Interview: Amythyst Kiah
KGNU’s Carrie Marks hosts Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, Amythyst Kiah, live on KGNU.
Let’s see, so I have Amethyst Kiah on the phone. Let’s see if we can hear amethyst. Are you there?
Yes, I’m here.
Fantastic. Good morning. How are you liking our weather here in Colorado?
It’s definitely a refreshing change from the festival cruise that I was on, in the Caribbean just this past week. So I flew directly from Miami to Denver yesterday. So that was definitely a change.
I heard about that, what’s it called?
Yeah, the kayamo cruise. It’s a music festival that’s put on by a really amazing, company called Six Man. They’re based out of Atlanta and they do these cruises. They do several cruises, but this is one of the ones that they do out of the port of Miami. So it leaves the port of Miami and it lasts about seven days. Usually it stops on a couple of different islands along the way, but it’s just music the whole time.
Aaron Lee Tasjan was there, Mavis Staples, Anderson East, Jeff Tweedy. All kinds of folks were there. it was an amazing time. It was a really great
Were there any musicians there that you were super excited to see or play with?
I was really excited to see, Mavis Staples. I got a chance to meet her as well as a couple of people from her team. I unfortunately, at one point actually got dehydrated. On a day off on the Island. And I passed out, so I had to go to the medic and it was a whole thing.
And so I wasn’t really feeling well for a good portion of the trip, and so I had to really conserve all of my energy. So I stayed in my cabin most of the time, unfortunately, so I didn’t get a chance to see as much music as I would’ve liked. So I’m on the other side of it though. I’ve recovered and I feel much better now.
But, the travel and the time change and everything as it’s kind of really thrown me off my game a little bit. So, its disappointing, you know. I wasn’t really feeling up to come into the studio today cause I just wasn’t really on all cylinders with my travel and my timing.
So, I appreciate y’all accommodating me and leting me call in today. I definitely want to come in next time im back in the area. I definitely want to come into the studio for sure.
We’re happy to have you on air in any way we can get you here, Amythyst.
You do know that you’re at like 5,500 feet in Denver, so make sure you are chugging water so that you don’t get dehydrated and pass out.
I will never forget to drink water again. I’ve been really on it. I’m staying with one of my label guys at Soul Step Records. He recently moved to Denver, so I’ve been staying at him and his wife played and they’ve got humidifiers everywhere. They’ve got me all set to go to stay hydrated.
You’re from Tennessee, right. Where you use dehumidifiers so that your house doesn’t rot, right?
Right, exactly the opposite. The opposite problem there is sometimes it can get a little too humid. But where I live in Tennessee, Northeast Tennessee. the elevation is a bit higher than really the rest of Tennessee.
So there is like, there’s still humidity, but it’s not as bad as it is and like other parts of the state. Most of the state is pretty known to get, you know, fairly humid, especially during the summer.
So, please tell me a little bit about “Our Native Daughters.” It was such a huge success here at KGNU. Is it really four banjo players? You all are all banjo players right?
Yeah, we all play banjo. It’s a pretty unique thing because there’s not very many, black female banjo players around. I’ve kind of noticed on Instagram. I’ve started to see some people here and there that have been inspired to learn the banjo.– Some black women have been inspired to play the banjo because they saw our thing. And I thought that was really cool. You know, some people are being inspired to learn it and learn the history of it. And just in general. It’s a fun instrument to play regardless.
But, that’s been a really cool thing.
Can you tell us a little bit about how that group came about because you all four have your independent things or other bands. And how did that come together?
Yeah, so, Rhiannon Giddens reached out to the three of us. Ultimately, she was inspired to come up with the concept for this project when she went to the National African American History and Culture Museum in DC.
And she walked through the first floor and the first exhibit, and it was an exhibit on the transatlantic slave trade. And she was just so moved by that and she also realized that that’s one aspect of the history of our country that there’s a lot of emotional and traumatic baggage surrounding it.
