afropunk interview: amythyst kiah talks music, gear and geeking out during lockdown

December 20, 2021

If you don’t know Amythyst Kiah, I’m judging your musical palate.  Not that you have to be a fan, but there are some things you should just be aware of and Amythyst is one of them. She is a singer – songwriter who fuses country, folk, blues, and rock into this sonic shepherd’s pie that can be comforting or experimental depending on your taste. From her debut Dig to her most recent release Wary + Strange, Amythyst explores a dizzying array of ideas from the metaphysical like identity and sentience, to political commentary to more introspective like emotions and inner fears. Providing the canvas for this trip is her amazing guitar playing which is her own mix of classical, bluegrass and alt-rock, but it is her voice that draws you in. It has almost become cliche to say someone has a unique voice, but Amythyst’s voice is rare. Full of power and emotion, it commands your attention, tugging at your heart and mind in equal measure. 

As she works with Gibson we had the chance to chat with her under the pre-text of discussing the new Generation series. But that conversation quickly devolved into us chatting like old friends about guitar gear, games, cosplay and a bunch else that was too long to put in one piece. But it was a welcome conversation to get to know the person behind the artist and made me even more confident that Amythyst is a real gem. 

Afropunk: On your album, there’s this meshing of this vintage sound like the bluesy and the bluegrass, but then there’s this alt-rock. It’s this melding of the two. I noticed, in your titles and some of the lyrics, you have Fancy Drones and then in Wild Turkey, you’re talking about automatons. Is that on purpose, or was that just something that just happened to happen?

Amythyst Kiah : I think there is definitely a running theme on the record and in the song. I love Sci-Fi fantasy movies. In particular, I’m interested where there are movies and video games stories that really challenge what it means to be sentient. I’m thinking about what it means to be a sentient being, and also being in the modern world as a human being.

In order to keep up with what we have to do in the modern world, during, I guess, post-industrial revolution, the things that we have to do in our day-to-day life to keep up and be relevant in mainstream society.  We have therapists, we have pharmacies, we have stores that have different types of clothes and different food you can buy, different things that– There’s a strong consumer culture and marketing that drives that consumer culture to fight for your attention, to fight to tell you what you need to be happy.

To me, those are all themes that I’ve thought about and pondered my entire life. They, inevitably, end up in my songs about my personal struggles because that’s just always present, the constant need to remember my humanity, remember what my limits are, to not push myself to the point of poor health just to keep up. Those are all things that I think about a lot. 

Afropunk: Now, I picked up out of there that you’re into Sci-Fi and video games?

Amythyst Kiah : Yes, I actually recently got back into video games during quarantine because when my life stopped as a touring musician and it shifted to working from home, I had more time. I had a little bit of existential crisis because I had so tightly tied my identity with being a touring musician. It was the longest stretch of time that I had been home in years. There were lots of hobbies and interests that I really put on the back burner because I was doing the grind to try to make being a touring musician a full-time viable career where I can live comfortably.

It’s really just like starting your own business. It’s like a roller coaster of emotion. You have to be really focused to get to where you want to go because you’re forging your own path. Now, I had all this time at home, my partner, she’s a big nerd. She loves video games, sci-fi, all that kind of stuff. I really set that time to, like, these are all things that I loved doing when I was in high school, in my early 20s, but then when I needed money, I sold my console.

There’s lots of things I just had to sacrifice to get where I wanted to go. Now I’m in a position where it’s like, “Oh, I do have other hobbies, interests and other aspects of who I am that I’ve been ignoring and I want to have the chance to explore.  Really, for the past year and a half, I’ve gotten back into games and the open-world RPG games are really where it’s at for me right now.

Afropunk: What do you play?

Amythyst Kiah : One thing that I played, it’s actually my girlfriend’s favorite videogame of all time, is the Mass Effect Trilogy. They re-released it in the Legendary Remastered Edition. Once I started playing it, I was like, “Oh, my God. I totally understand.”

