Amythyst Kiah’s voice is powerful. It booms out to fill every corner of every room she enters with its warmth, wit, and wisdom. It’s the kind of voice that cuts into your core even while it wraps around your heart. You feel it from both the outside-in and the inside-out with every cell of your being. And then she starts singing.
Growing up in Tennessee, a target of othering and ostracism largely due to her race and sexuality, Amythyst took refuge in music. There, she found the hope of belonging and, eventually, the healing of trauma, though not without a detour into denial which manifested, most prominently, in the abuse of alcohol. These days, though, Amythyst is healthy and happy, personally fulfilled with a loving relationship and a passel of friends, and creatively fulfilled with a Grammy nomination, a new release on Rounder Records, and tour dates with Brandi Carlile and Jason Isbell. But all of that is much like her speaking voice because, really, she’s only just getting going.
The new album is Wary + Strange and it’s been a long time coming. Does it feel a little bit like your debut, even though you actually do have a couple of records out?
This is definitely my label debut because my past releases had been self-released. But from a creative and a personal perspective, it’s a little bit of a rebirth for me, this record is, because I spent a significant amount of time on traditional music and reinterpreting traditional music while also still kind of dealing with the past trauma of my mother’s suicide. So my coping mechanism was to sort of disassociate from my feelings and keep people at a little bit of a distance and not get too close to people because I had this fear of being rejected or abandoned. So all of that was happening at the same time. And the songs that I’ve written that are on this record — some that I had already written and then some of the newer ones — they all tie back to me dealing with the trauma. And so I think, for the first time, this is me really telling my story and kind of facing my saboteur head on.
This album is me taking that head on and really stepping out into where I am and how I see myself and how I want to be in the future. So essentially, it’s a rebirth as much of it is a debut because there’s lots of ideas and feelings that I kept to myself for many years to protect myself and now I’m kind of throwing that to the wind.
No more hiding behind “Darling Corey.”
You made this record, what, three times?
Third time’s the charm.
For sure. Eventually letting Tony Berg produce it. Did that feel like a bold choice to make — both picking him AND starting over… again?
From a creative standpoint, going with him made complete sense because of what I wanted to do, sonically, by combining alternative and roots and making that work. He was perfect for that job. And I think it definitely will be seen as bold to people that have been listening to me for a long, long time. So, from that standpoint, yeah. Because, to me, this is a natural transition for me.
Of course, I’m going to be wanting to do this because I’ve always loved this kind of kind of experimental, sonically strange stuff. I’ve always loved that kind of stuff. Some people remember the “Darling Corey” days, but a lot of people were introduced to me through Our Native Daughters. So it’s definitely bold. It will be seen as bold to a lot of people, I think.
What was the most terrifying was the fact that I was going to have to disassemble everything from the past two times I went into the studio. And what softened the blow is that I had that sweet, sweet label money to help out for this third time. The past few times I went into the studio to make a record, it was like, “OK, I’ve got this amount of money.” So every time I went in, I was always thinking about how I have to hurry up because I only have X amount of money. And that really takes away from the creative process because then it feels like you’re limited in what you can do or what you can think about, like bringing in other players, bringing in other instruments, whatever the case may be.
For the first time I was in the studio, I wasn’t touring, I wasn’t frantically trying to hurry up so I can get out the studio. I actually could be in the present and really focus on stuff. So, from a personal standpoint, my performances, to me, this is the best I’ve ever performed in the studio because of having that moment to breathe and just be in the present and really feel what’s happening.
I will say, on more than one song, it feels like listening to a classic Tracy Chapman record. Partly because of your voice, but mostly because of Tony’s production. He didn’t work with Tracy, but he was such a big part of the singer/songwriter soundscape back then, producing records for Michael Penn, Edie Brickell, Aimee Mann, the Replacements, and others. But I’m guessing you picked him for his more recent projects – like Phoebe Bridgers, Lucius, Molly Tuttle. Yeah?
When Concord/Rounder took interest in what, essentially, we can call those demos now, because that’s what they were. So Mark Williams is A&R with Concord. I met with him first, and we were on the same wavelength, musically and creatively, and the way I wanted my career to go. I want a sustainable music career. I don’t necessarily care about how many streams I get per song. That’s not really my focus. And his focus was on wanting to work with musicians that want to make a steady career because, right now, there’s a lot of focus on artists that get signed and they put out four or five singles before finally getting a record. He then sent the demos to Tony and that’s when I read about Tony because, prior to that, I actually hadn’t heard of Tony. I tend to be in my head, in my own little world a lot of the time, so I’m not the most up to date on all the things going on. I’ll be the first to admit that. Once I looked him up and just saw everything, I was like, “Oh yeah, this guy’s worked with so many different kinds of artists in so many different areas.”
He has everything you want in him already.
Yeah. I had a day off on the Yola tour in February of 2020, and that’s when I ended up meeting with Tony and we ended up actually cutting our first song together, which was “Fancy Drones.” When he pulled out that bass harmonica, I was just like, “OK, this guy is kind of weird. I’m into it.”
The album includes a new version of “Black Myself” which got a Grammy nomination for Best American Roots Song and won the Folk Alliance award for Song of the Year. And now it’s getting a whole new life as a rock anthem. It just slays me that a song about the legacy of slavery and white supremacy would be so popular. But there it is. Why was it important to you to reframe it in this edgier setting?
After recording that [with Our Native Daughters] and then singing the song for a couple of years and then also, when I would have some of my full band shows, we always kind of leaned into like almost like a kind of crazy, garage rock kind of sound. It really kind of embodies a Southern rock song. So I was always going to need to go back in and do a Southern rock version. And Tony was like, “Well, why don’t we put it on this record?” And because, at this point, the George Floyd murder happened, and the Breonna Taylor murder had happened, and it just made sense to keep this song and and sort of reimagine it and put it on this record.
