ERYN ALLEN KANE
Sometimes Prince, in his quest to discover, produce and mould young female talent, might unintentionally leave a career-long mark. The poisoned chalice of being a “Prince Protégée” equivalent to getting a gig on EastEnders and subsequently typecast for eternity. However, with Chicago based indie soulstress Eryn Allen Kane, the virtuoso genius displayed a different approach to his usual MO. Sure, upon hearing the acapella Have Mercy he may have acted instinctively, summoning Eryn to his Paisley crib to come and lace the track Baltimore with backing vocals - a disarmingly buoyant protest song made in the wake of Freddie Gray’s murder by police - but his desire to work with her seemed fuelled as much by a wish to have her talent bless his record, rather than simply applying his sound to her. “I need your soul!” he declared; instigating a tragically brief mentorship that had the 57 year old legend tell the 26 year young starlet: “You’re the voice of your generation.”
Following the release of Kane’s frankly breathtaking first two soul music EP’s - Aviary: Act I (Nov ’15) and Act II (Feb ’16) - Prince, the leading voice of his generation, is not alone in feeling there’s something a bit special about Ms. Kane.
“Were on the road right now, headed to Minneapolis,” says Eryn, sounding relaxed, despite being around a third of the way through a 41 date tour across North America; huddled together in a Chevrolet Express passenger van, with her manager, four-piece band and musical cargo.
“I got my four boys with me,” says Kane, who goes on to shout out each player. “We got Phoelix who is very skinny, tall and dreadlocked. He’s kinda quiet; grew up in church and knows how to play awesome chords on the piano. He just sits there.” Kane laughs, “And who else? Justin Canavan, he’s the white guy in the group, Jewish, from New Jersey. He’s hilarious, loves long guitar solos like Jaco Pastorius. We also have Eddie Sanchez on bass, a little Mexican dude who grew up on the south side of Chicago; he co-ordinated the band. On drums we have Ralph Schaeffer, also from the south side. He’s got a big ol’ belly that we just like to rub for good luck. He likes that. He’s also from church. You know how most drummers make nasty faces when they play? He just smiles.” Financial constraints though have meant they haven’t been able to bring everyone along for the ride. “Unfortunately, because were independent, we couldn’t afford to bring the horn players on tour with us (both EP’s are blessed with an abundance of brass),” Kane adds “but it’s great with the guys here; were all so different, it works.”
Though currently residing on the north west side of Chicago, Eryn herself was born in Detroit, the same neighbourhood (Conan Gardens) where J. Dilla hailed from. Detroit’s rich musical legacy apparent in Kane original’s like Piano Song from her debut - which has her carrying Retha’s torch by getting all Sparkle on the vamp.
“My mother wasn’t keen on Cable or listening to the radio, she had her sonograph (what she called the record player) and a bunch of gospel records. One of those records was Aretha Franklin’s (live gospel set) Amazing Grace, so I know the entire order of that show, Mom used to play it every day and all day on Sundays!”
A bad development deal in the Motorcity almost made Eryn quit music before she’d really begun. “It was a someguysthatwanttogetintothemusicbiz kinda deal but I breached the contract and it became just an awful situation. I was tied to them for 18 months, couldn’t write or record anywhere else.” The experience is what inspired the title and the cover artwork to Aviary - a powerful image showing Eryn completely starkers, in a birdcage, with a blood red background.
“It was my idea actually,” she says, after I suggest her manager might have put her up to it. “I figured it was like were all confined by something, whether that be poverty, depression, addiction or oppression. My thing was somewhat of a sadness in not doing music (Eryn took up acting instead, appearing in Spike Lee’s Chiraq) but once I found music again that was my release, my escape. The image on Act II has me shaking; it’s supposed to be like I’m trying to break out of the cage.” Kane laughs.
Writing both music & lyrics, Eryn records the demo with her singing all the parts accapella, even bangin’ on household furniture for a beat, whatever’s there. The idea for How Many Times, the first single from Act II, began when Eryn exited past a piano in the studio.
“We’d been talking about the terrible stuff that had been going on and I stood up with my backpack on, was on my way out when I started playing on piano. I said to my manager ‘Robbie, can you record me real quick?’ so I started singing, ‘How many times do I have to tell you?’” (At this point Eryn’s voice floats, clear as a bell, above the background hum of the freeway) I knew I had to make something of it. It’s conversations that influence what I write about. I was saying ‘How many times do you want this to occur before we try and do something about it?’ I just feel with music – and Nina Simone was really good at it – you’re supposed to utilise your platform and speak about things that are going on at that time. So it’s like a time capsule that people can remember and learn from.”
Before Eryn can answer my next question, there’s a loud thump. Something terrible has happened.
“Oh man!” says an alarmed Eryn.
“What the fuhh …” Can be heard from one of her boys in the background.
Eryn explains the sudden commotion. “Oh my god, were driving in the van and were watching to see which Fly can hit the window and explode the biggest, and this one just hit and exploded all over the drivers’ side!” Eryn apologises. “I’m sorry I was distracted, but it’s just so gross! I wish I could ignore it but there’s yellow all over the side of the window …”
Nearing Minneapolis I ask Eryn what it was like to meet Prince at Paisley Park.
“It was crazy because, he loved being this mysterious human being and liked to play with you at first. Scare you. But really he’s the nicest guy in the world.” Eryn didn’t actually meet him in the flesh. “He just got on the phone, the intercom, and was like ‘Hey, how are you? I need some of your soul on this record do you think you can do it?’ but he wasn’t there. He was a voice. He was like an omnipotent presence. It was so funny because it was like he knew exactly what I was doing, me and Robbie started saying he sounded like God. He could see everything!” They became friends, meeting in person at a peace rally to perform Baltimore.
“I was in North Carolina when I heard the news (of his passing). I got a bunch of text messages from friends of mine saying stuff like ‘I’m really sorry’ so of course I went onto Twitter. Immediately I hit him up and was like ‘C’mon dude answer’ because a week prior when his plane went down for the emergency landing I sent him a message saying ‘Dude, please tell me you’re ok, if you don’t I’m gonna bite all my nails off’ and he hit me back within ten minutes and said ‘ Don’t bite your nails off, eat food instead. Everything’s great.” He taught me so much, and his belief in me, an independent artist, really validated my career choice to my parents. I still can’t believe it, his passing really affected me and,” Eryn pauses for a second, sounding choked, “so I’m just trying to carry on his legacy and do music, because that’s all he would have wanted me to do.”
First appeared in Echoes Magazine October 2016