Renee Austin stopped listening to the radio. She didn’t buy any CDs. She didn’t even play piano.
Those are extreme decisions for a big league singer-songwriter who recorded for the respected Blind Pig blues label. But after she lost her ability to sing in 2005, she lost her desire to enjoy music.
“I stayed away from music,” she admitted. “It’s like a football player who’s had his leg cut off and gets invited to go to the Super Bowl and he just can’t go.”
Now, after what she calls three miracles, Austin has regained her voice and begun performing again.
“I never thought I’d be here,” she said in a recent interview at the Dakota Jazz Club, where she will perform Sunday. “I couldn’t talk for 11 months.”
Now she can sing like she hasn’t missed a beat.
“She sounds great. She has great emotion and delivery,” said her music director, Mark Arneson, who never worked with her before this year but was a fan of her three albums. “Her voice is still strong. It’s pretty wild after what she’s been through.”
Austin, who was regarded as sort of a diminutive Midwestern Etta James, lost her voice when she had thyroid surgery — and the doctor’s predictions of when her voice would return never came true.
“I couldn’t swallow right; I couldn’t breathe right,” Austin said, because her left vocal nerve was paralyzed.
She had to leave Blind Pig but needed to find work to pay medical bills. Even though she couldn’t talk above a whisper, she still landed a job at a St. Paul nonprofit that rebuilds villages in Kenya and Uganda.
One day, nearly 11 months after the surgery, she answered the phone at work and suddenly her full voice emerged.
“I said, ‘I’m going to have to call you back.’ Oh, my gosh, I could talk on the spot. Like a miracle. I jumped around and did my praise dance to God,” said Austin, a forty-something Texas native who moved to the Twin Cities for love in the early 1990s.
She could talk but not sing
However, Austin still couldn’t sing. That voice just wasn’t there.
In 2010, Austin’s church asked her to act in an Easter production. The show ended with a song, but she procrastinated talking about her singing issues with the director. Then it came time for her to record a version of the song in a studio that she could lip-sync to during performances.
“There was a special speaker at church who said: ‘Are there folks here who have something that the doctors say is incurable? We’re going to pray for those people.’ Then I head over to the studio with the director. He hits ‘play’ and I sang the entire track all the way through nonstop without a glitch,” Austin said. “Miracle No. 2. I did seven shows in six days. But it wasn’t my real voice, but they didn’t know that.”
Soon thereafter, Austin and her husband, photographer Jason Wood, adopted a boy in Ethiopia. Then in 2011, her pastor asked her to reprise her Easter performance. “Without warming up, I sang the entire track and it was my voice with all octaves,” she said. “Again, I was shocked. Miracles still happen.”
Last December, determined to resume her career, Austin attended a convention for Christian performers in Florida to audition for such record labels as Word and Integrity.
“I scored higher in acting than singing,” she said with surprise.
Even though she has acted in some student film projects, Austin is sticking to singing.
Rediscovered on Facebook
Arneson, agents, promoters and fans found her on Facebook — she gets 25 to 50 friend requests a day, she said — and her return to music has been slow but sure. She performed at three blues festivals this summer, and she’s a worship leader at Cityview Church in south Minneapolis, where she sings a bit. She’s done plenty of songwriting and is talking about recording with New York producer/keyboardist Douglas Smith, aka the Truth, who has worked with Van Hunt and Parliament-Funkadelic.
Austin said her voice is a little less raspy, and she’s missing a note or two that she could reach before.
Right now, she’s focusing on her gigs at the Dakota this month and Famous Dave’s in January, where she’ll serve up what she calls her “roadhouse soul.” “It’s gospel-soul-country with a Texas bent.”
She’s been rehearsing and pinching herself because of the musicians who stepped forward to accompany her.
“People who didn’t know who I was are asking to play with me because they all found my music,” she said. “Gary Raynor’s doing bass; he’s played with everyone [on ‘A Prairie Home Companion’]. And there’s [keyboardist] Matt Fink, a guy I watched on MTV when I was 13 and I’m used to seeing him in a doctor’s outfit” in Prince and the Revolution.
As she waited for her husband and their home-schooled son to join her at the Dakota, Austin beamed with confidence.
“I’m starting to get comfortable again in my own shoes,” she declared. “I’m ready for the next phase.”