In case you haven’t heard, stunning soul singer Joni NehRita is featured in tonight’s concert Ray Charles: A Tribute.

But wait…how can she really sing Ray Charles’ songs given that he was a man and Joni is a woman?

“Other people might think that it’s weird, but for me, I don’t think of it too much. In terms of interpretation, being a woman or being a man, staying true to the integrity, emotion and style behind the music is more important than what gender is singing,” says Joni.

It appears  more women are taking the stage with soul music compared to 40 years ago. Joni believes the woman soul singer is very “in” at the moment.  Growing up in Etobicoke, however, she felt surrounded by a jazz scene that was balanced by both genders.”We had a really good R & B folk scene and a lot of my male mentors were soul singers,” recalls Joni. “Mainstream wise, maybe it just happens right now that there are more women like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.  But there are still some really good male soul singers. If you love R &B, you know who they are.”

joniJoni has performed in a number of jazz festivals in the region, but also keeps her hand in composing and singing other music styles. “I consider myself equal parts songwriter, musician and singer. Those things always appealed to me. They are the  first things I think about when I wake up, the last things I think about when I go to bed.”

She released two independent albums with her single Are You Ready reaching number six on the UK soul charts. Joni sang in the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony’s Ray Charles tribute concert with Artistic Director Matt Catingub last spring. She has performed in the Jazz Room, with the Waterloo Jazz Festival and at the Hamilton Music Awards in 2011.

Her voice garnered national attention when she was a contestant on Canadian Idol in 2004.  “It was awesome,” says Joni. “It was really fun and cool to meet people all over the country who you wouldn’t have met otherwise, and being blown away by a farmer from Saskatchewan who is, like,  killin’ the R & B!”

Joni performs a number of solos and duets this evening for the HPO’s Ray Charles: A Tribute and is looking forward to singing Ray Charles’ most celebrated song. “Georgia On My Mind is cool because it’s so iconic. You get those goosebumps because you’re singing with a symphony and everyone is hanging off your every word because it’s such a big song.” She is excited to sing the luscious harmonies in Crying Time in a duet with Matt Catingub.

Tickets are still available at the Box Office for Ray Charles: A Tribute happening tonight at 7:30pm in FirstOntario Concert Hall (formerly Hamilton Place).

In case you haven’t heard it before, here’s Ray Charles singing Crying Time on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.