Behind the Music: Talya Groves

Tayla Groves. Photo by Justin Evans-Mortelliti

Talya Groves’ life in her hometown has been filled with pursuits and fulfillment of her first loves and dreams: music and live performances. “I spent most of my childhood doing competitive dance at Priscilla and Dana’s School of Dance. Later on, I started focusing more on my singing through local experiences with Radio Disney, Starlight Theatre, and the Coterie.”

While attending Park Hill High School, she turned her focus to music theater, which led to her first professional gigs: as a cast member in the live-entertainment shows at Worlds of Fun. That led to even grander pursuits. After high school graduation, she left Kansas City for Pace University in New York, and several years later, just days before she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from that school, she landed one of her biggest jobs ever: as a touring cast member of Motown the Musical.

Groves recently answered questions from IN Kansas City about growing up in Kansas City, about her many professional successes in New York (including some national TV appearances) and about returning to her hometown during the pandemic and how it has reignited her, personally and professionally.

What was your childhood like? Who were your earliest influences, in both life and music?
My childhood had its ups and downs, but, through any struggle or chaos, I was very lucky to always have a strong village of people supporting me. My mom was, and remains, a huge influence on my life. She always accepted me and has always believed in my ability, my talent, and my dreams. A singer herself, she also has an amazing and very versatile taste in music that I got to inherit from the beginning. 

Who were your earliest music interests—the artists that first appealed to you?
I grew up in the ’90s and early ’00s and was lucky enough to have impressionable ears at a time when some of the greatest voices ever were in their primes. My earliest interests in music were Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Beyoncé, Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child, Usher, Jennifer Lopez, Celine Dion. 

It was a cool time in music because there was a little bit of everything going on—even country music, which is not really my thing, was having cool pop-crossover moments with artists like Shania Twain, Garth Brooks, Faith Hill. 

Then, between my mom’s taste in music and all the music used at my dance studio, I was also exposed to older music. I think that influence is what really stuck. It explains my absolute love of Motown, oldies, girl groups of the ’50s and ’60s, and even classic rock. Most of the songs I perform at my gigs date back to at least pre-1990s. And if I had to name my all-time biggest influences on who I am as a performer, I’d say it’s Tina Turner and Prince.

What do you remember about your first concert?
My first concert ever was the Spice Girls at Sandstone. To this day, my bold attitude, loud fashion choices, and my femme energy are infused with some of the Spice Girls’ “girl power” brand. 

Scary Spice in particular was so important because she gave me the opportunity to see myself reflected back to me in pop culture. A biracial-black girl, I was growing up in Kansas City at a time when things were even more overtly marginalized than they still are today. Because of this, I didn’t have a lot of people around me who could relate to the kinds of covert social dynamics that I was already navigating at a very young age. 

Seeing black and brown women succeed in entertainment helped me feel less like “other” and invited me to come into aspects of my own identity. It was like, “Hey, look, she’s brown like me. I could do that!” 

Others with that kind of impact on me were Destiny’s Child and their album Writings On The Wall, and then Alicia Keys’ album Songs in A Minor. The first song that I ever loved to sing was on that album—Fallin’. I won my first singing competition with that song when I was around 8 or 9.

You say on your website that you knew at a young age that you loved to be on stage. What did you love most?
The stage became a comfort zone for me very early on. I felt happiest when I was dancing. It has always felt safe and freeing to be completely out of my head and locked into the present moment when I’m performing. And once I started to realize the power that exists in the energy exchange between a performer and an audience, there was never going to be any turning back for me. 

What were your high school years like?
High school was funny because halfway through, my life became very compartmentalized. On one hand, at school I got good grades, was heavily committed in the music and theater communities, and was involved in all of the musicals and choir extra-curriculars. 

On the other hand, during the summers after my sophomore, junior, and senior years, I was performing five shows a day at Worlds of Fun and then partying around town with my older cast mates. As in—I may or may not have spent both my prom nights and my 17th birthday at Missie B’s. What can I say? I’ve always been old for my age. Sometimes, I honestly think that had it not been for growing up a little fast, I may never have had the guts to go to New York for college.

