Toni Gibson more Winehouse than Westenra

Gray Bartlett, veteran Auckland musician, composer, producer and promoter, takes the credit for discovering and guiding the amazingly successful singing career of Hayley Westenra. Now he has the career of Wellington classical crossover songstress Toni Gibson in his care and declares her just as inspiring.

Gibson, 20, who looks more Amy Winehouse than Westenra, released her first album, Echo in My Soul, in mid-May. Within a week, aided by clever promotion, it was No 12 on the charts.

Bartlett has had his eye on Gibson since she was a child of 12 on the Kapiti Coast and won the Coastlands Top 20 singing competition. Coincidentally, it was seeing Bartlett’s name associated with Westenra at a concert attended by Gibson and her family that prompted her parents to contact him and send him the CD that had been made as Gibson’s Coastlands Top 20 prize. On it, Gibson sang Bridge Over Troubled Water, the national anthem and a Charlotte Church song.

Bartlett’s advice, says Gibson, was to wait a couple of years. So she did, beavering away at her school work and continuing with the singing lessons she had begged from her parents at the age of 7. They thought she was super-talented, as parents do.

When Gibson was 14 and at Paraparaumu College, they had another three-track recording made, at the same place as the first, Capital E. “We sent it off to Gray and he said the same positive things, and to come back in a couple of years.”

None of this was a fob-off. Bartlett knew time would tell. At 16, Gibson went to Manuka Studios in Auckland, recorded another EP CD “and was taken on”. Her parents knew for sure she did indeed have great promise. Her dad, Shane, is acting as her manager.

“They will not give up on me,” says Gibson, “They know I can make it. I couldn’t do it without them. I wouldn’t know where to start or what to do. I’m so blessed to have them.

“At a certain point I will have to fly on my own, which will be a bit weird.”

Gibson’s plan is a concert tour in New Zealand and later a release of the album in Australia, where she will live for a while.

“The plan is, if Australia goes well, moving to the UK and releasing the album there. Most classical crossover artists are centred in the UK.”

Meanwhile she has signed a three-album contract with Fanfare Records in Australia. She was thrilled to find famous singers associated with the label, including Michael Crawford, “one of my biggest idols”.

The signing, she says, fulfilled a dream. So did her solo concert, with Bartlett, at Expressions Arts and Entertainment Centre in Upper Hutt in March last year.

“It was an amazing experience. The whole night couldn’t have gone better. I was so proud … And the Christmas concert last year [Christmas in the Park, Christchurch]. That was the most people I’ve ever performed in front of, a big park and I couldn’t see the grass and I thought ‘woah!’ ”

Gibson is not just a pretty voice. She’s a martial arts exponent, and only stopped doing full-contact kyokushin karate because “Dad pulled me out. He didn’t like me doing it”. Commitment to her singing intervened in her path to a black belt in a slightly less fierce form. She tries to get in two sessions of taekwondo each week.

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“I like the discipline. I like to challenge my mind. I like being mentally strong and feeling strong.”

She met her partner through their shared interest in martial arts. They live on the Kapiti Coast close to her parents.

Gibson is prepared to deal firmly with possible fame. She describes herself as a shy person, but not on stage.

She never wanted to be anything but a singer from the time she was a small child and has pursued the dream as a reality.

When she says she aspires to roles like Johanna in Sweeney Todd – she’s played the role in Levin – or Christine in Phantom of the Opera on a “big” stage, that might not be just wishful thinking.


Toni Gibson’s Echo in My Soul is out now and this week is No 11 in the NZ album charts.