“It sounds cliche,” singer-songwriter Eryn Allen Kane warns me over the phone while driving to a recording session in L.A. She’s explaining how she learned to sing, and credits the church on the east side of Detroit that she attended as a kid, as well as its choir, for introducing her to the art form and helping her hone her vocal chops.
I’m not surprised.
Listen to any song from either of Kane’s two EPs, Aviary: Act I and Aviary: Act II, and the gospel influences of her childhood are front and center. Harmonies, a cappella arrangements, syncopated rhythms, and veiled Bible references: They’re all there. And even though the 26-year-old’s lyrics are staunchly secular, her tracks have a sermon-like quality and spew life lessons and advice, like not letting social media hurt your confidence and the importance of staying positive.
“I try to stick to the roots of my singing,” says Kane, who is known not only for her hearty, versatile voice, but for her mammoth mound of curly brown hair. “I’m not going to make a song like Lady Gaga using 808s and Auto-Tune.”
Of all her songs, the gospel streak is strongest in the 2015 single, “Have Mercy,” a gentle acoustic track punctuated by finger snaps and choral arrangements from female vocalists. She penned and produced the ditty over the course of an afternoon in August 2014 after watching news segments on the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the murder of a little boy who had been beaten to death by his mother.
“It just broke my heart,” says Kane, who recalls fleeing to the basement of her Chicago apartment and crying while working on what would become “Have Mercy.” At the time, she was juggling two nannying jobs and only had time to work on her music in the wee hours of the morning. Though singing is her first passion, she abandoned it in college because of a crooked recording deal she’d signed as a teenager that shackled her with so many limitations that she decided to give up the activity altogether.
When the 18-month contract ran out, Kane, who was then a freshman at Chicago’s Columbia College, was still not ready to return to music and pursued acting instead. (While in college, she auditioned for the first season of The Glee Project and made it to the top 80 contestants, out of 137,000.) It wasn’t until her senior year, when she went to Australia to live with her father for the summer of 2013, that she started recording again.
By the time she finished “Have Mercy,” Kane had a few other gospel- and soul-inspired tracks under her belt, all of which had been softly released and garnered little attention. She figured the same thing would happen with “Have Mercy,” especially because it does not fall in the more popular genre categories of pop, rock, or hip-hop. But she was wrong. Within a few months, not only were local radio stations playing the single, but so, too, were BBC DJs across the Atlantic.
“It’s something that took me and everyone else by surprise,” Kane says. “I don’t make music that’s supposed to be on the radio. I was like, ‘This was not supposed to happen!’ But you know that baseball movie where they’re like, ‘If you make it, they’ll come?’ Well, it’s kind of like that. If you make good music, people are going to fuck with it no matter what.”
In fact, defying expectations seems to be a recurring event in Kane’s career. In 2013, after hearing one of her first tracks, an unaccompanied multi-part harmony called “Hollow,” Prince reached out to the then-unknown artist with talks of collaborating on a project. Due to schedule conflicts, the pair never met up, but the Purple One got in touch with the Big-Haired One a few years later, after hearing “Have Mercy” on Aviary: Act 1. This time, they were able to meet up, and Kane traveled to Paisley Park Studios in Minnesota, where she laid down the hook for “Baltimore,” a funky pop tribute inspired by the controversial death of Freddie Gray.
Following the song’s release, Kane partook in an onstage jam session with Prince at his Dance Rally 4 Peace event in May 2015, only to encounter another lucky break moments later. While checking her phone backstage, Kane discovered an email from director Spike Lee, who wanted her to write music for his upcoming film, Chi-Raq. But when Lee discovered that Kane was also an actress, he decided to give her a principal role as Tee-Tee, a friend of protagonist Lysistrata and one of the women partaking in the controversial sex hiatus.
Thanks again to “Have Mercy,” Kane encountered another stroke of luck in 2015. Chance the Rapper, whom Kane had met in college while working as “a Red Bull girl,” tapped the artist for vocals and songwriting assistance on Surf, the debut album for his new band, The Social Experiment. Following their collaboration, Chance tweeted a link to the music video for “Have Mercy,” describing Kane as the “honorary First Lady of The Social Experiment.” The tweet garnered new fans for Kane and proved her versatility as more than just a soul and gospel singer.
“I’ve been blessed to be in a situation where there are so many other musical people around me that have helped me out,” Kane says. “Me being a novice has worked really well.”
Now on her first nationwide tour, it would be hard to still classify Kane as a novice. Though her first live performance sans backup singers didn’t occur until February of this year, Kane, who has suffered her whole life from stage fright, has now had a few months of experience taking to the stage on her own. Of course, she still gets nervous, but she’s learned how to truck through the fear — and, fortunately, doesn’t “feel like I have to throw up and shit on myself at the same time.”
“Now that I’m playing shows back to back, I’ve become way more familiar with being onstage,” she says. “I have so much to learn still, but I’m doing OK.”
Eryn Allen Kane plays with Gallantat 9 p.m., Friday, Oct. 21, and Saturday, Oct. 22, at Great American Music Hall. $20; slimspresents.com.