Rockwood Music Hall is a generally unfussy place, one that requires an extra Google search in comparison to New York’s often name-dropped Irving Music Hall, Williamsburg Music Hall, Hammerstein Ballroom and Webster Hall. The boutique, hole-in-the-wall locale on the city’s Lower East Side has a warm ambience, dim lighting that feels almost candlelit and consistently moody, rustic décor.
Eryn Allen Kane walks in through the back entrance of the establishment about two hours to show time, belly full after a quick dinner at the Meatball Shop around the corner. She stands just a few inches over five feet, nearly blending in with the crowd of event staff and early birds filing in behind her. She shows up only with her manager, Robbie—her brother, Will, and the rest of her band will arrive later in the evening—a calm spirit and a sincere smile. Dressed in a simple camel peacoat, chunky Topshop sweater, slim houndstooth pants and black booties, her primary accessory sits above her shoulders. A fiery ginger mane flipped over to her left side frames her face, both striking and expressive. Dramatic, deep-set eyes and feline-like features complement a prim pout that becomes a vibrant smile when prompted.
Within 15 minutes, the Michigan-bred singer’s schoolgirl innocence and polished disposition quickly melts away to reveal a spunky, larger-than-life personality beneath the proper patina. ”I love New York. I’ve been here a million times. If I could, I’d live here. Y’all mother**kers pay too much,” she says in kiddish jest. We’re cozied on the couches of a cushy, very red greenroom, accompanied by Robbie, her publicist and two curious onlookers from the Hawaiian band Ron Artis II and Thunderstorm. Other fellow Communion Music residency musicians shuttle in and out of the shared room during the course of the interview, but she remains pleasant and unbothered, too busy smiling, joking and recollecting the musical journey she half-stumbled into.
Raised in Detroit’s East English Village by a father who was “into” music, a mother who couldn’t sing but loved to, and a music instructor grandmother who played the piano, trumpet and chimes, music naturally ran through Eryn’s veins. She was nurtured by the diverse voices of secular and gospel icons like Prince, Aretha Franklin, Ron Kenoly, Earth Wind and Fire and The Eagles floating around the house. While her musical gifts were evident to both herself and others, situational fear—performing in front of skilled vocalists who had to audition to get in there in the first place was intimidating—delayed the process of finding her voice. Eryn’s vocal instructors literally had to drag it out of her.
“They would always be like, ‘Eryn, sing out!’” she says of her timid days at Detroit School of the Arts and Mosaic Youth Theatre. “They’d have to force me and I’d do it. I knew it was in there… but I don’t think I really, really found that until like three years ago.”
Summer 2013 found Kane—née Eryn Koehn (but still pronounced Kane)—roughly 9,500 miles away from the Midwest in her dad’s Australian home, finding ways to entertain herself while he wasn’t around. Her days were spent singing idly, beating on household things to craft percussion parts and makeshift horn sections until a curiosity stirred to hear her recorded self. “That’s kind of when I discovered I had something special,” she says. Upon her return back to the States, she knew she had to do something with the free-flowing material and patch it together somehow. Her manager came into the picture soon after, and from there, Eryn says things just snowballed. “I came to Robbie with all these songs and he was like, ‘I want to save those for when we can actually have people work on them. How about you come up with other songs?’”
Enter her debut EP, Aviary: Act 1, which she made up from scratch and recorded in seven hours. The four-song offering, independently released in the cool of last November, demonstrated sounds that both millennials and old souls could appreciate: fluttering, airy high notes, jazzy scats, and belts and bellows that pull from the bottom of the gut. The breezy “Slipping” is synonymous with a leisurely afternoon stroll through Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, while the boisterous horns and slickness of her voice alongside them on “Bass Song” feel like the steady warmth of the setting sun on your skin. And the somber “Piano Song” (which was featured on an episode of Being Mary Jane), may pull you into the same reflective space Eryn was in when she wrote it after her friend’s self-decided passing.
Songs like these eventually perked up sets of ears she never guessed would be listening, like Prince, who she now talks to “on a pretty regular basis.” The Purple One pulled her into his orbit much like how he’d linked with the soulful London darling Lianne La Havas. One favorable song can solidify a spot on his radar, and it was Eryn’s “Hollow,” a 2013 a capella loosey, that did the trick. His camp reached out to her shortly after its release, trying to get a collaboration going but the schedules just didn’t line up. That didn’t shift Prince’s attention, though, and he reached back out two years later when she’d released her second gem, “Have Mercy,” also featured on Aviary: Act 1. The song was released just days after the controversial death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray.
Prince, inspired by the uprising surrounding Gray’s passing, planned to commemorate the moment with a tribute song and had his eye on Kane for the hook. Yes, the moment was fleeting for her—just four years ago she’d bought nosebleed tickets at the United Center to squint at his “godlike” being—but not without its moments of doubt. Two songs didn’t seem like a worthy enough catalogue of music to be granted the privilege to work with him. “It’s too early in the game for this,” she says, looking back at the moment. “I can’t be going and making a song with Prince. That’s stupid, you know?” That inner barrier was quickly broken, and after a trip to Paisley Park Studios, “Baltimore” was born. Prince (who she unofficially refers to as “Unc”) even invited her onstage for a jam session at his “Dance Rally 4 Peace” event in May.
