Interview: Annie Mack

The blues singer talks about the complicated relationship that inspired her to take up music

A portrait of Annie Mack.

photo by Dawn Sanborn Photography

I grew up in a fairly intense environment,” says blues artist Annie Mack, who was raised by a single mother in north Minneapolis. Case in point: Three decades ago, Mack’s older sister, Lanette, came home late one night. Tempers flared, their mother pulled out a gun, and shot her. Lanette survived, their mother went to prison, and Annie, just 10, entered foster care.

After her mother’s death in 2006, Mack began journaling to process her grief, but she didn’t start singing until 2012. Upon urging from a guitarist friend, Mack, who now resides in Rochester, put her poetry to music, and released the album Baptized In the Blues in 2013.

“I was drawn to blues because of the rawness and the realness,” she says. “I’ve always loved gospel, but I feel as if gospel is the cousin that’s more in your face. I was looking for something that allowed me to let it all hang out, feel, and grieve. Blues allows me to do those things.”

Since then, Mack’s talent has taken her all over Minnesota—including the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, Duluth’s Bayfront Blues Festival, and the Minnesota State Fair—and at several jazz and blues festivals around North America.  

In March, she released Tell It Like It Is, a four-song collection that tackles addiction, faith, and the challenges of relationships. Like the genre-testing R&B of Alabama Shakes, Leon Bridges, and Sharon Jones, each song could’ve been released decades ago, but still sounds fresh and vital today. A busy summer of shows around Minnesota lies ahead.

“I’m calling this year ‘Operation Minnesota Love 2018,’ where I’m going to get support from my state,” she says. “I’m not young, I’m not skinny. What I am is ‘I’m here.’ I’ve got something to say, and I’m beautiful in who I am. It has taken me a long time to embrace that.”

Performing: August 29-30 at the Minnesota State Fair. More at

Digital Extra: Extended Q&A

Tell me about your Minnesota roots.

I grew up in north Minneapolis. I currently live in Rochester, but I spend a lot of time in Minneapolis. I consider myself to be a Minneapolis woman. That’s where my heart is. … I’ve been fortunate enough to go on tour and do some good stuff, but I really want to make a concentrated effort in my backyard to bring more diversity and representation of black women in music. I do country, soul, jazz, blues, and I want to bring attention back to American music.

What’s the music scene like in Rochester?

It’s solid. You have to find it; it’s a little bit tough, because we’re only an hour and a half from Minneapolis, so people invest in going there. We do have a scene. I’ve been fortunate enough to play at the Mayo Clinic. It’s about art and performance and healing and medicine. We have festivals down here, restaurants, and bars. I’ll be opening for Dessa at the Rochester Art Center. There’s cool opportunities down here.

Have you ever considered moving back to the Twin Cities?

Absolutely. I went to college down here, and I ended up staying to get a break. I grew up in a fairly intense environment. Sometimes you have to go away for a bit to really find who you are. Maybe I’m just really lazy. These winters make me want to not move.

You’ve spoken really candidly about your past. Why do you feel you are so open with it?

I didn’t used to be, as a matter of fact. I never am able to express myself properly. I always say crazy stuff, then I’m like, “Damn it!” But music allowed me to share that. I didn’t talk about any of it for a number of years until after my mother passed away. Even then, I didn’t talk about anything, but I just started to write things down. As you go through life, you may find yourself wanting to scream into a room. That is your spirit letting you know that you need to release. My medium was a calling to write. I didn’t write songs, but I treated myself to a fancy journal from Barnes and Noble.

I came into music really late in my life. I didn’t even know I could be a musician. I didn’t grow up in a musical household. I have no training. I was thinking I could stand up and read poetry in a coffeehouse. I had no idea that these ideas would translate to sharing my story.

Why did you find music so late in life?

I’m a spiritual person. I don’t preach at people, but I do believe there’s glory in the underdog. God has a thing for using people to do what’s least expected. Who would have known that I would go to perform in front of those people and record? Never in my dreams did I think I would, but thankfully it wasn’t up to my dreams. There’s a higher power that says, “No, no, no, you have a purpose.”

Trust me when I tell you I was supposed to be a hard-core statistic, coming from my background and neighborhood. All of my friends were having kids when they were 14. I was supposed to fall into that. I’ve not been perfect. I was looking to find a connection when my mother died. When she died, I felt so much guilt, because I didn’t want to deal with it. It took about a year for me to feel the conviction that I didn’t do right by her when she died. We loved each other, but we didn’t have the let’s get coffee, let’s go shopping type of relationship. She didn’t want me to come take care of her when she passed away. It wasn’t until I was in her apartment that I realized how bad it really was—how much she needed someone to care for her.

My inspiration was my means of saying, “I’m sorry.” … I may have forgiven in my mouth, but in my heart, my actions didn’t allow me to pursue this relationship. It was me trying to find healing and forgiveness. Part of that is telling her story. If you think my story is cool, her story is really killer. When I wrote my first album, it was a mix of my mother’s story and my story. I wanted to pay my respects to her. She passed on her love of music to me. I never pursued music. I wanted to be a good slam poet, but I can’t speak to save my life. I wasn’t blessed that way. But I love music. I could sing. That’s where it started.

I had this intense desire to put my journals to music. I asked a friend of mine, Ralph Campbell, who I knew was a guitar player, if it was okay that I hung out with him and listened to him play. I would go to his garage and just sit. He eventually told me to go learn a song. I came back and got through only half of it. I had to turn around and look at the back of the garage, because I was so embarrassed. It was humbling. It was horrible.

Your mom passed away in 2006, but you didn’t start singing until 2012. What happened in those six years?

I got the hell out of Dodge when everything went down. I felt I had wings. I had to get out, because I was hurt.

Growing up, I didn’t know I was being abused. It was my reality. My mother was amazing in some ways. In others, she didn’t have the tools. But my biggest thing is where I am right now—because of having my own children and opening myself up to healing and helping others. I’m big on establishing healthy relationships in my family

It’s up to me to break that cycle of abuse. People from my mother’s generation didn’t know. When you talk to people who grew up in that era, they’re like, “We didn’t know. We just did with what we were given.” I had to realize my mother didn’t know what the hell she was doing. God help us, they didn’t apologize. That generation is not about that. I had to go to therapy to know that my childhood was not normal. It’s not to excuse her behavior, but I do cut my mom a lot of slack now that I’m a parent. Now I get it. I couldn’t imagine being a single mom with two kids, and they didn’t have the resources we have now.

My mother passed a lot of beautiful things to me. How to be independent, how to survive. There are things that I’ve had to learn myself. I find myself really inspired because I have a 16-year-old daughter, and I try to teach her to be strong and to stand her ground. There’s a beautiful growth. I’ll be 40 soon. There’s nothing about me that fits the expectations of someone just getting into music. That’s my MO: I’m not young, I’m not skinny. What I am is, “I’m here.” I’ve got something to say, and I’m beautiful in who I am. It has taken me a long time to embrace that.