Adaptability and change. That’s how Chilean-born singer-songwriter Toni Reutter became the artist she is today. After countless performances both in Chile and in New York City, navigating the language barrier between Spanish and English, and learning at the Clive Davis Institute at NYU, Toni’s artistic road has always been framed by finding freedom in change.
Raised in a household filled with her mother’s paintings, Toni’s creativity was fostered at a young age. She channeled this creativity in every activity from dancing to horseback riding, as encouraged by her parents. But it wasn’t until she was 15 that she fell in love with the art that spoke to her: music. After combining the sound of guitar with her voice, Toni has never looked back.“That’s when I knew music was it,” she says, and since then, she has not stopped writing songs and singing, whether it be for herself, for school, for an audience, or for her upcoming EP.
Toni’s passion for music and the thrill of performing drove her to study music in college, but it wasn’t an easy decision to make. Although her parents wanted her to go to college, studying fine arts like music isn’t encouraged in Chile because of the instability of artistic professions. Because of this stigma, Toni initially decided to study creative writing since “it’s the closest thing to songwriting that isn’t songwriting,” she said as she laughed. Ultimately though, she couldn’t deny her love of performing and songwriting; the music kept calling her back. So her parents made her a deal: she can study music only if she gets into one of the best music programs in the world outside of Chile. Toni jumped at the opportunity, applying early decision to NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music and regular decision to Berklee College of Music and the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. She applied early decision to NYU, she said, “because it’s holistic… I’m not just a singer or a songwriter or a producer, I’m all three.”
And all three she is. When I asked her which she prefers more, Toni said, “I can’t live without any of them, choosing makes me unhappy.” She says that all are essential to her well-being because she can’t only sing, and when she doesn’t write, she says “it feels like I’m drowning.” But her true expression lies in singing her own songs because both processes of singing and writing are “equally important and equally whole.” In order to sing and write, Toni says she draws inspiration from everything. She says “I write about something I feel,” something so internal and important to her that it cannot be expressed in any other way but through music.
A lot of her inspiration comes from other artists as well. When she likes a song, she will listen to only that song and make her own song inspired by that song, “but it will never sound like that song,” she says, “it’s similar, but it isn’t.” I asked her what happens when she’s feeling uninspired, to which she replied, “art stimuli… The more art you see and ingest, the wiser you become and the more set you can make,” a sentiment that probably derives from the art that surrounded her and the various activities she did as a child. Toni goes to museums or listens to other artists or reads books when she feels uninspired. One of her favorite books is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which is known as “The Latin American Bible.” This book is not only written beautifully, but she says, “it helps me understand where I come from, why I am where I am, why I am who I am, why my culture is what it is.”
Toni’s sound and style are a perfect combination of her Latin American roots and more recent American influence. As she is learning and growing in the Clive Davis Institute, Toni says she is still shaping her sound. “Whatever I think it is now could change in a few years,” she says. Right now, Toni says her sound is a fusion of R&B and soul with Latin rhythms, and her style veers towards stronger, belting songs, although she still loves her mellow songs as well. She doesn’t like to stick to one sound, but rather, she likes to have a spectrum of sound and because of this, she is still discovering a lot and trying out new sounds. After coming to New York, she says she’s much more keen to try new things out and see how they work in her music, constantly changing and finding her sound.
But this experimentation is not without difficulty, she admits. Having been born and raised in Chile, her first language is Spanish, so all the songs she’s ever written are in Spanish. Before making the move to New York, Toni says she never thought she could write songs in English, but after being exposed to American music and being surrounded by some of the most talented people she’s ever met, her “writer’s block” gave way to three of her favorite songs, all of which are in English. “I didn’t know I could do that,” she says, “being in Clive and in New York has taught me that it’s worth exploring new things and trying them out.”
This experimentation has expanded beyond just the language barrier as well. Toni has explored mixing different genres and changing the way she makes her own music. When writing music at home, Toni would start playing her guitar, write down chords, hum a melody, and finally fit her lyrics into the melody. But she’s since learned that it’s just as good to reverse the process and make music that way. “You can’t get too comfortable with what you’re writing,” she says, and being more open to exploration in her creative process is a “good uncomfortable.”
