel, a woman with “hattitude” in the gospel musical, Crowns, alongside Jackie Richardson, who plays Mother Shaw. Based on a book inspired by African American women in stunning church hats, Crowns is the story of a street smart kid, Yolanda, who leaves Brooklyn to live with her grandmother in the south, after the unexpected death of her brother. While there, she meets several women with “hattitude”, who share with her their love of life, God, and hats.

I caught up with Toya in the Berkeley Street theatre to chat about her journey as an artist and her upcoming role in Crowns.

Playing Mabel

“I love doing TV and film, but theatre just takes you to another level. Your character is allowed to grow in the show as you get more comfortable and the words fit with you more. You become this character that originally you think, I don’t know if I can bring all that is being asked of me. Gradually as your comfort level increases you take it to another place. I am now amazed at where I am with my character.”

Gospel Appeal

“I think whether we admit it or not, we all need saving in our own way. I describe myself as a fallen angel. At times I am so on it, God and I have the best relationship, and other times I lose focus and forget that he’s the one that’s given me the gifts that I have, and given me the opportunities that I have. That’s what I think intrigues people about a gospel show, let alone a gospel concert. People come and they know they are going to be filled with gospel music. They are just looking for something that tells them that whatever their situation is at the time, they’ll be okay.”

How it all started

“My brother was the tap dancer, the singer, the model, the actor everything. I was kind of bypassed. I would go to his shows and rehearsals with my mom. Finally my grandmother heard me singing one day and said to my mom, she can really sing. I remember I was watching the video with Regina Belle, Make it Like it Was. And I sang that. The weekend after that there was a competition at the mall. I was 9 years old and my mom and grandma entered me into the junior competition and I came in first. Every time there was a competition I wanted to go. That’s how I was able to get the things I wanted. I won a lot of stuff, clothes, a mountain bike, nintendo. That got me started and gave me a chance to be in front of an audience.”

Welcome to Canadian Idol

“I went into the competition not thinking that I would be Canadian idol but I definitely thought I could use it for exposure. That’s what I got and what I prayed for. I wanted to be exposed to the right amount of people and I wanted to leave the show with a blast. I got both those things. I was asked…in an interview, how does it feel that you didn’t win and I say I think I won. I didn’t have to follow the rules of what the Canadian Idol had to do or had to be. I wanted that when I came out with my first album that it would represent me. Creative control as far as lyrically what I am saying, vocal arrangements, helping to dabble in production which I had a great opportunity to do. Farley Flex became my manager and he’s a big believer of that.”

Making S.O.B. story

“I wrote all the songs on my album except for two songs…I would say I love Heartbreak. It’s an interlude but I may extend it. At the moment it was a song I needed to give myself closure over a two and a half to three year relationship with my ex. That’s what S.O.B story was based on. Everything I went through with him, and at the time what all my girlfriends were going through. I thought, we really need to talk about what our situation is and what’s going on.”

Touring with Esthero

“She happened to see me performing at a show put on by Al St. Louis called When Words are Spoken. I happened to be the only musical act that night. She had come to see her friend Jemini from FLOW. I came on after Jemini performed. She (Esthero) came over and asked to get in touch with me later. I got a call from my manager saying Esthero wants you to come on tour, open for her and sing with her as part of her backup group. I was never written on the bill so I was an element of surprise for everyone. We came up with an arrangement for one of the songs on my album to open with, called Loving You. It created a nice buzz for me. I was touring for the month of July before my album came out.”

The Music Biz

“I think the toughest thing is being allowed to be yourself…Everyday we are bombarded with things on radio and media about how you are supposed to look. I see daily these young girls and young boys who are tormenting themselves with being an image that doesn’t exist…I used to feel a lot of pressure. I do have my moments. But for me it’s no longer about trying to look good for them but trying to feel good for myself. There’s nothing that should limit me from being who I am on an everyday basis. That’s been my outlook on everything, just do me. Even S.O.B story, that’s what it was about. If I want to be a success story then I have to become my own success story and do it.”

What’s in My CD Player

“It really varies. Depends on what I am going through at the time. Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Patti Labelle, Regina Belle, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt, Brian Mcknight, Stevie Wonder, Justin Timberlake, Alicia Keyes, India Arie, John Legend…All these people have something in common that they believe in the live aspect of music. Where music originally came from, the whole performance aspect of it. Before we had videos all you heard was a voice then you bought a ticket and saw the person. That’s why I chose not to do a full body shot on my album. I want you to look into my eyes and see my story. It’s a S.O.B story but not a sad story.”

Doing What I Love

I love the music. I want people to hear my lyrics, hear my words, and feel what I am feeling or what I felt. I might not be at that place anymore but I can reach out to someone who may be there. When all else fails, the lyrics can emote so much feeling…I’m in a good place right now. I’m letting the process be what it will be. I’m here, I’m still alive so that means there’s still great opportunities for me.”

Crowns A play by Regina Taylor, directed by Marion J. Caffey runs from Nov 14 to Dec 10, 2005 at the Bluma Appel Theatre at the St Lawrence Centre for the Arts (27 Front Street East) For tickets contact the Box Office at 416-368-3110 or 1-877-399-2651. For more info visit www.canstage.com

For more info on Toya Alexis visit her website at www.toyaalexisonline.com