At first glance, Toddy Walters appears to be a walking dichotomy. With a sweet and subdued demeanor, a penchant for singing torch-like songs of drama and desperation in the Kate Bush vein, and a clear focus on her musical vision, she's not easily pegged as the voice behind the drunken barn-dance singer in the South Park episode "Cartman's Mom Is a Dirty Slut."
But Walters is actually less of a study in contradiction than an artist of varied talents -- and ambitions. After three years of performing in Colorado with her band -- a three-piece eclectic pop unit dubbed the Assorted Beverages -- the call of the West led her to Los Angeles, where she's lived since 1998.
"In order to make your options wider, you have to live in a cultural hub, and the mother ship of the music industry is Los Angeles," says Walters. She's spent the past few months recording tracks for a new demo with producers from Bosnia and Austria. "I guess I consider my music to be sacred enough to myself that I don't want it to become solely a product. Unfortunately, you have to remember the fact that music is a business, especially when you don't have anyone banging down your door to get your product."
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Walters has found that maintaining musical integrity in a city obsessed with pop life isn't as easy as many West Coast-bound hopefuls may wish. Though much of the world has witnessed the beginnings of Britney/Backstreet Boys pop backlash -- not to mention the emergence of a lo-fi garage movement that's sprung up in the place of synthetic pop -- Walters wearily watches as L.A. anoints more bubblegum bands as the future champions of the Billboard charts. This climate makes it tough for an artist such as Walters to stay true to her art.
"It just seems like it's such a strange time; I can't even really wrap my mind around any of it," says Walters. "In L.A., it seems like everything is so cut and pasted and perfect-sounding. Producers use editing software to the point where you are cutting in a word here and a word there. It ends up sounding so...I don't even know the word for it. It's like liquid air. It doesn't nourish your soul at all.
"When you write a song, you have heartfelt emotion behind it," Walters continues. "Therefore, the song has meaning. But when you have four or five or six people co-write a song and then the singer sings it, how can it have that intimate feeling like you do with one writer? Then you add all the bells and whistles of the studio into it, and it just ends up sounding like nothing."
Recently, Walters has been adorning her music with a few bells of its own. She's currently at work on an album she hopes to have completed by next summer, when she'll shop it to small labels and, most likely, offer it through her Web site (toddyivy.com). In the meantime, Walters's manager continues to push one of her previous recordings in an attempt to land that elusive deal. His approach -- and the struggle of adapting to the L.A. studio environment -- has at times tested the artist's resolve.
"This manager I had been working with had wanted to have a big hand in the sound, and he was kind of controlling," says Walters. "I like him and am still working with him, but I didn't have a whole lot of control during the whole process of three songs from my latest demo, which is why I don't really dig on them as much as other stuff I've done. The recording process was really detrimental to my confidence. All you hear out here is 'There are not enough hooks in the songs.'"
Fortunately, her enthusiasm has not yet been quashed. Besides doing character voices and writing songs for South Park, she sang backup vocals for Better Than Ezra's 2001 release Closer, played Georgi in the 1999 movie Orgasmo, did some MTV soundtrack work and went on tour in the fall of 2000 with electronica artist Brian Transeau. But her real emphasis has been on a solo project and the development of her California sound, which is shaped by her collective experiences on the Left Coast. Though Walters's Denver work can be described as quirky, folk-influenced pop, her music has matured into a simplistic yet upbeat, mid-tempo groove style. Recent tunes such as "Rooted" and "2 Good" utilize sparse electronica and a more casual and sophisticated vocal delivery. It's got a dance-world feel that's both creative and commercial-sounding.
Walters's musical inspiration is not surprising, considering she's a singer with substantial range. "My major influence is Kate Bush. When I first heard her I was thirteen, and she made me want to do music for sure," recalls Walters. "But I also love Rickie Lee Jones and Joan Armatrading. I loved Chrissie Hynde. Roxy Music was an influence. Sinéad O'Connor is a big influence, and PJ Harvey, I loved."