However, Toni still remains true to her Latin American roots. When comparing her songs written in Spanish to those in English, she notices that her songs written in Spanish are much more poetic and metaphorical than her English ones. Her songs written in English are concise and straightforward, which is better for a pop market. Although what Toni has written has become more American since moving to New York, she still makes an effort “to try not to lose my roots,” she says. Toni accepts the American influence “happily” but still reminds herself that she “comes from Latin music and Latin culture.” The discomfort of writing music in a second language pushes her beyond the limits she thought she could reach, but she is always bringing to life the culture that raised her. In doing so, she is finding the freedom in the intersection of Latin American and American art.
Toni pushes her limits in every aspect of her musical expression, but her fusion of American and Latin American cultures sometimes proves to be difficult. Despite regularly performing at venues in Chile, New York is different she says. It’s easier because there are so many more booking agents and venues to reach out to, but she says “it’s harder to read my audience.” Performing in New York was a bit of a shock to her because she cannot freely speak Spanish as she did in Chile. If she sings in Spanish, she doesn’t know how the audience will react, but when she decides to, she says, “I have to make sure that the performance is good. I have to sing the song well, I have to put on a good show, and I have to make sure everything is good.” The challenge of the language barrier has given her space to think about who she wants her audience to be. She says that singing in Spanish is intimidating at times because she doesn’t want to lose that audience, but after performing a couple times in new York and writing songs in English, she has become comfortable with he challenge. “I’m happy to perform in both places,” she says.
Toni’s first big performance in New York took place at the Tisch Gala hosted by NYU, which celebrates the school’s accomplishments, the accomplishments of its alumni, and its dedication to the arts. The Gala is Tisch’s biggest night of the year as some of its notable alumni such as Alec Baldwin are in attendance, so when Toni received an email from one of her professors asking her to sing at the Gala, needless to say she was excited. Toni said she’d never done anything like this event before because it was very formal; she had to wear a long dress and sing for an audience filled with celebrities, even Clive Davis himself. After singing some covers and original songs of hers, Toni said it was amazing experience to have and would totally do it again.
Toni also recently had another gig at Pianos in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in April, which she said was harder to put together because the set required a whole band that she had to provide herself. Most of the band members were comprised of friends of friends Toni knew. Because of this, Toni said it felt “bigger, more to handle.” But with the help of her friends and fans, she had a successful night.
Since her goal is to be an artist, I asked her what her advice to aspiring artists trying to make in New York City is. She answered with a jovial enthusiasm, “just throw yourself out there.” She did so herself by sending emails to 35 booking agents only to get a single one back. But that one she says was “a trampoline.” After her first show at Pianos, she received two other emails from booking agents asking her to perform, one of which will be at The Bitter End on September 13. She also advises to see friends’ shows and trying to meet people in the music scene and talking to booking agents. “It’s New York,” she says, “everything is right there, you don’t have to dig much.”
Taking everything she’s learned from performing and classes, Toni is looking towards the future and wants to officially release an EP she is currently working on. In everything she does, Toni says, “I want my work to be as close to perfection as possible,” so in order to do this, Toni wants to travel to the countries from which she draws aural inspiration. She wants to travel either to Mexico because she has connections there and the Latin American music market there is lively or to Cuba because the music she wants to record has a lot of Cuban influence. Toni says she wants her music to be received with “as much love as I produce it with and to help people find their voice.” For Toni, it’s more important to feel support and love from her music than the amount she sells.
Toni’s is a story that begins with a boundless creative freedom and ends with an inevitable success. Throughout her career, she’s done everything she knew she had to do in order to become the artists she wants. From constantly performing to finding new ways to write and sing to moving across continents to pursue a dream to going to one of the best music schools in the world, Toni has adapted and taken advantage of every opportunity she had. The future is hers for the taking.
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