If Chicago’s current talent pool was replicated by the rest of the country, far less would be worried about the sanctity of music. From Chance the Rapper to Kweku Collins, Vic Mensa and Mick Jenkins, Eryn Allen Kane is the latest name to emerge from the city’s endless stream of talent.
Raised in Detroit, Kane moved to Chicago to study acting at Columbia College Chicago. After nearly giving up on music, she spent a memorable summer in Australia that rejuvenated her musical chops and herself—her own mini version of a walkabout.
In the last few years, Kane has written and performed songs alongside Prince, Saba, Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, and more. She dropped her debut project, Aviary: Act 1, this past November. And today (Feb. 2), Kane is set to release Act 2, which she’s described as more “high octane” and “abrasive” than the first. (It’s out now; stream below the interview.)
I spoke with Eryn about the closing act of her project. Even after a five-hour rehearsal session for her upcoming release party on February 19 in Chicago, she maintained the same high level of interest and energy in her own story, the story of her family, her idols and of the people she sings for. We discussed her competitive-yet-supportive relationship with her older brother, meeting Stevie Wonder in a health foods store, the Holy Grail of people (some guy named Prince?), her Australian regeneration and more.
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When was the first moment you realized you could sing?
When I was in the choir. I just caught on to stuff really easily, then, once I was a little, they allowed me to be in the grown-up choir easily. That’s when I started noticing I had a knack for [singing].
Did you play any instruments?
I play the piano. Me and my brother, Will, would have competitions where we listened to the radio and picked a song to see who could play it by ear.
We played classical piano, but we never really caught onto theory, so we would have our piano teacher play the song first, and we kind of pieced it together by ear. I’d go to competitions, and me and my brother would get superior [marks] without really knowing how to read the music.
What came first: the piano or the voice?
It kind of went hand-in-hand. Right after the singing came, my mom was like, ‘I need to get you into piano.’ Plus, my grandma on my dad’s side was a classically trained pianist, and she played the trumpet—she’s a music teacher. She would always tell my mom to get us into music classes.
I’m sure your grandma had some some influence on you musically. What kind of music was playing around your house?
My dad seemed to be the guy who listens to everything, so I learned a lot of classic rock and soul, and my mom, she loved the gospel and the soul music. Her favorite singer was Chaka Khan. I listened to a lot of her and Aretha Franklin. [My parents] didn’t let me listen to radio, so it was either their music or no music. *laughs* I had to discover the radio on my own.
Talk about your relationship with your brother.
I have two brothers. One is 14, and he’s the best. The older one is the one who sings (and plays piano). We’d play this game, like, ‘who can point out the saxophone in this song?’ And we’d play the sax part. Or who could point out the trumpet, and we’d sing the trumpet. Or the drums, who could beat out the drums. That also developed our ear, me especially. I can make horns sections so easily now, and I’m like, ‘how do I do this?’ I remember, ‘my dad used to play this tune with me,’ and maybe that’s where it started.
Did you go to Columbia for music?
No, I didn’t. I actually went for acting. I always figured singing was a God-given thing, and acting, I know you gotta train a lot, and I always did acting. I singed a development deal [for music] in high school, and I breeched contract, and [Next Level Management] said, ‘You can’t do any music with anybody,’ so I had already given up on the idea of potentially doing my own music thing for the first couple years of college.
How did you get back into music?
I wrote for people here and there, I kind of just got my feet wet. One day — my dad had just moved to Australia — I decided to spend a summer with him, but I thought, ‘Eh, I’m just gonna get away.’ I felt my life [in Chicago] was kind of mundane. I was acting here and there, but not really getting anything because it’s Chicago. I was there a lot alone, because my dad would travel for business. I found myself listening to a bunch of old Etta James album; I was even listening to a lot of Bill Evans — just like jazz and soul. All of a sudden I just started making songs from scratch. I didn’t have any instruments, so I was just getting on wastebaskets for drums, and I would make horn sections with my voice, and before I knew it I had about six songs I made from scratch just using my voice and thing around the house. When I came back, I was like, “I’ve gotta record these, I’m gonna just see what happens if I record these.”
The first time I heard you was on Saba’s “Burnout.” Is he the first Chicago rapper you worked with?
Yeah, Saba was definitely the first one. We did “Burnout” and a series of other ones.
It seems like in Chicago, it’s a snowball effect. Everyone up-and-coming artist from there seems to be working with each other.
It is. There’s a small musical community, and everyone’s living their dream and supportive of each other.
There’s definitely a strong sense of community. I’d listen to Kids These Days (a band with Vic Mensa, Donnie Trumpet, Macie Stewart and others), and now some members are touring with Chance, [Liam Cunningham] has worked with Wilco, and have created their own break-off band (Marrow).
Yeah, Liam and Macie, they all helped me with some of my projects.
What was the inspiration for Act 1? From the image of you locked in a cage on the artwork to the musical content, there’s an overall theme of breaking free.
