Annie Mack overcomes a traumatic childhood to 'Tell It Like It Is'

Dawn Sanborn Photography

Dawn Sanborn Photography

Annie Mack sings the blues—and with good reason.

She was raised in north Minneapolis, in what she calls “slum housing,” and when she was only 10 years old her abusive single mom shot Mack’s older sister.

“It was a very evil thing. It was a very desperate thing,” says the 39-year-old. She remembers the harshness of the police who arrived on the scene, the trail of blood on the floor, her fear of leaving her bedroom.

Mack’s sister, then 18, survived, recuperated, and graduated on time with her high school class. Mack’s mother, Delia, was sentenced to a year in the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee. Mack was sent to St. Joseph’s Home for Children, where she experienced an unexpected gratitude for her childhood, however imperfect it was. “I was fed and I was clothed and our house was clean,” she says. “I was not coming from the same situation as these kids, who really had to fend for themselves. It was very eye-opening.”

Mack was placed in foster care until her mother was released from prison; then the two moved back in together. Mack’s subsequent school years were a blur. “I was a very broken individual,” she says. When she graduated from high school, she moved to Rochester to attend the (now defunct) Minnesota Bible College, where she studied theology, a surprising choice for someone who grew up in what she describes as a “godless home.”

“The people that made the best impression, who showed me what love was, were Christians,” she explains. Her classmates also came from “hardcore situations” and helped her see that her circumstances didn’t define her. She also learned that “being a Christian doesn’t mean you just put up with shit over and over. You can love someone that’s abused you, you can want the best for them, but it’s okay to have boundaries.”

Mack kept her distance from Delia and gave birth to a daughter in 2001. Five years later, Delia died at age 57 from complications of kidney disease. “It was really devastating,” Mack says. “There was so much that needed to be made right but I wasn’t ready.”

Mack processed the loss, in part, through writing. She didn’t realize she was writing songs at first, but that’s what they became. Musically, she was drawn to the blues, a good fit for her powerhouse pipes. “It was as truthful as gospel, but it was a little bit grittier. That’s what spoke to me. I felt like I was one raw, walking emotion,” she says.

It didn’t occur to her to record until 2012, when she met musician Paul O’Sullivan. Mack and O’Sullivan used the same backing band members, and scheduling conflicts became more frequent. One night, O’Sullivan showed up at one of Mack’s gigs to size up his competition. They started shit-talking to the tune of, “So you’re the reason I can’t get work in this town.” O’Sullivan bought Mack a “cheap-ass beer” (which she refused to drink) and asked for her number. She obliged, but told him she wouldn’t chase. He called when he said he would and they had their first date on Valentine’s Day. The couple married the following year and now have two children, ages 3 and 18 months.

With O’Sullivan’s guidance, Mack released her first album, Baptized in the Blues, in 2013. “He really pushed me on an artistic level,” she says. “I don’t have music theory. I don’t have the background. I just had ideas in my head and I had the lyrics.” The album was dedicated to Delia. “One of the biggest reasons for pursuing music was to try and resolve my broken relationship with my mother,” Mack says. “When I wrote my first album it was with the intention to give us both a voice.”

But that album also features a song, “Saving Grace,” about Mack’s now 16-year-old daughter, sprung from the realization that the cycle of abuse had ended. “Our situation is everything I would want with a relationship with my daughter,” she says. “I don’t physically abuse my daughter. I don’t break her spirit. I get to own my shit and I get to have a relationship. She wants to hang out with me. She wants to do my makeup. It’s something that I don’t take for granted.”

Mack’s new EP, Tell It Like It Is, is both inspirational and anthemic, tackling themes of tough love, overcoming addiction, and becoming older and wiser. While faith remains foundational in her life, she isn’t blatantly religious in her music. “My thing is to love on people where they’re at,” she says.

Mack has also accepted that she’s no longer in the sleeping-in-the-van-while-on-tour stage of life. “I’m too old for that shit,” she says. “I’m not going to get my hands bloody trying to beat down the doors.” Instead, she’s focused on Operation Minnesota Love 2018: as many gigs as she can handle, no further than a five-hour drive so she can be home at night with her family.

While Mack doesn’t excuse the abuse Delia inflicted, with time her perspective has shifted. She recognizes that Delia was battling multiple oppressions as a black, low-income single mom. She may have had depression, too, and didn’t have the resources or support readily available to deal with it. “She wasn’t a monster, just a woman trying to make it and not having the tools to cope all the time,” she says.

Mack believes Delia would be proud of her burgeoning singing career, which has included opening for the likes of Dessa and Robert Cray, as well as appearances at a slew of musical festivals nationwide.

But ultimately, the music is not about Mack or even her mother; it’s about letting others know they’re not alone and that they can overcome their challenges.

“Don’t put a limitation on what you’re here for,” she says. “God loves a good underdog.”

Annie Mack
With: Gambler's Daughter
Where: Can Can Wonderland
When: 9 p.m. Thurs. Mar. 29
Tickets: $2; more info here