The first in a series of outdoor concerts at the Norman Bird Sanctuary this summer will feature singer-songwriter Kyshona on Friday, June 10. The outdoor concert, starting at 7 p.m., is co-sponsored by “Newport Live”, formerly Common Fence Music.
Kyshona is the stage name of Kyshona Armstrong, who has been a music professional for over two decades. “Lately, I’ve only been using my first name,” Armstrong told me in an interview. “Years ago a friend of mine told me that the pronunciation of my name meant ‘light’ in a language he found, so I took inspiration from that to remind myself to try to be the light wherever I go.”
It’s not her first time in Newport – she stayed in a house adjacent to the Sanctuary when she was in town for last summer’s Newport Folk event as a member of Allison Russell’s band. In a memorable performance, Russell headlined “Once and Future Sounds” at the 2021 Festival. “Allison took all the black women she knew in the genre and brought us on stage, and we finished singing with Chaka Khan” , said Kyshona.
“It was my first time in Rhode Island – I’m really excited to come back and spend time there,” she continued. The festival “felt like a very chaotic, awesome, magical experience. I can’t wait to get in and enjoy the space.
Kyshona opened up about how her background influences her approach to music.
“I was a music therapist for 15 years before deciding to become a full-time singer-songwriter. I worked in psychiatric hospitals, I worked with children, schools where children were diagnosed with emotional behavior disorders and I went to nursing homes. I used my voice as a therapeutic tool for a very long time. I was not a singer, I was a pianist and oboe, I had classical training on these instruments. I had to figure out how to use my voice for therapeutic purposes in those environments,” she explained. “Music therapy is where I learned to tell stories and meet people where they are.”
“About nine years ago I moved to Nashville to learn a little more about songwriting. The community here is strong and very connected among people. What has happened over the years, it’s that I found my way back to music therapy, but in a way where I’m not held back or bound by the institutions I work in,” she explained.
The career change made her a more compassionate composer.
“I’m focused on listening to other people’s stories, always trying to find a way to use their story to help heal others,” she said. “How can I heal them and how can I identify with their story? This is the approach I have always taken.
In addition to touring and recording, Kyshona conducts songwriting workshops for the Country Music Hall of Fame, where she works with homeless children in Nashville.
“My experience in music therapy allows me to move away from the rules of songwriting. I don’t tell them they have to rhyme, I don’t tell them they have to do a verse, a bridge and a chorus. I try to take the words that naturally come out of their mouths and show them what their story is and what their song is. As long as you’re honest and real and telling the truth, we can put some music to this.
Featuring artists like Allison Russell, Rhianon Giddens and Our Native Daughters, Newport festivals have led the way in bringing women of color to the stage in recent years. This is a positive, long-awaited development that is spreading in Americana/Country music circles.
“To think of all these artists that people are discovering, we’ve all been there, we’ve been doing this for many years. I’ve been an artist for ten years, Yola, Allison Russell has been away for over ten years, we’ve all been doing this for a while.
A lot changed in the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd.
“I wrote everything in my last album Listen, I think that’s how a lot of people found my album and shared some songs,” Kyshona explained. “Finally, we were all asked to come and share our points of view. Yola, Allison and I did a panel discussion for a folk event in the UK that summer, where we talked about how many stories are missing if you only invite one of us to Table. It has always been a woman, a person of color,” Kyshona said.
“They thought, we already have someone playing the banjo, we can’t have another one. So you can have lots of white men and women playing the same gender, but you can only have one black woman? There are so many points of view. Allison is from Canada, Yola is from the UK. Amythyst is from East Tennessee, I’m from South Carolina. They are totally different experiences and voices and you eliminate a whole culture and a true story when we only invite one to the table.
“I think there’s a calculus between these two genres, the Americana world in the Country world, realizing OK, we have to put them forward. We’ve always been here, it’s just that eventually people invite us, want us to come in,” she concluded.