When Adam Levine told Tonya Boyd-Cannon she’d have to perform Elton John’s “Take Me to the Pilot” on the “Live” segment of NBC’s talent competition The Voice, she cried. It wasn’t a lack of fortitude—toughness was a prerequisite for her former position as a sheriff’s deputy in the Orleans Parish Prison. Her struggle wasn’t about technical challenges, either. She just couldn’t make it work. She tried praying, meditating, doing yoga … still, nothing. “Why would Adam do this to me?” she thought.
Finally, in a last-minute rehearsal before the televised performance, she made a suggestion. “Let me put my own twist on it,” she told the show’s musical director Paul Mirkovich. “Give me some church music in the beginning and let me usher myself into it.” He did. And as she began to sing the infamously abstruse lyrics, eyes closed, something clicked.
Before the cameras on April 7, Boyd-Cannon traded the tune’s familiar piano intro for a few bars of restrained vibrato, then wrapped her gospel-rooted contralto around the melody and transformed the chorus into a soul-searching appeal for guidance. By all accounts—including those of celebrity coaches Levine, Pharrell Williams, Christina Aguilera and Blake Shelton—she nailed it.
“She’s a confidence builder. She’s unafraid,” Levine marveled. “That was crazy.”
Viewers agreed, electing to send her on to the next round as part of the Top 20 finalists. It would be her last—Levine advanced another member of his team on the following episode. But her tenure on the show kick-started a new phase of her career: her fan base has grown, as has her determination to capitalize on her success. She returned to New Orleans after being cut in Los Angeles and immediately hit the studio with her band, which has been working on a new album between gigs, rehearsals and Boyd-Cannon’s work as a voice teacher and choir director.
This month, she brings her Essence ReVieux—a variety show featuring performers on the Essence Festival bill (plus, she hopes, one or two other Top 20 Voice contestants)—to the Blue Nile on July 3. On the Fourth, she’ll perform in the festival’s Soul of R&B Superlounge.
As for “Take Me to the Pilot”—a song even Elton John and Bernie Taupin have said they never understood—the Mississippi-born, New Orleans-bred singer felt a greater sense of achievement in mastering it because doing so required her to speak up and find a way to make it her own. She’d done something similar when, in the beginning of the season, she sang Pharrell’s “Happy,” seemingly unconcerned about the added risk involved in introducing herself to him with his hit. (He buzzed in with his approval almost immediately, spinning his chair around to face her). Still, “Happy” seemed more in sync with her regular, soul-heavy repertoire.
“Fans were like, ‘That song wasn’t for you,’” she recalls. “I say out of all the songs I performed on the show, ‘Take Me to the Pilot’ was the best one … it’s one of those songs that I can rebirth.”
The 35-year-old singer and multi-instrumentalist is seated on a bench in City Park on a hot afternoon in June. She has just wrapped a long day of teaching voice to kids in the Little Village Youth Ensemble, one of multiple choral groups she leads. In a few hours, she’ll turn her attention back to her own band at an evening rehearsal.
“What I took away from [the show] is to always be myself, because everybody else is taken,” she says, lapsing as she often does into one of the mantras likely responsible for the fearlessness Levine said he admired. “It wasn’t that I wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t that I couldn’t out-sing anyone, because it was never about that. It was just that my time had started and that was my season where it ended.”
That philosophy seems to stem more from Boyd-Cannon’s overall Zen mindset than from any kind of complacency. Having grown up singing in church, where her father was a preacher, she continued on as a vocalist in high school, adding sax to her skill set. Soon after graduation, she toured with Jean Knight (of “Mr. Big Stuff” fame) as a backup singer. When, in the early 2000s, she took on the sheriff’s deputy role at Orleans Parish Prison, she continued to make music central to her work, leading a men’s choir, organizing a women’s choir and initiating the prison’s first co-ed singing group—all of which she works with on a volunteer basis today.
“It’s not about the [money], it’s about what I get every day setting up these choirs and allowing the different voices of people to learn who they are. Because I had men and women who said, ‘I would never sing’ or ‘I always led everything at my church,’” she says.
“I’m like, ‘Well, you not gonna lead everything here, because it’s a community,’” she says, turning on her sheriff’s deputy voice like a switch.
“These guys will tell ya, ‘Miss Cannon, I ain’t no singer, I’m a rapper,’” she continues. “I’d say, ‘Okay I’m gonna play something and you just gonna freestyle. Sing how you feel right now. No rapping.’ And they do and everything’s on pitch. Everyone’s a singer in their own right. [For] a lot of people it takes pulling it out of them.”
Boyd-Cannon released her first album, 2007’s gospel-centric Rise My Child, after losing her home in the floodwaters that followed Katrina. In 2008, she completed her studies in classical voice at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. Despite the setbacks she faced around that time—a contracting scam left her unable to rebuild, while a bout of stress-induced, post-K memory loss later left her unable to read music—she continued to work on new material.
“Yes, it’s been hard, but I’m grateful,” she says. “I can complain, but why? If I complain, I can’t progress.”
Now 35, much of Boyd-Cannon’s original music is either deeply personal or firmly rooted in her hometown. “No Approval” details how she stopped looking outside of herself for validation, while “Call It Jazz” invites listeners to dispense with labels and simply appreciate the artistry of icons like Louis Armstrong and Uncle Lionel Batiste.
“In New Orleans,” which she’s performed with the Free Agents Brass Band, rests visual impressions of her downtown world—Washington Square, Frenchmen Street’s clubs, the beignet shop where she treats her students after class—on a mix of breezy melodic lines and unexpected octave jumps.
“I like to paint the picture visually for those who can’t see. And I like to perform with the emotion for those who can’t hear so they could feel,” she says, segueing into the kind of cadence and imagery her father might have used in church.
“Tonya’s extremely creative,” says her musical director and longtime collaborator, bassist Marius Tilton.
“We’ll be in the middle of a song and she’ll say, ‘Remix.’ She’ll start humming the bass line, the guitar riff and the keyboard melody, and we’ll have a new song. Most singers, they learn a song to a T, and if you ask them to go outside the box, you’ve lost them.”
For Boyd-Cannon, however, this often translates into recasting music so it feels more honest. On good days, she can find a new piece of herself in the process.