It should come as no surprise that it took Annie Mack a little longer than most singers to, as she put it, "finally find my voice and realize I was worth hearing."
When she was 10 years old and put into an orphanage in Minneapolis after a family tragedy, she wasn't speaking at all. She now thinks she suffered from a condition known as selective mutism.
"I remember the intake women there. A Black woman took me and combed my hair for me as I sat there all quiet," Mack recalled of her arrival at St. Joseph's Home for Children. "That's when the kindness started."
Three decades later, not only has Mack come full circle and become one of the preeminent rising vocalists in Minnesota music, but she's also showing a streak of kindness in her music that's a salve to the chaos of the day.
Her new EP, "Testify," which hits stores and streaming sites Friday, confirms Mack's status as Minnesota's heir to the Mavis Staples throne. The five-song collection takes a Hwy. 61-like tour through her blues, gospel and Americana music influences with her personal baggage in the back seat adding weight to the resilient lyrics.
"Testify" was recorded last summer smack-dab in the middle of the racial tumult that overtook Mack's hometown following the death of George Floyd. Singing the songs in the studio, she said, "was like a great big exhale."
"Things were so dark, it felt important to put out something that's positive and hopeful as a Black artist from Minnesota," Mack said earlier this month.
Now a mother of three living in Rochester, the north Minneapolis native got her musical start a decade ago mostly working as a blues singer in bars around southern Minnesota. Her 2017 EP, "Tell It Like It Is," added an element of rock to her music, and Twin Cities fans soon took note.
For "Testify," she teamed with a group of seasoned Twin Cities sidemen to carve out the more varied sounds, including drummer Noah Levy (Brian Setzer, Honeydogs) and guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker (Suburbs, Alpha Consumer). Gospel singers Tonia Hughes and Sara Renner also served as MVP backup singers.
Producer Matt Patrick, who helmed the recordings with Mack at his spacious Minneapolis studio the Library, said the sessions were also affected by what was then about three months' worth of pandemic lockdown.
"It was the first time any of us were in a room with other musicians in months, and I think you can tell we were very hungry for it," Patrick said. To have Mack's songs be their reason to get back to work, he added, "felt like perfect timing."
"She has such a powerful voice and a determined way of doing things. It helped us rise above the chaos."
Her determined, keep-moving-on themes show up right away on the EP in the slow-burning, gospel-infused title track, a song that also casts a spotlight on Mack's background studying Christian theology at Minnesota Bible College — how she wound up living in Rochester.
"I try not to just sing about Jesus," she explained, "but to sing more about the essence of spiritually and speak to the broader kind of faith."
That she's far from preachy is evident in one of the new standout tracks, "Judge and Jury," which was also featured on last year's "#MeTooMpls" compilation album to benefit Planned Parenthood.
"You get all up in arms/ Trying to do my spirit harm/ Doing your best to shame me," Mack sings in the call for reproductive rights, co-written with Roseville's Sarah Morris.
Mack similarly sticks up for women on "Testify's" most personal track "Shadows of a Kingdom." The stirring, up-tempo rock tune was inspired by her oldest daughter, now 19, and memories of her own coming-of-age struggles and relationship with her late mother.
"Women often don't get the glory they deserve, especially mothers," Mack said in explaining the song's origins.
"Women have to come in and fix the messes and get [stuff] done. In a lot of cases we have to perform miracles, but it's all too often in the shadows."
Out of the shadows
The singer said she never fully made amends with her mom, Delia, who was imprisoned for shooting Annie's older sister during a dispute — the incident that landed Annie in an orphanage and foster care for two years.
Her sister survived the gunshot wound but recently passed away, sparking more painful memories that tinged the writing of these new songs.
"I think the music is partly about reconciliation," Mack said. "It's about my own healing, and it's my means to connect with people who are hurting.
Mack is no longer just working to heal through her music.
Besides taking care of her two younger children, ages 4 and 6, she also filled her downtime during quarantine by taking classes to become a death doula. "Helping people get through the experience of death," she explained.
Thus, whether or not Mack's music career takes off like it should with the release of "Testify" — plans to tour Europe and elsewhere are on hold pending the pandemic's downturn — one way or another, she will work to fulfill what she now sees as her mission.
"You get to another point in the healing process where you want to help others heal, too," she said, pointing to her 2013 song "Baptized in the Blues," in which she first opened up about her troubled past.
"People came to me and said, 'That song really speaks to me.' That's when I realized people are listening to what I sing. That's when I thought: 'This is going to be a lot deeper than just trying to be a bad girl singing the blues.' "
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658
New EP: "Testify" is available Friday in local record stores or at Bandcamp.com and most streaming sites.