Tobey Kai is a classically trained Canadian singer-songwriter. She studied piano and voice from a young age in British Columbia and later in Calgary, Alberta. Driven by her compassion for worldly issues, she writes with strong emotion. “Music is my way of communicating my deepest fears, my ultimate happiness, and my darkest sorrows, when words simply aren’t enough.” Kai is also a traumatic brain injury survivor who credits music for her tremendous recovery.
We sat down with Tobey to chat more about her inspiring journey, her EP, new projects, and what keeps her inspired.
I would love to learn a little bit more about you and your journey as an artist. When did it all start?
My parents are really musical. My mom is an opera singer and although she doesn’t sing with an opera, she was incredibly talented and she performed wherever she could all her life. I was always inspired by that.
Since the age of six or seven, I began my journey as a competitive classical pianist. Though we moved around a lot, that was one thing I was adamant on doing wherever we were. My parents traveled a lot, so I grew up with a non-traditional family lifestyle; I was often on my own. When you’re a kid and you’ve got a piano and not much else, you get pretty creative.
That must have been hard; though it sounds like this type of artistic expression has shaped you into who you are today and the kind of music you make. Did you go to school for music?
I studied piano with the Royal Conservatory of Music until Grade 10. I also studied under Donald Bell, who is now retired. He was one of the music professors at the University of Calgary; he took three or four students and I was one of the lucky ones. Donald is quite the guy, having spent his whole life touring the world, singing with German and Italian operas. Donald is a Canadian Baritone and I think he even has his own Wikipedia page.
Having a Wikipedia page - that’s the dream! In terms of your actual work, what kind of music do you create and what does your work aim to say?
Not all of my music is geared towards expressing one of my emotions or bring awareness to a single cause. My style is pretty diverse - everything from jazz to classical to hip hop and actually some industrial and heavy metal. I think that’s one of my defining factors of my music - that I’m not confined by a genre.
A lot of times I hear people say “You’re not going to make it unless you have a signature sound.” And I agree to an extent.
If you want to be a popular culture singer, you have to have a certain genre to your songs. But that makes you feel kind of like a McDonalds, where all your burgers have to be the same.
I definitely like being a boutique artist. It means being raw about my emotions and delivering what I feel, without putting labels on it.
This is why the first four songs off my EP have to do with the four causes that are the most dear to my heart. I thought that now that I am releasing music into the world, it has to be something that I care about.
The first song I wrote was in 2017, and it was dedicated to brain injuries and memory loss. I felt that this is something we don’t talk about - we just say that as we get older, it happens. But it doesn’t. And in my work in the medical field, I’ve met mothers who have early onset Alzeihmer’s, mothers who are pregnant and experiencing these symptoms. It’s so debilitating and people don’t talk about it. Who are we without our memories? That’s something that’s really important to me.
My grandfather passed away from cancer; but in his late stages, he didn’t know who I was. That hurt more than the fact that he was dying. It was like he was already gone before he passed, and that really hit me. The first song off my EP has a lot of things that he said to me verbatim.
On January 14th 2018, I ended up in a horrible accident on a ski hill. I hit a patch of ice, fell down, and was laying on my back.
Another skier (we think was drunk) didn’t brake and went straight through my head. It was horrible. My helmet was shattered everywhere and right away, I was paralyzed neck down and the pain was next level. I remember thinking “just kill me. I can’t make it to the hospital.”
They found that I had heavy bleeding in my brain. At that time, I wasn’t sure if I was able to sing again, walk again, use my limbs again. The worst part was that I wrote that song about brain injuries and this happened right before it came out. The irony is not lost on me. I felt almost like a prophet - that I predicted this.
However, after that song came out, I was taken back because I felt like it was really genuine. Even though I wrote the song when I had a healthy brain, the song was written from the perspective of someone who had a brain injury. So when I listened to it for the second time, it felt like almost an anthem to myself. From my normal self to my now-struggling and recovering self.
After about 5 months of bedrest, I had enough. My fiancé, at the time, propped me up and arranged my workstation around me so that I could write because I thought that I might actually not get better. Usually people with this intense of injuries don’t.
