As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Winter Issue 10
Amythyst Kiah is “an artist to watch” in the Americana scene blending folk, old-time, rock, and blues melodies along with her deep, soaring vocals to make for a truly mesmerizing and engaging performance. She brings timeless songs into a modern light, as well as creating her own unique songs and sound.
Beginning life in Chattanooga, Kiah relocated to Johnson City, Tennessee, and studied at East Tennessee State University. It was at college that she took an American folk music class and found her passion for old-time music. She quickly changed her major from information technology to traditional and old-time music and dove into a performing and songwriting career shortly after graduation.
Kiah released a debut album Dig in 2013 followed up by Amythyst Kiah & Her Chest of Glass EP in 2016. This year, she was part of the historic and groundbreaking Smithsonian Folkways Recordings project, Songs of Our Native Daughters. The album is a collaboration of Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell, and Kiah, highlighting the plight of African American women during the times of slavery. The album has received great success and garnered a nomination for Duo/Group of the Year at the 2019 Americana Music Honors and Awards. The opening track of the album, “Black Myself” was written by Kiah. As of this month, Songs of Our Native Daughters was nominated for “International Album of the Year” by the Americana Music Association UK, nominated for Best Duo/Group at the Americana Music Awards in Nashville, TN, and “Black Myself” was nominated for a GRAMMY for Best American Folk Song.
I was fortunate enough to meet Amythyst at last year’s AMERICANAFEST and then see her again at this year’s festival. We followed-up afterward to catch up on her life, music, and aspirations for the future.
It was great to see you again at AMERICANAFEST this year, and at the “Turning the Tables” panel. Can you tell us what it was like for you to be on stage with such iconic artists as Maria Muldaur, Shawn Colvin, and Carlene Carter?
I had only ever heard of Shawn Colvin. I grew up in the ‘90s, so I remember her huge hit that she had. I wasn’t particularly intimate with any of their other artists’ music. Still, to listen to their backgrounds and their journeys as women and as artists, and then listening to the women that they looked up to, it was remarkable to hear their stories. And then to find out it was Carlene Carter from the Carter Family! I studied old-time music at East Tennessee State University, and I’ve played a lot of the Carter Family songs. So to hear her sing “Foggy Mountain Top,” I wanted to badly grab my guitar and start playing and singing with her! The amazing commonality between all of them was that music continues to drive everything that they do.
And then for Ann Powers to place me on the panel as the future in music — which is no pressure, I guess! I’m just out here, trying to make it. I have a conceptual idea of things and my place in the world, but for me to hear and see people older than me continuing to love doing what they do was just so was inspiring for me because I honestly can’t imagine — I know the word retirement exists — still, I could never see myself not writing or doing something in music, whether it be writing or touring or whatever.
“’Black Myself’” is the gift that keeps on giving.”
I was able to make it to your performance at the Station Inn. It’s always a treat to see you perform, and then you had Rhiannon Giddens, and Allison Russell joined you where you performed one of the songs you wrote on Songs of Our Native Daughters, “Black Myself.”
It was a cool moment. I was actually surprised when we got the final mix back for the record, and Rhiannon said, “’Black Myself’ is going to be the first song on the record.” And I was like, “Really?” And then at the Americana Awards, I was told that. “We’re going to open the ceremony with ‘Black Myself.’” It’s just like “Black Myself” is the gift that keeps on giving in certain respects.
How did you approach writing that song?
It’s totally outside of the scope of what I had been writing insofar as how specific and direct and socially conscious it was. Typically, I tend to write in such a way where the content in the song is immediately a universal, relatable human condition kind of thing. That’s usually my favorite way to write because if it gets too specific, then some people may not be able to directly relate to it.
When I talk about “Black Myself,” I try to preface it with this goes beyond being a song about black people in America. It goes beyond that. It’s an American story, a shared trauma that black and white people share. Standing on someone’s neck to keep them down and you can uplift yourself, that is an abusive relationship, and it negatively impacts everyone involved. The line “Black Myself” came from the same version of “John Henry” that was used to write “Polly Ann’s Hammer.” One of the lines in the song was, “I don’t want no red-black woman, black myself.” That black myself just kept going through my head — black myself, black myself.
My goal was to say as much as I can within a music structure that when you first hear it, you’re like, “Hell, yeah, this is some rock. Southern rock, blues, gospel. I’m into it.” You’re nodding your head, you’re dancing, and then, I come with this really important message while you’re also rocking out. That’s always been my favorite kind of music; music that feels good when you hear it, and maybe even the first time through, you don’t even realize what the person’s singing about. Create a mood that felt good and then on top of that, also delivers a message, but then also deliver it in a way that it still fits with the groove of the song.
How about the recording process for the song?
It’s always fun because, for me, as a solo artist, I write a lot of songs by myself, and I perform them by myself, and I develop the guitar style to support what I’m doing in a way that is interesting from song to song. I work really hard to get it to be that way. So anytime I play a song and there are other musicians around, it’s always cool to hear what they pull out of what I’ve written or what I’ve played on the guitar and then add other layers to it. It’s a moment where you can see part of something that becomes a little bit bigger than yourself, which is always a humbling experience to have.
How impressive to be part of the Songs of Our Native Daughters album, which, in my opinion, is a musical legacy.
There are some things in life that you don’t anticipate, like how or when things will happen. The Carolina Chocolate Drops, for me, was a big influence in my desire to study roots music in college, and so for me to be able to work with Rhiannon was a dream come true.
