Minneapolis blues singer Renee Austin regains voice, performs at the Dakota
MINNEAPOLIS (KMSP) - At Cityview Church in south Minneapolis, Renee Austin is right at home. She started singing in sanctuaries when she was just four years old.
"I was so small I couldn't reach the podium, I had to get on a chair to reach the microphone,” Austin said.
But her rehearsal was a far cry from the small town church choirs she grew up in. Austin was surrounded by some of Minnesota’s heaviest musical hitters including Matt Fink from Prince's band The Revolution and Gary Raynor from A Prairie Home Companion. And they were all there for the same reason -- to help bring Renee Austin back.
Austin's journey is filled with both tragedy and triumph. In 1997, young blues-soul singer Austin blew the doors off the local music scene with her first album, Dancin' with Mr. Blue. It snagged six Minnesota music awards and the attention of a national music label Blind Pig Records. The critics loved her, comparing her to Janis Joplin and Tina Turner.
“I was driven, I wanted to be the best I could be,” Austin said. “My dream was to be on the bus and either opening for big national acts or someday becoming one."
But a few weeks before her big national album was set to debut, she literally felt something was wrong.
“We were in Canada at a jazz festival and I felt a lump as I was warming up in my throat a minute, minute and a half before we went on."
Months of tests would follow, with a final biopsy giving Austin good news. She was cancer free. But something still wasn't right.
“I could barely talk. This was me yelling, it was just a tiny, tiny airy almost like an elf on helium we liked to say. I couldn't speak."
Two weeks turned into four weeks then six. Her doctors, eventually telling her one of her vocal cord nerves was paralyzed.
“They put me in some speech therapy some different things to try and help. But it wasn't coming back. And they just said, ‘this is permanent. There's really nothing we can do.’"
Broken, isolated and completely lost, Austin had no choice but to accept the prognosis. In 2005, she wrote an open letter to her fans, dropping the curtain on music for good.
"I really did not know who I was. I had to really figure out, well, ok, who are you? You're not a musician anymore, you're not playing anywhere. You can't even sing for church. You can't sing in the car. "
Slowly and painfully, Austin moved on to the next chapter of her life. It brought her to a St. Paul non-profit called Give Us Wings where she was a project coordinator. And then, one day, the phone rang. And it changed her life.
"And I just said, ‘good morning, this is Give Us Wings, this is Rrrr... ‘ I looked at the phone. I'm looking around the office, did anybody hear that? ‘I'm gonna have to call you back’ and hung up. And I just started going ‘oh my gosh, oh my lord.’ Just jumping, I got up out of the chair and I'm jumping up and down."
Austin heard her own voice for the first time in what seemed like forever. She was grateful for what she called a miracle. But elation was quickly followed by disappointment.
“I couldn't sing. I tried. As soon as I could speak I went home and oh it was awful. It was just awful. It didn't work. I could try a song and it would just shut off. The whole vocal cord would not work."
For the next few years, Austin would slowly try to rebuild her singing voice which she describes as temperamental, coming back at partial strength here and there. Until one day in 2009, when she pushed play on her little boy's CD player.
“I sang that like a warm knife through butter. My whole voice was back. On the spot” -- which brings us back full circle to Cityview Church and the one and only rehearsal for Austin and the band before her first big comeback performance.
A few nights later, on a cold night in November, Austin headlined at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. It's a moment she had dreamed about for 10 years.
"I just want to tell you tonight that if there's anything you take home more than just a night of good music -- Miracles still happen, because I am one. So don't give up, have some hope."
Because anyone can believe in miracles they can see. But when it comes to the rebirth of Renee Austin, hearing is believing.