I told her, “I totally get it now.” It’s just incredible because that whole theme of sentient, organic beings versus robotic beings. Then, there are multiple races of aliens in the universe. It’s an amazing space epic. That’s one thing I played. I played the Miles Morales Spider-Man game. I played the Spider-Man before that one with Parker in it. Then, I played Mass Effect: Andromeda. It’s within the Mass Effect Universe, but it’s a totally different story, in a totally different galaxy with all the characters. Right now, I’m playing Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, so I will be playing that.


Afropunk: Speaking of doing stuff, you’re redoing, Like Myself. You did a video for it, and now, I am seeing that you’re doing a new video for it.

Amythyst Kiah: Yes. I’m going to be honest. When we posted that video, when we uploaded that first to YouTube, I had almost completely forgotten that we’d even did that video. We recorded that back in the spring, so it’s only been three or four months.

Between the label, myself, and management, we talked about an idea to allow us audience participation with this song, because Like Myself has resonated with White and Black people, for different reasons, they thought it would be a really great way to engage with the fans to get their interpretation of different parts of the song, whatever part of the song that they wanted to express in some sort of creative form, just to have an opportunity to feel like what Like Myself means to other people.

I think we were going to roll it out a little bit earlier than now, but things just got crazy busy in the best possible way. Now, we’re going to carry out the plan. I’m excited to see the submissions and see what we get. It’s going to be fun.

Afropunk: How did you end up working with Gibson?

Amythyst Kiah: I can’t remember the exact date. I know that Adrian Parker, he does marketing within my management team. We’ve had conversations about different brands I’d be interested in working with, whether it be clothing, musical instruments, whatever. Gibson was one of those brands that was on the list. 

He started up a conversation with Cody Allen, who’s one of the Gibson reps. And then I spoke with Cody on the phone. She said that they are doing an overhaul on how they do things at Gibson, and it’s important that more women and more people of color are represented by Gibson.

She’s like, “We want to inspire people of all walks of life to play an instrument, and we want our roster and what we do to reflect that because that’s important.” The archetype of the guitarist is the White guy with long hair that shreds. There’s so many types of guitar players that have just not really been represented. Particularly, the most under-represented are women, for sure.

Afropunk: Absolutely.

Amythyst Kiah : Since then, I’ve been part of a few campaigns. One of them hasn’t officially been out yet, but I did film some things for the 1961 Les Paul Custom that Sister Rosetta Tharpe played in that infamous train station video, which she was in England, and it was raining.

That was that very iconic moment in her career. That’s going to get reissued. I filmed it with a guitarist named Celisse, which if y’all don’t know who she is, or if y’all haven’t spoken to her, or seen any of her stuff yet, I highly recommend because she is a total badass. She’s a Black queer lead guitar player. Well, I won’t give away all her story because we’ll be talking about her all day, because she’s amazing. Anyway, so we did that together.

I also am doing this Generation guitar line that’s being released. I think there’s already been some stuff released to the public for that, as far as the marketing campaign.

It’s been great working with a team of people that are super passionate about what they’re doing and want to really help shape and change the idea of what a guitar player looks like, and just celebrating people for being themselves. The guitars are sick, so that’s also– I got to keep the 1961 Les Paul SG that I played with. I’ve been obsessed with it.

I recently picked up a Hot Rod Deluxe. Now, I am plugging that Gibson into the Hot Rod Deluxe, and I’m having a good time.

Afropunk: Libby, sent me the G-45 from the Generation line. It reminded me, when I was picking out a guitar, why I didn’t pick up acoustic. It’s a beautiful guitar, but it is big. I was like, “Yes, I am not used to playing this.” My guitar teacher was laughing at me uncontrollably.

Amythyst Kiah : [laughs] What’s funny to me is the first guitar that my parents bought me, it was a 1988 Fender Dreadnought.

The G-45 is huge, and it actually feels smaller to me than a Dreadnought. It’s a little bit slimmer than the other one I had. I had a Martin Dreadnought too. That’s a little bit bigger than this. This is actually smaller than the G-45, at least when I’m playing it

Afropunk: You said your parents got you your first guitar. But what made you choose guitar?

Amythyst Kiah: My parents loved listening to music, and they had really eclectic taste. We listened to just all different kinds of genres. My dad was also an audiophile, so he had three-way speakers, and a turntable, CD player, tape player, integrated amplifier. He had it all. He had a custom unit to hold everything in just the right way. He was just super, super into that. He’s a big nerd about anything that he gets interested in. He just ends up becoming an encyclopedia. It’s pretty fascinating.

