MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER
Sure, like plenty of households, Amythyst Kiah’s childhood home had a TV in the living room. But it was her father’s three-way speakers and amplifier attached to a radio, turntable and CD player that was the center of entertainment.
“It was like, ‘Wow, cool, a TV, but look at all these albums,’ ” Kiah said. “It was like this holy shrine in our living room.”
Chattanooga, in southeast Tennessee, is where Kiah developed her love of music. She now refines it as a professional in Johnson City, in the northeast corner of the state.
At 8:15 p.m. Monday, Aug. 2, Kiah takes the Amphitheater stage for the second time to perform songs from her recent album Wary + Strange. She first performed here in 2019 with the all-women-of-color group Our Native Daughters. Later that year, her song “Black Myself” was nominated for Best American Roots Song at the Grammys.
A press release from Shore Fire Media called this album “a culmination of her relentless journey of personal and musical exploration.”
This journey began in Kiah’s teen years. Although she grew up with music-loving parents who introduced her to all different genres, she didn’t find her personal favorites until she became a teenager.
“You know how you listen to music your parents listen to, and it sounds good, but it’s not quite yours?” Kiah said. “The first time I listened to music and it was 100% resonating deep within my soul was going into my teenage years.”
Kiah’s first instrument was a guitar, which she got at 13. Before that, she loved watching MTV and listening to pop music, including Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Madonna and Mariah Carey. She was just getting into alternative rock, too — the first song she learned to play was “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” by Green Day.
During those teenage years, Kiah dealt with insecurity, poor body image and low self-esteem.
“I had a hard time finding my place in the world as a Black girl in a white, conservative middle-class environment,” she said. “I was either accused of acting white by other Black people, and around other white people it was like, ‘You’re still Black, it doesn’t matter what your background or upbringing is.’ ”
So, the guitar that she learned to play through video lessons her parents bought for her became Kiah’s escape.
“I could go into a world where I didn’t have to think about any of that stuff,” she said. “I could just focus on music.”
Her interest in alternative music came from a feeling of connection with the artists. One of her biggest inspirations was singer/songwriter Tori Amos.
“I was just captivated by the way she expressed herself,” Kiah said. “She sang about very personal things that happened to her, but she emoted it in a way where you could feel a deep sense of empathy, and you could see yourself in some of those scenarios and imagine how it would make you feel.”
Because music was her personal escape, Kiah never envisioned herself as a performer. When she arrived at East Tennessee State University, she opened her eyes to the idea.
There, she became interested in old-time music and the history of American roots music in the school’s bluegrass, old-time and country music studies program. Other people encouraged Kiah to audition for a band when they realized she could sing and play guitar.
This was a significant adjustment for her.
“When you’re used to playing by yourself in your room, playing music in front of other people was very overwhelming,” she said.
She found the right notes, though, and by 2010 was being asked to perform around the region.
Kiah’s musical imagination and inspiration eventually turned into a professional career, but it wasn’t all glamor.
“You’re inspired, you’re creating art, you have a message, but then there’s this thing called business and thinking of yourself as an entrepreneur, as a small business owner, which means there’s accounting, there’s inventory, there’s advertising, there’s all these other things that come into play,” she said. “You somehow, with no knowledge about business, have to then figure it out.”
Fortunately for Kiah, the same person who introduced her to music at the beginning of her life was equipped to take on a managing role. Her father had spent around 40 to 50 years in management, and he helped Kiah organize the business side of her career.
“If he wasn’t around, or if I didn’t have someone like that in my life, I can’t really say necessarily where I would have gone,” she said.
Her father was her biggest supporter when she decided to pursue this career, she said.
When people begin music careers, she said they often don’t realize how many people are needed for success.
“When you see these A-list celebrities and rock stars and all of that, they didn’t come out of a vacuum and create all of this,” she said. “It’s a team effort, and that’s what I had to learn because I went through this period of wanting to be self reliant, … but you reach that point when you’re like, ‘Oh, these people have huge teams of people to help them.’ ”
Kiah’s sound has taken on a life of its own.
“My sound has ended up being as eclectic as my musical upbringing and just as eclectic as the music I listen to,” she said. “It’s hard to think of creating music or listening to music and staying within one little box.”
She doesn’t believe there is such a thing as a guilty pleasure in music, and people should listen to the music they like without judging others for their musical taste.
“I think pretentiousness in music is really unfortunate,” she said. “It’s something that doesn’t belong in art.”
Her latest record, released in June, pushes the boundaries of Americana music, she said.
“Throughout, the most striking moments are those of visceral, unflinching self-actualization, as Amythyst brings her once-hidden emotions of grief, anger, and abandonment to the forefront in this raw and nuanced redefining of roots music,” said the Shore Fire Media press release.
Kiah is excited to bring her new backing band to Chautauqua. They will perform nearly every song from Wary + Strange.
“It’ll be fun and exciting,” she said. “I hope people feel good before, during and after the event.”