Tonya Graves is here to stay

American singer has made Prague home and is getting back to what she wants to do

Singer Tonya Graves, currently with the band Monkey Business as well as a solo artist, has had a long journey back to her roots. She began not as a singer, but a social worker trying to help many types of people in upstate New York. Projects included distributing food to the needy and working on a crisis intervention hotline for youth.

Now, more than 20 years later, she is lending her likeness to several campaigns to help people, including a crisis hotline for young people and charities that combat cancer and other diseases.

We spoke to her recently at Cobbler's Prague Bakery at the Palladium shopping center, as it seemed a fitting crossroad of Czech and American culture.

Tonya has been in the Czech Republic since 1995 and has no plans to leave. “In the beginning I was sad I couldn't work on a hotline and do the exact same work I did in the States. I always wanted to do some hands-on work,” she said. The organization she worked for in upstate New York got its start during the Woodstock festival in 1969, helping lost people find their way home.

Slowly, Tonya has become one of the most recognized expats in the Czech Republic. “People started to ask me to help with things. At least I can make people aware of [a cause] or sing at a benefit. It appeases my need to do something. If that is how I can help, then that is what I am going to do,” she said. If a few people find out about something that can help them due to her being linked to a cause, then she is satisfied. “It only took 21 years to get back to what I really wanted to do. … Maybe I can't sit on the phone but maybe I can be recognized by some kid in trouble, and they remember my face and that hotline number. Then I am still doing work that I want to be doing,” she said.

She came to the Czech Republic by accident — quite literally. She walked into an improperly marked glass door, with several people right behind her. The door had been open a few minutes earlier. Law requires stickers or a bar across the door. It had neither. The restaurant where the door was initially offered to pay her medical costs for a lost tooth, but later reneged. She had to sue for medical costs and won her case. “I had lots of money left over. The tooth would have cost [the restaurant] so much less. All they had to do was pay for a tooth, but no,” she said.

The extra money was what she used to come to the Czech Republic. “I came to Prague because a friend of mine from New Zealand said … it is one of the few places where you can still see what Europe was like hundreds and hundreds of years ago because it wasn't destroyed by the Second World War,” she said.

Her first jobs here were at an expat club and restaurant and then at English-language bookstores. At the same time, she began her musical career in Prague. Shortly after arriving, and after an initial singing opportunity fell through, she was introduced to guitarist Luboš Andršt, who was looking for a blues singer.

She had done some singing in New York but as a hobby. “In the states, I wouldn't have pursued this path,” she said. She did play a few times at the legendary New York City club CBGB, which she described as a horrible dive bar with a backstage the size of a closet.

“Your shoes are sticking to the floor and you say to yourself, 'It is OK, Blondie played here. If Debbie Harry played on this stage I can too.' But it was a hobby. It was for fun,” she said.

In Prague, she performed with Luboš Andršt until she started to sing with Liquid Harmony. “That was interesting for me because I didn't know this music. Blues I know and I loved, but this electronic house music, what's that? So it was another adventure. … That was nice for a couple of years then even that wasn't what I wanted,” she said. Liquid Harmony released one album in 1997 called Living in Liquid.

By this time she was working in international schools as a teaching assistant, but a disagreement with a teacher led to that position ending suddenly. She had enjoyed working with children again. “I had to go. This was Saturday. On Sunday I got a call asking do I have time to go on tour. You can't make this stuff up. [Monkey Business] had just started. They recorded an album and they were going on tour. They wanted to have another voice there. So I was like, 'Great,'” she said. The school had to pay her a severance package, as the disagreement wasn't her fault. “I decided I don't need to do a day job or another job for a little while, and from that point on in 2000 I haven't had a regular day job,” she said.

This year is the first in a long time that she hasn't been busy every weekend at a festival or concert between March and September. She has been taking some time to focus on her solo career, where she does more blues, jazz, and soul. “I am not playing every weekend but still almost,” she said. At one festival she made up for it a bit by performing twice. She performed with Monkey Business and later did a song with The Fellas. She also appears on that one song on their new album, coming out in September.

This summer for the first time she moderated a festival where she did not perform. She was at Metronome and took to the stage to tell people which acts were where and give other information. “It was the first time in over 20 years that I went to a festival and actually got to see music because I come to a festival, I show up, I play, I leave. This was an amazing thing. When do we have time to go to a concert? Almost never. This was really fun for me. I really hope I get to do it again,” she said.

As for headliner Iggy Pop canceling his last two songs, she said that wasn't his fault. What many people didn't see was that the wind had uprooted an entire tent and sent it flying. Once that happened, the fire marshals had little choice but to move people away from the stage and to indoor venues where other music continued. “Iggy wanted to play. Nobody wanted him to stop. That was the only time I thought people with torches and pitchforks were coming for me,” she said.

Aside from being a singer, she is also a mother of two boys, ages 7 and a half and 11. She has been relying heavily on the help of a babysitter named Monika, who is like a member of the family.

“She is so helpful in a lot of ways. I'd probably be lost without her. My children go to Czech schools and she helps the kids with homework and helps me with communication with teachers,” she said. Even when Monika had her own child, she continued taking care of Tonya’s children. “The kids were looking forward to a new sister,” she said.

Tonya knew Monika already through Monkey Business. When Tonya's first child was born, Monika, who had been a children's nurse, offered her services. “We have the same ideas for bringing up the kids. Dads have a different outlook,” she said. “As a mother, after nine months working on this thing, you don't want to give it to just anybody.”

She will be staying in the long term. “I feel most at home in the world here. … If you told me I couldn't come back here I would be so sad. It is not perfect here but it is not perfect anywhere. It is perfect enough for me. There is not one thing I would miss. I would miss everything,” she said. “I want to learn about the country and be part of the culture,” she said.

She is a bit disturbed by all of the Americanization of the Czech culture, but things have to move forward. “You can't turn the clock back,” she said.

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