ARE YOU A LONGTIME Toshi Reagon fan? Consider yourself in exceptional company; her admirers also include Elvis Costello, Lenny Kravitz, and Chaka Khan. But if she's unfamiliar, that may not last long. After 10 years of putting out CDs on tiny independents, slowly amassing an ardent following, the cheery New Yorker is reaching wider audiences with The Righteous Ones, thanks to the additional muscle provided by her new label, Razor & Tie.
Broadway Performance Hall, Friday, February 11
"This is the first time I've released a record and people who've not seen me have bought it just because they read a review, or heard a song on the radio, or a friend said 'Go buy this record!'" she admits with a hint of amazement.
Reactions from diehard supporters have also been positive ("At least, that's what people tell me to my face," she says), although her fourth solo outing departs moderately from previous releases. Reagon's versatile, expressive voice remains compelling as ever, and her stylistic range continues to expand, from the close vocal harmonies of "Real Love" to the searing hard rocker "I'm Just An Egg Don't Mind Me." But pundits who've pigeonholed her as a political songwriter may be surprised by the album's many love songs.
Reagon says the lyrical developments reflected in these 13 tunes were inevitable. "Anybody who's halfway decent has evolved; look at U2 or Prince," she notes. "What you like to talk about and do changes as you grow, and that's reflected in art. That's one of the best reasons to have art in a society, because it then represents the changes taking place."
One such concern to Reagon is the shifting emphasis away from family. Toshi's mother is Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock; The Righteous Ones is dedicated to her grandmother, who passed away last year. "At her funeral, I was looking around at my brothers and cousins, at her children and her children's children and, in some cases, her children's children's children, and I realized that she had something to do with raising everybody in the room. If we've lost anything as time goes by, it's that idea of living for the children."
But while Toshi sings "I think I want to have your baby . . . and I want you to have mine" on "Happy and Satisfied," childbearing isn't on her to-do list. "I don't have any of that 'Oh my god, my womb' business," she emphasizes. Reagon and her girlfriend already have their hands full raising her 5-year-old niece. Should she change her mind, don't expect David Crosby to be the sperm donor; she'd prefer drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson of the Roots. "I told him if I was gonna have a kid, he'd be my baby's daddy."
Though the tough odds facing Reagon might seem compounded by her gender, race, and sexuality, the singer remains levelheaded. "If I were 18, white, and blonde, making commercial records and looked like Britney Spears or Christina [Aguilera], there's still no guarantee I would get the right combination of people working on my project to catapult me to success." With movie tie-ins and bootleg dance remixes creating unlikely stars overnight, anything can happen. "Who'd have thought Santana was gonna have a number one record and be nominated for all these Grammy and American Music Awards?"
Razor & Tie's biggest priority is keeping Reagon on the road consistently so new audiences can experience her appeal. So far, that plan appears to be working. "I did a show in Minneapolis, and this guy came up to me afterwards and says, 'You're sweet, you're cute, your music is happy—I don't usually like people like you. But I can't deny that I feel really good listening to you play, so I'm buying your record anyway."