Talking with progressive musician Toney, a risk taking artist wielding a bold swing of unique roots music

"Doesn’t matter your race, color, or creed, blues is universal you don't even have to understand the language to feel its power. As long as people are on this earth, they will sing the blues."

Toney: Live Free, Tell the Truth & Sing the Blues

Toney is a risk taking artist wielding a bold swing of unique roots music. His track brushes with world influences rooted deeply in the soul of blues fueled by a rock & roll energy and electronic synthesizers. It's progressive blues-rock! With this lethal combination, tasty guitar playing and singing filled with raw emotion, Toney thrills. His third solo release, Born to Live Free, delivers ten songs penned by Toney. Toney has shared the stage with David Bromberg, Louisiana Red, and Tom Larsen. His debut as a recording artist and band leader came in 2006 when he released New Life, a jazz-fusion album with his band, Tony Robinson Trio.

A slew of groups came and went under Tony's leadership until 2008, when he was signed as a recording artist to the Oklahoma based independent record label, Tate Music Group. This deal brought about the 2009 release of Explode, an electronic/dance album produced by Tony released under the name, Tony Robinson. Though it pushed him into the realm of singing and lyric writing, disappointing product marketing and a compromised artistic direction ultimately sealed the deal with Tate Music. In 2011, Tony went back to his instrumental roots, this time focusing in the direction of world-fusion, releasing, My Hearts Rise, under the artist name Ynot Nosnibor. The album inspired his first book, My Hearts Rise: Inspirations Behind the Music.

Though he never stopped performing, his recording and solo efforts took the back burner. Ynot Nosnibor was left behind and Tony Robinson focused on artist development coaching, speaking, and his second book. The Ultimate Guide to Artist Development identifies five keys that make an artist more valuable in the market place. Ultimately Tony found that coaching and speaking wasn't all he wanted to do. Music had to be there and it had to be a huge part of his professional life. This time there was no turning back, no compromising, and no stopping. This understanding of the five keys he had been teaching over the past year lead him to the ultimate self-discovery... and the blues within himself. Not wanting to use his full name as an artist name he dropped the last name and added an 'e' to his first name just to be different.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the music?

I was 5 years old. My mom is a singer and my father was a keyboard player. I never met him, but my stepfather is a percussionist! So music has always surrounded me. I started out as a drummer because my uncle Al played drums in the same band my mother sang in. actually most of my life I’ve been drumming. Through drums I learned keyboards and bass guitar, then started writing and producing my own music. Only a few years ago did I get heavy into guitar and singing.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does “Blues” means to you?

I learn about my soul when I’m dealing with blues music. Yes, there is a historical value of blues music to black people in America, and I have pride in that, but it goes much deeper than that. Blues music is soul music. To me blues means soul. I can play my rock based music all night, but I have to do that one cliché blues song, like "The Sky Is Crying", to pay tribute and identify my soul for the audience, band, and myself.  If you don't have the blues you have no soul.

How do you describe Toney’s sound and what characterize your music philosophy?

Toney’s sound is rooted in blues, powered by rock & roll energy, and excited with electronic synthesized elements. I’ve always been into those futuristic synth sounds. Keyboards are a major part of my sound even though I’m the guitarist in the band. I don't think this type of music can really go over well with out a burning organ, that rootsy piano thing, and a touch of the synthesizers. I like it dirty and dynamic. I like distortion and delays on the guitar, which give the music space. I love putting in electronic drum loops onto a record.  I try to make my blues-rock music feel like electronic dance music without it completely not making sense.  

To blues purist my sound is either not blues or progressive blues. To rockers its rock. Both are right. It’s not purely either of the two. Some music is hard to classify. That’s why I just leave it up to the people to decide what to call it. For me, blues is the foundation. Coming from the tradition of B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Elmore James it's the blank canvas that allows me to paint my picture. But at the core, I’m a rock guy that loves country music. Bon Jovi, David Gilmour, Brad Paisly and guys like that are whose footsteps I follow. They write songs that last ions. I really try to write hooky stuff that's true to who I am.