Looking at the world and how we all interact with each other and are all struggling in this metaphorical cage whether we’re being bound by things like addiction or abuse — you know, anything. Love, or a relationship. We’re all, in a sense, trying to be free. It’s the idea that you put a bird in a cage, and you put it in an aviary to make it feel free, but the bird knows deep down inside this isn’t freedom. We’re trying every day to make ourselves feel a little bit more free and make us feel so caged and so upset and angry with ourselves.
When you dropped “How Many Times,” it was different from anything heard on the first act. It was darker, your voice is a lot raspier and it almost seemed—angry. How is Act 2 going to be different from Act 1?
It’s a lot more high octane. The covers accentuate how the music on each act is. The first one, I’m turned away and reserved. It’s more complacent. As where with Act 2, I’m moving in the cage and shaking — it’s like I’m trying to break free. You can expect the songs to be a little more abrasive, a little more fun. The volume is a little turned up on this one.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about your work with Prince.
(The two teamed up for “Baltimore” in the wake of the Freddie Gray murder.)
*laughs* He’s great. He’s served as somewhat of a mentor to me.
Outside of “Baltimore,” have you two worked together?
Yeah, we have. He didn’t work on this album with me. But, yeah, we work on stuff and talk on a regular basis. He’s very supportive and wants to see me do great things. He’s very hard on the music industry — rightfully so. There’s a lot of things he disagrees with in the game right now. I appreciate him so much. I never would have expected this to even last as a friendship, but I would definitely call him my friend and mentor. He’s funny as hell. Some people get it twisted, like he’s a diva and not cool, but he’s one of the coolest dudes. He’s kind of like an uncle.
Have you heard any good Prince stories that haven’t been made public yet? You know, like inviting Charlie Murphy over to play basketball.
I have stories that are cool, I don’t know if they’re that interesting. He’s a really clever, funny, sarcastic ass dude. He does what he wants and there’s no apologies. That’s a great trait to look up to — someone just very confident in themselves and trust themselves with all their decisions.
In a follow-up interview, Kane told me one of her favorite interactions with Prince.
He invited me on stage the first time I went out to record with him. In the middle of his set he tabbed me and dragged me to the mic and made me sing while he backed me on guitar. When I was finished he walked over to me on stage and said “yassss girrrrlll.”
You mentioned listening to Chaka Khan and Aretha Franklin as a kid. Is there anyone you aspire working with in the future?
D’Angelo. He’s also someone I can say has been an influence on me, because, you know, he has back vocals everywhere on his stuff. I’m still learning back vocals on songs I’ve listened to a million times. And Stevie Wonder. He’s definitely my favorite person in the whole wide world. I went to his concert at the United Center a couple months ago and cried thinking, ‘How are you still so amazing?’ He’s like Prince. Like ‘Holy shit, how does this happen? How can he still kill it like this?’
They’ve been doing this for 40 years and are still just as good. You forget how many massive songs [Stevie] had. It was just one after the other, and they were all quality.
All quality, he’s just amazing. I saw he made a commercial with Andra Day, and I was so jealous. I just want to be in his presence. I actually met him in a health foods store in Washington D.C. I was sick and I had to go get some herbs. (An aside: She told me she learned Stevie’s “Ribbon In The Sky,” a song her mom wanted her to learn so she could play it at her wedding if she ever got married, over the phone because her friend had already known it and taught it to her.) I was so excited to see him. I thought, ‘I have to play him “Ribbon In The Sky.”‘ I told him while we were taking the picture, ‘I gotta play you “Ribbon In The Sky,” I gotta do it! I learned it over the phone!’
Did you get to play it for him?
No, not at all! We were in a health foods store; there were no pianos anywhere. *This is when I realize how stupid the question was.* Of course he wasn’t going to stick around.
Toward the end of the conversation, we talked about the tracklist for Act 2, which has a feature from Donnie Trumpet along with Liam Cunningham, who helped produce most of the record. But pretty much the EP, like the first act, is just her.
I always felt EPs were the place where the artist should show themselves, and once you get to the album, you can bring on the Princes and the Stevie Wonders of the world.
Yeah, I just need to establish myself as an artist first. I need to show people I can produce. I can write, I can sing, I can do all of the above without the extras. I don’t need all the features right now. I just needed to introduce myself to the world, and I think I’m doing that.
— Eryn Allen Kane (@ErynAllenKane) February 1, 2016
Over the next couple months, Eryn is set to play a couple tour dates around the country:
February 19th – Chicago, IL – City Winery (Aviary Release Show)March 1st – New York, City – Rockwood Music HallMarch 3rd – Philadelphia, PA – MilkboyMarch 6th – Okeechobee, FL – Okeechobee Music FestivalMarch 8th – Atlanta, GA – Smith’s Olde BarMarch 9th – Nashville, TN – The Stone FoxMarch 15-20th – Austin, TX – SXSW showcases TBA
Don’t be a fool. See her if you have the chance.
UPDATE: Act 2 is out! Stream below.