Spotlight: Amythyst Kiah
Photo Credit: Sandlin Gaither
It’s nighttime in Nashville, and Amythyst Kiah is unwinding after a band rehearsal at her drummer’s house.
“With every show, we just continue to get tighter and tighter,” she says while describing her time on the road supporting her new LP.
Wary + Strange—which Kiah released in June—is her third album. But, in many ways, this collection feels like her debut. It’s her first release for Rounder Records and her first full-length solo album since 2013. Reflecting on that extended gap between records, Kiah notes that she’s done some serious growing—both musically and personally.
“I had the first album in 2013, and then I made an EP, but nothing I’ve ever done has been anything like what I’m doing now,” she explains. “It is night and day releasing an album on a label and self-releasing an album. There are more resources and more musicians. There’s so much more that comes along with it.”
And there have certainly been some “growing pains” along the way, she admits. Between last-minute interviews, rehearsals, hiring managers and learning how to delegate, at times, she says that the logistics of simply playing music can be a lot to juggle.
“Even though the sheer amount of it can be overwhelming, at the end of the day, it’s really about continuing to check in and be transparent about how you’re feeling. If I’m feeling really overwhelmed and taken aback by all the things coming my way, then I talk to my therapist,’” she says with a laugh and refreshing sense of self-awareness. “But then, I sort through my feelings and I talk to my management.
According to the 34-year-old musician, the key is to not get too heady. (“Easier said than done,” she quips.)
Kiah admits that starting therapy in 2016 was a huge turning point—and that her haunting mix of blues riffs, indie-soul sensibilities and deeply personal lyrics has thrived as a result
She conceived most of the songs on Wary + Strange between 2016 and 2021, across a five-year period of heavy emotional work. Before that, she spent most of her time reinterpreting traditional numbers and immersing herself in Americana as one-fourth of the womenof-color collective Our Native Daughters (alongside Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell).
In time, though, the benefits of therapy and self-reflection bubbled to the surface. Soon, she was ready to dive back into original songwriting and bring Wary + Strange to life.
The mid-album “Fire Water” was written a year after Kiah chose to step away from her “party phase.”
“We really don’t talk enough about stopping before it gets to that point,” she clarifies. “I caught it early enough where I was able to stop drinking for two or three months and really evaluate stuff. So, now, I can have a drink and be done because I did the emotional work. I had this emptiness I was trying to fill.”
Elsewhere, Kiah confronts her mother’s suicide on “Wild Turkey,” recalling her impulse to emotionally dissociate when she sings, “[I] tried so hard to be an automaton.” Then, comes the haunting chorus: “She’s never coming back.”
“This entire record is me working through my sense of self and identity,” she says upon further reflection. “It is about me working through all these experiences and feelings that I’m having.”
Acting as the album’s prologue, “Soapbox” serves as Kiah’s declaration to the “conservative, white Christian parents” who have treated her like “an other” throughout her life. As Kiah explains, “[‘Soapbox’] is for bigots and political pundits and politicians. It’s really for all of those people. Because of their rhetoric and their beliefs, I shut myself up so that I could avoid being hurt and I could avoid having a cross burnt on my lawn one day.”
When asked about her support system, Kiah mentions her father as one of her greatest cheerleaders. A music lover with experience as a business manager, he was a great asset in her early days, advising Kiah to have a cash-box for merch and even giving her a ride to gigs when she was in a pinch. He also was the first to step in when there were early signs of alcoholism.
And as Kiah’s career has blossomed, she’s picked up a few more high-profile mentors, including English-born Nashville transplant Yola and Americana star Brandi Carlile, who recently took her out on the road. She’s also enjoyed bonding with her current trio, with bassist Emma Lambiase and drummer Matty Alger, which she says solidified this past May.
Recently, she also checked off a few major items on her bucket list, including opening for Carlile at George, Wash.’s The Gorge and making her debut at the Grand Ole Opry. But its hard to compare even those marquee moments to Kiah’s surprise appearance at Newport Folk Festival’s Folk On weekend.
Despite not being on the official lineup, she opened the Once and Future Sounds revue, which focused on female performers of color and culminated with Chaka Khan’s dynamic performance of “I’m Every Woman.”
“It takes a lot of work. And everybody I’ve met so far— people like Brandi, people like Yola—have done that deep emotional work to get to where they are now,” Kiah says. “In order to have a sustainable career—especially in music— you have to find a way to stay grounded.”