Amythyst Kiah has built a strong reputation as an innovative composer and a dynamic performer in the Roots/R&B world during the past few years. Her solo performances, where she plays banjo and guitar as well as sings, are passionate and memorable. Her demeanor between songs is relaxed and confident. When she speaks from the stage, it is like she is chatting with you at a quiet coffee shop. But when she sings, her focus is complete, and the strength and emotional impact of her voice finds no near rival. I first heard her sing at the Flynn Theater in Burlington, Vermont in the summer of 2018 during the Jazz Festival. She walked out on stage by herself with her guitar and started singing “Trouble So Hard,” a song I had never heard before. Her voice filled the theater and I was completely mesmerized. Alternating between melodic tones and harsher, more forceful, even gruff vocalizations, Amyhtyst Kiah’s voice and performance are unique.
Bourbon and Beyond is an unusual music festival now in its third year. It is unusual in the sense that it reaches past music to incorporate information and activities for other interests people have. There were five stages this year during the three-day festival, three of which featured music, one that has programming about bourbon, and the fifth which had culinary demonstrations. There was also a large tent (with a long bar in it) set up for dance performances, classes, and open dancing in the evening. The music on the two main stages was eclectic, with some Country and Bluegrass performers, but also straight up Rock (Joan Jett), Pop (Squeeze), Southern Bluesy Rock (ZZ Top and Zac Brown Band), Funk/Soul fusion (Southern Avenue), and Rock and Roll icons (Robert Plant). The third stage was sponsored by The Bluegrass Situation (check them out at the link at the end of this article) and naturally had a strong focus on Roots and Bluegrass music, although those categories reside under quite a broad umbrella. Along with Amythyst Kiah, other performers on the BGS Stage included Birds of Chicago, Dustbowl Revival, Ben Sollee, Cedric Burnside, The Travelin’ McCourys, and Mipso.
It was early in the day and a slight drizzle fell just before Amythyst Kiah took the stage on Friday. Unaccompanied, she sang and played guitar and banjo. The songs she performed were a mix of familiar tunes and new ones, like “Black Myself” from the recent collaborative album Songs of Our Native Daughters, and “Wild Turkey,” which will be on her upcoming solo release. Between songs, she gave a little background on each piece she was about to play or she told a quick story. While her demeanor on stage is very relaxed, her musical delivery is resounding. The crowd swelled during her set, and they were sorry to see her go at the end. It was an excellent way for the festival to begin.
I was fortunate enough to speak with Amythyst Kiah for a few minutes after her performance at Bourbon and Beyond, and got her quick thoughts on a variety of subjects. She is a fascinating individual with a lot to say, and so I have plucked out bits of the conversation and reproduced it below.
Wayne Edwards: I know you perform at a lot of festivals. Compared to a theater or a club, what do you think of performing at festivals?
Amythyst Kiah: Festivals are a bit of a different vibe. Playing in a theater and then playing in a smaller listening room and then playing festivals each have a different vibe that I really like. What I like about festivals is that you get an opportunity to reach a lot of people who obviously aren’t really familiar with your music but also reach people who have never heard you before. And usually the festival vibe is that there is a camaraderie that people have when you go to festivals; it’s like a religious experience for people. When people go to festivals they get to commune with other music lovers and share experiences with one another so the vibe at festivals tends to be even more intense because everybody is settled in to a weekend of hanging out and listening to music. It is always fun to engage with those kinds of crowds and once again you get to meet new people and make new fans – it is a good way to do that.
WE: You mentioned on stage this is your first time at Bourbon and Beyond, but you have played in Louisville once before at the Kentucky Derby. What was that like?
AK: It was pretty cool. Ben Sollee is an amazing singer/songwriter/cellist and he has a band called Kentucky Native so they were the house band for this event called Thurby which happens the Thursday before the Kentucky Derby weekend. I met up with him the day before and rehearsed with his band some songs, and he had two or three other artists that joined in with his band to play two or three songs basically on the outside of the stadium. It was kind of on the main grounds when you walk in so every so often they would bring the horses through so everybody could see them. But when the horses came through, we had to stop playing so we wouldn’t spook them. Sometimes we would be in the middle of a song and we’d have to slowly fade out and end it. But it was really cool.
