Amanda Tosoff brings poetry to life with Earth Voices

Pianist and composer Amanda Tosoff continues to take creative and stylistic leaps with her latest album Earth Voices.

Coming in January, the new recording is the follow-up to her Juno-nominated album Words. Taking inspiration from poetry, Tosoff uses her gifts for composition and arrangement to make personal and emotional connections that resonate in her music.

Earth Voices features a stellar lineup of Toronto-based musicians along with seven guest vocalists, including two songs performed by two-time Juno winner Emilie-Claire Barlow. The album is also being released by Barlow’s record label, Empress Music.

Tosoff and Barlow both joined us to talk about Earth Voices and their years’ worth of collaborations.

Emilie-Claire, tell us about this new initiative in your life. You’re a musician who’s now also supporting other artists through your new record label, Empress Music. 

Barlow: It really started with just being excited about what Amanda’s doing. She’s a very exciting and exceptional artist. She has it all going on. I wanted to be involved, and I wanted to take some of the knowledge that I’ve gathered over the decades and try to be an energy for her, and be involved in the creation of something, and spread the word about beautiful, exciting music. I’ve built up a good base on some of the streaming platforms, and through trial and error and much frustration, I’ve learned a lot along the way. I just wanted to pass some of that on. I wanted to be a cheerleader. I wanted to be part of this exciting project. I think this is an extraordinary album.

Amanda was in your touring group. What did you like about her as a musician?

Barlow: Amanda fit into the band perfectly. She came into the band when I was touring Clear Day. To be in my band, you have to be a pretty versatile player. There are a lot of different styles, and Amanda handles all of those styles extremely well. She can swing, she can play bossa nova, she’s funky and groovy, and I just love the way she plays. I love her sense of melody, I love her voicings, and she’s a great person to be around. I was definitely a fan of her previous album Words, and when she asked me to be a part of this new album Earth Voices, I was extremely honoured.

Amanda, what’s it like to hear someone celebrate you in that way?

Tosoff: It’s fantastic. I mean, I can say all the same things about Emilie-Claire. I’ve so enjoyed playing in her band. She’s a rockstar. I admire her musically, but she can also stand in front of an orchestra and say what she wants, and I admire that. It’s been fabulous working with her, and I’m so stoked to have her on my project now.

Emilie-Claire is kind of this machine when it comes to her career — not just the artistry side of it, but the business side, the entrepreneurial side, the promotional side. Being around that energy, has that been helpful in the process of making your own albums?

Tosoff: Absolutely. We’ve been in contact multiple times a week for the last six months or so, just talking about possibilities. It’s been really, really inspiring to think about those possibilities and the collaborations we can have with this project.

Poetry has a big role in Earth Voices, as it did with the last album. Tell me about your relationship with poetry, and specifically when it comes to Earth Voices.

Tosoff: My previous recording Words was sort of an accident. I just wanted to create a little composition exercise for myself: to write a melody to a poem. I ended up writing something that was so different from anything I had written before, because I was taking this beautiful, preexisting piece of art that had so much imagery I could play with. It was so much fun that I ended up writing a whole album. I’d never been a poetry buff, but I’ve become one because I have so much fun with it.

Tell us about some of the other folks you gathered for Earth Voices. It’s really a big project.

Tosoff: Yeah, there are 17 people on the record. I have a guest vocalist for almost every track. I got Emilie-Claire to sing on two — I couldn’t decide between them. I have Laila Biali, Lydia Persaud, Felicity Williams, Robin Dann, Alex Samaras and Michelle Willis. And then I have Allison Au and Kelly Jefferson on saxophone, Morgan Childs on drums, Jon Maharaj on bass, Alex Goodman on guitar, and then four wonderful string players: Aline Homzy, Jeremy Potts, Laurence Schaufele and Beth Silver. Sorry, I had to say all their names. I couldn’t leave them out.

Barlow: You’re ready to give your acceptance speech, Amanda.

Did you have a final say, Emilie-Claire? Were there any ideas you had to shut down?

Barlow: No, no. Never, never, never. This is Amanda’s baby. David Hermiston recorded and co-produced it so beautifully, and Amanda’s arrangements are so gorgeous. Like I said, I’m here as a cheerleader, to do whatever I can do to get this albums to as many ears as possible. I know what it’s like to have somebody on your team, somebody to bounce ideas off and to put some energy toward it. That’s my role. Amanda does whatever she wants.

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What was the timeline for this project? Was this recorded pre-COVID or during COVID?

Tosoff: Actually, we started recording last July. I was planning on releasing it earlier, but then COVID hit and I postponed it and postponed it until I just decided to release it. We did it differently from previous records. Normally, for a jazz recording you do it with everyone in the studio, for the most part. This one had a lot of over-dubbing of different parts and vocalists. It became part of the composition process, which was really fun.

Was that an adjustment that was easy to make? Was it something that was exciting as it was revealed?

Tosoff: Well, the core group had played the music quite a bit, and I had fleshed out and thought through it long and hard. Because the band knew the music so well, they were able to lay it down very musically, and then the vocalists came in and did their beautiful thing. It ended up better than I could have imagined.

The first tune is Dream Within a Dream. Do you want to tell us about that one?

Tosoff: This is my melody and arrangement, featuring a famous poem by Edgar Allan Poe called Dream Within a Dream. My take on his poem might be a little different from where it’s coming from; I read after the fact that it was written after his wife had passed away, so it’s actually quite sad. But my reading of it in the moment that I found it was that there’s this narrator who is watching important things slip away and there’s this confusion and questioning: Is this all a dream within a dream? I wanted to capture that mystery and confusion. But the tune is also a little fun, I have to admit.

This interview has been edited and condensed.