One might say that 2015 has been an enchanted year for newcomer Eryn Allen Kane, whose ascent to superstardom began with a series of heartfelt YouTube video performances and led to collaborations with hip-hop artists like Saba and Towkio. The Detroit native who now calls Chicago home continues to build on that momentum, delivering powerful, thought-provoking original material by way of her debut EP, Aviary: Act 1, released in November of this year. Buoyed by the chill-inducing “Have Mercy,” the EP is a succinct 4-track set that Kane calls “the appetizer” (Aviary: Act II is set to premiere in 2016), and her song “Piano Song” appeared on a recent episode of BET’s breakout series Being Mary Jane. With a soulful, rich voice and lyrics that paint vivid portraits of love, pain, and triumph, Kane’s raw talent also caught the attention of Prince, who tapped her to bring her tone and texture to his single “Baltimore” earlier this year; and filmmaker Spike Lee gave his seal of approval by casting Kane in his latest film, Chi-Raq.
For her first ever Artist to Artist feature on SoulTrain.com, Eryn Allen Kane offered a glimpse into the fairytale unfolding before her.
SoulTrain.com: How did you get started? Talk about your origins as a singer/songwriter.
Eryn Allen Kane: This sounds kind of cliché, but I got started in the church. I grew up on the east side of Detroit, back and forth between the east side and a suburb called Farmington. My mom wouldn’t let us listen to the radio, so we only listened to gospel or music that she liked—Al Green, Prince. Chaka Khan was her favorite. So I was into all that at a very young age.
And then I went to Detroit School of the Arts (DSA)—Aaliyah went to that school, too, which inspired me to go there. I was a vocal major, and then left Detroit and for college came to Chicago. In high school, I was in a bad development deal and I breached contract because I didn’t want to work with them, but I couldn’t record any of my own stuff for 18 months after. So I didn’t do any singing my first couple years of college; I gave up on that and focused on acting. I still put up YouTube videos of myself singing or playing piano, but I gave up the idea that I would be a singer because of that experience. I got back into it my senior year of college; I went to live with my dad, who was living in Sydney, Australia at the time, and I stayed there for 3 1/2 months and I found my voice again. My dad would travel a lot, and the only thing that kept me company was these tunes I heard in my head. I had to get them out, so I’d record them on my computer using household items to make beats and building harmonies. Then I came back to the states and hit the ground running like, “I got this. I think I can do this now!”
SoulTrain.com: Listening through your spellbinding EP Aviary: Act 1, the songs are deeply intimate and yet universally relatable. When you sit down to write, where do you pull inspiration from? What kinds of events—internal and external—move you to put pen to paper and voice to lyric?
Eryn Allen Kane: If I’m really deeply affected by something, I just go at it. “Have Mercy” is one of those songs where I saw something on the news and it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had been overwhelmed with all these other things going on in my life, and I saw this story and went to the basement and I just cried and wrote this song about being in pain. That’s kind of how it goes with all my music; as soon as I feel overwhelmed by something, I know that it’s a good time to sit down to write a song—whether it be love, or joy, or sadness. That’s usually what drives me to sit down and write a song.
SoulTrain.com: “Have Mercy” definitely feels like a lamentation for everybody; so many people are feeling that heaviness and that sorrow, and wondering, ‘What can I do?’ You turn on the news and find out yet another mass shooting has taken place or another police-involved shooting.
Eryn Allen Kane: On Twitter someone can post a video clip and as you scroll down it will automatically play. And I hate that because I’m intrigued, but then I’m seeing something I don’t want to see…
SoulTrain.com: I’m always curious to know about an artist’s influences. Who are some of the musicians and singers you’d consider your personal muses and sources of inspirations?
Eryn Allen Kane: I have so many! Stevie Wonder. Aretha Franklin—she’s amazing and she’s from Detroit and her father was a pastor and my mom always listened to her gospel albums, so I got to hear her voice growing up. I listened to a ton of gospel: Karen Clark Sheard—her vocal control is out of this world! I remember the first time I heard her and Keke Sheard singing [Jill Scott’s “Lyzell in E Flat”] but they turned it into a gospel song, and I got goose bumps and cried! Michael Jackson, of course, Etta James—I listened to a lot of her when I was in Australia. Her music makes you feel all of her pain and all of her joy. I was really into powerful female vocalists.
SoulTrain.com: The cover image for Aviary: Act 1 features you, with your bare back turned to the viewer, inside a gilded cage. What is that meant to symbolize for you?
