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With music that has grown more personal, Amythyst Kiah isn’t content to just ‘shut up and sing’ any longer

Amythyst Kiah used her time off from touring during the pandemic to focus on her 2021 album "Wary + Strange."Sandlin Gaither

The crippling effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on touring musicians hardly needs further elaboration at this point; with a critical mass of venues closed (whether temporarily or permanently), travel strictly contraindicated, and audiences substantially reluctant to congregate in public, the pause placed on the music industry put a strain on many touring artists whose lives and livelihoods had been structured around live performance. Not for Amythyst Kiah, whose shutdown experience provided unexpected creative benefits.

“It really couldn’t have come at a better time,” says Kiah, who plays the Crystal Ballroom at the Somerville Theatre on Friday, “because although obviously the pandemic has been incredibly stressful for everybody, for me it meant I was at home for the longest I’ve ever been home since I started touring. I was fortunate enough to be able to be in a space where I could get some rest, where I could really focus on taking care of myself. So when I walked into the studio, it was the most present I’ve ever been making a record.”


The record in question is the 2021 Rounder Records release “Wary + Strange,” Kiah’s first for a label after a handful of DIY releases and one album with Our Native Daughters, the string-band folk supergroup she was in with Allison Russell of Birds of Chicago and Rhiannon Giddens and Leyla McCalla of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. As in that collaboration, “Wary + Strange” deals with issues of Black identity, adding queer identity and a more biographical slant to the mix.

Kiah’s openness with personal details in her songs is a recent development for her. “For a long time, I kind of had a ‘shut up and sing’ policy,” she says. “I was afraid to speak out about my own experience and my values and how I see the world. And so I essentially kept that separate from my music. I wanted to find a way to incorporate it, but I just couldn’t find my moment that felt right for me.”


That opportunity came during her time with Our Native Daughters, says Kiah: “Rhiannon’s like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna tackle the trans-Atlantic slave trade in song, we’re gonna discuss systematic oppression,’ and it was a no-brainer. I was like, This is a chance to be able to tackle this stuff but not have to do it alone.”

Kiah credits the song “Black Myself” — which appears on both “Songs of Our Native Daughters” (2019) and “Wary + Strange,” in two different versions — as the turning point. Arriving early on each album, it lands like a mission statement, at once a fiery lament of the ways that her blackness has been used against her from the outside and a fierce celebration of how it built her up from within.

“‘Black Myself’ is such an important part of my songwriting evolution,” she says. “That song is, I feel, my landmark songwriting moment. It was my moment where I felt fully comfortable expressing my thoughts about how I felt about my place in the world and other aspects of history and my social values.”

Kiah had a similar breakthrough when it came to the music itself. It took a while for her to lock into the dense, Technicolor rusticity of “Wary + Strange,” which she attempted twice in the studio before finally capturing the album that listeners now hear. (“Literally just everything from scratch,” she says of the successful third try.) But you’d never know it from the result, which is remarkably assured and wise for a young artist’s grand debut. Familiar instruments like clavinet and harmonica get used in unfamiliar ways, while producer Tony Berg applied sound-making devices like iPad apps, Tibetan sound boxes, and a device called the Kaleidoloop in distinctly musical ways. The album manages to come across as fully modernized blues without sounding at all like the blues or at all fully modernized.


It’s a description the Tennessee native is on board with. “I’ve always been very interested in taking something that feels familiar but still making it seem, I don’t know, otherworldly or a little bit strange,” says Kiah, perhaps inadvertently echoing and justifying the album’s title. “In art, there’s a description called magical realism, and then in literature, there’s a descriptor called Southern Gothic. And what both of those have in common is that it takes ordinary objects but then puts them in an ethereal or esoteric or another light. I think then with Southern Gothic in particular, it’s touching on Southern themes, Southern locations. Again, things that are very familiar, but then there’s maybe a little bit of supernatural or magical elements to the familiar space.”

Meanwhile, Kiah continues to evolve. With “Wary + Strange” now behind her, she sees yet another creative advancement on the horizon. “My songwriting over the past few years has been a little sporadic, because my songs tended to be about moments where I was in deep emotional turmoil and needed to process and get it out and express it,” she says.


“But now, I can actually go outside of myself, get out of my head and really start to enjoy writing songs about other things,” Kiah adds. “I’m in a different headspace now, where I can really write songs and it does not have to be tied to emotional turmoil.”


Presented by Global Arts Live. At Crystal Ballroom, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Oct. 29, at 8 p.m. Tickets $28 advance, $35 day of show. 617-876-4275, globalartslive.org

Marc Hirsh can be reached at officialmarc@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @spacecitymarc.