"I'm the toughest girl alive," says Candy Kane. Kane survived a tough childhood and stint as a sex worker to become a blues singer with a message. "The message is you can survive anything," Kane said last week, calling from the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, Miss., where Bessie Smith died.
Her mother taught her to shoplift as a child. She was a mother at 16, becoming a sex worker to support herself and her son.
It kept her from a career in country. "I had a lot of pressure to not talk about my background and to be as clean and un-offensive as I could be. And the blues seems to be a little more forgiving in that area."
Kane has never tried to hide that part of her life. "Yeah, I was a stripper and I was a topless dancer and I was on the cover of some magazines, but that was 20 years ago," the 45-year-old blues singer says. But rather than ignore it, Kane has embraced her past. "It takes money to finance your art. Music and raising my kid was the reason I was doing it, so that kept me grounded and kept me away from some of the more nefarious aspects."
She used the money to go into the studio and hire good musicians to make demos. Her first release for the Austin-based Antone's label in '94, Home Cookin', revealed her unusual style: a mix of jump blues, country and raunchy '40s-style torch singer. 1997's Diva LA Grande is one of her better early efforts, with Kane's rockin' electric blues "You Need A Great Big Woman," the big band sound of "Freak Lover" and a '60s pop/ bluegrassy version of Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'."
On 2000's The Toughest Girl Alive, Kane really hit her stride. Being on the Rounder label helped her reach a more mainstream audience and get her real message across. "One of the things that I try to convey in music is that sexuality is a natural thing -- it's a unifier, its part of what makes us all human; it doesn't have to be a horrible, scary thing." Her time as a phone sex operator convinced her that phone sex is therapeutic because it allows somebody to talk to another human being about what they're thinking about. "Often that other human being at the end of the line was me saying, 'That's OK that you want to dress up in ladies' underwear,' or 'That's OK that you're having fantasies about your cousin as long as you don't act out on those fantasies and hurt somebody else who's under age or a non-consenting adult.'"
But getting the message out proved harder than Kane had figured. On '05's White Trash Girl, iTunes won't spell out the track "Masturbation Blues," listing it instead as "M*********** Blues." "I think the Surgeon General Jocelyn Edwards would be shocked to find they're treating it as a four-letter word," she says heatedly. "Shouldn't be that way when rappers are talking about hos and pussy and everything else."
For her latest release, Guitar'd and Feathered, Kane has backed off her sexual soapbox. She says the cut "I'm My Own Worst Enemy" is really true because she enjoys talking about what makes us so afraid of our own sexuality. "But at the same time that kind of talk marginalizes me and tends to make people forget I'm a singer and a songwriter first and foremost."
She proves it, backed by a stellar cast of guitarists including Kid Ramos, Junior Watson, Dave Alvin and Popa Chubby, who plays a completely out of character Chuck Berry solo on the rockabilly tune "Crazy Little Thing." Kane is drenched in Texas twang on this outing, sounding like Lou Ann Barton on "Done Got Over It," a mix of Angela Strehli and Koko Taylor on "My Country Man," and a countrified Billie Holliday on the jump blues "I'm Not Gonna Cry Today."
But no matter what she sings, Kane never forgets she's the toughest girl alive. "It saved my life," she says. "Hopefully I'll leave behind a song that'll change somebody else's life, make somebody else feel like it's OK to be who they are."
Candye Kane plays the Double Door May 25. Call 704-376-1446 for showtime and prices.