Featured Interview – Annie Mack

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The traditional pyramid of strength starts off with ‘Foundational Strength’ at its base, before moving on to ‘Aggressive Strength’ in the middle, and finally ‘Super Strength’ at the top.

But after hearing her amazing story of perseverance, perhaps a new level should be added to that pyramid – a level at the very top that dwarfs all those below it – the ‘Annie Mack’ level.

The Rochester, Minnesota-based blueswoman has steadfastly refused to let anything derail or detain her, and when looking back on an eventful 2014 – a year that was highlighted by the birth of her son, along with a trip to the International Blues Challenge (IBC), while she was still carrying her child – her indomitable will and spirit comes shining brightly through.  “When I was pregnant, I was really competitive. It was like, ‘No, I’m not canceling these gigs, I’m playing.’ So there I was down at the IBCs and was six-and-a-half months pregnant and all I wanted to do was nap and eat,” she laughed. “Those were my priorities … eating and napping. It was funny to be on Beale Street and not be in party-mode.”

Although she eventually was forced to slow down a bit, as soon as her son was born, it was back to business at hand for the dynamic Mack.

“I was only out for about four weeks. I had him May 2nd and then June 2nd I went back to work and had my first show. But honestly, I don’t know if I’d do that again, because I’m still recovering from that. We hit the road and did a lot of festivals and it was what it was … which was kind of crazy … crazy but fun,” she said.

Mack and her band have been crazy-busy supporting their debut release, Baptized in the Blues. The disc was nominated for New Artist Debut at this year’s Blues Blast awards and has managed to rack up a number of glowing accolades, despite most of the promotional groundwork having been done by Mack herself, without much outside aid.

“Well, without a marketing agency and without a label, I think we did pretty well. I did know that we wanted to go big with our debut album, because we don’t have all those things (marketing tools),” she said. “We knew the production had to be good and we weren’t concerned with being something that we’re not. If we set the bar and say this is who we are; we love all kinds of music, but the foundation is blues, that’s what’s important. I really like the old-school, organic, word-of-mouth process that we followed with the album.”

You might say it’s something of a surprise that Mack ever found her name emblazoned on a record sleeve to begin with. A relative late-comer to the vocation of playing music (basically just the last six years or so), she never really intended to take the charts by storm or play concerts all across the United States. No, Mack’s reasons for playing the blues were a lot simpler than that.

“This whole music thing has been such a whirlwind. I just did it because I thought it would be cool to do something that I liked before I die. I was doing all these weird jobs and just kind of getting by and I’ve always liked music, so I thought I would do this little hobby-band thing and see what happens,” she said. “So this is something that’s really been forming my whole life, honestly. The album is basically my life and the songs are about some of the great things in my life, or are things that I’ve overcome and I can say, ‘Hey, I’m still here.’ I also wanted to leave a little legacy for my daughter, so she could say, ‘Man, that’s my mom and that’s her story.’”

With notebook after notebook containing her memories – mostly put down on paper for therapeutic reasons – scattered around, Mack knew deep down inside that the next logical step was to try and put them to music. The only problem was; she really didn’t have a band.

“When I first started this, I really didn’t have a band. The guys that are now in my band, I was just kind of working with at that point in time. And everyone kept saying, ‘Annie, you have to do a blues album.’”

In short order, Mack managed to come up with a band to help turn her memories into songs (guitarists Paul O’Sullivan, Tom Kochie and Charlie Lacy; bass player Tim Scribner; and drummer Miles Johnson).

“They’re not just wonderful players; they’re men of integrity,” she said. “And they don’t drink! I’m the only one (in the band) that drinks. We go into these bars and they’ll give us a tab and I’ll go, ‘I’m the only one who drinks and I’m a mom, so good luck with that.’ But they (bars) love us.”

Paul O’Sullivan brought more to Baptized in the Blues than just his skills on the guitar and pedal steel. He also produced the disc, and co-wrote five of the songs with Mack. And oh, yeah – he’s also Mack’s husband. According to Mack, it’s a good idea to have some defining boundaries when your spouse is also a member of your band.

