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Amythyst Kiah's Old-Time, Deeply Honest 'Wary + Strange'

Amythyst Kiah, in a detail from the album cover for her album <em>Wary + Strange</em>, released in 2021.
Courtesy of the artist
Amythyst Kiah, in a detail from the album cover for her album Wary + Strange, released in 2021.

Updated June 23, 2021 at 12:22 PM ET

Amethyst Kiah's new album has a telling title: Wary + Strange. It's the way she felt after losing her mother to suicide, and almost losing her dad to addiction as a teenager – and how she felt studying bluegrass and American roots music, a scene in which she was often the only Black person in the room.

As she puts it herself in the song "Black Myself": I don't pass the test of the paper bag / 'Cause I'm Black mysef / I pick the banjo up and they sneer at me / 'Cause I'm Black myself / You better lock your doors when I walk by / 'Cause I'm Black myself / You look me in my eyes but you don't see me / 'Cause I'm Black myself."

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Noel King, Morning Edition: There is a lyric in "Black Myself" that made me quiet down a little bit – you sing, "I pick the banjo up and they sneer at me," and I wondered who's the "they," how often did that happen to you and how did that feel?

Amythyst Kiah: I'd gotten involved in a genre of music that has had a reputation for not being inclusive – and so for me, when I first started playing old-time music and traditional music, there was several years in my life where I felt like I needed to ... shut up, if you will.

[But] when I was in my early 20s and as I've gotten older, every time I've opened up about something, whether it be my sexuality or my social or political leanings, every time I opened up about that, for any person that I might have lost, I've gained so much more.

Amythyst Kiah, at Ryman Auditorium on Sep. 11, 2019 in Nashville.
Terry Wyatt / Getty Images for Americana Music
Getty Images for Americana Music
Amythyst Kiah, at Ryman Auditorium on Sep. 11, 2019 in Nashville.

I had this image in my head of you at a show, singing "Black Myself" – and it occurred to me that you would often be singing this in front of a predominantly white audience. One of the joys of a live show is singing along, right? Do white audiences sing along to "Black Myself"?

I remember distinctly the first time that I ever really fully noticed it. This was, I want to say, in 2019 and we were at the Cambridge Folk Festival in England. It was myself, Yola, Allison Russell and Rhiannon Giddens ... we were all on stage, taking turns like singing our songs and playing some together. And then we got into "Black Myself." There had to be, like, at least 500 people under that tent. Every single English white person was singing "Black Myself" back. And we were looking at each other on stage like what and what is happening right now? [Laughs] We were all just living for that.

Because I know what it's like to be othered and alienated and feel in-between, I wanted to write songs in a way where anybody can put themselves within the song. However, what's just as important as including everyone is for me to tell my story specifically of being othered and the history of why I have been othered ... that's what this whole process of me studying old-time music was about. I wanted to understand the beginnings of American roots music and how it connects with the genres of music that we all enjoy today ... like, this is a story about your fellow Americans being treated in the most horrific ways. And from that standpoint, you can sing "Black Myself" because you're celebrating the triumph over the tragedy.

There is this remarkable thing you do, where you have both the universal and the entirely personal and individual, down to things that very few people will have experienced or can relate to. The song "Wild Turkey" is about your mom's death – I wanted to ask you about this very, very personal thing you experienced and you chose to share it with your fans, with strangers.

My mother, it's kind of a mystery because I to this day don't really fully know, what all she was coping with this because – you know, drinking a fifth of Wild Turkey is not a casual thing. There's just a lot of what ifs that we're probably never going to know.

[But] what I learned with suicide is that it's not about how they don't love the people in their lives and they're trying to escape from them. It's, "They will be better off without me." But I didn't understand it at the time. I understood that, as you know, if my own mom won't stick around to be with me, then what's the point of developing close relationships with people? My own mother wouldn't stay around, so I developed very strong, like rejection and like abandonment issues because of that. And then I myself didn't go to therapy to talk about any of this stuff until, you know, about five years ago.

I know that I'm not the only person that's had a loved one die of suicide. And knowing that, my song is something that maybe people can hear, maybe can heal from.

Does the music help you get better or do you have to be better to write the music?

Wow... that is maybe the most amazing question that has ever been asked of me. The way that I talk about music and songwriting is that normally, I let the song kind of take me where it wants to go. Yes, the melody and the sounds are coming out of me and I'm writing down the words and I'm playing the guitar – but it's almost as if I'm answering to what the song needs, as opposed to me dictating the song. I do think the song itself can actually make you better.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Noel King
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
Phil Harrell
Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.