I thought, if I’m just sitting here waiting, I might sit here 10 years and remain exactly as I am. This is where I wrote my song about ocean conservation Ondine. That song is so important to me. I had already written it before my first song, but it was so important to me and I felt that I needed to get it right. I needed to feel it. With Alzheimer’s, it wasn’t that difficult because people usually know someone with it and so, they can relate to it. However, with the ocean, unless you grow up to it or aren’t already influenced by what’s happening to our world, it’s hard to relate to. I grew up in Vancouver and the ocean was our home.
The second last song is dedicated to breast cancer. During the phase of creating this album, my best friend got diagnosed with breast cancer. She spent her whole life running marathons and raising money for various causes such as breast cancer and she happened to get diagnosed. And the last song on the EP is dedicated to veterans.
Thank you for sharing the stories and emotions behind your songs. Out of personal curiosity, how did you find that inner strength to create again? I can only imagine how shattering your accident must’ve been.
Yeah, you feel really empty. It’s like every morning you wake up and you’re in shock again. Because in your dreams, you feel whole and running. And then you wake up and realize that you have to learn to speak and walk again.
I think you have to be put in the position to realize that you don’t really have another choice. For anyone from the outside looking in, it seems like I did the impossible. But when it becomes your reality, you really only have two choices: become a victim or embrace your reality and do the best you can.
How is the creative process for you now? In terms of being inspired and writing about environmental content.
Yeah, it’s really different. Before, it was more natural. Now, when I have an idea, my brain needs to process it long enough to put the idea down on paper, but not too long that I forget it.
But the passion will always be there. You know you’re passionate about the environment when every time you see a piece of plastic, it actually makes you feel irked inside. It bothers you on a personal level. This is where the passion comes from - it’s so personal.
Is there a particular piece that you’re particularly proud of?
I love them all equally. Every single one of them is a piece of my life. But, I would say Ondine is my favourite, the piece about ocean conservation. I definitely wrote that at the toughest time in my life - I was making music, but I wasn’t able to leave my house yet. I’m really proud of that - it was a testament to my willpower.
Ondine was the song you submitted for our EarthDay song challenge and we were so touched. It feels even more powerful to know the story behind it. You mentioned that you’re now going to school for acupuncture. How did you make that shift and how does art play a role in that?
I’ve always been a total hippie. Not an anti-vaxxer, completely vegan hippie. But I’ve always been super interested in helping people and making connections. This is the one thing I enjoy doing outside of music. And I felt that holistic medicine, and specifically acupuncture gives you that ability. I did my undergrad in Biology and had the choice to the MCAT and go to med school, but I felt it was so rigid.
I truly believe that people’s problems are half spiritual, half psychological - and that’s coming from someone with a background in science. I think acupuncture helped quite a bit after the accident, and I started going to school for it the year that I finished my double degree in university. In fact, my accident happened during the last year of my program so I had to do an entire extra year.
What’s your biggest source of inspiration?
Honestly, just life. When I was in the hospital, I wasn’t breathing on my own. The first breath I took with my own lungs: it felt like I was born again.
I started wondering why we are all expecting so much all the time. People want so much out of life. You need to connect back and work on feeling grateful. It’s so cool to know how many billions of cells are working in harmony to keep you alive. It’s inspiring just knowing that we’re living on borrowed time and we have an expiry date. We’re basically just tourists. And as tourists, we should leave the place in the same state or even better than we got there. That inspires me through my life and my music.
I love thinking about this - how many miracles it took to get us here. Do you have any advice for budding artists out there?
To be true to yourself. Not in terms of not letting people tell you what to do and what not to do, but in terms of improving your voice and technique. When it comes to style an the message, it is so important to be authentic. If you make it and you’re not authentic, did you really make it? Are you a business person or an artist? If you’re true to yourself, your music speaks for you. The message you’re trying to send is so important. Music needs to have a message.
In the artist community, there’s a lot of competition. It is a saturated market and there’s tons of music, but at the same time, there’s not enough. There’s not enough authenticity or people speaking the truth.
If we’re true to ourselves and speak our truth, no one will feel like they are competing because we’re all so different.
That’s what’s important. Support each other, emphasize differences, and lift each other up.
What’s the next step for you? New music?
Yes, I haven’t stopped making music. I put out a song on July 19th called Commandeer. It’s a song about multiple breakups. This song is the first one about my life, it’s a little more fun and lighter. It’s there to keep people engaged and to let them know that they are not alone.