“You have to make a line between what goes on in the band and what goes on at home; there can’t be any carryover. We’ve definitely had to say, ‘Look, what goes on at home cannot carry over to the band.’ But I’ll keep it real – we’ve gotten into it in front of the guys, like when we were making the album,” she said. “It was work – hard work. He had a vision and I had a vision and we had to make sure that our visions worked together. We had to take the best of what we wanted to see happen and put it together. He really pushed me out of my comfort zone on part of it and I kind of reined him in, in some cases. It was all about communicating and putting our pride down and being humbled and being loving, all without our egos getting in the way.”

Stumbling blocks such as the ones mentioned are one thing, but just being able to share your work on a daily basis with your soul-mate makes those little speed bumps seem totally non-existent on most days.

“To be able to work and do something you love with your spouse is amazing; because honestly, a lot of musicians that I know have significant others that are not a part of that lifestyle. They’re not into music, they’re not players or they’re not vocalists,” Mack said. “To me, that’s strange when music is a big passion in your life and your significant other doesn’t share that with you. It’s just crazy. That’s why I knew that I had to be with someone that at least understood the passion and would be supportive of it.”

The tunes contained within Baptized in the Blues is an eclectic mix of a large variety of roots-based music, including some rockabilly, along with a dash of New Orleans jazz and it also features horns, as well as O’Sullivan’s pedal steel stylings, making the album blues with a different slant to it.

“We wanted to do different styles of blues, do things like Chicago blues or do this little train beat here or do this little shuffle there … just different styles. And as I started doing the songs, I felt convicted to give each song its own light and own proper voicing and styling,” Mack said.

The music may have several different facets to it, but the message contained within the lyrics all boils down to one universal theme: the truth.

“It may sound cheesy, but it’s just testimony and I do believe in the Lord. I do believe that we all have a purpose here and the beauty about music is, it’s a cool platform to encourage people,” Mack said. “I’m not here to preach, but the artists that I really admire are the ones you can hear the truth in. Etta James could sing anything, but there was just something about her that you hear the truth in … you could hear the conviction and you could tell she knew what she was talking about. And you could hear that in Mavis Staples, as well. There’s just something that resonates with your spirit when you hear her. That’s what I try to bring – truth and relatability. I want people to be encouraged and I want to share the journey; I’ll talk about dark things, but I also talk about the hope that comes if you just kind of withstand it (dark times). I just love hearing the truth … it sends shivers up your spine.”

Growing in Minneapolis, a city known worldwide for its funk, R&B and soul, Mack didn’t hear a whole lot of blues music. She truly feels that her eventual destination of playing blues music as an adult is a choice that was made for her from above.

“It was God. I know I was called upon to do blues music by Him. I was really surprised when I was pulled into it (playing the blues), it was like, here I am,” she said. “But it just seemed natural to me, because blues music is real and blues music is raw and there’s truth in it and there’s beauty in it. I really do believe that I was called on to sing blues music, because I sure didn’t grow up in it. I love that God is unique like that. People want to put Him in a box, but He meets people where they’re at and He knows exactly what we need. And for me, going into the blues has definitely been a spiritual journey. It’s certainly not for the money, or for the fame, wherever that is. I needed to get some healing and deal with the things that I’ve gone through.”

Some of those things that Mack went through as a child border on the unthinkable.

Mack’s mother raised her and her sister Lanette (who is eight years older than Annie) in a single-parent home in Minneapolis. Battling poverty conditions while also raising two daughters meant that conditions were in no way ideal for Mack’s mother, or for the family. Some of those frustrations came out in the physical beatings of Lanette by her mother. In 1988, when Annie was 10 and Lanette was 18, the older sister came home late one night – at 3 or 4 a.m. – to find her mother waiting for her. When quizzed about where she had been, Lanette talked back to her mother. For that, her mother pulled out a gun and shot Lanette. Just like that – in the blink of an eye – the family was torn apart. Lanette survived the shooting, but her mother was sent to prison and Annie was sent into foster care. That was when Annie Mack learned how to make it on her own.

