Finding Her Place: Why Tonina and Her New Album, St. Lost, Should Be on Your Music Radar
Story: Jennifer Rolf
Photos: Cory Weaver
If you haven’t heard of Tonina, it’s time we introduced you. The mononymous singer, songwriter, poet, bassist, guitarist and music journalist is unlike anything the St. Louis music scene has experienced—but everything we need. Still in her early 20s, she’s accomplished and experienced more than many of us will in twice that time.
Growing up in St. Louis, Tonina's mother and father instilled a love of music in her that resonated from an early age. She began lessons on the double bass before she hit double digits, and her parents, seeing her passion and dedication for playing the instrument, bought her one of her own, which she affectionately named “Chauncey.”
Tonina and Chauncey have had quite the ride. As a teen she led the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra and the Missouri All-State Orchestra’s respective bass sections. She performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York City with Kirkwood High School’s symphonic orchestra. She perfected her skills at the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston, earning a double degree. While there she studied abroad at the school’s Valencia campus, where she met Grammy Award-winning producer and songwriter, Javier Limón. And in her spare time, she started an alternative R&B band (“we enjoyed rock music and progressive rock but we also enjoyed jazz and classic R&B, so we mixed the two and we created our own sound with that genre”) with Berklee friend Heather Rivas, now called Her Say.
But let’s focus on 2018 for a minute. It was no doubt a memorable one for Tonina: she released an album, produced by Limón, called Black Angel (under Tonina Saputo). Barack Obama chose her arrangement of “Historia de un Amor” (featuring Limón and Tali Rubinstein) from the album as one of his favorite songs of 2018. She was also named among NPR’s up-and-coming “Slingshot” artists of 2018, and she was on the media organization’s list of top artists of the year.
Those accomplishments aside, Tonina knew she could not rest on those laurels alone. She had more in her, and that was her newly released album, St. Lost. With St. Lost, Tonina has come into her own, on her own. She wrote the songs and produced the album—something she was unable to do with Black Angel, which features songs written by Limón and her arrangements of covers, but none of her original work.
“I didn’t feel that Black Angel represented my true authentic self,” she said. “It was fully written and produced by my then manager, and I didn’t have any creative control.” Through St. Lost, she feels she can “give fans and listeners a new perspective into my songwriting and art.”
The title, St. Lost, is a nod to her roots here and the homesickness she felt while she was away at school, and her longing to make her music career work in STL. “In Boston and Spain, I felt homesick and ungrounded. I felt extremely lost, not knowing who I was as an artist yet,” she said. “I felt strong ties to St. Louis, yet not knowing if I could spend the rest of my life in STL.”
Although her music is often categorized in other ways, Tonina prefers to call herself a folk musician. But many still try to confine her to jazz. “I don’t feel as though I qualify as jazz. It is different for each listener of my music. However, I don’t consider myself just a jazz musician,” she said.
You can indeed find folk in her sound, plus elements of Latin, soul, blues, world music, jazz, funk and R&B. She’ll even break out a rock tune from time to time. She sings in English, Spanish and Sicilian.
Even with all of her worldly experience, she chose to return to St. Louis and make her home base here. “No matter where I went, it didn’t feel like my home in STL,” she said. Plus she felt she had more freedom to do what she wanted with her music “since the cost of living is so low.”
I don’t feel as though I qualify as jazz. It is different for each listener of my music. However, I don’t consider myself just a jazz musician
Although she makes her home in the Lou, she knows her music has a broader audience than here alone, and she travels extensively to perform in support of it. This summer she is taking her sound overseas to tour the new album, making multiple stops in England, Italy and Spain.
“I find that abroad, the arts, regardless of medium, is more supported and valued,” she said. “People will show up even if they don’t know the artists on the bill. Cultures abroad especially have a respect for music created by Black Americans.”
As for her shows stateside, Florida and New York are also on her list before she makes her way back to St. Louis for a performance at Delmar Hall on August 17.
In some ways, St. Louis is not quite ready for Tonina, and it seems like she knows it. She evokes a quality that can be found in the music clubs of other cities, such as New York, Miami and Paris. “St. Louis does not respond to my music the way other cities do. Not that that is bad, it’s just different,” she said. “Many St. Louisans don’t understand my Spanish lyrics but my audience abroad does. It gives a different meaning to my music.”
Luckily, she’s not giving up on us.
Recently at the RFT Music Showcase in June, during her performance at the Atomic Cowboy, she felt strong support from the local music scene. “It was great,” she said. “It was refreshing…we had so much fun and loved playing to familiar faces who had supported me from when I first moved back to St. Louis.”