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Q&A: Catching Up With Kyshona, One Year After She Called Us To ‘Listen’

Hannah Miller

In the regular cycles of our never-ending media traffic jam, most one-year-old albums have faded from attention, and the artists are often looking forward to the next thing. But every so often a record grows in relevance and we see with hindsight how the work of art met its moment. Listen,by Nashville’s Kyshona, which has its first anniversary this week, is such a project.

“It’s our right to be right/ Stand guard of our life/ We had the key all along/ We belong, belong,” she sings in “We The People,” capturing a zeitgeist felt by Americans of every political stripe. And there’s the song “Fear,” which sounds like someone shaking off of a nightmare about George Floyd, written many months before that police killing set off a summer of national protest. The title track, a savvy, roiling fusion of R&B, indie rock and gospel is the most American of demands: know me before you judge me or make policy affecting me. Sure, many of the issues that boiled over in 2020 were simmering for years, but Kyshona’s Listen made the year more redemptive by being there when we needed it, ahead of the curve. The Bluegrass Situation called it “prescient.” The Nashville Scene put her on the cover of its 2020 Year In Music issue. Even off the road, she’s enjoyed a year of dynamic career growth.

Kyshona Armstrong grew up in Irmo, South Carolina, just outside of Columbia. At the University of Georgia, she studied classical music performance (on oboe) and music therapy, launching her first career. Around 2010, she took inspiration from her therapeutic songwriting sessions, began writing her own material and took to the road as a performer. In 2014, she moved to Nashville and has released three albums since then. A new one, Live From The Sanctuary, will arrive March 12.

WMOT caught up with Kyshona (Kuh-Shauna) from her home to talk about the legacy of Listen, her hybrid musical background and her revival of a career that seems perfectly suited for an empathic optimistic artist such as herself - music therapy. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Listen had a striking impact all year, even though it arrived just a week or two before the country shut down. How do you reflect on its first birthday given all that’s happened?

I was so excited about this album and message that I’d been crafting for years. So to release it only to have the world shut down two weeks later was heartbreaking. We had so many plans, and it was already kind of picking up steam. But I had to let it go. And I found when we were all sheltered, the songs actually started taking on a different meaning. Once we hit the summer of 2020, with the protests and the marching, it's almost like it resurfaced for people again. It was great because then I didn't have any words. And people wondered, ‘what do you want to say in this moment?’ It's like, ‘I've already said it all. So just go listen to it.’ And I found that in the summertime really is when Listen found new ears. And I'm grateful for that. That's what I wanted this album to be was not something you can just bob your head to, but something that will make people really think and look around them and contemplate how they walk through life. And I feel like it did that. It took two traumatic instances to make it happen. But it happened.

Last Summer in Nashville was historic and emblematic of the national story. One Black Lives Matter protest went great by day and then went sideways at night, with some amount of outside provocateurs. Then there was a massive, moving and completely peaceful march led by young women. What did you make of it?

I had fear of the message getting lost in the anger and the chaos that happened at night, you know, but I am, I think sometimes drastically optimistic and hopeful. It gets me in trouble sometimes. I've been saying this: It's with the youth where our hope really lies. And when these young people took over this march and created this thing, and just seeing how the town got behind them. They wanted to show what peaceful protests look like. There will be chaos, but we’ve got to keep just striving to come together and show the true side of the reason we're out there marching. Having 10,000 people or more that showed up that day - that overshadows anything at night. To me that is really the beauty of this town and this movement. And that young people were the mobilizers of that. It gave me hope. And it's part of the title track of this record. We’re sidetracked by the chaos or sidetracked by the noise. But in truth are you listening to the words in the message. Like are you really hearing what people are trying to say?

It’s discouraging then to see how Black Lives Matter has been framed by some. Studies showed arrests, violence or police injuries at less than three percent of more than 7,000 events in 2020. But an entire party told it as “cities being burned to the ground,” which is just pure bad faith. The same movement then invaded the Capitol violently on Jan. 6. I believe deeply in democratic dialogue, but we as a country need a huge renewal of listening, like rules of the road.

Yeah, you know, when I was studying to be a music therapist, we had to take counseling courses. One of the big things we did was practice listening. It is something you have to study, how to mirror the person in front of you, how to keep your thoughts and your opinions to yourself, how to just hear what someone is saying, to find the root of the issue. And I feel like that should be a part of everyday life, especially in high school. Like you just learn how to do this. You learn how to mirror a person's body language, how to be quiet. Nonverbal cues are a huge thing in listening. Because think about when you're in a conversation with someone, and you can tell when they are no longer hearing you. You can tell when they are thinking of what they're going to say, which means they're not hearing anything you're saying anymore. They look away, or they start picking stuff up. They already have what they think the answer is. And you have been removed from the conversation at that point. 

I’m glad you went there because your history with music therapy seems to have really shaped you. How’d you get into it?