I grew up just listening to all different kinds of music. My parents really leaned to music that was melodic, usually people that had melodic voices. My dad liked listening to country, blues, rock, jazz, world beat, just all kinds of stuff.

The music that I guess resonated with me, it really started with I was watching MTV. I listened to a lot of pop artists, but then I started getting into listening to rock music. A lot of that alternative rock that I saw on MTV. Going into my teenage years, something about that way of expression, the vulnerability, and the rawness really resonated with me.

It started with Green Day, Blink 182, Matchbox Twenty, Nirvana, all that kind of stuff. Then, I really leaned into artists like Tori Amos, and Björk, and Fiona Apple, and Alanis Morrissette.

For me, the guitar, I just fell in love with the sound of it, just my hand or pick plucking the string. I just loved the sound of fret noise, of seeing the vibration of the string, I just really loved just the sound. It’s so empowering to play the instrument. A lot of the music I listened to had guitars in it. I liked to sing, so I was, “Oh, yes, this could be fun.”

My parents, were very encouraging about me playing an instrument. They really were happy. I’ll put it this way. They had three goals in life for you to be a well-rounded individual. They encouraged me to play a team sport, which I did a little. I played basketball. Make good grades in school, which I did, and an instrument of my choice. It wasn’t as if I had to play an instrument, but it was like they encouraged it if I wanted to do it.

I decided on the guitar and then just riffed from there and learned songs from the artists that I loved listening to. 

Afropunk: Do you have a dream guitar?

Amythyst Kiah: Well, [chuckles] to be perfectly honest, I can’t say that I have the ultimate dream guitar in my mind as of yet because I’ve spent so many years playing the same guitar. My workhorse main guitar for years was my Martin Mahogany D O9, That’s actually the first deal that I got with an instrument company was Martin. It’s just been so many years playing the same guitar so for me, I’m still on the exploration. I’m still figuring out what I like, what I don’t like, I’m now dipping a toe into gear nerd land, where I’m worrying more about and learning more about pedals, and cables, and all of that kind of stuff.

I’m not even 100% sure if I’ll ever have a dream guitar because once I went to the studio with Sound City to work on this song and worked with Tony Berg. It was the first time that I fully understood why people have more than one guitar and more than one amp. I think for the longest time, I couldn’t fathom it because I was broke.

“I’m broke. I can’t buy any of this stuff, so I don’t want to look at it because I can’t buy any of it, so I’ll just play with this.” It really dawned on me with him being like, “Oh, this guitar would go really well with this song,” or, “This amp would work well with this,” and I’m like, “Man, this is really cool.”

Also, to be fair, I came from an academic experience where I was playing acoustic instruments. It wasn’t common to have more than one guitar, normally. Now, I see, “Wow, there’s so many different sounds, and so many different things.” Now, I’m in this stage where I’ve got to know.

My dream now is to have a studio where I can have my multitude of guitars, and amps. 

Afropunk: Okay, what is your current rig looking like?

Amythyst Kiah : Right now I’m using four to eight pedals right now. The other pedals I have, I might still keep them, I don’t know, but right now my main rig is, well, one of the pedals is a chromatic tuning pedal. I got three effect pedals for my electric guitar set up right now. I have a Suhr Jack Rabbit Tremolo that has four different sound wave options. You can customize the tempo or you can manually change the rate and the depth of it, and the volume for the tremolo. Then I have a fuzz pedal that a friend of mine, he’s a psychiatrist that’s his day job, but he also builds computers and builds guitar pedals in a couple of his hobbies.

He sent me a guitar pedal for my birthday last year and basically, I wanted the fuzz pedal in the style of a Big Muff just like three knobs. He themed the pedal after his cat. There’s this big, orange, fluffy cat on- it’s a picture of the cat on his back showing his belly. The pedal is called the Fuzzy Buddy, and the three knobs say meow which is the volume, and then scratch, and lives for the other two settings. That one sounds great. The last one I have is an Electro-Harmonix POG, so it’s the octave pedal. 

