SPOTLIGHT: Amythyst Kiah Makes a Statement of Self on ‘Wary + Strange’
Photo by Sandlin Gaither
EDITOR’S NOTE: Amythyst Kiah is No Depression‘s Spotlight artist for June 2021. Read more about Kiah and her new album, Wary + Strange (out June 18), all month long.
Most of us struggling with demons tend to call a priest. Johnson City, Tennessee’s Amythyst Kiah recorded an LP.
“For me, every song from the record comes from a deeply emotional place,” Kiah says of her latest record, Wary + Strange, coming out June 18 via Rounder Records. “I’m trying to, in a way, exorcise my feelings.”
Wary + Strange is a far-ranging reflection of Kiah’s past and present, making stops along her journey from youth to adulthood from the first track to the last — which on this album are two versions of the same song, “Soapbox.”
That song functions as a heads-up to over-opinionated listeners: “Don’t wanna hear your soapbox speech / Don’t wanna know how you would do it / Don’t wanna know how it should be / ’Cause I don’t care what you think,” she sings on the opener and on the reprise. Wary + Strange is Kiah’s story, told in her words and through her music.
“Her music” includes “Black Myself,” a track she first wrote for Our Native Daughters’ 2019 debut, Songs of Our Native Daughters, a project with Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell exploring the Black American experience. On “Black Myself,” then and now, she zooms in on her own experience, and the roots music world has taken notice. The song is nominated for the Americana Music Association’s Song of the Year.
Wary + Strange effectively reframes the song to carve out Kiah’s individual identity as an artist and a human being. On Songs of Our Native Daughters, “Black Myself” favors gospel harmonies, plucked banjos, and accordion accompaniments. On Wary + Strange, Kiah hones the edges into a sound closer to the alternative rock she grew up listening to, revolving around swingy, fuzzed-up chords right out of the Jerry Cantrell and Dean DeLeo playbooks.
Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots may seem odd bedfellows with roots music. But if Wary + Strange is the sum total of parts of Kiah’s identity, that means it naturally includes the genres that influenced her, including mid-’90s grunge acts.
“For me to travel back and forth between these different sounds and ideas feels normal to me,” Kiah says. “I don’t see dividing lines between these genres. They all blur together. If you listen to early or mid-’90s grunge, a lot of those songs use big fat blues rock riffs.” Kurt Cobain, she points out, counted Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, as one of his influences.
The absence of separation between these traditions is as much a marker of Kiah’s tastes as her songwriting process. “I don’t restrict myself,” she explains. “I let my mind go wherever it wants to go. Even with the songs I’m writing now, again, each song is doing its own thing.” Kiah talks about songs like they’re living organisms, as if it’s her job not to write them but to usher them into the world like a sonic midwife and help them find their identities. “That’s how I’ve always treated my songs,” she adds, even when she’s on stage playing them, creating atmospheres for them to enjoy their own distinct sound and feel. Los Angeles studio Sound City, where Kiah recorded Wary + Strange with producer Tony Berg, gave her fertile ground for letting these songs truly come into their own.
Confronting Her Story
All of this is in keeping with Wary + Strange’s self-reflective theme. It’s all about the music, of course, and mining attitude out of every single track, but above all else it’s about Kiah coming to terms with her background, personality, and struggles. At the age of 17, her mother took her own life, and Kiah has carried the weight of that trauma with her ever since.
“There was a good chunk of my life where I had my guard up,” Kiah says. “I had rejection and abandonment issues, and I put a wall around myself too. I was already introverted, but that wall came up because of the anxiety that came with being afraid of losing people that are important to me.” She cites her mother’s suicide as the origin of these fears: “Having that happen, I thought, “If my mother won’t stick around, then why would anybody else stick around?” Not understanding why people commit suicide in the first place, the context for that, all I thought was that I wasn’t good enough to stick around. That’s what I took from the situation.”
This tragedy guided Kiah’s social interactions for most of her life; as she threw herself into her passion for roots music, she neglected relationships with others. Music came at the expense of those bonds. Like any introvert, Kiah values alone time. But like any human being, she needs people, too. For a time, Kiah felt like she had to rely on alcohol to have that interaction. “I was trying to force myself to be a person I wasn’t,” she notes. “It messed with me, to the point where I had to start going to therapy to pinpoint why I was finding myself in situations where I was in emotional turmoil, whether with someone I’m dating or someone I’m friends with.” And that, perhaps unsurprisingly, goes back to Kiah blocking herself from properly grieving her mother.
“I buried my feelings and I coped by keeping people at a distance,” says Kiah. Once I started piecing that together, I thought, ‘Okay, I have some work to do.’” Thankfully, Kiah had therapy, but she had something more, too: her music. Music, whether listening to, playing, or writing it, is a healing place for Kiah, somewhere she can go to assuage her emotional turmoil. Kiah wrote Wary + Strange over about five years, but the album is a culmination of life experience.
“There has been a bit of a buildup to writing [these songs],” she admits. “This record is truly about various stages of my life.” On Wary + Strange, Kiah faces her fears of rejection, of not being loved or wanted. “These things were holding me back from what I’m fully capable of, embracing who I really am, and what I really want to do.”
Certain tracks, like “Sleeping Queen,” “Ballad of Lost,” and “Hangover Blues,” were written at different times; others, like “Opaque” and “Soapbox,” were written in the same year. They come from varying parts of Kiah’s persona, but they all tell the story of how she ultimately became comfortable speaking openly about her feelings and how she sees the world, with “Black Myself” being the defining moment of that lifelong transformation.
Kiah knew she wanted to re-record that song at some point in her career; it was Berg who convinced her to do it on Wary + Strange. “‘It’s such a powerful song, it’s such an important song,’” Kiah recalls him saying. “Especially now when we’re having this ongoing conversation about systemic racism in mainstream media. It’s not a trend or a fly-by-night thing. It’s being consistently talked about, and people are waking up and realizing the problems that have been happening.”
The song’s sound changed, but the lyrics didn’t. Kiah kept them intact to draw audiences in anew with her driving hook. “I don’t pass the test of the paper bag / ’Cause I’m black myself,” she belts on the second verse. “I pick the banjo up and they sneer at me / ’Cause I’m black myself.” The defiance of the original recording is gone, replaced with attitude and no small amount of disdain.
Through Kiah’s collaboration with Berg, “Black Myself” became a Southern rock song, delivering the edge the song embodies. It’s a terrific statement of purpose, and for anyone unfamiliar with Kiah, it’s a great introduction to her music as the record’s first single. What’s striking is that “Soapbox” could easily fit into the same swaggering rock vibe as “Black Myself,” but that’s not how Kiah approaches songwriting. “I’ve not necessarily sat down and thought, ‘Okay, the record is going to be about this,’” she says. “It’s not super focused that way.” She prefers letting each song reveal itself to her, exploring moods and tones while playing with chord progressions, inspired by the emotions she feels, the movies she watches, the books she reads, or the melodies that pop into her head. She stores these details up over time, and when the moment is right, she lets them do the talking.
On Wary + Strange, they speak loud, proud, and direct, expressing herself as a Black American queer woman to her listeners and to her peers. At times the record sounds more blues; at others, more rock. But from start to finish it sounds like Amythyst Kiah, which is the best accomplishment of all.
“My teenage self is thrilled at this record,” she says with a laugh. “It now feels truly as wary and strange as it possibly could be.”