“Wary and Strange” isn’t just the title of Amythyst Kiah’s new Rounder Records album — it’s a description of how she felt growing up in Tennessee facing issues of race, sexual identity, and loss.
“Since my teenage years, I had dealt with fears of abandonment and rejection,” Kiah says. “This is all stemming from my mother’s suicide and when I really started building up these coping mechanisms of emotional distance. That way, I don’t get close to anybody, and that way, I don’t get disappointed. I don’t get hurt.”
Kiah, now 34, is performing at Truro’s Payomet Performing Arts Center on Sunday. She arrived on the music scene eight years ago as a folk artist, singing and playing traditional and contemporary songs in an Appalachian style. She continued in the folk tradition as a member of Our Native Daughters, a quartet of women of color that included Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell.
Kiah’s work both as a solo performer and as a member of the quartet helped recognize the role of African Americans in creating a genre that had come to be seen as made for and by whites. Kiah speaks of it as “reclaiming a form of expression that had been commercially separated from people of color.”
While Kiah’s earliest work was a reclamation of her cultural heritage, Wary + Strange is a reclamation of her life — a key to free her from a self-imposed prison. “The record is a representation of fully taking on all those years of feeling wary and strange — all the experiences of pain that I had to deal with — and confronting them,” she says. “It is an attempt to move forward — not forget what happened, but use it to propel me forward.”
The album is a departure from Kiah’s acoustic work, but within its alt-rock framework, one can still hear Kiah’s folk roots, especially in her vocals. The songs, all written by Kiah, are deeply personal. Putting those thoughts to paper was not an easy step. “Writing songs has always been about me — writing about my pain, processing it, and releasing it, lifting it away from my shoulders,” Kiah says. “I didn’t do that for a very long time because I was afraid of what I would write.”
Kiah’s lyrics, and the feeling she brings to her music, are soul-baring. “Fracture me ’cause it hurts to think. Fracture me and leave nothing here,” Kiah sings in “Fancy Drones,” a song that cries out for escape from oneself. “Wild Turkey,” a song about her mother’s suicide, is an open wound set to music. Then there’s “Black Myself,” an anthem in the spirit of James Brown’s “Say It Loud.” First recorded with Our Native Daughters (and nominated for a Grammy), the song in its Wary + Strange version amps up its power and edginess as Kiah gives it the full-throttle treatment; her band accentuates her drive, matching her note for note.
Kiah credits her experience working with the other members of Our Native Daughters with bringing Wary + Strange to fruition and giving her the courage to write “Black Myself.”
“It was the first time I’d written something that was outside what I was personally feeling and commenting on things happening in the world around me,” she says. “Once you do that, the sky’s the limit.”
Kiah’s transition from acoustic folkie to indie rocker has given her a newfound freedom. But change can sometimes come at the cost of fans. “There’s a lot of aspects to myself that I had to keep to myself,” she says. “I wasn’t out about me being a queer person. That was something I kept to myself for a very long time.” Whatever she’s lost, “I have gained so much more. It feels good because people are coming to see me. I’m not trying to appease everybody, ’cause you can’t appease everybody.”
Diamond in the Rough
The event: Amythyst Kiah in concert
The time: Sunday, Sept. 26 at 7 p.m.
The place: Payomet Performing Arts Center, 29 Old Dewline Road, Truro
The cost: $30 at payomet.org