Alysha Brillinger: The Next Amy Winehouse?

By Erica Rae Chong

Five years ago, Alysha Brillinger stumbled into the Reservoir Lounge and landed an impromptu gig. The first year Humber College student had performed at a bar opposite the popular Wellington Street East venue and was packing up to leave when she was approached by a scruffy–looking older man.

“Hey do you play that guitar?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she replied.
“Do you sing?”
“You should come over to this club and sing a song.”

With a hesitant “Um, okay,” Brillinger followed the stranger to The Reservoir Lounge and met the night’s main act, jazz pianist Tyler Yarema, who invited her to join him on stage.

Now, it’s Yarema who sits in with Brillinger and her six-piece band, Alysha and the Brilltones, every Thursday night, serving up a winning blend of blues, R&B and, occasionally, swing.

Thursday’s three-hour show, billed as part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, was no exception.

Brillinger, a 23-year-old Kitchener native, has funky vocals and a slurred blues drawl that's reminiscent of the late British singer Amy Winehouse. The band launched the first set with soulful covers of “Soothe Me” by Sam & Dave, and Salt n Pepa’s “Whatta Man.” The upbeat tunes had the crowd nodding in time and roaring in approval.

Between Brillinger cueing instrumental spotlights on the fly, Alison Young’s impressive saxophone solo during a lively cover of the Etta James hit “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” and spontaneous dancing in the audience, the second set had a devil-may-care attitude.

Couples didn’t mind the change Brillinger slowed the tempo to deliver stirring renditions of Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By” and Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” — they just slow danced instead.

Brillinger also showcased a few original songs, including, “In My Head” from her new EP Brilla. “This song’s about if you have a crush on somebody and you don’t want to let them know,” she said as she introduced the cheeky single. The eight-track release features her self-designed cover art. “I love painting!” she explained during an earlier phone interview. “If I find I’m stuck songwriting, I’ll go paint. It helps me get my creative juices glowing again.”

As the evening was drawing to an end, the group performed another upbeat Etta James classic, “I Just Wanna Make Love To You”, that saw Brillinger belting the lyrics with a raffish air.

And then it happened.

The funky and slightly nasal tonality of Brillinger’s voice merged with (perhaps due to the late hour) what seemed like a British drawl as she sang an impeccable rendition of “Valerie” and it was as if Amy Winehouse herself was on stage. The half Tanzanian, half Canadian singer’s black hair and olive skin only helped the illusion.

But the song ended, and so did the mirage...

After the sassy Brillinger "reappeared” on stage, she crooned a few more tunes to the thinning audience before thanking them and bidding them good night.

Erica Rae Chong is pursing a bachelor’s degree in Journalism at the University of Toronto Scarborough

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