Walters channeled various influences into her debut effort -- 1997's Grotto, which she released while living in Denver and playing with a band. At the time, the Assorted Beverages included Ian Hardin on drums, Phil Hegel on bass and Jim Nasi on guitar. Grotto's abrupt time changes and complex song structures focused on a young artist exploring her limits. Her chameleon-like vocal ability was apparent as she summoned the spirit of Bush, Harriet Wheeler of the Sundays, and the Cocteau Twins' Liz Fraser -- at times simultaneously.
"Toddy and her Assorted Beverages was never a bar band, so we never really catered to the big, party, weekend dancing crowd," she says of the small but loyal following she had in her home town.
The singer's creative expression has not been limited to musical pursuits. After studying performance art at the University of Colorado, she explored her desire to act. In 1993 she met South Park co-creator Trey Parker at CU. At the time, Parker was busy creating his first ode to insanity, Cannibal the Musical. The movie is about Alfred Packer, the first man ever to be tried for cannibalism in America. Walters landed a role in the film out of college and soon after became romantically involved with Parker.
In 1998, while the two were still dating, Walters recruited Nasi and new bandmembers Jeff Mince on drums and Brad Van Loenen on bass to make the trek to L.A., believing that the West Coast would offer a more thriving musical environment. After arriving in California, the group parted ways over conflicting priorities and Walters's new musical direction, which involved more experimentation with electronica, more reliance on her own guitar playing and less of a need for the traditional rock-band lineup. In 1999, Mince and Van Loenen were recruited by Nina Hagen and ended up joining the '80s icon on several tours.
Walters's on-again, off-again romance with Parker ended, but the association with him led to a new musical outlet for her. "I wrote two songs for South Park episodes," she explains. "I did one song that was a re-creation of an Enya song, but it had to be a little bit different so Enya can't come back and sue. Then I wrote another song that was sort of a re-creation of an Indigo Girls song. It was called, 'I Love Domestic Chores.' It was sung and written as sort of a lesbian anthem; it was funny."
Walters can't say the same of every Parker project.
"The way South Park hits on deeper issues while being funny is creative genius," she says. "Cannibal just had success written all over it. Trey has success written all over him. He is very interesting in that way. But I think Orgasmo was definitely not great art, and by far, I don't think it is the best thing they have ever done. It's kind of like Trey needs to just sort of stick to what he's better at. As far as my acting, basically I just did anything that he had to offer and I never pursued anything else."
While comedic acting is something Walters has toyed with, music remains her true ambition. In 1999 she recorded a full-length demo with the help of L.A.'s Artists Breathe and Smack3000; she's currently wrapping up a new collection that she calls her "dream album." Walters says she feels much more connected to her most recent songs, largely because she shaped the creative process from writing to recording. Her current sound is that of a musician reclaiming her inspiration.
"So many producers are control freaks, and so many people are just so button-happy," she says. "The song should dictate what is best. I'm the kind of person who can be a little bit submissive in a way, so I didn't really stand up for myself in the studio. That's the one thing I've learned that I really need to work on. For one thing, I really haven't gone on the bandwagon of co-writing. I definitely like the newer stuff that I'm doing and having a little bit more control over it. Some of the older stuff was too poppy for me."
Walter has maintained her sense of humor in the face of frustration.
"I just need a break. I think it's my right as an American citizen to have a record released once," she says, laughing. "It seems like everyone has put out a record. I mean, if Sebastian Cabot can put out a record and cover Bob Dylan songs, why can't I? I've been told that they don't know how to market me. I'm just like, 'What do you have to do? I'm a pretty girl who has good songs. What more do you need?' Do I need to be wearing a dominatrix outfit or something for them to be like, 'Oh, I see that!'
"I'm sure I sound a little jaded," she adds. "It's such an uphill battle, but I'm definitely still inspired. I feel at the top of my game right now. People always say, 'Just keep on going,' and it's true."
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Walters may not have to wait for that break too much longer.
"I heard through the grapevine that Trey's thinking about accepting an offer to put Cannibal the Musical on Broadway with the original cast. I haven't heard anything confirmed by anyone about that, but I'm wondering if I would do that. I just don't know. But that will be kind of interesting."
So perhaps Walters's disparate talents could end up awarding her with big-time success after all.
"Oh, my God, that would be so funny," she says. "I make it by singing show tunes."