Soul of a Songwriter

The Ryan Toby Interview

Ryan Toby
Photo © Mass Appeal Entertainment.

Ryan Toby is finding it hard to find a little peace and quiet right now; He's on the other end of the phone trying to give an interview, but keeps getting interrupted; first by the noise from his band, which at the time was rehearsing for an upcoming gig; and also by a mysterious voice on his end of the line asking questions and looking for some type of guidance.
One can't help but think that Mr. Toby had better get used to the idea of getting little quiet time, because next month he's due to release his solo debut album and things are due to get even more hectic.

The City High Days

But he should be used the occasionally hectic life of a performer by now. For years he was one-third of the R&B vocal group City High along with Robby Pardillo and Claudette Ortiz. The group's first - and as it turned out, only - album, a self-titled effort, was released in 2001 on Wyclef Jean's Booga Basement music label.
The trio was short-lived, though. "After one album, we were like 'this group stuff is for the birds,' " Toby said. "We're all still cool, though; I talk to Bobby quite often."
Toby said he doesn't miss being part of a group, however; "Not at all. It feels good to be able to walk my own path," he said.
Even before his City High days, Toby spent some time in the spotlight. As a 16-year-old, he appeared in the Whoopi Goldberg movie Sister Act II: Back in the Habit (which also featured a teenage Lauryn Hill).

Songwriting Career

But since the City High's dissolution, Toby's mostly played the background.
For the past few years, he's had an amazing run as a songwriter. The list of people who've recorded his music reads like a who's who in R&B and Rap music: Mary J. Blige, Brian McKnight, Ruben Studdard, Joe, Amerie, New Edition, Ginuwine, 112, Monica, Tyrese, Mario and Chris Brown are just some of the artists who he's written for.

And one of the highlights of his songwriting career came back in March, he said, when he got to write a song for - and meet - his idol, Lionel Richie.
"He told me that I remind me of a young him," Toby revealed. "That was one of the highlights of my career."
As to what about Richie that made him a big fan, Toby said it was a combination of things:
"The songwriting. He wrote timeless records that never died. And he always kept it clean. His style, his presence. He wasn't raunchy."

Flying Solo

So although he's not exactly new to the entertainment scene, Toby's upcoming album, Soul of a Songwriter, which is scheduled for an Aug. 29 release, is his first album as a solo artist. He has no co-stars, no other group members to fall back on in case things get too hectic. The thought is enough to make anyone nervous.
"You know what," he said, "Of course. I don't wanna say 'nervous,' though. My nervousness has turned to confidence."
And even though City High broke up years ago, Toby said that since he played a big part in the trio's sound, it's a natural that it would carry over to his solo work.
"It'll definitely be the City High sound that people grew to know and love. I wrote about 75 percent of that (City High) album. That City High sound is really the Ryan Toby sound."

Married, With Children

But City High's "sound" isn't the only thing Toby took with him after the group broke up; during the group's relatively short time together, he and Claudette Ortiz fell in love. They are now married with two children.
It can't be easy raising a family and being a performer both, so how do they make it work?
"What we've found is the key to success (in the marriage) is to stay together at all times," he revealed. "That's how we've been so successful: staying together all the time."
To that end, Toby acts as his wife's manager and helps guide her career. She's due to release her own debut solo LP later this year, perhaps as early as in the fall, Toby said.

Few Collaborations

But back to Toby's own debut album: despite having done quite well for himself as a songwriter for others over the past few years, Toby said not to expect a lot of guest performers. The song "Just My Thang" features the rapper Beanie Sigel, but other than that, collaborations are scarce: even Ortiz barely appears on the album; she sings background vocals on the song "So Good."
"I didn't want people to get confused as to whose album it was," he explained.
One of the artists you can expect not to hear on Toby's album is Usher, despite the fact that Toby played a big part in the success of Usher's hugely successful 2004 album, Confessions. Three songs that Toby collaborated on, "Caught Up," "Superstar" and "Follow Me" were on the album.
And in fact, if you listen to "Just My Thang," the similarities between Usher's vocal style and Toby's is very clear. Toby said that's because he was a major influence on Usher's vocal style.
"A lot of people, when they hear my album, they say 'you sound a lot like Usher.' They don't know it takes a village to create an album."