Born and raised in South Los Angeles, Austin grew up in a house filled with music. Her parents listened to soul and pop masters like Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder, while her Louisiana Creole grandmother introduced her to jazz. “She really taught me what soul was about,” Austin says. “She had a great sense of herself, and didn’t let anyone make her feel less than herself. When I sing the blues or jazz, I draw on that Grandmama place.”
Her older brother John Austin IV was also a profound influence. A celebrated emcee and rapper, he’s best known as Ras Kass. “He got signed to a record label at 17,” she recalls. “I watched him pursue his music, for better or worse, He never had a day job, and sustained himself from music. I’d sneak in his room and riffle through his records. He sampled lots of great music, and he’s responsible for my obsession with Ella scatting over the break in ‘A Night in Tunisia.’”
Austin took a very different path. She graduated from the vaunted Los Angeles High School of the Arts. At Cal State Northridge, she majored in creative writing, while studying classical voice. During the year she spent studying in the U.K., she started sitting in at jazz sessions around London. After graduating in 2004, Austin set out for Tokyo with the plan that she’d look for work as a singer and spend a year in Japan. After finding regular work as an R&B chanteuse Austin ended up staying in Tokyo through 2009 and only returned because UC Berkeley’s School of Law made her a scholarship offer she couldn’t refuse.
Austin submerged herself in law school and left music behind. After the first year, she realized that she desperately needed a musical outlet. She began performing with bassist, composer, and bandleader Marcus Shelby on numerous projects, including a title role in Harriet’s Spirit, an opera about Harriet Tubman. “There was such a stark contrast between what I was doing in law school and what I wanted to do. I don’t regret going through the program—it made me understand what is truly important to me.”
With a series of prestigious gigs and residencies, Austin quickly gained attention as the most exciting new voice in the region. Performing a program of songs associated with Hoagy Carmichael led to her 2015 debut Nothing But Soul, the album that catapulted her into national prominence. With Unbroken, Austin makes it clear that she’s far more than a beautiful voice. Claiming her cultural birthright, she’s an artist drawing nourishment from all of jazz’s roots.