Ashley Brooke Toussant is embarrassed to admit it, but during high school, she went through a Celine Dion phase.
"I was even part of her fan club and would get emails about shows and things," she says. "My sister would make fun of me for liking her."
But then one day while she was record shopping, she heard indie folk singer Eva Cassidy reinterpret classic tunes such as "Over the Rainbow," and she had a musical epiphany.
"That made me think that maybe this is where I belonged," says Toussant, a remarkable singer-songwriter whose new album, Sweetheart, suggests she has matured remarkably in both her songwriting and singing. She deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Jessica Lea Mayfield, the young Kent singer who got national attention when she released her second album earlier this year.
By her senior year of high school, Toussant, who acted and sang in plays such as Guys and Dolls and Bye Bye Birdie, had delved into the record collection of her older sister. Toussant discovered Joni Mitchell and Carole King, set aside her acting aspirations and embraced an indie folk aesthetic.
"I grew up with Neil Diamond and the Carpenters, which I still like," she says. "I always knew I wanted to be a singer. I guess subconsciously why I want to write songs is because I want people to like me."
While pursuing a public communications degree at Kent State, she interned at WKSU-89.7 FM from 2004 to 2006 with "Folk Alley" host Jim Blum, who reinforced her interests in folk music. About four years ago, she moved to Chicago and was introduced to Grammy-winning producer Jim Tullio (Mavis Staples, Levon Helm, Ritchie Havens). Tullio initially set out to record just a single that Toussant could shop to labels, but the two clicked.
"We kept thinking about doing one more song, and it turned into five songs," she says. "He even got a bunch of people, [session players such as accordionist Michael Ramos and John Rice, who played with John Mellencamp and Neko Case, respectively], to play on the album."
When Toussant, 27, moved back to Kent two years ago after living in Chicago for close to two years, she formed a band and started recording at a home studio. Titled Sweetheart, the resulting album represents her attempt to write what she calls "happy songs."
Although the moody ballad "Little Boy Blue" has a rather ominous sound, the lilting title track features a nice bit of slide guitar (courtesy of Hillbilly Idol's Al Moss) that's perfectly paired with Toussant's tender vocals. That combination also reaps dividends in "Sally Singer," which comes off as a classic country track. "Bear Hunt" benefits from a rollicking honky tonk piano riff, and the album concludes with a cover of Henry Mancini's "The Sweetheart Tree," which Toussant sings a cappella.
Toussant celebrates the release of the 10-song album with a show on Sept. 2 at Musica and plays the 'Round Town portion of the Kent State Folk Festival on Sept. 23. She's hoping the CD release will help her get bigger gigs, like the one she played earlier this year when she opened for country icon Don Williams in West Virginia and in Akron.
"It was the coolest experience because people thought I was famous," she says. "I sold all my CDs. I was signing all these autographs. I could get used to that."
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