“What I learned early on, was to survive. What I really learned was, you can have it all taken away. I learned that you had better find your foundation in something besides this world, because before you know it, it’s gone,” she said. “I had put my faith in my mother, and she was an abusive woman. But now that I’m older, I see things more clearly. Back then they didn’t have the support for a single mother like they have these days. I’m not making excuses, but it was very different back then. But you have to know who you are. If you don’t find out who you are, or what you do in this world, you’re going to live a very empty, unhopeful existence. So when my mother went to prison and I was 10 years old and in the foster system, I learned about people and I learned how to read people. That was my survival for so long. And I’ve taken a lot of that into my adulthood; being a survivor and understanding you’ve got to have a solid foundation. For me, that foundation was the Lord.”

That spiritual foundation helped Mack break free from what easily could have been a path toward self-destruction and helped send her on to a place much more productive and much more positive. And it all started when she realized someone really did love her.

“Yeah, it was like, wow! God’s going to love me, no matter what I do or what I say. He’s not going to beat me … He’s not going to leave me. So my faith came from believing that I have a future and that I’m supposed to be here,” she said. “It’s a really difficult thing to have a parent say they love you, but yet their actions don’t follow that. You don’t believe you’re loved; you don’t believe you’re worth anything. For the first part of my life, I believed I was worthless. I was suicidal, before I even knew what that word was. I was like, ‘Why am I here?’ And God said, ‘This is why you’re here.’ If you don’t have truth in your life to combat that, you will become another casualty.”

That’s precisely the message that Mack tries to impart on audiences when she plays the blues; seek the truth, believe in yourself and understand you do have a purpose, even in the darkest of times.

“I understand that battle better than anybody, so when I sing, I’m speaking to that person that may be struggling, or may be in that battle. I’m telling them, don’t believe those lies, because you do have purpose. I speak from the experience, not because I’m pretending to be somebody I’m not. I’ve been there and done that.”

Her message is spread from more than just the bandstand, too. Mack has long been actively involved in making sure that other youngsters do not have to go through what she did.

“I love non-profit work and I love working with teenagers. In fact, I had a job in the ministry for a short amount of time, working with kids whose parents were incarcerated. We were trying to keep the kids from falling into that cycle of being in the prison system; I loved that job and was very good at it. It was hard work, but I loved it. It was really fulfilling,” she said. “The only reason I gave it up, was because I needed to be home for my family. I need to be there for my own family, so I stepped back. But when my kids are older, I definitely want to go back and do prison ministry. I’m thinking about doing like a Johnny Cash thing (concerts for the incarcerated). Those people (in prison) are the forgotten and they need to be ministered to.”

Mack’s mother got sick and passed way in 2006. She has long been forgiven by Mack and the song “Hey, Hey Mama” is done very much in the style of music that her mother loved to listen to back in the day.

“It was like a revelation. My mother loved doo-wop and soul and I wanted it to be true to her story. I wanted it to be true to my experience and I wanted to bring about the feeling that my mom would really dig this,” she said. “This is my mom right here. And people that knew her would say, ‘Yeah, that’s Delia.” It was like each song (on the album), God kind of revealed. I said to Paul, ‘When I hear this “Fool to Believe” I just want to do this old-school, throwback kind of Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland thing. I wanted to capture that in that particular song, but each song has its own personality that I felt needed to be respected.”

Mack attended a local jam session held in a garage not long after her mother passed and that’s when she decided to give singing a try. A true natural, Mack rapidly came to realize that she might enjoy doing something that one of her idols – Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland – did for so many years.

“He just had a way … Bobby could sit down and it was like he was having a conversation with you. He knew just when to do  everything; the restraint, the smoothness … when to be gruff … he was just such a big personality and such a grown-man,” Mack said. “So when I perform, I think like that – I’m a grown-woman and I’m going to have a conversation with you. We’re going to talk like we’re sitting in my house. Bobby would have a 10-piece band behind him, but that didn’t matter. They were on top of it and he was in control of it. There was just something about hearing him sing where I would go, ‘Man, this is it.’ It’s the same way with Etta James. If you watch her, you could see that she could also relate to you and she knew how to talk to you and how to draw you in and take you places. It was like church. That’s how you know when people are listening. Those types of performers amaze me and I try and think about that when I’m performing; how do I have that truth and relate to the audience?”

To see a video of Annie performing at the 2014 Blues Blast Awards, CLICK HERE!

Visit Annie’s website at http://www.anniemackblues.com/

Photos by Gary Eckhart © 2015 Blues Blast Magazine

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