Originally Appeared for TheseDays in July 2016
Five minutes before taking the biggest stage of her life, Eryn Allen Kane is freaking out.
Her mind running, palms sweating, feet pacing, she begins to make sense of how she got to this point: backstage preparing to perform alongside none other than Prince, her first proper stage experience outside of backup duties.
Suddenly, a familiar face steps into the green room. Recognizing the worry on her face, sensing the nerves bubbling to the surface, Prince assures her, “don’t be nervous, why are you nervous, why?”
Looking at him, Kane could think of only one thing to say, “because you’re Prince, man.”
“So what,” he returned. “You’re Eryn and you’re here for a reason and this is your time, this is you.”
With that, the pair took the stage to perform their single “Baltimore” in protest to the Freddy Gray murder by police. Less than a year later, Prince would be gone and Kane’s nerves a lot less restrained. While brief, Kane’s time with one of music’s great talents was a special and significant experience that would change the Detroit-born singer forever.
Just over a year removed from their first real life meeting Kane sits on the sunny back porch of a Logan Square Cafe retelling the story over enchiladas. As she does, a tear falls silently down her cheek and is quickly whisked away with the back of her hand as she remembers a man who came and went from her life in a flash, but will never be forgotten.
“It was all just about a year,” Kane remembers, toying with the straw in her water glass. “He always just blew me away with his sincerity, he was so sincere, so fucking genuine. I’ve never met someone in the music industry that’s that big, who’s that enormous of a human being, to be so genuine. He just believed in me and what I wanted to do and I wouldn’t be here without him.”
Detroit has long been known as a blue collar city, a place where the work comes first and accolades if you’re lucky. Having grown up in the city during its decline, Eryn Allen Kane fully embodies the city’s spirit through the approach to her music. At 26, Kane isn’t a young wunderkind by any means. Whereas some of her peers and collaborators have found the spotlight in their late teens and twenties, she steadily worked for years to develop her sound after arriving in Chicago to attend Columbia College. They say slow and steady wins the race, but most who met her over the course of the last six years hardly knew she sang until she began releasing music last year. The approach required a careful patience, one that led her to her debut, two-part project, Aviary: Act I&II and allowed her to find her voice and self in the process. The approach got some help along the way though, as a gentle hand arrived to give her the necessary nudge forward.
Prince is one of those artists that almost everyone has a memory with. The man permeated pop music and was a favorite across age creed and color. By 2013, he was a long-cemented musical legend with nothing to prove. It was that year that Kane teamed up with longtime friend and local videographer Austin Vesely to create a unique video for an experimental a cappella-based song named “Hollow”. While the reaction to the video’s release was appropriately large, one tweet in particular stuck out. “Wollow Hollow” from @3rdEyeGirl, the Purple one was watching.
“After we put the video out we were getting all these mentions on social media and stuff, but all of a sudden we saw his and both me and Austin were like, ‘no way,’” said Kane. “It was the craziest thing for him to do, me being this girl from Detroit who don’t have a pot to piss in and having looked up to him for so long, since I was eleven years old and for him to see something in me was just crazy.”
As she began work on her projects and began releasing music in early 2015 he reached out again, inviting her to his Paisley Park estate. While they didn’t cross paths further at that moment, Kane would occasionally receive calls from Prince just to ask her opinion on an idea, a song; something in the news. Arriving at the studio understandably nerve-ridden, Kane was almost immediately offset by how familiar his band members and Joshua Welton seemed to be with her and her music.
“I walk into the studio at Paisley Park and literally everyone is like, ‘oh my God, Eryn!’ giving me hugs, being like ‘we feel like we know you because of how much Prince talks about you,’” recalls Kane. “They knew all my little stupid ass songs, all of that. This man was really invested in me and that was a feeling I’d never felt before from anyone in my entire musical existence.”
It was in these gentle subtleties that the relationship between the two grew and with it, Kane’s confidence in her own music. While she’s long possessed the kind of voice that would make a grown man weep, it took a long time to find it and she couldn’t have done it more literally. Much of her music, including “Hollow” are complete a cappella arrangements that often loop her voice underneath her own vocals. There’s not many female vocalists in the Top 50 singing a cappella, but she was encouraged by who she came to call Uncle Prince to pursue the music that fulfilled her.
“If I wanted it to be about anything other than the music I would have never put out two songs that were a cappella,” said Kane, “When I feel something that for me needs to get out, I do it. It’s therapeutic in a way. If it’s something I feel the world needs or that the world might want to hear I kinda just do it and fuck everybody else.”
By early 2016, Kane and Prince chatted regularly and both were enjoying the upward rise of her long-awaited Aviaryreleases, a pair of EPs that perfectly introduced her music to the world. The project was a resounding success, both with critics and fans alike. Evidence of such was several of her singles floating and topping the Spotify charts in the weeks after each project’s release. With both projects out, the next sensical step was a concert; tickets for her debut headliner went on sale in January for her show the following month at the 400-person City Winery and sold out almost immediately.