My music philosophy is this... I’m a warrior and the bandstand or studio is my battle field. I enter that arena to conquer the stage, the music, myself, and the audience. When I say conquer the audience I don't mean in an "I’m better than them" kind of way. I mean that I’m there to entertain and fascinate them. If I can do that, that means I’ve conquered their fears and defensive walls. Now they can let go of what ever pain and worry the have for 2 hours. I do that by letting the music speak with honesty and totally sacrifice of myself to the music. My music philosophy is to be the best I can, deliver the best I can, and give my best to the most people I can. The natural law says that they'll return the favor.

From whom have you have learned the secrets about the blues and what is the best advice ever gave you?

No one. The blues is personal. Life teaches us what our blues is. Howling Wolf's blues secret was different than Muddy’s and B.B. King’s blues secret is different than buddy guys. Of course I’ve watch these guys countless times to capture their spirit, and that's something that's necessary. It’s like music ancestral worship LOL.

However, when I see on the news 20 children have been murdered by a gunman; that teaches me the blues. When I lose the love of a woman that I love because I screwed up; that teaches me the blues. My father never being in my life teaches me the blues. Life teaches me the blues and nothing else can teach me that. When I rip into a note on my telecaster or sing into the microphone, I’m pouring my blues secret into it.

If you're talking about technical advice, I believe I’ve literally learned two guitar licks from other people. I mean like, "show me how you did that". My friend and monster guitarist, Joey Fulkerson showed me this beautiful chord he often does during "Stormy Monday". I got some usage out of it. But now days, I don't even use it any more cause I found something that' speaks more natural to me.

The best advice I’ve ever received hasn't been about playing music, it's been about living life. Being dedicated, passionate, and truthful to yourself. Not just dreaming but giving it your all to make your dreams reality. Being accountable for your actions and taking responsibility in life. I apply that to music.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician and songwriter?

Well I don't know that I’m a good musician or songwriter or not. I leave that up to fans and people like you to decide, so I appreciate the compliment.

Like many songwriters, I write from experiences in my life and lives around me. I can't lie in a song. Music is my absolute truth. to give you an example, "Empty" is a song about performing night to night at venues that aren't really music venues... they just have you there as pricey wallpaper pretty much. For a person that doesn't perform for himself, it's very hard to perform to people who are impartial... leaving me feeling empty.

Another instance would be a song like "Born To Live Free", which came from several different experiences combined. That song boils down to the point I made the decision that this is my life and I won't be controlled because I’m born to live free. What so and so wants for me doesn’t matter, how much money they throw at me doesn't matter, and whatever they feel I can't do doesn't matter. It’s an anthem of freedom for everyone.

Some songs are love songs like "Set Me Free", some are funny like "Standing In The Rain", and some are message songs like "Heavy Water".  I naturally write from a darker vantage point. Though lately, I’ve tried to evolve my songwriting to include lighter happier songs. My upcoming single, "Winding Road", plays on dark and light emotion in the same song. I really like that combination. That single is due to release in March.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

I find that the opportunity to make records and perform as a musician is the best moment of my career to date.  I see myself and my team as warriors so every gig is just another battle. Yes I want every moment to be the best moment or as I say, a "win", but win or lose it doesn’t' matter because I learn something new every time. Whether it's playing, promoting the shows, or selling Toney products it's all about learning and getting better. Having that opportunity and seeing positive results from it is the best moment. When a fan says "I love what you do" that's the best moment. When a talent buyer loves what I do that's the best moment. My children getting to see their dad perform and do what he loves for a living is the best moment. Even you doing this interview is the best moment. It’s about having the opportunity to be Toney. I fight everyday to keep the best moments coming.