You moved to New York and attended Pace University, where you earned your BFA in music theater. What did your college experience provide that has proved to be essential?
The most essential thing I left college knowing was that with every performance or audition, you have the power to leave an impression. In other words, nothing is for nothing. Even if it’s “no” this time, you can always draw in new opportunities or gain new interest when you show up and do your best every time.

What do you consider your first big/significant “break” in music theater/live performances?
The first thing that ever felt like a big win for me was when I booked the first national tour of Motown the Musical. At Pace, you were allowed to audition outside of school. So, I had used my senior year to dip my toes into New York’s auditioning pool. 

I’d gone to open calls for Motown the Musical because it was my dream show at the time. It was one of the earlier examples of my true love, popular music, crossing over into musical theater. At one point I went as far as to attend one of those open auditions where people lined up around the block, just to sing 16 bars. Months later, when I got an email from casting with an appointment to audition for an immediate replacement on the Motown tour, I was ready. 

The appointment was two days before my college graduation, and I showed up incredibly prepared and fired up. I felt great about how I did and headed home. I had just emerged from the subway when I got the call that I’d be heading to Los Angeles to join the tour in a matter of days. The best part about the big news was that my family was arriving in New York in just a couple of hours for my graduation week, so I got to tell them about the tour in person. It was a very special time, and I was so blessed to have earned that kind of job security immediately following my education.

Your resume is filled with other big moments and significant roles in music theater. What are you proudest of?
Out of anything on my resume, what I’m proudest of is the fact that I’ve never fallen too deep into the trap of attaching my worth to any specific job or title. It’s an easy industry to become very ego-driven in, which is why it’s also easy to crumble. Through any successes or disappointments, I’ve worked very hard to remember that there is no person behind an audition table that has the power to take away my worth or to dull my shine. So, when I look at my resume, I feel proud of being brave.

Recall one story or episode in your career that is extra special or rewarding for you.
One of the most rewarding aspects of being a performer comes from the family dynamic that can form when a group of artful people are working so closely with one another. The feeling of family was particularly present with both Clueless the Musical (off-Broadway) and Becoming Nancy (at the Alliance Theater). It’s been an amazing part of my life to get to connect with so many special people. 

As far as professionally rewarding moments, I’ll never forget performing on Good Morning, America with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as well as on The Wendy Williams Show. 

Speaking of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, getting to work closely with Marc Shaiman will be something I will cherish forever. He is one of the most talented humans ever and is responsible for so many iconic moments in music. Being in his presence is a treat. 

Similarly, being directed by Jerry Mitchell on a couple of shows was nothing but rewarding for me. He puts his whole heart into everything he does, and we are very like-minded in believing that “full out” is the way to be.

And then it has always been really cool when celebrities come to shows I’m in. The ones that had me the most starstruck were Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg, and, honestly, Bethenny [Frankel] from Real Housewives.

How do you deal with disappointments and rejections?
Deciding to turn something as personal as singing and dancing into your livelihood is filled with disappointments. I have faced rejection more times in a single week than many people will face in their entire lives, as is the case for anyone in this industry. It takes a particular type of tenacity to move through it, and it’s a lot about self-soothing. I let myself be sad or disappointed for a little bit, and then it’s time to transform that energy into something positive in the next performance or audition. I highly recommend Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena speech.

What was your pandemic experience like?
It was very isolated and definitely very financially uncertain, not to mention the trauma surrounding the events of police brutality that took place in our country at that time. 

Amid all that, though, the stillness and quiet of that time offered me a lot of perspective. I stayed in New York—actually in South Orange, New Jersey—when the shutdown started. I was keeping busy running, cooking, and making TikToks. Then I came to visit Kansas City a couple of times in late summer and was able to do a few outdoor performances by teaming up with Walter Bryant. Among the many musical contributions he has made to Kansas City, he is the music director at Worlds of Fun, which is how we met over a decade ago. So, having a couple of chances to perform live again during the pandemic got my wheels turning.

I returned to New York in mid-August and realized that the only logical decision was to move back to Kansas City.

