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Alt Americana singer-songwriter Amythyst Kiah performs in New Hampshire and Maine

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NHPR / Emily Quirk
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Amythyst Kiah performing in Concord

Watch Amythyst Kiah perform before a live audience at NHPR's Studio D.

Defining the sound of singer songwriter Amythyst Kiah is tricky. As a native of Chattanooga, Tennessee, her work draws on influences ranging from banjo picking Appalachia, to the alt- rock stars of her youth.

You may know some of Kiah’s music from her work in super-group Our Native Daughters, along with Rhinannon Giddens. Her song "Black Myself" was nominated for Best American Roots Song in 2020, and she recently finished up a tour opening for The Who.

Kiah's latest EP is called Pensive Pop, and it comes out August 12. She'll be performing in Portland at Thompson Point this Saturday.

Earlier this summer Amythyst Kiah stopped by NHPR’s Studio D to chat with host Rick Ganley about her genre-bending music, and how she defines her sound. Below is a transcript of parts of their conversation:

Amythyst Kiah: I think first and foremost, I see myself as a singer and a songwriter, and I love playing guitar. I love writing songs on guitar. That's kind of— to me, that's the foundation. And the next step is really just allowing music to just come and go without attaching any particular, like, identity to it... which is not always the easiest thing to do.

Rick Ganley: Has recording and performing with other artists, including Rhiannon Giddens, changed the way you play?

Kiah: Honestly, it was a dream come true because the Carolina Chocolate Drops were a big influence as far as me, like really, really wanting to continue to dig into the old time music.

It was awesome to be able to to open for her, and be asked to be part of Our Native Daughters because it's such a beautiful project. [The experience] helped me really kind of connect all the dots for me as far as who I am as a musician and a human and the kind of, you know, lineage and legacy that I'm part of as far as being an American musician.

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NHPR / Zoey Knox
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Thinking about the things that that my father, and my grandparents, and my great grandparents, and all the people before me... that had to deal with the transatlantic slave trade, then having to deal with segregation, and going through the civil rights movement in the sixties. And just all of these people that paved the way to have the right to just live as a human, and to be seen as human. And having that entire experience for me just helped further solidify, like, my identity and place in the bigger scheme of history, if you will.

Ganley: I saw you perform here in Concord, and you performed some covers. For example, you covered Tori Amos and Joy Division, fantastic version of "Love Will Tear Us Apart", by the way. I love that arrangement. But also Songs by Green Day, of course, and the Carter Family. That was your encore! How do you go about deciding what you're going to cover?

Kiah: The reason I the reason why I could never be a professional wedding singer is because I literally can't bring myself to sing songs unless they resonate with me emotionally and also keep the integrity of the song.

Ganley: You're in the middle of an extensive tour around the US. I know you're headed for Europe. What's it been like to be on the road compared to the last time you were touring?

Kiah: Getting used to traveling again. I didn't realize like how physically stressful traveling is because I was just doing it, and I had no really comparison. And so you had to like knock the rust off. And because of the way T he Who dates were set up and because of West Coast shows... we were flying like every other day.

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NHPR / Zoey Knox
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Amythyst Kiah regales NHPR's Rick Ganley with stories of performing with The Who

And I'm like, this is... 'no human being needs to do this'.

But I would do it again in a heartbeat because it was The Who, and I would do it again. But like, I'm like, this is not this definitely is not healthy at all to be doing this. So we buckled down and just, you know, we got through it. And again, the shows is what made all of that worth it, you know?

Ganley: So tell me about that. The adrenaline rush of being I mean, obviously The Who... you're playing arenas. What's that like?

Kiah: Arenas are so big! [Laughing]

They are so big. Not even just... but like back back stage. I I feel like by the end of it, you walk like at least three miles.

Ganley: Keep thinking of that scene from Spinal Tap where they're underneath the stage, and they're just trying to they're going through the labyrinth, you know, trying to find the stairs.

Kiah: [Laughing] Yeah. Honestly, I want to re-watch that movie again because I'm going to have a whole new appreciation for it. It was crazy. Even now it's still kind of wild. And then like Pete...

Ganley: Pete Townsend, I think you're talking about.

Kiah: Yeah, yeah [Laughing]. First name basis. Yeah. Pete. No, but he reach out to my management because he had seen me perform on Jimmy Kimmel, and just wanted to see if we were available for shows. So it was like being like personally asked for by Pete Townsend to perform for to open for them was just like... what?!

Ganley: That call comes in, you're like, let me think about— Yes, yeah, we'll go on that tour.

Kiah: It's like, whatever. And if I was doing anything else, it's canceled! Like this is, you know, like, we will make this happen. So. So, yeah, it was a really wonderful experience. It was great.

Emily has worked for NPR member stations since 2007. Before joining the NHPR staff in 2012, she served as local host for All Things Considered as well as Director of Business and Foundation Support for KUSP, Santa Cruz, CA. While living in Santa Cruz, she also produced 2 weekly music programs Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Free Radio Santa Cruz) and Taste of Honey (KUSP).
For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.

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