“I Belong To You,” the new EP from local R&B singer Tje Austin, is a rich and varied release. Lead track “Whisky” blusters in with a brassy blast of classic soul. He dons his earnest singer-songwriter hat on the title track and his groovy disco shoes on the dance song “Higher.” His golden voice, resonant with raw heart, is a unifying force on the seven-track release. An emotional fire burns throughout, and it explodes in the soaring requiem “Everyone Goes Away,” a gut-punch of a closer that fearlessly grapples with the cruel impermanence of love and life.
“I was pretty much dying, I think,” Austin said about the song on Wednesday, two days before his release party at Stubb’s on Friday. “And I was always in pain and that’s something that you think about, ‘Well, there is this possibility that I’m going to die.’”
In late March of 2013, Austin was feeling crappy. He had enjoyed a brief moment on the national stage when he competed as part of Team Cee-Lo on the first season of the NBC talent competition “The Voice,” but two years later, he had the post-South by Southwest doldrums and was in the process of trying to negotiate his way out of a label deal gone sour. Inexplicably, though he was only 30 years old, his physical state was also deteriorating. A series of doctor’s visits brought dire news. A strange bruise on his leg that had refused to heal for well over a year was actually a malignant melanoma.
Austin began a grueling chemotherapy regimen that included infusions every three weeks for the next three years. In the beginning, his body was weak and his outlook was bleak. “I was on the third floor, my apartment, and it took me forever to walk up and down the stairs. It was just very taxing. I didn’t have a car at the time and I would walk to the bus stop for treatment and it took me 30 minutes, what should have been a 5 minute walk.”
But as his treatment ground on, he learned to work with his limitations. He scheduled gigs around his chemo appointments, playing for short spurts, then going home to sleep it off. He searched for artistic inspiration in the copious amounts of TV he was watching, and he discovered a new talent, baking beautiful cakes and pies.
“My sleep schedule was off. and sometimes I would bake at 2 a.m.,” he said. “I started watching a lot of Instagram videos and YouTube videos about baking.”
Over time, as his skills developed, he began baking for friends and occasionally taking orders. He also began to think about his musical future. “There’s a lot of reevaluation that goes along, like what have I done and what do I want to do,” he said.
He managed to extricate himself from the label deal and a year and a half into his treatment began work on the EP, which is self-released. The physical challenges were daunting. In one session, scheduled right after a difficult surgery, he was in too much pain to stand. He had to re-record a few others he felt were addled by his pain meds. But artistically, he felt liberated.
“The music that I’ve made before, you know, I wrote it and I was a part of it, but it never made me happy because I felt like I didn’t have creative control really,” he said.
Creating this album helped him rediscover the joy of music. “It just makes me feel good,” he said. “That’s pretty much what every song on that album is, even if it’s depressing, it makes me feel good.”
In May of 2016, he went in for his monthly oncologist appointment, mentally prepared to schedule the next infusion, and received a blissful reprieve. Pleased with his progress, his doctor ordered a CAT scan instead of more chemo. And just like that his treatment was done.
“I almost started crying,” he said. “I called my parents and said, ‘Yeah, I guess I’m done.’”
Medical ordeal behind him, the future looks bright. The album drops Friday and he’s ready re-enter the live music circuit in earnest. “Man, I’m so happy to play shows,” he said.
He plans to tour, to see the world, and connect in real life with the extensive internet fan base he’s cultivated through the years. “People from all over are messaging me and I’m becoming friends with so many people over music and that’s probably one of the best things that I’ve ever experienced in life,” he said.