There was a time that I was completely miserable. I was in a band playing music in places that I hated with a passion. I felt like my career was in the toilet and I knew I had to get out but I didn't know how. Things weren't going right at all. You know it's bad when you hate yourself! Every band I put together fizzled. I resorted to drinking my pain away, but it didn't work. I’m not a drinker or into drugs. I’d take a shot of whiskey and go "eww this sucks, I can't drink a whole bottle of this"! So the only way out of the musical situation I hated was through the music that I love. That was the worst time, but as I said before, without that experience I promise you that I wouldn't be where I am today. So I needed that struggle just like I need my current struggle, and I’ll need the next struggle so that I can grow.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

That’s probably the deepest interview question I’ve ever been asked. Honestly there is no one period that is more interesting. Life itself is most interesting because it constantly throws challenges at you.  When my oldest daughter was born and I was barely out of high school was very interesting, when I had to sleep in my truck because I didn't have enough money to get back and forth from sessions to home was very interesting. The most interesting periods in my life come when I’m called on to conquer myself. Truthfully, right now is one of those times because I’m faced with conquering this level of my career to break through to the next.

You have already 3 albums. Which memory from recording time makes you smile?

In three albums, as well as my current work on my new single "Winding Road", it's always the point when I hear the record and get that feeling of "yes, this is working. It’s saying exactly what I want it to say." That’s when I smile. it's very important for me to have that for two reasons: one, without it I can't believe in the record therefore I won't support it 100% and two, once I release it, there's about 6 months of enjoyment time for me then it's time for the next installment! So I have to get my kicks out of it during the recording process.

Right now, with "Winding Road", it's just finished mastering and I’m getting a kick out of hearing Jesse Friend (my keyboardist) solo on it. He really nailed that organ solo. I smile and get pumped up when I hear it. The guitar solo makes me smile too but I might be a little bias on that one!

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had? Which meet have been the biggest experiences for you?

Honestly, the jam thing really isn't something I’m too crazy about. Many times it turns into a lick competition and I’m not in to that. But I do love getting on stage and jamming with my friends because there is no ego involved. of course there are some musicians that I’d love to jam with because they play selflessly, like Derek Trucks, Gary Clark jr., and Robert Randolf. 

Recently, the most memorable gig was in Cambridge, Maryland when my current band finally had that moment where it clicked. That moment when all of the hours of practice, sweating and stressing paid off. As a team we say "yes, this is what we've been working for"! The best thing is that the audience told us too. That goes back to conquering the audience.

You’ll notice something about me. I don't like to live in the past. I’m focused on the present and how that will affect the future. So my best memories stay pretty current as long I as stay current.

Are there any memories from David Bromberg and Louisiana Red, which you’d like to share with us?

Well David is an extraordinary person. One of the nicest, most genuine, and straight forward people I know. I’m so honored to have the access to him that he's allowed me. I consider him a mentor. The best memories with David happen every time I get on stage with him. It’s the feeling that you're in the presence of greatness so you'd better not screw it up!

Through his energy he commands the best out of me without saying a word.  I feel like I must live up to it cause if I don't, then I don't deserve to be on stage with him. David is always telling me some heavy stuff about surviving in the industry and I soak it up. After all he ruled the New York folk scene, his face is on the side of a building in Wilmington, and he's still in demand around the world. 

We’ll sit and I’ll audition new releases to him and he'll give me his opinion. It usually ends with that warm smile of his and a pat on the back. I actually started doing different variations of my band because of David’s advice. he once told me to "strip it down and work as much as you can." now I do acoustic solo, duo, acoustic full band in addition to the full electric show.

Louisiana Red is an interesting story because I wasn't directly hired by him or even invited on stage by him. I was playing at an American festival called Briggs Farm Blues Festival and Louisiana Red was headlining. I was actually in the band playing before his set. Well here comes Louisiana Red with his hired guns from Chicago, who were great guys that played earlier on the festival bill. Evidently there was a dispute about one of the band members pay and he wasn't happy about it! He felt he should be paid double because he played earlier on the bill as well as with red.