And, it’s hard to have the conversation about it because emotions run high when talking about that particular topic because it sets a precedent for cultural and constitutional and political things that would stem from that.
And so, she wanted to find a way to write songs and tell the stories of the people during that time, but do it through song because music has this way of just arming people, bringing people together to really listen to someone’s story. Whereas otherwise you might be more difficult to hear it.
And having the banjo being an important focal part of the instrumentation, because the banjo is another instrument that was descended from the West African lewd family. And again, tied in with part of the systemic social, sociopolitical and cultural repercussions. Of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. One of the side effects of that is sort of like a revision of history or like an eraser of certain aspects of history. And the banjo was part of that. It ended up, ended up being a casualty of that because as far as people knew, Joel Sweeney invented the banjo.
A lot of people thought that he invented it when in fact, he added the fifth string, but he didn’t invent the entire instrument itself. And so he was a white minstrel performer. So again, that was another aspect of history that wasn’t really paid attention to because of because of racism, because of overlooking contributions of certain people because of stemming from the sort of cultural and social attitudes surrounding Black People because of the transatlantic slave trade. So all of these things are really interconnected, which is part of the idea of exploring the transatlantic slave trade and why we should talk about it?
That’s set a precedent. And that’s one example of the side affects of what slavery caused. It caused people to not really fully respect or understand another human being’s role in creating something.
So with reclaiming the banjo as being an afro-centric instrument, but also it’s an American instrument ultimately as well. I mean, the banjo has become an Americanized form of that instrument style. And, it’s something that obviously all people should be able to pick up and learn how to play.
You know, nobody owns any genre of music because what’s so special about American music is that so many people from so many different indigenous folk cultures around the world, whether voluntarily in it or in voluntarily, came to this country, they brought their food ways, they brought their music with them.
Those things sustained and remained. And again, when people ultimately get together to play music, thats the one moment where you can kind of forget about where all your differences are. And you can see where those where your love for the music kind of interconnects, which is why American music so amazing because you can hear so many different hybrids in all of the different genres of American music.
Anyway, I’m going on a tangent right now.
Oh, it’s a fantastic tangent.
But the main point being that like, the banjo is an important part of the transatlantic slave trade because that is because that particular instrument is one of the ways that enslaved people were able to maintain some of their cultural ties. It was through playing music and being able to utilize that to maintain some sense of their own culture.
You know, when she proposed this idea, I just thought it was so brilliant to be able to find that path forward with this. I was like, “this is amazing. I’m just really honored to be asked to be part of it.” All of us felt the same. And so once we got in the studio in Louisiana, out in the Bayou at Third Tower Studio, we just spent, two weeks, writing and reading different things. Rhianon obviously has this huge wealth of knowledge, she like pointed us in different directions of where to look for inspiration.
Over the course of two weeks, we did a lot of little co-writing and recording. It was a really transformative experience for me as a creative, as an artist, but also spiritually and emotionally.
It was a very life changing experience and it really, opened me up in ways that I didn’t think were possible. For a song like “Black Myself,” to date, that’s the most confrontational, direct song I’ve ever written.
I had no idea if people would even get where I was coming from, you because the nature of the song is just speaking truth to power about what I’ve observed what I’ve experienced as a woman of color — playing in the Americana folk music genre. And this is what I’ve seen of how the past has led us through this, tragic yet triumphant, sort of narrative. I’m hoping that people could understand the song as it is.
I was hoping people would understand what I was trying to convey in the song. Some people could hear it and write it off as, you know, exclusive or like, “well,that’s for black people. It’s not for me.”
What I hoped was that people would hear that this is an American story that all of us Americans have a stake in. Whether we’re black or white, because, white people also face a certain trauma during all of this too. It was a different kind of trauma, but it was the trauma all the same.
