Amythyst Kiah brings her hard-earned musical momentum to Isis

DYNAMIC SOUL: Working with Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell on the Our Native Daughters project reaffirmed Amythyst Kiah's connections with folk music, but she's also careful to follow her muse beyond that genre's traditions. “All I can hope for in my own work is to not be afraid to step out and try something new," Kiah says. "That’s what makes art art — it doesn’t stay the same and it isn’t static.” Photo by Anna Hedges

Everything seems to be coming together for Amythyst Kiah.

Fresh off a star-making performance at Nashville’s AmericanaFest in mid-September and an album and tour with the supergroup Our Native Daughters, the Johnson City, Tenn.-based artist is hard at work on her forthcoming 2020 album, Wary and Strange.

Kiah carries her hard-earned momentum to Isis Music Hall on Saturday, Oct. 5, the latest stop on a multiyear trek that she calls “an emotional and spiritual journey.” A significant component of that restorative path has been her focus on mental health, which has been aided by seeing a therapist since 2015.

“I had a lot of pent-up emotions surrounding grief and loss from years ago when my mom passed away. I’d been carrying that around with me, and it was hindering my creativity and growth as a person,” Kiah says.

“A lot of these newer songs look back at moments where I allowed emotional turmoil to overtake my life. Some songs came in the form of dreams, and some were written within a few hours, but they all have a high personal and emotional connection about something that happened in my life that profoundly impacted me and I learned from moving forward.”

Kiah refers to Wary and Strange as “kind of a culmination of different parts of [my] musical interests over the past 15-20 years of playing music.” The approach unites the alternative rock of her teens and early 20s with the old-time and American roots music she learned around the time she became an adult. Within those two broad genre monikers, she sees “a vast array of expressions and traditions,” though they often intertwine for her, especially on a songwriting level.

“The lyrical content in both creative expressions that I’ve been drawn to are songs that talk about grief and loss. They’re essentially sad songs, but, for me, sad songs are always cathartic,” Kiah says. “Music started as catharsis for me, and I’m drawn to those kind of themes. It makes me feel less alone to know that someone else is experiencing those things.”

Sonically, she’s quick to express her fondness for acoustic string bands and dreams of one day cutting a progressive folk album with such musicians. Wary and Strange itself was originally going to be composed of acoustic/folk versions of rock songs she’d already recorded, but after a year and a half of tinkering on the project, she found herself drawn more to rock/blues styles. Feeling it was important to focus on her creative needs and songwriting and less on traditional interpretations, she found additional inspiration in grandiose elements from both traditions.

“I’ve always loved arrangements — string arrangements and different things on rock records and folk records. They add a cinematic and more epic kind of feel to the songs,” she says. “There’s some [songs on Wary and Strange] where they’re not called for, but four or five that I felt would benefit sonically from adding those kinds of sounds.”

None of the above would have arisen the way it did without Our Native Daughters, which Kiah credits with kicking a case of writer’s block that stemmed from unpacking her aforementioned personal issues. The collaboration came about when Rhiannon Giddens reached out to Kiah, former Carolina Chocolate Drops cellist Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell of Americana duo Birds of Chicago about a concept album inspired by her walk through the National Museum of African American History and Culture, specifically its first-floor exhibit on the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The four artists got together in Louisiana in January 2018 at co-producer Dirk Powell’s studio and drew from various eras of folk music from the Americas, telling narratives through the eyes of black women. Kiah’s first experience with an all-black female musical group was also the first time she’d done co-writes, and while the conceptual subject matter initially didn’t feel as personal as what she’d been writing on her own, she says the trickle-down social implications that remain prevalent years after slavery’s abolishment made it more personal than she expected. Further adding to that intimate impact is the project’s efforts to reclaim the banjo as an African instrument.

“That’s an important thing about this record. It has a lot of layers because, socially, a lot of us have been conditioned to see different genres of music as being applicable to certain races of people. This album represents there was a time when everyone was just playing music. We were all playing banjos and fiddles — black and white,” Kiah says.

“People brought traditions with them. You sat down to play music and whatever difference you may have, you found that music is where you’re one with that other person and the music. It’s a powerful and important thing.”

WHO: Amythyst Kiah, opening for Alexa Rose
WHERE: Isis Music Hall, 743 Haywood Road,
WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 5, 8:30 p.m. $12 advance/$15 day of show


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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