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Tonina Saputo On Staying True To Musical Identity And Making Obama's Favorites List

Local music artist Tonina Saputo joined St. Louis on the Air to talk about her musical journey locally and beyond.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Local music artist Tonina Saputo joined St. Louis on the Air to talk about her musical journey locally and beyond.

Tonina Saputo is among the rising names in the local music scene, but her reach is far and wide. The St. Louis-raised musician has made the world her stage, performing throughout Europe and singing in both English and Spanish. Former President Barack Obama is a fan himself and placed her song “Historia De un Amor” on his best-of-the-year roundup. 

But for Saputo, it's her album that dropped in May that feels like the truest expression of herself as a musician. “St. Lost” was inspired by her time away from the Gateway City and represents a split from the producer-manager who gave her a big break.

Watch: Tonina Saputo's performance of "Historia De un Amor":

“A lot of these songs are based on my homesickness. And so I wrote them in Boston, I wrote them when I was back home during the breaks and then also in Spain … when I didn't really know who I was as an artist,” Saputo said, “and [also when] I didn't know who people wanted me to be and I was really moreso invested in that, rather than what I wanted to say with my work. So this is a little gift to myself – staying true to my musical identity.”

She continued staying true to herself, even while working with Grammy Award-winning producer Javier Limón. She discontinued collaborating with the producer, citing a lack of creative control, which often happens when artists sign to a label. 

While she said she still respects Limón’s artistry, she ultimately made the decision to control her musical and physical imagery as well. 

“[Limón] is from Spain. And me being like, a black Midwestern girl, I didn't really agree with the image that he was trying to push me into; I was told to lose weight and told to Africanize myself even more, just to something that the Spaniards could understand. 

“And so I didn't really feel like turning my back on myself and how I looked when it was about the music all along, in my mind, so that was a true turnoff for me. But I understand it was the cultural differences and maybe like a difference in gender as well and age that influenced that.”

Instead, Saputo headed back to St. Louis to work on her album “St. Lost,” and chose Native Sound Recording studio on Cherokee Street to help her get the album done.

“I really wanted to have the whole album be St. Louis, you know. I live down the street from them. I knew them; they were so inviting and so dear to me throughout the whole process,” she said. 

“I don't want to move to New York or [Los Angeles]. Like I said, I'm a Midwestern person. If anything, I would move to Europe. But right now ... I have zero interest. I really like my community; I really like the music community that is here. I feel supported, and I feel like I have easy access to collaborate with those who I want to collaborate with.”

Saputo will perform her original music along with her arrangements of covers in both Spanish and English at Delmar Hall this Saturday, Aug. 17, as part of the St. Lost Tour.

Saputo joined host Sarah Fenske to talk about her musical journey on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air. Listen to the full conversation:

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Alexis Moore. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.

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