A big heart and a big voice

Musician Toshi Reagon never misses going to the Cup and Saucer Cafe when she’s in town. She says she has a love affair with the place.


“If I ever heard that Cup and Saucer was closing I’d do a benefit for them,” she said. And she meant it.


On tour to promote the Oct. 4 release of her new CD, Have You Heard, Reagon recently passed through Portland for a sold out show at Mississippi Studios. Critics can’t help but praise her live performances, where she proves she’s a musician worth talking about.


An interview with Reagon revealed a woman of humor and honesty, with a big heart that translates into the words she sings. And even when she’s at her most sincere she wants to make sure you understand it.


“I love performing live more then anything. When I’m singing I’m exactly who I’m supposed to be on the planet,” she said, “But don’t make that sound too new-agey.”

Born in Atlanta and raised in Washington, D.C., Reagon’s been playing music for a long time. She got her break playing with Lenny Kravitz on his first world tour, and she’s been on the musical bandwagon ever since. She’s played with musicians like Elvis Costello and in festivals like Seattle’s Bumbershoot.


Reagon’s music is inspired by a breadth of musical styles, from rock and folk to jazz and bluegrass. She said the atmosphere in her home influenced her as she grew up. Her parents were Freedom Singers, a folk group that sang about civil rights, and her mother was a member of Sweet Honey In The Rock, the well-known a cappella ensemble. She recalled going to rehearsals and traveling with her mother as a child, listening and hearing music everywhere. Reagon developed her own musical instincts listening to bands like Kiss, Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac.


“My mother was a big influence on my own style, she wasn’t afraid that my favorite band was Kiss – she was a comrade musically,” Reagan said.


Reagon’s new CD is being released on Righteous Babe Records, a result from her personal and professional relationship with Ani DiFranco.


“We’re kindred spirits – she’s my kind of person that I like to walk around the world with,” she says of DiFranco.


Her current tour with DiFranco was cut short with the onset of DiFranco’s tendonitis and a solo tour was put together for Reagon, thus her “accidental” show at the small and wonderful Mississippi Studios.


Reagon describes Have You Heard as having “a natural and raw organic sound, like you’re listening to people play in a room together.”


The album embraces Reagon’s musical past, playing music that’s warm and accessible, and also political. “You’re sick I can tell, By the way you built that jail, Never country only land -” she sings in “Down to the water,” a song she wrote in five minutes, the product of her problems with President Bush.


“He’s the latest in our line of corruption and influence,” she said, and in her music she combines the political and the personal, drawing from today’s events, and also sings the classics. Reagon does a lot of cover songs, pulling from gospel music and musicians like Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin and Elvis Presley. She only sings the songs she can find inside herself she said.


Reagon isn’t a household name, and she’s fine with that. She has her own musical niche in the world, and when talking about touring and being friends with Kravitz, she responded, “At the end of the day people are people, Lenny’s just a regular guy. I have a lot of friends who are in that big star category. But when they’re playing music with people they’re just musicians.”


And when it comes to herself, and every musician she knows, she says what keeps her and them playing music is remembering the past.


“At the end of the day they all started out as goofy kids playing the guitar – that’s what you want to do until you die. You just want to play and sing.”