Deep South: Amythyst Kiah on 'America's music'

This article is from 2018

Deep South: Southern Gothic star Amythyst Kiah on her ideal combination

Amythyst Kiah

Amythyst Kiah first performed an original song at her mother's funeral. Years later, and now a staple of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, Kiah explains how technical ability and emotional intensity are the perfect combination

After teaching herself to play guitar from VHS tapes, CD-ROMs and DVDs in her youth, Amythyst Kiah has risen to prominence after a long and rigorous training in her field as a self-styled purveyor of 'Southern Gothic alt-country blues'. Kiah went on to study bluegrass, old time and country music at East Tennessee State University, before songwriting and performing for a living in her late 20s and early 30s.

Of course, it's by no means necessary nor even preferable for a musician to have an academic grounding, but in the case of Kiah's craft, richly steeped as it is in social and cultural history, it somehow enhances the appeal. 'It's always been important for me to really understand what I'm doing beyond the nuts and bolts,' she says, over the phone from her favourite coffee shop in Johnson City, Tennessee.

Yet don't assume that her technical ability comes at the expense of emotional potency, because her stuff's packed full of that too. If you want to know about emotion and Amythyst Kiah, then know this: her first significant performance of one of her owns songs for an audience came in 2004 aged 17, when she sang at her own mother's funeral. 'I put all the feelings that I had into the song,' she remembers. 'And I let the song be a capsule for whatever my despair or sadness was. I performed the song and my dad said "I don't understand how you were able to hold it together".'

The moment of playing that song and the response she got was a turning point. 'I still didn't know whether or not I was going to pursue music as a profession. My dad had always really encouraged me about my singing and guitar playing: he bought me a guitar when I was 13. But even then he especially was like "um, you should probably do something with this".

Deep South: Southern Gothic star Amythyst Kiah on her ideal combination

Fast forward the best part of 20 years and Kiah is fast making a name for herself internationally with her powerful mixture of southern roots music, bluegrass, old ballads and country style blues. 'And then the gothic part comes in, where I guess a lot of the songs that I do are related to people facing adversity, facing struggle, dealing with loss. In my childhood, I dealt with some intense instances of loss and different aspects of feeling alienated and strange.'

She felt like a misfit playing bluegrass at first too, until her education began to teach her otherwise. "Along with millions of other people probably, all I knew of bluegrass music was The Beverly Hillbillies,' Kiah laughs. 'All my life I was used to being the only black person in the room; I grew up in suburbia and went to predominately white schools, so that wasn't really the issue per se, but the connotation of bluegrass music was white, conservative, bigoted. But when I started reading the history I learned there was way more to it than that. Southern music is a hybrid of African indigenous traditions and British Celtic music traditions and various European and South American influences. Once I learned all that, this music (regardless of what your political persuasion is or your religion, your race, whatever) is America's music. And anyone can play it.'

Amythyst Kiah, Piccolo, George Square Gardens, 0131 473 2000, 18 Jul, 7pm & 19 Jul, 6pm, £12.

Amythyst Kiah

There is a real buzz around Amythyst Kiah. A self-professed “Southern Gothic”, she’s an alt-country blues singer-songwriter based in Johnson City, Tennessee, with a commanding stage presence, only matched by her raw and powerful vocals. It’s a deeply moving, hypnotic sound that stirs echoes of a distant and restless past.