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Amythyst Kiah on Her Powerful New Album 'Wary + Strange': 'I'm What I Needed to See When I Was Younger'

Amythyst Kiah
Sandlin Gaither

Amythyst Kiah

For a significant portion of her career as a singer-songwriter, Amythyst Kiah was a Black woman from  Chattanooga imprisoned by her passionate, queer human desires and the closet in which they were trapped. Alcohol abuse and depression clouded her mind even further.

But her new album Wary + Strange, out Friday on Rounder Records, is a raw, crystal-clear statement of Black power and gay pride that is intensely personal, yet also speaks directly to America’s current sociopolitical moment and quest for racial justice.

Lead single “Black Myself,” which was nominated for a Grammy for best American roots song, finds Kiah making bold, self-aware statements about her hard-lived experience, finally assessing and repossessing her self-worth and self-respect.

The brackish rock serving as the underbelly of Kiah’s countrified timbre, announcing that “I don't creep around, I stand proud and free/ 'Cause I'm black myself/ I go anywhere that I wanna go/ 'Cause I'm black myself.” The song serves as a clarion call, shining a light on Black liberation and Kiah’s reclamation of her physical and mental health. Other tracks, namely “Soapbox,” “Sleeping Queen” and Firewater,” continue this navigation down the, yes, “wary and strange” road to her Black, femme, queer and uniquely American freedom.

“Hiding myself to please everybody wore me down. In order to truly be happy and fulfill my purpose in life, I had to embrace who I honestly am, in every way,” Kiah says, smiling via Zoom.

And in doing so, others are embracing her. Last month, Kiah earned three nominations for September's  Americana Music Awards -- the most nods earned by any artist this year (tying with Jason Isbell). Her nods include emerging act of the year, song of the year for a solo rendition of “Black Myself,” and duo/group of the year as part of collective Our Native Daughters (Rhiannon Giddens, Kiah, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell).

On a day off in southern Florida after opening for the Indigo Girls, her conversation with Billboard was poignant, revelatory and, overall, Black and proud.

This album feels like a statement of self-actualization that has broader human potential. Is that a correct read?

I’d agree. This album serves as a way to cope with the crippling anxiety I’ve felt about my identity, who I was and where I fit in. For me, music has always served as a way to try to deal with that. [Moreover] my music -- and especially this album -- serving as part of a solution to not just my own issues, but possibly to achieving greater Black visibility [in country and Americana] is amazing. I’m what I needed to see when I was younger. To be the artist that proves that there are funny-talking, sci-fi-loving, queer Black people who look like me and who thrive outside of mainstream Black culture and mainstream expectations of Black people is important.

Throughout your career, and especially with Our Native Daughters and the collective’s 2018 release, Songs of Our Native Daughters, rootsy folk music has been intrinsic to your sound. How did that impact the creation of Wary + Strange?

My professional career has been a progression of me figuring myself out. When I first got interested in roots music, it was cathartic to play traditional songs that I didn’t write myself but still felt connected with. In hindsight, I realized that served as a barrier because I wasn’t yet able to channel and share my own feelings with my own songs that sounded like the ones I was singing. With this record, I’ve finally -- after five years of therapy -- [been] able to tell my story, while also calling back to the music that aided me in helping me understand my personal and creative evolution.

Sonically, this album -- especially tracks like “Firewater” and “Black Myself” -- sounds much heavier and harder than anything you’ve made before. It’s diverse, but the funk, the grooves, for lack of a better term, feel larger. Was it intentional?

These players -- alongside producer Tony Berg and engineer Will McClellan -- love all types of music and adapted without hesitation to whatever the songs needed. They look at music the way I look at music: Regardless of genre, does it move me? Kane Ritchotte is the drummer on this album too. He’s played with Portugal. The Man, plus is a fantastic session musician. We recorded the album at Sound City Studios in Los Angeles, and when we recorded the drum parts, Tony put the drums out in the main studio room to create this big sound. I’ve never quite had my drums sound so heavy, but I knew I always wanted it. On [Wary + Strange], it finally happened. I’m a very rhythmic musician, so I always wanted my music to pack a greater “punch,” so to speak.

Speaking of songs packing a punch, “Soapbox” bookends the album, and the songwriting here is particularly pointed. You rhyme “sophistry” with “atrophy,” which absolutely feels like you chose lyrical violence. What does that song mean?

“Soapbox” was the last song I wrote before recording. For most of my life -- in high school, in Chattanooga, Tennessee -- I was out as queer. However, when I moved to Johnson City, Tennessee, in my 20s, I thought, “This is a smaller town, so I don’t know how this will be received,” so I went back into the closet for, like, seven years. However, as I got deeper into roots music, I started to realize something: “I’m already Black, androgynous, gay, a woman, and I’m holding in so much about myself and not being open with people.” So I decided to make a proclamation and not be afraid of people believing these truths of who I am. I realized that every time that I’ve been truthful about who I am, I end up gaining the support of more people than I lose.

If you were to sum up the goals of crafting this album as a mission statement to your fans, new listeners and other artists, what would that be?

If you’re using something to impose legislation or make people feel like they don’t belong, that’s problematic. We can no longer allow things that the public uses against us to have power over our lives. We all have a greater purpose that’s being limited. We have to break free from that. Also, to help people achieve these goals, we, as artists, have to bare our souls. When we bare everything, we create strong, emotional music that allows people to grieve, feel less alone and discover themselves.