How did you restart yourself professionally in Kansas City?
I knew that if I [returned], I’d want to create opportunities for myself to step into. Restaurants, bars, and venues were opening up more quickly here than they were in New York, so I decided to take the leap. I called Walter and Kansas City drummer and longtime friend, Kent Rausch, and asked “Hey, if I can get us some gigs, are y’all in?” They agreed, and I started making some cold calls and drafting some emails to try and get some gigs lined up for my November return. 

I also messaged Lonnie McFadden asking for advice on how to break into things here, because if anybody has mastered the Kansas City music scene, it’s him. He was, of course, so helpful in letting me know who to get in touch with. Cut to today: I’m performing at least three times a week with really great musicians in the city that raised me. It’s the best. I’m so glad I’ve leaned into change and so glad that I have great musicians to play with.

So, what’s it like being back here, back home?
It’s amazing. Of course it has been nice to see my family and my Kansas City friends. As far as the joy of these gigs, people are just so kind and so appreciative of live performance, now more than ever. I feel very lucky. I was 18 the last time that I lived in Kansas City full time, so it’s fun to be getting to know the city as an adult. I definitely think there’s a good chance that, no matter where different performing opportunities may take me, I’ll be a Kansas City-based artist from now on.

What are the rewards of the nightclub gigs vs. playing a role in music theater?
Believe it or not, a packed Saturday at the Phoenix when I’m up on that bar singing Proud Mary is just as rewarding to me—if not more rewarding—as it has been to perform on a Broadway stage. 

I say that because what I’m doing at these live music venues is truly me, and I’ve always preferred that kind of performing. I guess you could say that I enjoy playing me onstage more than I do a playing role. I’m excited to see what all I can do in the live-music world—here and maybe even beyond. But I’m also staying open to opportunities of all kinds. I’m basically saying “yes” to whatever seems right to me and enjoying the ride.

Like pretty much every other profession and industry, the world of music and theater is very different for women than it is for men. What have your experiences with gender bias been as you ascended within your world?
I have had many instances of artistic collaborators treating me with less respect, in one way or another, than they would a man. It’s difficult because with the nature of my work, this tends to happen with men I admire or respect professionally or artistically. So any “people-pleaser” part of me wants to just be agreeable and play caretaker to everyone else’s feelings, especially the artistic men because I’m a sucker for talent. 

But at this point, I really try to resist self-abandonment of any kind. I’m not one who will silence my own opinions to avoid being labeled “difficult.” I’m in the process of accepting that some people are not going to be comfortable with an authentic, brave, outspoken, opinionated, and talented woman like myself. The fact that standing in my power would make me “difficult” or threatening to a man is not something that I’ll allow as my burden to carry.

Another thing I’ve noticed recently is that, as a femme-presenting and female-identifying performer, I have to be aware that my friendliness on breaks at gigs, or even my acceptance of a drink bought for me, is sometimes misinterpreted by patrons as an entitlement that goes beyond what’s comfortable. A patron recently grabbed a handful of my hair and asked me “Is this all real?’” Aside from it being an overt example of racism to touch a black woman’s hair and ask personal questions about it, it’s also just wild to me that a stranger would feel the entitlement to put hands on anyone in that way. 

There’s definitely not as much of a built-in wall between performer and audience as in a theater setting. In some ways, I love that, but I’m definitely having to learn how to be my friendly self while still maintaining boundaries. The fact that I am prepared for my boundaries to be challenged feels directly related to my being a woman.

What advice would you give today to someone who was in your situation when you graduated from high school and were ready to pursue a career in music performance?
If you want to pursue a career as a performer, you’ve got to be honest with yourself. And if you think you’ve truly got what it takes, you’ve got to work hard and go for it all the way. I don’t advise a “back-up plan” because I think that just offers a fallback and compromises one’s drive. There are too many people who will want it more than you if you’re prepared to fallback on anything else. 

So instead, trust that there is always a way to make it work, as long as you don’t limit yourself by letting your ego dictate what success means. Success can be as simple as doing what you love, inspiring others, feeling happy, and getting that rent paid on time.

Finish this sentence, please: “The best part about being back in Kansas City has been . . .”
Remembering why I love what I do. 

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