Playing by Heart
Toby Lightman, the soulful singer-songwriter and self-avowed “Philly girl,” opens up
by Bill Donahue

Even though Toby Lightman has—in the vein of Johnny Cash—been everywhere, man, she remains “a Philly girl” at heart. After years of wandering and exploring, she has settled in New York City, yet the memories of her time in Philadelphia—being a regular at the Pontiac Grille, the now-shuttered indie club on South Street, and feasting on Lorenzo & Sons Pizza’s famously mammoth slices before or after shows—will stay with her for a lifetime.

“Philly has had a big role in everything that has happened to me,” says Lightman, who grew up just across the river in Cherry Hill, N.J. “My whole family is from Philadelphia; my dad was from Overbrook, and my mom was from Germantown. In high school, a bunch of friends and I would go into town and go to jazz clubs, where I used to sing Ella Fitzgerald songs. I went to [college] in Wisconsin, not really knowing who I was, and it was there I discovered I can be who I want to be.”

While at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she learned to “try new things”—play the guitar, for example, after having taken up the violin as a child—and began to test her songwriting skills. When she came home to Philadelphia for a scheduled break from classes, she auditioned for a cover band that needed a singer for a series of gigs in Asia. She got the job, and before she knew it she was on stage at clubs in Bangkok, Thailand.

Her career as a singer-songwriter has since blossomed. Although her distinctive name might not be as familiar to the ear as that of other soulful female performers—Adele or Norah Jones or Joan Osborne, say—it’s likely that most people are already familiar with her voice. Her blues-tinged pop songs have accompanied everything from Kmart commercials and promotional spots for ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” to the soundtracks of TV shows such as FOX’s “Bones” and the since-concluded “One Tree Hill” and “90210.”

Of course, Lightman has recorded several albums, including the October 2014 release, “Every Kind of People,” which she released on her own independent label, T Killa Music. She describes her latest as “an honest, soulful album” of “songs about living in the city, living in the game.”

“Every record has its own identity, about a time and a place in my life,” she says. “I still relate wholeheartedly to all of them. If I go back and listen to some of the songs on my first record, I know where I was in my life when I wrote them. What’s so great about music is that you can portray a feeling and put it into song, and you can relate to it in an entirely different way 10 years later.

“When I first started writing songs, I didn’t think I had anything to say,” she continues. “I’d be putting myself in a vulnerable space, and I was not comfortable with that from the very beginning. … Over time I did get comfortable, and I started working with amazingly talented producers, although some of them told me about how they didn’t relate to my songs. At the same time, when I look back, how could they relate? They’re older men who aren’t living my life, and they don’t know what I’m feeling. That experience taught me to trust the ‘not knowing,’ that I don’t have to know, that I just have to feel it. I’m not caring as much and can open up more.”

These days, she’s happily married and living in Manhattan, but she still draws from the full range of human emotion when penning new songs. After all, she still remembers the struggles and the pain endured by a younger version of herself.

“I probably am writing more ‘happy songs’ now, but I’m not just channeling happiness,” she says. “The music business is so hard, and it’s always going to be an up-and-down struggle. I also write with an alter ego, so at times I can be a sassy bitch who says and does whatever I want. I draw from all these things; inside my head is crazy.”  

She still treasures the opportunity to share her music with her fans in person. Having shared the bill with the likes of Jewel, Train and, on one occasion, the legendary Prince, she’s now touring on her own—and she always strives to work Philadelphia into the schedule. Early this month, for example, she headlined a show at World Café Live in University City, and she intends to return to Philly for an encore in March or April.

Photograph by Andrew Zaeh