There’s just something about a comeback story that plays to human emotions and makes you want to root for the main character; such is the case with Karen Tobin.
Between the mid-80s and early 90s, the Pennsylvania native was signed to two major record labels. After two singles were released by the first label and her critically-acclaimed debut album Carolina Smokey Moon was released by the second, Tobin found herself without a label as the first quarter of the 90s came to a close.
Undeterred, Tobin released another critically-acclaimed album less than two years after losing her second record deal, and another album ten years later.
What followed was 15 years of radio silence. Still active on stage, Tobin returned with her newest album Before It’s Too Late in early 2018; an album that takes listeners on a journey of personal loss and happiness that she has experienced in that time.
But before writing that journey and her two record deals, Tobin was drawing influence from great 70s rock artists, including Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Poco, and Buffalo Springfield.
After continuing to grow her love and passion for music, a chance for Tobin to step in to the forefront made her realize that she wanted to pursue a career in music.
“I was asked to sing a lead vocals with a band that I was singing backup vocals for,” says Tobin. “After I sang lead, I knew I wanted to keep doing it.”
And she did just that, eventually forming her own band. The band earned a showcase at The Troubadour in Hollywood, California, and impressed a major player in the industry.
“There was an A&R man, Bud Scoppa, in the audience at the showcase, and the next thing I did was a private showcase at SIR for Clive Davis, my attorney Jay Stein, my husband, Tim Boyle, and the sound engineer,” says Tobin. “I put on a set as if we were in front of thousands of people, but it was only an audience of four.”
Tobin’s performance stuck in the head of Davis, who enjoyed her performance so much that he asked to see her again.
“I was so excited to have his interest,” says Tobin. “He invited me to come to the Beverly Hills Hotel to meet me in a more personal setting after the showcase. I can remember the outfit I wore, and how extremely nervous I was to meet him again.”
Davis signed Tobin to Arista Records, with her debut single “I Don’t Want to Be Lonely” being released to radio in 1984; and allowed Tobin the opportunity to hear herself coming over the airwaves for the first time.
“Clive talked to me about a few producer ideas, and we recorded with Steve Buckingham at Web 4 Recording Studio,” says Tobin. “Hearing myself on the radio was absolutely amazing.”
However, as promising as the opportunity was, Tobin and Arista parted ways in the mid-80s. After the split, Tobin began to shift her focus toward songwriting and spending time with her daughter.
“I never wanted to let a publisher dictate what happened to my work life, so I had to learn the art of songwriting,” says Tobin. “One of my first songs I wrote was called ‘Don’t Want to Give Up on Love;’ it was recorded by Sam Harris and a female singer, Mara Getz. I also had a young child, and my focus shifted to being a stay-at-home mom and writing in my spare time. I did demo recordings for other writers, and enjoyed my mothering time.”
However, when her second daughter turned five, Tobin began to feel the urge to return to the stage, and did just that with a new band called Crazy Hearts. The band drew the attention of another major player in Nashville, and eventually earned Tobin her second major label record deal.
“Crazy Hearts was a male/female duo; we were a contemporary country Fleetwood Mac, doing really cool countrypolitan songs,” says Tobin. “Our manager, Kathleen Capper, arranged a show for Barry Beckett. He saw the band, and wanted to get me a deal with Atlantic Records. He introduced us to Keith Stegall, who was just getting started with Alan Jackson, and he became my producer.”
Tobin and Stegall began working on her debut album, Carolina Smokey Moon. As the album was quickly being put together, Tobin had to quickly learn the material, as well as how to record “the Nashville way.”
“We cut four tracks a day, so I had to learn most of the tunes in a short time,” says Tobin. “I also had to learn and understand the Nashville numbers chart system. It was a good experience.”
The album produced three singles: “Carolina Smokey Moon,” “Love From a Heart of Stone,” and “Picture of Your Daddy.” After each of the failed to gain traction at radio, Tobin and Atlantic Records split; once again leaving her without a label.
“Losing the Atlantic deal was very disappointing,” says Tobin. “It was devastating and hurtful, and it took me a while to recover from that disappointment.”
As things fell apart with her music career and her personal life, Tobin quickly got back in the studio to record her sophomore album Karen Tobin & The Crazy Hearts, released less than two years after her deal with Atlantic ended.
“The damage that losing the deal with Atlantic disappointing, and my writing partner left me for another woman, and I felt abandoned,” says Tobin. “We had recorded The Crazy Hearts CD, and had a few European shows as my personal relationship was falling apart. I was a single mom with two kids, no record deal, no gigs, and very heartbroken, but I had to keep on writing and writing and collaborating.”
After the release of The Crazy Hearts album, Tobin didn’t release music for 10 years. She returned with That’s What You Get in 2003, which received rave reviews from critics, and produced “Maybe Mexico,” a song that has since become one of her most played songs on streaming services.
However, after the release of That’s What You Get, Tobin began producing for two artists, and didn’t release another album for 15 years. Over that period of time, Tobin was able to heal from the wounds that had formed over the course of her career, and find a partner that gave her the validation she needed to mend.
“I had about 30 songs recorded with the amazing help of my new partner and co-producer, Brian Soucy, who was willing to work with me anytime I had the inspiration,” says Tobin. “His encouragement was just the medicine I needed.”
With the release of Before It’s Too Late, Tobin is once again receiving excellent reviews, and being recognized once again for her artistry.
“It means so much to me to be recognized as a writer and a vocalist,” says Tobin. “Some of the songs on that album were tunes were from the Crazy Hearts collaboration. I was writing all the time. Before It’s Too Late is a collection of songs over a period of healing and rebirth.”
Tobin says the theme of Before It’s Too Late is to let loved ones know how much they are loved, and was named for posterity. She says each song on the album as written as a result of personal loss or joy she has felt in her life.
It is that personal nature that makes the album special to Tobin. Her favorite song on the album was drawn from her love for her family.
“I wrote the song ‘Until We Meet Again’ right after my sweet little grandson was leaving to go back to his home after Christmas,” says Tobin. “I sat down and was very sad that he was leaving, and wrote the tune in as long as it takes to sing.”
Hoping to build off of the success of her latest album, Tobin is hoping to make 2020 a big year on the road.
“I hope to go over to Europe again, either with my full band or to play with a band that is willing to learn my tunes so we do a little tour,” says Tobin. “I want to play in Ireland, Spain, France, Italy, and basically anywhere that will enjoy the music.”
In over three decades of making and performing music, Tobin is appreciative of the people who have enjoyed her music, from “I Don’t Want to Be Lonely” to Carolina Smokey Moon to Before It’s Too Late, and says that as long as the ideas are flowing, she’ll continue to write her musical story for people to hear.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to know that there are supportive folks in the world who recognize that we all have a story to tell,” says Tobin. “I still love to perform, sing, play, and create. I have to keep my voice recording app ready at all times, because the ideas still flow, and music comes with those ideas.”
*Images courtesy of Karen Tobin*