And so, this is something that we all have a stake in understanding the story in order to move forward and continue to understand each other as better as human beings to really understand what each other goes through even if you don’t have the exact same experience, you could at least understand or relate to and feel like. You just understand someone else’s story and see where they’re coming from and hopefully, you know, gain a little more kindness and compassion about certain instances.
So, that’s what I wanted to do with the song, and I was really just overwhelmed with how many people really understood where I was coming from. It was kind of a relief for me. I mean, I knew at the end of the day when I wrote the song, I was like, I have to write this song.
Being a part of this project gave me the strength and courage to write the song and to sing the song. And just, regardless of whether it got received well or not, I knew that I did what I needed to do for the purpose of this project and for the purpose of myself and for, you know, the people before us. But, having so many people be so receptive to it and receive, the accolades and response that it’s gotten from so many people has been above and beyond anything I could have anticipated.
For those of you out there joining us, Amythyst Kiah is on the phone with us right now, and she was just nominated for a Grammy, which is one of those accolades because people really connected to the song “Black Myself” off of “Songs of Our Native daughters from 2019.
Do you want to say anything about being nominated for a Grammy? That’s pretty epic.
I’m just thinking back to the day when I found out about it. I was on the last leg of a tour out in the Northeast moving over into the Midwest. It was November 20th, I woke up at 9:30 in my hotel room and Grand Rapids, Michigan.
I picked up my phone and saw like 50 notifications. And I’m like, “what the hell happened?” And my manager and the music professionals I’ve met over the years, like so many people were just like, “congratulations on your Grammy nomination.”
And I’m like, “what?” Because I hadn’t been keeping up with when they were gonn announce. I knew that there were many things on the record that were submitted. But, I wasn’t keeping up with when the nominations were going to be announced, so I really didn’t see it coming at all.
So I sat there and then my dad, Carl Phillips. He’s been traveling on the road with me for most of my shows for the past, 10 years, just selling merch and driving, and also helping me coordinate tours and all that kind of stuff.
So he’s been there since like the very beginning of all of this. So I tell him, I’m like, Hey, Dad, “I got nominated for a Grammy” and he sat there just looking through Instagram and Twitter, and we’re like, “wow!” We just kind of sat there and then we looked down, and were like, “well, it’s almost time to check out of the hotel. I guess we need to like hit the road.”
It was weird because we didn’t necessarily have time to really process or celebrated even because I had to get down the road cause I had another show. So throughout all of this, you know, it’s like even now it’s still new or strange to say that I was nominated for a Grammy because to me, this is something that I’ve decided that I want to devote my life to being a musician and being a songwriter and performing and touring.
Like regardless, had I not won anything or got nominated for anything, I would still be doing this.
This is all icing on the cake. This is not the reason I started playing music, you know? So, just having the kind of recognition, for something that was an important and personal song to be considered in that way was above and beyond my expectations.
And I was really happy when I found out that it did end up winning song of the year at Folk Alliance International this year, which was really incredible. And Allison Russell accepted the award for me and my dad. I couldn’t be there.
I wish I could have been there to celebrate because layla was hosting the show and Alison accepted the award. It would have been great to celebrate with them, but they celebrated for me.
So that was great. It’s been interesting cause I’ve been so busy that I’ve had to pick bits and pieces of moments to sit and process it.
You know, I’ve not been able to just think about it for too long because I have something else I have to do. To me, this is just the tip of the iceberg of what I feel like I’m capable of doing. For me, this isn’t a time to sit back and feel like I’ve made it now because I got nominated for a Grammy.
If anything, this is like, I got more work to do. This is the beginning of more to come. So I’m just really excited for, you know, all the things that are to come with everything.
Well, so are we. We can’t wait to see what else happens. Cause if this is happening in your first, you know, decade of playing music, I look forward to another few decades of hearing you out there Amythyst Kiah.
It’s been, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you this morning and I’m super excited. I’m going to be there tonight to see you perform. So hope you get a lot of rest and have a great time in Colorado.
All right. Thank you so much for having me.