The Conservancy sat down with Southern Gothic songster Amythyst Kiah, one of our upcoming concert performers of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park Concert Series. She spoke about her music, her roots, and how she feels about performing in a national park.
How did you get into the music industry?
AK: I got two professional breaks over the past three years, and in both of those breaks, information technology played a huge role. The first break was in 2016 when I signed to a UK booking agency based out of Scotland called Noble Savage. Andy Shearer, who is the booker and also directs the Southern Fried Festival in Perth, saw a YouTube video of my performance and read an album review on Afropunk.com. The second was when I signed with the North American booking agency Concerted Efforts in 2017, after Rhiannon Giddens requested that I open for her on her Freedom Highway tour that year. She too, saw a YouTube video of me performing.
The groundwork leading up to those two moments was about 16 years in making; my parents purchased my first guitar when I was 13 and I taught myself alternative music and took classical guitar for a year in high school, then years later in my early 20s I would study traditional music, music performance, and studio recording at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, TN. In the past three years, I’ve been getting professional opportunities that I’ve been dreaming of and I feel like this is just the beginning for me.
What inspires you and your music?
AK: For most of my creative life my inspiration has been the release of negative emotions and feelings. Sad songs, troubled songs, struggle songs, painful songs; these are what soothe me. I am fascinated by the fragility of the human condition, and how the human animal can survive in this world with self-awareness, which is unique to our species alone. These songs usually take the form of alternative rock and traditional music, and everything in between. Along with my solo acoustic folk project, I have a project called Amythyst Kiah and Her Chest of Glass, which is roots rock with strong influences of blues, country, and a touch of 90s alternative rock. That later project is what I’ll be bringing to Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
How do your roots influence your music and what does it mean to you?
AK: I spent most of my formative years in my room after school playing guitar, reading novels, watching films and attempting to write songs. It was the oneness with solitude that I was able to explore music in an unfiltered way, with little interruption. This focus would lead me to exert that same amount of energy into studying and performing traditional music. Because my background was largely alternative and world music up to that point, I was able to approach traditional music in a way that was authentic to me. As a fan of early Tori Amos, Radiohead, and classical guitar techniques, I was able to approach the material of the Carter Family, Reverend Gary Davis, Vera Hall, and the techniques of country guitar picking to express a different take on songs, and would inspire me to write songs of my own with more confidence.
How does it feel to be playing your music in a national park?
AK: I have played in many a national park, mostly for festivals, and they are always a great time. Being in a large open space in a natural setting is special and something I always enjoy doing. I expect I will feel the same at Cuyahoga!
Is it important for you to reach a diversity of people? Why?
AK: I don’t really think about targeting particular demographics when I write or arrange songs; what I have noticed is that people of various ages and backgrounds come to my shows, and they are mostly white with some people of color mixed in. I think that has a lot to do with the history of the commercial music industry itself, which was known for separating music genres by race and thus more or less reinforcing the idea that racial identity is tied to certain kinds of music exclusively. What I want to get across in my shows and when I speak with people about music is that my appearance in country, folk, and rock music wasn’t such a novel idea 100+ years ago. I want to live and speak my truth the best that I can, and if anything I do allows an opportunity to open someone’s mind to new possibilities, I’ll consider that a small contribution to helping bridge the gap of understanding.
What is the one thing you want your audience to take away from your music?
AK: That their pains and struggles are not unique, and they can get through it. To be themselves and allow other people the chance to do the same. To show compassion and understanding to the people that are closest to them. Music is a way to disarm people and break down walls, and that’s all I can really hope for with mine.
You can watch Amythyst perform live in concert at Happy Days Lodge on April 12! Click here to purchase tickets.
Amythyst is also part of a music project called Songs of Our Native Daughters, which was recently released by Smithsonian Folkways on February 22, 2019. The songs are inspired by slave narratives and have the banjo as an integral part of the instrumentation.
Later this year, she will have a new solo record out called Wary and Strange, with a release date to be determined.