It’s also a perfect bridge from Our Native Daughters and the people who know you. So you can hold it up and say, “It’s still me.”
Yeah. Exactly. Kind of connecting all of that, and then just continuing to be part of the conversation because it’s been kind of remarkable to see the mainstream discussion continuing to happen. Usually what would happen is, an unarmed person of color would be murdered by police and people would be mad for a couple of weeks, and then we’d all go back to normal. But there’s been this sustained discussion happening, which has been pretty remarkable. And it was just my way of continuing it in a different way.
One of the album’s other centerpieces is “Wild Turkey.” It’s just absolutely devastating in every way. And such a gift to anyone who might be going through a similar trauma of losing someone to suicide. As necessary as it was for you to write, how difficult is it to then share something that deeply personal… even knowing how much music helped you as a kid?
It took me two years to write that song, so I was able to slowly get used to the idea of performing it. That transition was very slow. And it was mostly because I wanted to get it right — whatever that meant. I tried different styles, different chord progressions, different melodies, and things just weren’t clicking. My initial attempt was to try to make it almost like like an anthem style song, but singing these really sad lyrics. I like the idea of that juxtaposition, but it didn’t really work. And I’m just like, “You know what? Just make this sad as hell. Let’s just lean into how sad it is, you know?” And once I took that direction, I was like, “OK, well, the song’s done.”
Since 2016, I’ve been going to therapy, unpacking all of these mental things that have been going on with me, in regards to my mom’s death and the way that I’ve been moving through the world, which was very much in self-preservation survival mode. And so this record is where I am now with everything. It’s five years in the making, getting to this point.
It’s like your five-year chip, in a way — a marker of your progress to this moment.
Yeah, yeah. Exactly. And also learning along the way that grieving isn’t linear. I’m at a point now, when I’m singing this song, I’m able to do it and it’s a bit easier to do it now than it was when I first finished it.
Yeah. And you do that work in song after song. Grief. Trauma. Hope. Healing. It’s all in there. You look at a time in your life when you drank too much. You take on the inevitable othering you have endured. You see your music as much more than your day job, don’t you? You clearly feel and honor the responsibility that comes with having any kind of platform.
Music has always been about healing and finding a place to belong, when I sometimes didn’t belong. And so that’s just always been my main M.O. when it comes to music. Music was always a very personal thing, so moving from it being personal to performing, that definitely was something to get used to. I feel like I’ve been doing pretty all right, all things considered. [Laughs]
I think what was happening with me is music was the insulator. It was the thing that protected me. And the more and more that I started performing and playing, and then started singing my own songs instead of the traditional songs, and seeing that when people would come up to me and tell me about what a song meant to them, I was like, “This is exactly how I felt when I listened to Tori Amos or listened to Nina Simone. These are the very things that I felt.” And then it just kind of clicked that I’m part of this bigger story. It’s not just me fighting with my feelings and thoughts. I’m part of something else and I’m not the only one. And now I can look at this as I’m sharing this, as opposed to I’m alone in it, I guess. So I’ve learned a lot about myself with this whole process.
Along those lines, I love that you share photos from your workouts and from your relationship. It’s a small thing, but it’s a symbolic gesture that says, “See? Healing is possible. Happiness is possible.” That may not be your intention, but it’s definitely one of the effects.
I mean that. That thought definitely goes into that. I think what’s interesting is, I’ve made it a point to try and be very mindful about how often I use social media and what I do post, so that I’m not oversharing, which there’s a lot of people that overshare and it works for them. They get a lot of paid sponsorships for oversharing. There’s a lot of people that do it. I don’t see anything wrong with that. Some people are fine or feel comfortable doing it. But for me, personally, the time in my life when I was oversharing and posting a lot is when I was in a lot of pain. So I associate posting on social media with me not being fulfilled. And I’m not saying that that’s for anybody else who does that, but it’s just the way that I respond to it.
Because I walked into social media with not a healthy mindset, I have to make sure that I keep a little bit of a distance. So, while I like posting things, I’m also very, very mindful about how often and how much I’m on there, because the whole the machine is set up to get you addicted to your phone. So it’s like having to, like, combat that and I feel like my mental health is a lot better for it.
But when I do post personal things, I do want it to be coming from a place of I’m having this wonderful moment with this person or I’m…
“Look at how much I lifted.”
Yeah. And there’s another thing to that, and this is almost a little bit of a different topic, but I’ve been reading a lot about parasocial relationships where a person is a fan of a celebrity or whatever and some people create a relationship in their head with the person that the other person doesn’t even know they exist, more than likely. What I’ve noticed is the people that share the most, if they all of a sudden say or do something that maybe is perceived as not being awesome, then it’s like everybody’s on the attack because they feel like that’s their best friend and their best friend has betrayed them.
While I love and appreciate people listening to my music and and being inspired by what I do, I also don’t want to create an environment where people feel like I’m their best friend. [Laughs] I don’t know how to say that without sounding hateful, but I mean, the reality is…
You’re not. [Laughs]
I’m not. [Laughs] And I don’t want to give a false pretense by giving that…
…letting them too far into your life.
Right. And I think, again, there’s people that do it and it’s part of their brand that that’s what they do.
Hey, Tabitha Brown is Internet mom like.
Right. Yeah. And I think, for a lot of people it works and nothing necessarily bad really happens. But, for me, it would just be too much. I’m more of an introverted person anyway so, mentally, it’s just a little too much pressure. I want to have a healthy relationship with my fans and have my own mental health preserved. And I think it’s possible to do both.