Amythyst Kiah performs in Portsmouth
Those who only knew Amythyst Kiah from Our Native Daughters were a bit surprised by her Rounder Records debut, Wary+Strange. Sure, it contained some rustic elements, but mostly the 2021 record rocked.
The clearest example was her version of “Black Myself,” a song that won a Grammy for the all-women-of-color supergroup she’s formed with Allison Russell, Leyla McCalla and Rhiannon Giddens. Kiah’s re-recording growled with an electric urgency akin to Gary Clark Jr.’s 2019 scorcher “This Land,” and landed a country mile beyond the banjo-punctuated original.
Kiah decided to revisit “Black Myself” because it felt fuller when she wrote it.
“It was inspired by a line from the Sid Hemphill version of ‘John Henry,’ and that became the hook,” she said by phone recently. “I put the guitar part underneath and I was kind of like, ‘This feels like an anthem.’ It became part of the Our Native Daughters sound, but my music is in a lot of ways a modern take on roots music, so we explored bringing myself back in.”
It’s a side of Kiah that will be on display at her upcoming shows in Portsmouth, part of a tour that started on Sept. 27.
“I’m bringing a full band on this run, drums, bass and lead electric guitar,” she said. “Everybody sings background vocals on quite a few of the songs. It’s definitely a much bigger sound than what some people might know me for.”
Equally powerful is her raw honesty as a songwriter. “Wild Turkey” is a spare acoustic song from Wary+Strange that dealt with her mother’s suicide when she was 17. The experience led to her first public performance, at the funeral. Asked how she found a way to write about it now, her answer provided a clue to Kiah’s creative spark.
“Being a child of the ’90s, and getting into alternative music, I was really leaning into things that were on the darker side,” she said. “Dealing with feelings like anger and loss. Songwriters being willing to dig down in the depths and really talk about how they feel, that’s something that’s always resonated with me.”
It still does; her most recent EP, Pensive Pop, contains reimagined covers of Tori Amos, Green Day and Joy Division.
Still, “Wild Turkey” took Kiah years to write. “It was dealing with such a tragic event in my life that I never really properly processed, and it wasn’t until I started going to therapy that I realized there’s some unresolved grief here,” she said. “It took so long to write simply because it took a while to unpack all those feelings.”
She stretched the process by constantly tweaking with the song’s mood. “In the beginning, I was trying to make it … more upbeat, like I wanted to juxtapose the subject matter with the music,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to get out of the way and let the song be what it’s gonna be. That’s what I had to do, [because] it’s a really sad song.”
Many fans have thanked her for the “Wild Turkey,” telling Kiah that it helped them process their own grief. She’s heartened by the response.
“If there’s anything I can leave behind in this world, it’s art that people were able to turn to when they felt alone or like they didn’t have anybody,” she said.
“It’s really an honor to have the opportunity to share that with people. … it means a lot.”
Kiah will unveil new songs at her show, the products of some recent cowriting efforts. “Empire of Love,” written with Sean McConnell, is “about my spiritual connection to the mountains where I live, in Appalachia,” while a co-write with Butch Walker is a “straight ahead rock song” called “Never Alone.”
She also collaborated with Avi Kaplan and Jeremy Lutito, who both worked on Kaplan’s LP Floating on a Dream, which Kiah called “probably my favorite album of last year.” Their writing session was inspired by the Old Gods of Appalachia podcast, which led her to read more horror and fantasy stories. “I’m returning to sounds of Appalachian folk music, still with a modern take and it’ll sound a little weird, like all my music sounds.”
An album she hopes to finish by year’s end will reflect this latest direction.
“There’s going to be some spooky songs on there and then some autobiographical songs and more of what I usually write about, but with some other things thrown in,” she said. “That’s the new stuff coming down — a spooky Appalachian vibe, with some rock and blues influences. It’ll be fun; I’m excited about it.”
When: Wednesday, Oct. 4, at 6 and 8:30 p.m.
Where: The Music Hall Lounge, 131 Congress St., Portsmouth
Tickets: $30 and up at themusichall.org
Featured photo: Amythyst Kiah. Photo by Sandlin Gaither