T-dot's hard-rocking b-girl keeps people guessing

GRAPH NOBEL with ALISTAIR at the Bamboo (312 Queen West), Saturday (June 1). $10. 416-593-5771 and at the Rivoli (332 Queen West), June 7, 11 pm. $18/wristband. 416-596-1908.

Rating: NNNNN

For a 23-year-old whose recent gigs have looked more like record-industry conventions than midweek shows, Toronto singer Graph Nobel seems unsettlingly relaxed. She’s already won North By Northeast’s Galaxie Rising Award for best new artist, and inspired the peculiar sight of Sony chief Denise Donlon standing on her toes in an over-packed Holy Joe’s to see the tiny singer onstage, even though she hasn’t released a note. Graph — born Christa Gonzales — is lounging in a corner booth in a Queen West cafĂ©, picking at a salad and trying to understand what all the fuss is about.

“It’s nice that people are interested,” she smiles. That’s an understatement.

The label-weasel-per-square-foot count at the series of showcases Graph did at Holy Joe’s this spring was incredible. In addition to Donlon, the heads of at least two other major labels were fighting for floor space with every A&R rep in town and what seemed like the entire staff of one label, while a handful of curious observers stood on the bar trying to see what all the fuss was about.

Onstage, the deceptively diminutive Graph Nobel is a tsunami, skipping between soulful singing and smooth rhyming. The amount of energy kicked up is impressive, but what also gets necks snapping is the way Graph effortlessly slips between hiphop, pop and rock.

It’s very raw, but right now at least that’s what’s most interesting about it. A suburban b-girl who grew up listening to hiphop and pop and is plugged directly into the Toronto hiphop underground — with connections to producers like Doc (Esthero/Res), Da Grassroots and 2Rude and singer/MC K-OS — Graph has made the most of Toronto’s uncommon openness to music, where a handful of styles can rub up against each other and purists don’t get shifty.

Nobel likes to confound expectations about what kind of performer people think she should be. Those expecting something in line with the hiphop-flavoured elements of Doc’s earlier projects are in for a shock.

“People see me and think, “Black chick — she must be an R&B singer,'” she snorts, peering out the window of the Tequila Bookworm as a car full of Leafs fans drives by. “I like to take that and twist it around.” Club-goers can see what that means when she plays the Bamboo Saturday (June 1) and the Rivoli as part of NXNE on June 7.

“I was really drawn to Graph in part because you don’t see a lot of black people in the industry, and especially black women, who are really open to making different kinds of music,” Doc says later, sipping on a Ting. “Because of how you look, you get put into a box before you even begin.

“Someone like Nelly Furtado can come out and do all these different things and be considered a genius, but people get freaked out when a black musician does the rock thing or the folk thing.”

To some, the constant switching between styles comes off as amateurish, and to a degree it is. For all her overwhelming confidence and obvious potential, Christa Gonzales is still trying to figure out who she wants Graph Nobel to be.

The scary part is that her showcases were packed with people eager to mould her into the next Furtado or (yikes) Amanda Marshall.

In response, Graph hopes that when she does finally sign a deal, a record will be finished before anyone can get his or her hands in the mix.

“Record people always say after the show, “That was great. Do you know what direction you’re going to go in?,'” she laughs. “I just want to answer, “All of them.’ As soon as you narrow it down, it loses something.

“To me, it’s just pop music, whether it’s Jay-Z or Limp Bizkit or Moby. Before, these would have all been separated into different genres. Now, our generation can accept things being mixed up.

“I have a short attention span, and everyone listens to everything.”

It was her initial collaborations with K-OS and a brief stint working in New York that first helped Graph establish her open-ended approach.

“I’ve been making music since I was a kid, but I didn’t really take it seriously until I started working with K-OS and some other cats,” she explains. “We were in a little rap group called Emissary, recorded two songs and then went our separate ways — K-OS and the others got deals and I went to New York.

“I’d never been there before, but that city’s such a huge influence on hiphop that I just had to go. Another girl and I had a little rap group, and she had some connections in New York, so we went down and did the rounds. It was crazy.”

Trying to break out in the New York hiphop underground was an intense experience, as well as an expensive one — “I charged it all on my credit card, and just paid off the last two years of my life last month,” she laughs.

The MC’s return from New York initiated a trend that has continued in her short career. Graph, in her own words, “checked into the studio and decided that I was tired of rhyming.” Instead, she began creating music that veered from hard rock and straight-up pop to hiphop-flavoured folk and beyond.

A major step in that process was Graph’s collaboration with Toronto-via-Minneapolis producer Doc. As head of the independent Black Corners imprint and a producer for Esthero, Res and Kelis, Doc has kept Graph’s sonic options as wide open as possible, encouraging her to bruise eardrums at one incredibly loud show and play acoustically the next.

“That’s my fault,” Doc laughs. “Part of the thing about recording a song is that you hear it so many times and in so many ways. We start on one thing and then we’ll hear a different side to it, and that completely changes the character of the song.”

“I started working at a skateboard shop, and my ears were opened to a lot of different sounds,” Graph adds. “I wasn’t afraid to say I liked No Doubt. People in hiphop don’t listen to anything else but hiphop, and I wasn’t into that.

“This was also the perfect place for me. In the States, you’ve got to commit to one style of music. I’m still experimenting with what I’m doing. I do rock shows because I like to rock out, I like electronic songs and I like to do hiphop tracks, too.”

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