A second “Unc” moment would reveal her other passion to the world: acting. Literally moments after she got offstage with Prince, she learned of a new email from Spike Lee, requesting her participation in his divisive new movie Chi-Raq. After hearing those same two songs she was fretting about, Spike wanted her to write music for the movie. But after looking at her resume—she made it to the top 80 contestants out of 137,000 for The Glee Project’s first season—he decided to write her in as a small principal character as well. “It was a blessing that I could get in there with a small enough role to just be a part of it but still have that very separate from who I am with my singing,” she says.
As a Chicago transplant (she stayed in the city after graduating from Columbia College), she wasn’t blind to the mixed reviews coming from the circle of friends around her, but stands by her choice to be in the movie. “If you actually watch the film, in no way am I degrading myself,” she says. “Why would I be a part of something that degrades black women and I am a black woman? It actually shows us in a light of empowering, sexy, intelligent human beings through this very dramatic, theatrical a** performance. It’s very Spike. But I can totally also understand people not wanting to be misrepresented.”
Two months after Chi-Raq hit theaters, Eryn’s attention was back to the music. As evidenced by the country-tinged “Now and Then,” pleading “How Many Times” and rich, sunny “Sunday,” her follow-up project Aviary: Act II remained consistent in her throwback-esque, classic style of making music. The five-song project put her one step closer to a proper full-length debut (Eryn isn’t sure the next installment will carry the same name as its predecessors), which will hopefully prove why she’s here to stay in soul music.
We’re toasting and tossing back preparatory whiskeys on the rocks (her choice) with her band at the open bar, a room over from the main stage. As the loosening effects of the liquor creep in, she scrawls together a list of tunes for her set, now an hour away. There is no formal sound check at Rockwood. Instead, Eryn and her four-person band pack into the back of their tour van to go over the set list and warm up. The lack of official rehearsal has her a bit more jittery for this show than the previous one, but once she hits the stage it becomes obvious just how convincing her poker face can be.
Rockwood’s tiny corner stage is strewn with overlapping wires, several cups and half-opened bottles of Fiji water and the crumpled piece of loose-leaf that Eryn used to write down the set list just moments prior. It’s here that Eryn will brave a cold and woo a packed house of people that don’t necessarily need much wooing. The throngs of people pressed up against the low barricade and looking over the balcony already know the words.
As she ran through combined goodies from her Aviary series like “Bass Song,” “Piano Song,” “Honey” and “Sunday,” Eryn had to occasionally power down her trademark belts to coos soft as settled snowfall. “Sorry, I got a cold, y’all,” she says with a bashful smile. The honeyed rasp in her voice intensifies each time she speaks. Eryn’s bug has persistently followed her since her first ever “real show” on Feb. 19 at Chicago’s City Winery nearly two weeks prior. After this New York show, she’ll spend the next 10 days manning stages in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Okeechobee, Fla. and Nashville, and despite the sniffles and scratchy voice, she’s all smiles.
Noticeably absent from this set-list was “Have Mercy,” which the audience begged for in between Snapchat ussie attempts as she exited the stage. For most people out in the crowd, “Have Mercy” was their first entry point to Eryn. In the monochromatic flick for her reemergence song, directed by Austin Vesely, we find a barefoot Eryn belting prayerfully into the darkness of an empty room with the blood of broken hearts all around her. Her voice (which tends to nod to the spirit of Etta James) echoes and hums around itself, pierced with soulful belts and entrancing refrains downright spiritual at their core. The video—with just over 175,000 YouTube views, it’s her second most popular out of nine, trumped only by Prince’s “Baltimore”—was thrust into a way bigger spotlight by way of Chance The Rapper’s Twitter timeline. “Meet @ErynAllenKane, honorary First Lady of #TheSocialExperiment and the 1st voice you’ll hear on #Surf,” he tweeted with a link to the somber visuals.
Her friendship with the indie rap phenom stems back long before he knew she was a musician. As one of her many college odd jobs, Eryn drove around Chicago handing out free Red Bull samples out the back of an elaborately decorated MINI Cooper to anyone who wanted one. Chancelor Bennett always wanted one. “He’d always come up because he went to school right across the street from where my dorm rooms were at. I think he must’ve thought I was in high school,” she recalls. Many energy drinks later, Chance stumbled across Eryn’s bluesy and coquettish acoustic cover of Nat King Cole’s “These Foolish Things” on YouTube, fake-mad she didn’t divulge her talents to him. From there, the musical relationship between her, Chano and the rest of SOX took off. The most tangible result is her voice on at least five of the songs on their highly praised group album, Surf.
While Prince and Chance’s cosigns are honorable and the exposure is greatly appreciated, Eryn is serious about letting people know she will be the reason for her success. “All my music, the majority of it other than a couple of songs, were produced and written by a woman,” she says, proudly. “I don’t think that’s very common for people to say. So I want people to know that and I want to keep on doing that and addressing it. It’s possible. We do this.”
That, and that this music comes from the heart, for the heart. As an artist, it’s easy to forget why you create and to lose sight of your purpose. In the wake of the tragic 2015 Paris massacre, witnessing people connect to her music helped bring the purpose she suspected back into sight. The day after the attacks, a man sent her a message explaining just how necessary “Have Mercy” was at a time like that. “He said, ‘All we’ve been doing is listening to ‘Have Mercy’ all day and it’s healing us,” Eryn recalls. “I just wanted to let you know that this music is what we should be listening to. Thank you so much for that. I’m showing it to everyone who’s struggling through this hard time.”
That’s all Eryn really wants. Not only out of music, but out of life. “It’s totally fine to make the fun stuff, but I think that’s why I make the messages and embed those in all of my music,” she says. “I want it to resonate with people and effect them on a deeper level. Because I know music has saved me, so I can only hope that I can do that for people.”