WE: I was wondering about the songs you decided to play today. Are you playing a similar set as you travel around to different venues? How do you decide which songs to play each time?
AK: There are certain songs that I like to play at every set. There is a lot of new material that I am including in my sets that I am really excited about, and I pick some of my favorite songs from my other albums to put in there. One that I always keep in the set is a song called “Darlin Corey,” but that was actually a video that has been on-line for several years. It ended up getting semi-viral on the Folk Music Reddit so there are like over 50,000 views on the video now. So, a lot of people are like, “I’ve seen that video.” Because for so many people their first introduction to me as an artist is that video of me singing my version of “Darlin Corey,” I always keep that in the set. And I have been playing a lot of the newer songs on the new album that will be coming out next year. We are finishing up recording this month and, hopefully by next month it’ll be mixed. I’ve been kind of pushing back the release date recently because, once I wrote these new songs, I wanted to record them on the record.
WE: Looking at your tour dates, you are playing all over the country – you’re in the south, in Saranac Lake, New York, and out west in Montana. It certainly makes sense to me that you want to travel around and perform so different people can hear your music. Is there a part of the country you like best, or a particular place?
AK: My most back and forth so far has been between the Southeast and the Northeast. I haven’t been to Montana yet, so all of that will be a brand new thing for me. One of the big things that I noticed was the last time I was in the Lake Placid/Saranac Lake area I was actually driving from the American Roots Festival in Caramoor up back to Lake Placid to meet back up with Rhiannon’s band because I was opening for them during one part of her tour. I drove through the mountainous parts of the Adirondacks, and for me, growing up in Southern Appalachia, east Tennessee, with all the mountains around, it became apparent to me in that moment that no matter where I live, I can live anywhere as long as there are mountains. For me, any place that has mountains feels like home to me – it is like a comforting feeling. It made me realize how much the mountains and that landscape has played such a role in my life. So anywhere I go, even England or Scotland, I wonder if there are some back roads I can go to see some mountains on the way to the next gig. So there is a really big connection that I always make with the landscape. And as far as the crowds go, the people in the southeast, especially at some of the festivals, the people tend to be a little more on the rowdy side whereas up north in a lot of the festivals it tends to be a little more chill. But it’s cool because at the end of the day they both really love the music, they just express it in a different way. And honestly when I go to a show I am usually pretty chill myself so I never take it as, oh my gosh they don’t like me, or what’s going on – I always get great feedback. It’s really cool to experience everyone’s vibe and cultural differences and how they show their appreciation.
WE: Finally, I did want to ask you about the recording and distribution of your music. Everybody wants to hear you live but of course not everybody can come to a show, so they listen to your recordings. There are other reasons for recordings, too, like they can function as a record of the music and the art. Streaming services have become very popular, maybe even ubiquitous. What do you think of streaming services like Spotify compared to physical products like CDs and vinyl?
AK: In my own personal experience, I am in the older end of the millennial so when I was thirteen years old, we had a computer and I was pirating the hell out of some music, like I would all the time download albums and music and whatever else. For me, MP3s, downloading, and streaming has always been part of my life so when I want to find and listen to an artist’s album, I listen to it and decide if I want to go see a live show of this. It is easy to access and I pay for and use Spotify and Apple Music so I see an album and think I really want to listen to it and then I want to see this band and keep up with them. I think streaming is a really awesome tool to get more music out to more people. At the same time, I do think it is a slippery slope when your entire reality and everything in your life is on a screen that you poke at. To have the experience of having a CD player, having a record player, picking out the album, talking about it, having the real life tactile connection to music is also important. I think that all of it is good. I do think that the pay that artists get from streaming is a big issue and I know there have been some efforts to increase it – that’s a big issue I definitely have thoughts on, as well as more generally the issue of how we can all have a better connection to technology and the way we use it. But I think that both are important for music consumption in order for people to have more options.
Amythyst Kiah website, https://amythystkiah.com/home
“Trouble So Hard” on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhUIbqko8KI
“Wild Turkey” on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31MjqjcdCUM
“Black Myself” on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHTZnh9WmlY
The Bluegrass Situation, https://thebluegrasssituation.com/
Bourbon and Beyond Festival, https://bourbonandbeyond.com/
Words and photos by Wayne Edwards ©2019.