“If I had to do it all over again,” sings Tennessean singer-songwriter Amythyst Kiah on her new album, Wary + Strange, “I’d do the same damn thing.” If Kiah is talking about how she’s approached her blossoming career so far, it’s hard to argue. Though she grew up self-taught, emulating everyone from Tori Amos to Tracy Chapman, Kiah received her proper musical education through East Tennessee State University’s Old-Time Music program, and that depth of understanding and study permeates everything she plays.
The results speak for themselves: a Grammy nomination for her song “Black Myself,” recorded with Rhiannon Giddens and the other members of Our Native Daughters, a super- group made up of women of color. “Black Myself” (which also appears on Wary + Strange) would take Song of the Year honors at the 2019 Folk Alliance International Awards. Still, it’s the stuff you can’t teach that makes Kiah’s music so impactful: a wicked right-hand fingerpicking and pick stroke, plus an absolute saxophone of a voice, full of a gnarly power and authority. She also displays a certain creative willingness to bare her soul, an artistic imperative that fantasy author Neil Gaiman recently described as “the willingness to walk down the street naked.”
Kiah has plenty to unpack and plenty to reveal, including the suicide of her mother while Kiah was still a teenager, an event she explores to devastating effect in the harrowing “Wild Turkey.” Her attempt to salve that trauma with alcohol, and its debilitating effects, is channeled into a biting lyricism on “Hangover Blues” and confronted head-on in “Firewater.” Likewise, Wary + Strange is everywhere in- formed by, as she describes it, “grappling with trauma while also trying to navigate the experience of [growing up] a Black and LGBT woman in a white suburban area in a Bible Belt town.” Kiah’s grounding in the midst of all this challenging social and emotional turbulence? Why, her acoustic guitars, of course.
“My main guitar since 2013 has been a 2009 Martin D Mahogany 09 dreadnought,” Kiah explains. “It’s basically a D-18 in terms of build and design, but it’s part of their Sustainable Wood Series, which means all the woods on it are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.” The D Mahogany 09 features a certified European spruce top, mahogany back and sides, and a mahogany V-shaped neck. The fretboard and 1930s-style belly bridge are made of sustainable katalox. Kiah had the guitar outfitted with Fishman electronics, and she strings it with Martin MA545 Authentic Acoustic Bluegrass Phosphor Bronze strings (12.5–55). “The D Mahogany 09 is my absolute workhorse,” says Kiah. “It’s been everywhere with me—England, Sweden.”
More recently, though, Kiah has fallen under the spell of a Gibson J-45 Standard acoustic-electric outfitted with an L.R. Baggs VTC pickup system, and she’s discovered a clever way to make it sound as big as her booming voice requires. “I was at soundcheck, and wanting to get a sound real quick,” she recalls, “so, instead of plugging into my DI and the PA, I just plugged my J-45 with the Baggs pickup into my electric guitar amp—a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe—and the tone was awesome. All the mellowness, low-end, and warmth of the J-45 really came through, and there was none of that quack you can sometimes get going straight through a PA.”
The newest member of Kiah’s brood of guitars is likewise a Gibson: the brand-new Gibson Generation Series G-45 [see review, page 72], featuring a soundhole on the upper bout’s top side, which drives the chamber’s sound directly at your eardrums. “When we’re playing acoustic guitar,” Kiah says, “we’re so used to having the sound move away from us, and thus being slightly muffled to our ears. After a few nights with the G-45, working on my songs when it was quiet in the room, my head next to the guitar, with the sound coming from the port right at me, well, I couldn’t believe like how much I needed that in my life.”
Some of Kiah’s other recent equipment discoveries include the Red Panda Context 2 reverb pedal (“it sounds clichéd, but it really does sound heavenly”), the Tech 21 Acoustic Fly Rig with onboard preamp, tuner, compression, reverb, and delay, and a Fishman Loudbox Artist Bluetooth acoustic amplifier. “Getting into the whole gear thing is pretty new for me,” she confesses, “but I’m beginning to see that the sky is the limit as far as the kinds of sounds I can produce with an acoustic instrument.”
Like many songwriters, Kiah turns to the simplest of gadgets—a capo—to find the sweet spot for her vocal range, and to allow her to play similar chordal shapes and licks in whatever key suits the song she’s playing. “The way the capo got integrated into my songwriting is that when I was in string band at ETSU, I played old-time rhythm guitar along with the bass lines, with no leads to speak of. My focus was on doubling those bass runs and keeping the backbeat on the rhythm. Within that type of music, we were generally playing in the keys of G, C, A, or D. So if I wanted to keep the same voicings I used in G, but transpose them to A, I would put the capo on the second fret and I could do all the same bass runs I did before. And yes, typically when I’m writing a song, I’ll move the capo around on the neck until I find a key where my voice feels most comfortable.”
While Kiah admits that this may limit her use of a broader chord vocabulary, it has also allowed her to explore her driving percussive technique on the instrument, focus on her fingerpicking, and establish a style that’s uniquely her own. “It does seem like it’s always the left-hand stuff that gets really heralded by other guitarists—that ability to fly up and down the neck,” she offers. “I can’t say that’s ever held much interest for me, though there was a time when it led to a kind of imposter syndrome for me, like, ‘Am I a real guitar player?’ I pulled out of that pretty quick, though. I know some people will call the capo a ‘cheater,’ but I don’t see it as a limitation; it’s allowing me to keep all the cool technique elements in the song that I want to keep, sing in the register I want to sing, and focus on how I deliver the melody, which is with my voice.”
Kiah may trade in the old-time, blues, folk, and soul vocabularies. But on Wary + Strange, produced by Tony Berg (Phoebe Bridgers, Amos Lee) she presents a decidedly modern palette that paints around her voice and guitar with woody, muted funk grooves, atmospheric sound design swatches of Mellotron and pedal steel, and groovy electric guitar moments by the likes of L.A. session god Blake Mills. Interestingly, it was Kiah’s third attempt to record the songs. “Tony really set a standard of the kind of producer that I want to work with from now on,” she says. “Someone who wants to be very deliberate about what each song needs, who sees my vision but wants to expand on it. The way Tony thinks about sound is incredibly fascinating to me—it’s not just about the instrument sometimes, or the arrangement, but the soundscape.
“Since making this record,” Kiah continues, “I realize that I can explore so many different directions within the basic realm of Americana/country/blues. There are so many ways to push the envelope, to experiment, to introduce elements that sound fresh and new, even while keeping that certain familiarity to it at the core. We rebuilt these songs from scratch with Tony, being as deliberate as possible with all the choices we made about how to arrange them and how to give each one its own unique personality. If you strip the songs down to the essentials, sure, they’re still based in the music I grew up playing and studying, but now there’s also this wonderfully ethereal, magical quality about them as well.”
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.