It has been such an honor to be a part of history through this project, or through other things that all of us are doing in various capacities, to be able to bring this attention to stories of unsung heroes. And to be able to allow people to see that there’s so much more to music and culture than what we’ve been advertised or told over the past several decades. It’s such a beautiful time right now in music because we’re now in the position where we’re understanding that this is what happened. Now we are getting more and more information about what happened, why, and what can we can do now to make a path forward as artists.
Can you tell us about your educational background, and when you first got you involved in music?
My parents bought me a guitar when I was 13, and I was into a lot of alternative music at the time. That’s the kind of stuff I was learning, and I was learning by ear. By the time I was in my early 20s, I had stumbled into traditional music just based out of curiosity. In an academic setting, I could study music that is taught the way that I learn, which is by ear. So that was really attractive to me. As time when on, I took an American folk music class, which was really interesting. A lot of this style of music, the content of the songs and the singers and players, have these interesting little idiosyncrasies that I like in alternative music — it’s this weirdness and uniqueness to the music as opposed to doing some sort of cookie-cutter run of the mill kind of thing. Everybody brings their own weirdness.
So for me, roots music was very much something — that came before commercial music, so nobody was necessarily trying to impress anyone or trying to sell records. They were just playing their music. You get this very raw sort of unpretentious vocal styles and playing styles. I thought that was fascinating and I saw a lot of connections between those two. Then to come to see that the very beginnings of American music helped inform all the other forms of alternative music that I like, that was a powerful moment for me, and it helped my development as a songwriter and performer, being able to connect all of that.
From there I played in school bands for several years. I got my feet wet performing. Then people started asking me to come and sing and play at different events. It became this slow build into a solo career. Then the past five or six years, I’ve been playing with a group of guys back home and sort of exploring the electric rock and blues kind of side of myself. Then I’m also able to explore these other sides, which my new record is going to have. I’m going to be exploring a lot of different new sounds sonically with mixing my alternative rock and roots music worlds and combining them.
What was your progression of instruments? You play acoustic guitar and banjo. Which came first?
The guitar came first. I’ve been playing for 19 years. Banjo I started playing back in 2009, 2010. So it’s been about nine or ten years. What attracted me to the banjo was the nature of the instrument and also that it came from West Africa. Also, the clawhammer banjo style because you can play melody and rhythm, and I’m a very rhythmic player. I love the sound, and I love the texture you can get with it.
“I’ve just always loved the sound of a Martin.”
What brand of instruments do you like to play?
Right now, I have a Schecter Corsair guitar, which I love. They’re known more for their 7-string and metal guitars, but they make this really sweet semi-hollowbody guitar that sounds great for playing blues or really playing whatever. I’ve been playing a Martin Mahogany D-09 for the past several years. That’s my main guitar. I got introduced to Martin Guitar when I was in college, and I just loved the sound. I’ve just always loved the sound of a Martin.
What is it that you look for in an instrument in terms of tone and playability?
I like guitars that have some warmth about them, not to mid-rangey. With acoustic guitars, like with my Martin D-09, I like that there’s a little bit of resonance to it. And then with electric guitars, I like humbuckers. I’ve really love humbucker pickups. I’ve messed around with single coils, and they sound great, and I love to hear people play single coil guitars, but for me, the sound that I really like is something that’s got a little bit beefier tone and has that low end on it.
Based on your experience and what you’ve gone through so far, what’s the best piece of advice you could give to a young girl wanting to get into music?
I would say that if you have parents that are super supportive of you wanting to play, cherish it, and hang on to that. I’ve been very fortunate to have my father help me every step of the way with my music career. It is also important to have a good supportive, loving network that believes in what you do. When I was growing up, there weren’t any girls rock camps or anything like that. So a lot of my music was done alone in my room, so by the time in my early 20s I started playing with other people, it was a culture shock, and somewhat terrifying. Obviously, you need time to yourself where you can work on technique and practice, but please, please, please there are now opportunities for girls and kids to be able to interact with other kid musicians and teachers that are encouraging. So please seek that out. That is super important. If you have an opportunity to meet other kids that are playing music at rock camps for kids, or at these different Girls Rock Camp Chapters all over the country, or wherever. It’s really important for that social element because it’s very easy to isolate yourself, especially if you’re an introvert. I’m an introverted person, and I was shy and introverted. That’s a double whammy!
How did you overcome that as you seem so confident now?
It took a lot of work. If you’d met me about 12 years ago, I’m almost not even the same person. It took a lot of emotional work, a lot of relearning and unpacking things. I think the earlier that a kid can learn to overcome shyness, in any way, regardless of if you’re extroverted or introverted, the better. Find a community where everybody supports one another. That is very important because no one is an island. I can’t stress it enough.
You’re on the road a lot traveling, and I saw you’re going to be joining Yola in 2020!
Yes, I’m so excited. I met her in 2014 in Perth, Scotland, at the Southern Fried Festival, directed by my now UK agent, Andy Shearer. We were there to do this Dolly Parton night. It was all women. Samantha Crain was there. Della Mae was the house band. It was an absolutely amazing night. I’ve played in Bristol, her hometown, and we’ve hung out. She’s so amazing. Everything that she’s getting now is so well deserved, and I’m so happy for her because she’s an incredible singer and songwriter, and a genuine, amazing human being. I’m just so excited to know that she wanted me to join her on some of her tour runs. I’ve always wanted to do some shows with her, but I never knew in what capacity, so I’m really excited to be part of it.