Kent State grad returns to debut new EP

Robert Checkal

Credit: DKS Editors

Credit: DKS Editors

Learning how to swim is different for all of us. Some of us take classes to learn, some of us are taught by older siblings. But maybe you happen to be the kid who learned by getting thrown into a body of water by a ruthless parent. As you’re splashing around, you’re overwhelmed. Your heart races, and you ask yourself, “Can I do this?”

It’s hard to know what you’re capable of until you’re out on your own. Some of us are figuring that out now, but Kent State alumna Ashley Brooke Toussant hasn’t ever been this far from home before. Originally from Ohio, she started her college career as a commuter from home at the Kent State Stark campus. Even after finishing her last two years at main campus, she still didn’t feel too far from home.

She graduated in 2006 with a degree in public communications and aspirations for a big city. She chose Chicago, transferred her job, got an apartment and headed for the Windy City.

“I got homesick a lot,” Toussant said. “I remember looking at people on the street and thinking, ‘I don’t even know them. I don’t even know the house across the street!'”

Still, this 24-year-old started a routine in the place she came to know. She worked at Starbucks by day and started building her career by night, taking it one show at a time.

Aspiration, meet inspiration

“I’ve always wanted to be a singer,” Toussant said. “I just didn’t know which genre I really fit in. My senior year of high school I really fell in love with folk, so I decided that’s what I’d be – a folk singer.”

She took guitar classes when she started college at the Stark campus and began writing songs her sophomore year. Kent State offers an opportunity for students to participate in student media, so it made perfect sense for Toussant to work for WKSU when she transferred to main campus.

“I worked on the weekends with Jim Blum, who does the folk hour on Saturdays,” she said. “I’d take music home every night, and I just kept discovering all of these people.”

Her list of favorite discoveries include Carole King, Janis Ian, Dusty Springfield, Jackson Browne, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell and Kate Wolf.

“I don’t think I sound like these people,” Toussant said. “I just like their writing. I feel like they’re inside my head, collecting my thoughts.”

Pen, meet paper

Toussant said she uses a few methods for writing songs, but for the most part, it’s different every time.

“Sometimes I just play my guitar,” she said. “It’s really frustrating because it’s really hard to get out sometimes.”

Toussant said a lot of her songs are inspired by her own life. She keeps a book of her thoughts, poems and ideas. Her book goes where she goes, so when something needs jotting down, she’s on it.

When looking for ideas for a song, she thumbs through her book and gets reacquainted with things she hasn’t seen in a long time. Once she gets her idea, she said she likes to write in the third person.

“I want to bring everyone in so they can relate in their own way,” she said.

She admits that a lot of her songs tend to be on the sad side, but she said she likes the irony of sad lyrics set to upbeat tempos.

Stage, meet the world

Toussant has been playing shows since she began writing music. She’s performed in Kent, and she regularly performs in Chicago.

She claims to have a disposition of being a tiny person with a tiny voice.

“When I play at bars, it’s hard because people are really loud,” she said. “Sometimes I’m sure no one can hear me.”

Crowds are hit or miss with any performing artist. Toussant said it doesn’t get her down when she doesn’t pull in the crowds because there always seems to be at least one person who comes up to her after the show who was affected by her music.

There have been times when Toussant has packed the house. Her favorite time was in Kent.

She sang for the annual Kent State Folk Festival’s ‘Round Town night, where folk artists perform all over Kent bars and on the Kent stage. Since she worked at WKSU, she heard about the festival and started calling around to see if any bars had a time slot open for her. She ended up playing at the Standing Rock Art Gallery.

“I was on this tiny stage,” she said. “I just started singing, and the room filled up with people. It was a really good night. I felt like a bona fide singer. People came up to me afterwards and started asking about me.”

Toussant said when she first moved to Chicago, she started going to open mic nights. She kept going, but after a while, she admits she got tired of it.

“One night, I wasn’t going to go,” she said. “I was just going to stay in, but for some reason I decided to go.”

What she didn’t know is the night she almost skipped out on was going to be the night she met Jim Tullio, a Grammy award-winning producer. After her set, Tullio approached her and offered to meet with her.

“I’ve met a lot of people who claim(ed) they (could) do something for me,” she said.

Skeptical but excited, Toussant set up a meeting with Tullio. She boarded a train, bringing only her guitar. She was on her way.

She played a few songs for the producer.

“He agreed to do one song with me,” Toussant said. “One song turned into two and three, which turned into five. Put that all together, and I had enough for an EP.”

She asked a friend to paint the cover for her, and after about two months of manufacturing, Ashley Brooke Toussant had her own EP. She called it “All Songs in English,” and she had a release party in Chicago in August to celebrate.

Now she’s ready to revisit her home state and show everyone what she’s been working on.

For Toussant, the journey has just begun. So when she feels overwhelmed and her heart starts racing, she asks herself, “Can I do this?” And for Ashley Brooke Toussant, the answer is a definite “yes.”

Contact all correspondent Robert Checkal

at [email protected].