I knew I needed to go to college on a music scholarship, but I wanted to do psychology. There was a young man (at church) who was like, ‘well have you heard of the field called music therapy?’ And I hadn't. The field was really young when I was looking at it. So there weren't that many institutions around country where you could study to be a music therapist. But I found the University of Georgia was the closest. And there was one music therapist in Columbia working at this hospital downtown. I took the opportunity and shadowed her one day and saw her working in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), using music to slow down heart rates, to manage breathing for kids, to put a smile on their face. And I was like, this is a job!? So I went to Georgia and kind of dove in headfirst. They start you off, which I find kind of easy, in nursing homes, because it's just memorizing songs from people's youth. But after that, we were going into prisons. We were going into NICUs and doing studies with babies and working with drug and alcohol programs. And it was a great study of the psychology of music but also human psychology, as well. And so, it was like the best mesh of my passions.

Your record integrates genre so seamlessly and ably. Can you draw a line between the classical upbringing and the way you feel in a studio now and how your record sounds?

Yeah, I think I've had to get there. Like, if I listened to old recordings (which I don't, it's hard) I can tell how the classical part of me used to want to stay rigid with melodies. And I find myself still doing that when I write a melody. I struggle with floating around a melody. I'm a very rhythmic writer, too, which I think is part of that training and thinking about syncopation. But I've definitely had to learn how to let go and hold things loosely when it comes to creating and writing. When you get in the studio, things may change. What I really love about the studio, which reminds me of being in bands and orchestras, is you're just trusting each other. And that is my time to be like, alright, I presented to you the blank page with the skeletons. And now you all make it this big symphony. And if I can hold my part of that, by keeping the melody and my intention and my voice and storytelling through singing, like if I can be consistent, then that allows me to just let go and allow the band to make it this big orchestration.

That’s beautifully put. Circling back to the album, we discussed your strong sense of optimism. And there's a real compassionate, forgiving quality here too. “Fallen People” is a beautiful song. In an American age of snap judgment, this tells a story of empathy and preemptive de-escalation. Is this just wired into your outlook?

Yeah, I think just because of who I've been around, who I've worked with, what I've experienced and the stories I've heard. There's not much separating me from the from women that I've worked with that are behind bars or from men and women that I've worked with who are institutionalized because of a mental illness. Sometimes it's very scary and jarring for me to see. Man, I just lucked out by who I have around me. And they saved me, so the system didn't get me, you know. And I am thinking, especially these two patients, when I was working in Atlanta, who were both my age, and they were both in college, had a really bad night. And then their lives took a hard left turn, you know. And I'm like, I've done some dumb stuff, too. But now this person is marked for life. And I think that's how I look at everyone. We don't know what everybody's walking through. Everybody has some sort of trauma. And I usually tell the story whenever I'm on stage, that each of us has a wound that has healed over but it's still like a massive scar. And all it takes is for somebody to accidentally bump into us, and then the wound opens up. It’s realizing people's reactions to me probably have nothing to do with me at all. It's something that they've been through.

I understand that’s impacted what you’ve been doing this year and how you’re rethinking your touring as things get back to something like normal.

I feel like this time that we're in has been a gift. We've been kind of forced to sit and reassess what we're doing. So I mean, I’ve leaned on technology, learned how to record from home. I became Zoom savvy. And I started teaching. Because I haven't been able to write a song by myself this whole time. I am not inspired to write. But I did pray for just the creativity to come back to me. And so, the idea came up, if I can’t write for myself, I can always write with other people. But I didn't want to write with songwriters, because that feels stressful. But I knew that people were struggling with mental health. So I started this program called Your Song, offering these therapeutic songwriting sessions. We’ll meet twice. I’m asking them to journal. And in the end, they write a song. And it's fun for me, because I have been able to see that I still have music in me. I have melodies. I've kind of spread from that one-on-one songwriting to teaching teens how to write. A lot of the venues that I had booked for last year found that I was able to teach songwriting. And so like Levitt Pavilion in Dayton, Ohio reached out. Hey, would you be interested in working with girls? Okay. I found Mighty Writers in Philadelphia. I have been a fan of their nonprofit for years. I started teaching through them. And then I was like, I can do this and keep it going. So yeah, my agent and I talked about it. And this is how I want to tour from here on out. I want to make sure that if I am showing up in a town that I don't forget it. I want to make sure that I'm putting roots down. Who does the venue want to partner with, and then I will go into a songwriting course with them the day before.  Yeah, I’m starting a business of songwriting around in my touring.

And so you’re back in the music therapy business?

Absolutely, I am a music therapist again. And I brought this up to my band and the people who tour with me, and they are all on board. It's just amazing how last year made everyone realize that's how I want to do the road. I want to put roots down in a place. I want to show people more. How can we plant a seed that will continue to grow after we leave?

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org