Well, it got to the point that he refused to play anymore because he wasn't getting paid extra for it. I happened to be standing around behind the stage watching the show when this very angry guy points at me and says "Hey, you wanna play? I’m done with this shit!" of course I said "Hell Yea!" That’s exactly how I ended up playing on stage with Louisiana Red. The most interaction with Red I had was talking to him and his wife in the artist tent before his show. But the way it went down is entertaining in itself.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?

Well that goes back to what I believe blue is. It’s the voice of the people. It’s the whole grab bag of human emotion. It’s soul. Doesn’t matter your race, color, or creed, blues is universal you don't even have to understand the language to feel its power. As long as people are on this earth, they will sing the blues.

Why did you think that the Blues continues to generate such a devoted following in new generation?

I think because blues music is progressing. If it were stagnating kids wouldn't be interested.  Blues is merging into other genres and that's a good thing. Like Hip Hop and Pop has merged with dance, Blues is creeping into other genres like rock and country. So its appeal is wider.

Would you mind telling me most vivid memory from workshops and lessons?

For me the best moments at my workshop or lessons is that "ah ha" moment where what's being presented impacts the listener. Or that moment when I have to completely destroy a person’s false perception of what's going on in their business.

At one conference, a guy got up and proceeded to give me all these reasons of why he "couldn't or can't" get the results he wants. After his 10 minute monolog I asked him to tell me what all those reasons were... he replied "excuses". I then proceeded to disproved all of those excuses and together we come up with solutions to get around the barriers he faced. To this day we are still in contact and he's doing great on the singer songwriter scene.

When we talk about blues, we usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Apart from the old cats of blues, do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

In order for "Real" blues to exist there has to be "fake" blues. That the stuff that critics and purist come up with. The people that buy record don't go on iTunes and look for the "real blues" section. They go and find music that makes them feel good because it's the emotion that's real.

On the flip side, if we're talking about the blues of guys like Robert Johnson, then no that blues no longer exists. How can it? That way of life doesn't exist and those people are dead and gone. There are guys out there trying to be that but that's on them. I’m trying to be current or slightly ahead, but never behind the times or a copy. In my book, “The Ultimate Guide To Artist Development”, I talk about finding your source of originality.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?


What's the legacy of Blues in world culture and civilization? 

Its legacy is truth of the soul. Every culture and civilization needs to have a connection with their soul.

Give one wish for the BLUES

My wish is that blues stay true. That blues musicians, whether traditional or hybrid, stay true to their blues.

What is your music DREAM? Happiness is……

My dream is to positively impact the world though the music I create and open the minds and eyes of people to the reality that they too are born to live free.  That means that I have to take team Toney worldwide. With love and support from people like yourself and wonderful radio stations in Croatia and other parts of Europe, it's happening. But now one ever said it's going to be easy.

Happiness is one of those things that we chase constantly. It’s illusive, always shifting direction. That’s its nature. People try to contain happiness. No one is happy all the time and the people that claim they are have just settled for making themselves be happy. I’m happy pursing happiness. If I ever get to the point where I say "I’m happy... this is enough" you can stamp my time card cause it's time for me to move on to the next life.

What is the “feel” you miss most nowadays from the old days of Blues?

Well from what I can see, I think that many people play a lot less passionately these days. They rely on a lot of gimmicks to get by. But there isn't the same level of commitment as it used to be. There are a lot of guys out there afraid to give it all they have. But then you have some of those people, like me, who are just the opposite. We live for this and we'll die for this. That difference separates the warriors from the banner holders. You feel the warrior spirit when you see a warrior play. When you see a banner holder play, you feel something missing. So I miss the feeling of commitment in blues music.

From the musical point of you what are the deference between Blues, Jazz, Rock, Reggae, and Soul?

The emphasis and energy of the beat.

Toney - Official website



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