Eryn Allen Kane: My idea behind the entire project is the illusion of being free within confinement, the thought that we’re bound or limited by something whether physically or metaphorically. You can be bound by addictions, wealth, poverty, race, and we’re all trying to escape this cage that we built around ourselves or that people built around us. So for the cover, I wanted to be in the truest form of myself, and that meant that I had to wear no make-up and no clothes. I thought it would be kind of cool to show this person—me—in a cage, in this big open room where you can see that I could easily get out of the cage, but for some reason I’m stuck in this corner when there’s this huge room to explore. Either she’s hopeful about leaving the cage, or scared to leave the cage. I thought it aligned really well with the theme of the album.
SoulTrain.com: You’re making your film debut in Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq. What was the experience like working with him on a film that’s attracted such heavy controversy for its title and its handling of such a dire and urgent subject?
Eryn Allen Kane: It was enriching. I found the experience very fulfilling and definitely a learning process for me. He didn’t just jump into making this movie; even before we started filming, there were read-throughs with the cast and he would bring people who were part of organizations—like mothers who lost their children to gun violence—to talk to us. They made it very real for us, what we were getting into before we started making the film. I can understand peoples’ disdain toward the title, but there is something important Spike is saying in the film and it’s not going to be in the trailer. He may not say what he’s trying to say in a way that some people are going to love, but he’s definitely saying something that needs to be heard and speaking on the violence in Chicago. We have the Laquan McDonald story in the news, and it’s clearly evident that the powers at hand have tried to sweep this under the rug. It’s awesome to have a black man who has this platform in the industry to bring attention to something that some people have been trying to forget. It’s not just some comedy where people are cracking jokes about Chicago’s plight; it has some important messages, and I’m really happy that I could be part of something like that.
SoulTrain.com: And you have a song on the soundtrack.
Eryn Allen Kane: Yes, I’m featured on “Born in Chicago,” a song originally done by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Spike asked me if I would do a cover with Bruce Hornsby and a female rapper from the city named Sasha Go Hard.
SoulTrain.com: You mentioned earlier that you’d set music aside for awhile to study and pursue acting. Do you anticipate doing these two things concurrently now?
Eryn Allen Kane: My music takes precedence over anything else, but I do love acting and I’ve been doing it for just about the same amount of time. I’ll definitely be delving into both worlds, but I want to make sure people can really connect with my music. That’s why Chi-Raq was so perfect for me to be involved in; not only is it about the city I’ve been living in for the last 7 years, but it was a smaller role that was just enough involvement to where I can still have an identity as a singer.
SoulTrain.com: I first heard you on Prince’s “Baltimore” earlier this year. How did that collaboration come about, and how do you feel the song has impacted the continued issues of police brutality—especially in light of more recent incidents since Freddie Gray?
Eryn Allen Kane: I released this a cappella song called “Hollow” in 2013, and my phone started blowing up [with messages] saying, “The Purple One sent me.” And I was like, “You can be f***ing talking about Prince!” I’d just gone to one of his concerts the year before, sitting in the nosebleeds at the United Center, thinking, ‘This man is so amazing! There’s never going to be a chance…’ But my phone was blowing up and come to find out it was Prince. We were supposed to work together back then in 2013, but our schedules didn’t coincide. Two years later, fast forward and I’d released “Have Mercy,” and I guess he’d been keeping an eye out on me. Two days after I released my song he asked if I’d go to Minneapolis to record “Baltimore.” And I got there and didn’t want to do it because I was afraid I’d mess up, but I ended up doing it and it was great! He’s very much a mentor to me.
SoulTrain.com: Was the song already written and recorded and you just went in and did your thing? Did you have any creative input with the song?
Eryn Allen Kane: I arranged all my vocal parts. The song was already written, and he showed it to me and said, “The song needs your soul. Do whatever you want to do.” Luckily, he wasn’t in the studio with me! He’s super omniscient and would just call and give me little notes here and there, but for the most part he was so chill and let me do my thing. He allowed me to arrange my parts and left it as it was. Then he asked me to come out to do the concert in Baltimore. And I was like, “I can’t do it!” I messed up a bunch—I walked out on stage early. I couldn’t take it! But I ended up doing a good job! At the rally, I told him, “Yo, you want to know what’s crazy? I went to your concert at the United Center and I was sitting so far I couldn’t see you.” And he goes, “Well, I have a feeling things are going to be a little different tonight.” And I was like, “Yes!” And I was so happy in that moment; that’s when everything became real.
Rhonda Nicole is the Managing Editor for SoulTrain.com, a soul singer/songwriter, music journalist, blogger, and curator of the BohemeRockstar Music Blog (IG @BohemeRockstar), splitting her time between the Bay Area and LA. Download her EP ‘Nuda Veritas’ on CDBaby and iTunes, keep up with her new music at soundcloud.com/rhonda-nicole, follow her on Facebook and on Twitter @wildhoneyrock, and dig her musical musings at rhondanicole.com.