“When I saw that I was like, ‘huh?’ I didn’t even think 400 people would show up to see me sing. That was my first performance ever doing my own music, that’s why I was fuckin’ up and talking to y’all like I was crazy,” explained Kane laughing about her first sell-out. “I wanted my first performance to be special for me and for everyone else, I just kind of held off until the big day and hit the ground running.”
Despite appearing on numerous singles and onstage backup with the likes of Chance The Rapper, Saba and a large contingent of local music that found it’s way to the national mainstream, by February 2016, she had still yet to perform her first solo headliner. Able to lean on an exuberant personality, one that often causes her to become the center of attention in even the most star-studded of affairs, she was understandably feeling the pressure of the moment as she watched the minutes tick down to showtime. Between receiving hugs and well-wishes from friends and family, many of whom traveled into town for the show, she wondered how it would all go. The house was packed, but one person in particular was missing.
Prince didn’t make that show because of a scheduling conflict. This time, Kane prepared to take the stage by herself. Worried about conducting her first set in front of a completely seated crowd has tipped the scale for pre-show jitters and people seemed to keep streaming in. Without an opener, the night’s focus would be solely on her.
Before she could though reach the stage though, she thought back on the conversation she had with Prince backstage in Baltimore..
Once again, his words were there to set her straight, to prepare her for the task ahead. As the beads of sweat formed on her palms, she thought back on his words of encouragement..
“Eryn, you are the voice of your generation, you know one day we’re going to need to pass the torch, all of us singers and you’re going to show that to everyone tonight.”
With that, Kane steeled her nerves, checked her red dress in the mirror one more time and took the stage.
The first thing she did when she finally made it onstage was take off her shoes. While her otherworldly vocal abilities have garnered fans by the hundreds, it’s been her careful ingenuity, her thoughtful realness that has endeared her to first the local scene here and, eventually, the industry at large. Her shows are far from choreographed and February 19 at City Winery that was blissfully obvious. She segued between songs by telling stories of her childhood, stopping to giggle or hold back tears as she did. It was the sort of show everyone who was in the city at the time will say they attended twenty years later, one that cemented Kane’s standing amongst a crowded scene emerging from Chicago.
That realness was also what drew Prince to her. Asking for advice and ideas, he once invited Alabama Shakes to his estate on her recommendation, the superstar appreciated the brash honesty of the understudy he affectionately referred to as ‘a little boy’ because of her tendencies to bite her nails and operate somewhere just south of refined. Their time together was important, but brief. Despite his missing the Chicago show, he once again prov
That would be the last time she would hear from Prince, he passed away from an accidental overdose of the powerful painkiller Fentanyl a couple weeks later.
About a month ago Eryn Allen Kane was preparing to take the stage for her first festival performance, the last leg on her first tour. A day slot at a fledgling first-year romp on the beach, her crowd for Okeechobee Fest was five young girls lining the aluminum barrier. After stopping by to say hello to the teens who traveled from out of state to see her perform, Kane returned backstage to pace back and forth once again. As the set time approached and the field in front of her stage continued to yield open grass, Kane once again started to get a little nervous, there had yet to be a crowd assembled, most had flocked to the beach to the right. Looking inward, she thought back over the last year, the lessons and experiences that vaulted her to the stage. Without Prince there to reassure her, she instead used the confidence he instilled and hit the stage with a vengeance.
A small ball of energy and soul with a wild frock of hair that often bounces along with her movements, Kane is a sight when performing. On that Florida stage she skipped, hopped, danced and flailed in pure ecstasy of the moment. When she opened her eyes, there was a full crowd staring back at her.
“I was just thinking, ‘I gotta get everyone from the beach over here, I gotta kick things up a notch’,” recalled Kane. “I’m not coming all the way to Florida to perform for five people. I need more people, to be here and to hear me out, I never expected it, but that was the moment, the moment we all knew.”
In the year since she really got to know Prince, Kane has accomplished a lot, and graced plenty of stages. While the Purple One didn’t directly open doors or make moves on her behalf, he offered Kane something even more substantial; confidence and support. It was the simple things that paced their time together: brief phone calls, simple morning text messages, genuine attention and care. Prince made Kane’s parents understand her art for the first time, in turn helping her to realize what she was fully capable of in a way that spoke to the man’s legacy.
“He listens to me, he made me feel like I was important in a world right now where I felt like my voice hadn’t been heard yet, especially even before I released my music,” said Kane. “He was basically a father figure, he genuinely gave a shit about what I was going to become and he made sure I knew it every time we spoke.”
Today, Kane stands at the end of a long journey, one that has brought her happiness, stress, grief and heartbreak since she embarked on it. While she prepares new music and turns her attention to an upcoming tour, she does so with a renewed vigor, a more focused drive. We all grew up with Prince, but Kane now stands as the last artist he ever collaborated with, both an honor and a great responsibility.
“I think he was preparing me for this the entire time, that’s why when it happened it was just the worst thing” said Kane as she reminisced between tears. “He’s the fuckin’ man and I just think that I have to carry on his legacy. That was all to prep me to become a truly unique artist like he was.”