Afropunk: Nice. What guitar are you playing now? It’s the Martin?

Amythyst Kiah : Well, yes. I’ve been going back and forth. I’ll tell you my guitars now. I have my Martin, my D09, which is the first guitar that I ever bought for myself. It took me two years to pay it off because I put in on my credit card, and I was in college. I bought it in 2013. I still have my Fender, my first guitar from childhood.  I still have the classical guitar that I had. My parents bought me an electric guitar maybe three or four years after I started playing acoustic, but I didn’t really take to electric as much at the time.

It’s a Neal Schon signature guitar made by Larrivee. It’s like the most random thing on the planet. The style of it is like a Stratocaster-style body. It’s like reverse Stratocaster-style body, and it has five pick-up positions. It’s got a humbucker in the bridge, and then the middle and neck are both single coils. I remember the color is this sort of dark metallic blue, which I’m not crazy about. I don’t know what I’m going to do with that guitar. I don’t have the heart to get rid of it.

Then, I have a Schecter Corsair which is a semi-hollow-body guitar. Someone purchased that for me as a gift several years ago, and that was my main electric guitar for a really long time. It’s black. The other electric I have, Fender sent me a guitar from the Parallel Universe series that came out I think like a dang year or so ago. It’s a mashup of the Jazzmaster and the Stratocaster. It’s like seafoam green with a gold pickguard and it sounds really good. I haven’t taken that back out on the road yet, because I need to get it set up so I can stay in tune a little bit better. Yes, that one’s really fun to play.

I got my first baritone, which is an Eastwood {Sidejack}. Anyway, they have just a regular standard guitar version, and this is the baritone version, so I got a baritone guitar. I play that for Opaque. Fender also sent me an Acoustasonic, which is their latest one of a kind of acoustic, electric guitar hybrid. I got one of those.

Gibson, They sent me a J45 which I’ve been playing at shows, and that’s so fun. They let me keep the SG, the 1951 SG Reissue. It was my first SG ever, and I’m in love with them now, so I’m going to probably- there’s some other ones I definitely want to get one of the P90 version then. This one’s got like three humbucking pickups. I normally use the neck and the bridge more often than the middle. I haven’t found a reason to use the middle one yet, but it’s eight pounds. It’s the heaviest guitar I’ve ever owned. When I’m playing it I don’t feel the weight of it because I’m having such a good time.

The neck’s kind of beefy, and the strings are thick so it actually plays similarly to- it feels like an acoustic guitar, it feels like a thinner neck, smaller stringed acoustic guitar in my hands. That’s actually kind of a sweet spot for me with guitar necks for electric guitars, I’m starting to find. I purchased my first Hellecaster also at Fanny’s House of Music, and it’s a Fender Aerodyne family. It’s like a series guitar that were built in Japan. I think between like 2004 and 2007. It’s got a P90 in the neck, and I’m kind of obsessed with that. Then it’s like black with a cream-colored binding, so it’s very simple.

I almost didn’t get it, I’m like, “I already have a black guitar, and it’d be nice to get one of these other shinier, more colorful Tele’s, but that P90 pickup, that won me over. Now when I pick that guitar up, it feels like I’m not holding anything in my hands, and I don’t know how I feel about that. 

I’m keeping that one forever, because that’s my first Helle, and it’s my dream. Actually, I guess I will say my dream guitar for a while was getting a Hellecaster.

Obviously now I have one, and I love it. Now that I’m exploring all these different sounds and like, “Damn, man, this is like–” Now, that I’ve been playing the SG, I’m like, “Whoa, this is like a totally different thing for me,” because I’ve never owned an SG before, so I’m obsessed over that.

For me, I’ll get really obsessed with something and hyperfocused on it, as I mentioned earlier, and that’s all I’ll play for a really long time. Truly the test of time, for my love, for whatever the instrument is, the true sign is when that hyperfocused wears off. That’s a true test of whether or not it’s going to be around forever is once the honeymoon phase is over how long is it going to stick around? Yes, I don’t think I left anything out. I think that was it.

Check out her interview for Gibson’s Artist Interview Series as well: