Avid watchers of the very juicy season 3 of Being Mary Jane probably took note of a sultry slow jam full of horns, piano stabs and a woman’s tough, smoky soprano hovering around Mary Jane Paul as she puffed on a cigar and luxuriated poolside in the afterglow of “kissing her first White boy” at the end of episode five. “Piano Song,” by rising singer-songwriter Eryn Allen Kane, compares the impermanence of love to trying to grab hold of a cloud, and adds delicious heat to Mary Jane’s purring self-satisfaction.
Kane’s ability to entrance listeners with her fiery vocals is what led to a truly star-crossed year for the twentysomething singer. Last spring, she was summoned to Paisley Park Studios by her idol, Prince, to sing on his musical balm for the Freddie Gray uprising, “Baltimore,” then rocked live with him at his Rally 4 Peace in that city. Kane also made her big-screen debut this year in Spike Lee’s controversial Chiraq, and performed with Chance the Rapper, Donnie Trumpet and his band the Social Experiment on their critically acclaimed album, Surf.
Eryn Allen Kane was first introduced to the music industry by her “big sister,” fellow Detroit-raised singer/reality star Teairra Marie. Since then, she’s delivered her own masterfully polished four-song debut, Aviary:Act 1, a blend of deeply introspective lyrics and harmony-rich soul. Its cover features the singer sitting nude inside of a birdcage, an eye-grabbing visual Kane says “represents an allusion [to] being free within confinement. We’re all trying to find a way out of this cage that we either built around ourselves or that has been built by others to keep us contained.”
The release of Aviary: Act 2, as well an in-the-works collaboration with J.Cole, foreshadows a breakout 2016 for a passionately cage-free Eryn Allen Kane. EBONY.com chatted up the Chicago-based singer about what it’s been like to collaborate with her artistic heroes and the timelessness of her modern soul sound.
EBONY: You have a kind of mission statement on your Facebook page where you describe your songs as stretching beyond the typical “love song” material most women singers are expected to make to climb the charts.
Eryn Allen Kane: Life isn’t just a bed of roses, and there’s more to it than bad boyfriends, bad breakups, sex, and falling head over heels for someone. Not that I don’t ever write about those things. I just enjoy writing about a variety of topics. Female artists are expected to sing about being in love (or not), or catty experiences with other women. But I prefer to go deeper. I want to touch on war, politics, racism, and all the issues that affect us on a daily basis. It helps me cope, and I hope it can help others cope too.
EBONY: You recorded with Prince on his politically charged song, “Baltimore,” and performed at his Rally 4 Peace concert. What was it like working with Prince in the studio? Does the message behind “Baltimore” hit home?
EAK: As much as I loved that man all my life, I got really nervous before going in to record. I thought it was too early for me to be working with a legend like him, and I told my manager that I couldn’t do it. Luckily, Prince wasn’t in the studio while I recorded. He trusted me to “do me.” We’d send him what I recorded and he’d send back a note or two and that’s how it worked.
I was really excited that he’d asked me to do the song, because that is, in some way, what [my song] “Have Mercy” was about. My brother has been beaten and jailed for no reason right in front of my mother and [me]. I tried to fight with the police officer to let him go and they told me they were going to throw me in jail with him. This is something my brother experienced multiple times [in Detroit]. This is a part of his experience as a Black male living in America.
EBONY: How did you connect with Spike Lee for Chiraq?
EAK: I had just finished performing on stage with Prince in Baltimore for the [Rally 4 Peace] back in May and my manager told me to check my email. I checked and it was Spike wanting to meet with me. He’d heard “Have Mercy” and wanted me to do music for the film. It eventually led to him writing me into the script.
EBONY: What part did you play?
EAK: I play Tee-Tee. She’s one of Lysistrata’s good friends and a part of the Spartan gang’s crew.
EBONY: Any thoughts about the controversy surrounding Chiraq?
EAK: I understand why people are upset, and there are two sides to the story. I care about the city of Chicago and my friends, who have some strong concerns and reservations. But also, I think it’s great that an artist on Spike’s level is taking a stance. He addresses the reasons why no one can remember the names of those killed by the violence, and how authorities have tried sweeping these issues under the rug, and blaming absent Black fathers for their incompetence.
Artists should be controversial for the sake of bringing about awareness. It’s his art and he is choosing to say it this way. But people should know Spike cares about Chicago, and its ongoing issues with violence. I don’t think spike is trying to bash Chicago; I think he’s trying to shine light on an exploitive system in his own artistic way.
EBONY: It was also interesting to learn that you knew Teairra Mari when you were both teenage singers back in Detroit. What was your friendship like?
EAK: I went to Detroit School of the Arts after she’d already been signed to Roc-a-Fella. She was finishing up her senior year and was back and forth between Detroit and New York City. [A mutual friend] used to mention how much she thought I looked like Teairra and introduced us one day when she was in town. From that day forward, she took me under her wing. I was her Little Sis and she became my Big Sister. She took me to Scream Tour concerts and introduced me to Omarion and Marques Houston, and encouraged me to pursue my music career. I appreciate her for being such a genuine person.
EBONY: Your music is rich with gospel runs and church fervor. Who influenced you? Do you at all fear that your mature soulfulness will go over the heads of younger listeners in the era of EDM?
EAK: I’m influenced by Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Earth Wind & Fire, Chaka Khan. All the great soul singers of my mother and father’s generation. Do I think it will go over younger listeners’ heads? Maybe. But I’d like to think that people are in constant search for more of what those legendary singers brought into the music world. Lalah Hathaway and Bilal are perfect examples of that. Their soulful/jazzy vocals are layered all throughout one of the most prolific rap albums of 2015, [Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly]. That didn’t go over anyone’s head. Trends come and go, but good music is forever. So I believe there will always be an audience for the type of music I make.
Sun Singleton is a Northern Virginia-born singer/journalist based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @sunsing.