If you are looking for help when penning traditional-sounding original tunes in the studio, you could certainly do worse than having Dirk Powell, Rhiannon Giddens and the Birds of Chicago’s Allison Russell as support.
After folk-blues singer Amythyst Kiah wrapped up recording 10 new songs in producer, multi-instrumentalist and Appalachian expert Dirk Powell’s Cypress House studio in Lafayette, she stayed on for another week or so to participate in a new project. Tentatively titled Songs of Our Native Daughters, it is being produced in collaboration with the Smithsonian and is scheduled to be released in the fall. But the timeline was purposely tight, with Kiah, Powell, Giddens and Russell writing songs quickly and recording them within a day, usually backed by Giddens’ expert rhythm section of drummer James Dick and bassist Jason Sypher.
“I was having a bit of a songwriter’s slump,” Kiah says. “I always agonize over one song for months and months sometimes before I can do anything with it. When you don’t have that deadline, for me anyways, it’s easy to pick at the song, write something, have an idea, put it down. And also concept writing is something I’ve never done, and that’s what this is. Having that as a prompt to write a song, I’d never done anything like that before.”
Kiah ended up writing one song and co-writing three over eight days. One of them, written with Russell, is titled Polly Ann’s Hammer and retells the legend of African-American folk hero John Henry from the point of view of his wife. Polly Ann takes over his steel-driving duties when her husband falls sick.
“She can strike steel like a man, so she basically does his job for him when he’s sick,” Kiah says. “So Ally and I wrote a song about Polly Ann. All the verses about her story and her point of view. Polly Ann finally gets her song, which is pretty cool.”
Kiah met Giddens, Dick, Sypher and Powell when was enlisted to open shows for Giddens last year. But immersing herself in old-time music, and giving it a modern spin, has been a passion since she studied performance and traditional music at East Tennessee State University. Prior to that, she spent most of her time listening to and playing along with left-of-the-dial alt-rock such as Bjork and Radiohead. (Among her covers is a stunning, acoustic-blues run through the latter’s Fake Plastic Trees.)
After the death of her …read more