The Hult Center had the joy of sitting down with Kyshona in anticipation of her 10×10 Series performance on March 24th! Tune in to find out what’s in store for the show, dig deeper into the intersection of music and therapy, and get an inside look into Kyshona’s powerful pre-show tradition (and favorite after-show treat)!
The following text is a transcript from the Kyshona episode of the Hult Center Podcast, recorded on March 6, 2023.
Rich Hobby: Welcome to the Hult Center Podcast. I’m Rich Hobby, Director of Marketing, and I’m so thrilled to be speaking with our next incredible artist performing in our 10×10 series on March 24th. Kyshona, welcome to the podcast.
Kyshona: Thank you. I’m so pumped to come out West. We’re coming from Alaska, down to Washington, down to Oregon, so we are so ready to see all the sites. We realize it might be colder there than it is here in the South in Tennessee, but we’ve got our base layers and we are ready.
Rich Hobby: Now, thank you for joining us today. I’m so excited to have you here on March 24th. To kick things off, I have to ask you a question about your origins as an artist. I’ve read that you started with the interesting connection of music and therapy. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Kyshona: I started my career in music as a music therapist. I went to college for oboe and music therapy and I thought I would be a professor teaching other future therapists how to be a therapist. But honestly, when I was coming up in the late 1900s, we were not talking about self-care. Songwriting was the thing that I used as my own healing and I learned how to write when I was with my patients. I was working in Atlanta in mental health hospitals. A lot of my patients were about my age. They were poets and hip-hop artists and I started writing with them so they were kind of my teachers. In 2014 or ’15, I had to tap out and just take a little mental break, and I figured, “Let’s just see what this songwriting world looks like.” I’ve been doing it now ever since full-time.
I still do music therapy today, but it’s more on my terms, and it’s more using the skills that I’ve learned as a songwriter here in Nashville and bringing that into a room, a setting with people that might be in recovery, or are experiencing houselessness with adolescents, so I’m still using my skills, but more on the songwriting effort than the neurological effort.
Rich Hobby: That’s so interesting to hear and such a fascinating touchpoint. Can you tell us a little bit about any of the impacts that you’ve seen your work in therapy have?
Kyshona: You know what? It’s more intention. There are so many songwriters that I’ve met and encountered over the years that have a heart for community and love to do songwriting with people in the community, but what I find, it is just the intention. I’m coming with the intention of a music therapist that we are not trying to write a hit song. It’s not really about the song, it’s more about the process of getting to the song. The definition of music therapy is the use of music to achieve non-musical goals, so the songwriting experience is more for us to speak about difficult pasts, to work through trauma, to come up even with mantras for one’s self that they can turn to when they are in a dark spot. Even problem-solving can come up when you’re writing music with people with that therapeutic nugget in mind. It looks the same between a songwriter and Kyshona the music therapist songwriter. It looks the same, it’s just the intention is different, and it is more like I have to remove myself as an artist from the room, and I am there just to support those in front of me.
Rich Hobby: Backing up just a bit, I love hearing about that moment when artists develop and finding out what inspired them. What was it in your life that kicked off this inspiration and drive to be in music?
Kyshona: My house was always full of music. There was always music happening. My dad plays guitar and he played in gospel quartets, so he was always practicing playing. I talk about this often, but the solo to Hello by Lionel Richie is ingrained in me because that’s all my father will play. Over and over again, it was just that guitar solo. I grew up hearing him in the living room with his amps turn up loud just playing all the time. On the weekends music was always playing when it was time to clean the house. If we were gathering for family events, music always happened. Either we ended up at church, and my grandparents all sang at the choirs, or the family would be singing around the dining room table. Music was just always a part of who I was.
I think the thing that got me into it, though, was my Aunt Queen, she passed away when I was in like third, fourth grade, and she was my favorite aunt. I am now older than she ever lived to be, but she just had this wisdom about her and a calmness about her. After she passed, my mother asked me if I wanted to take piano lessons as a way to connect with her and that connection is not stopped. It’s like I latched onto music and that is the thing. That is who I am, what I do.
Rich Hobby: Was there ever a time as you were learning your craft where you noticed that you just had something special going on?
Kyshona: You know what? I don’t know if it ever happened to me on a stage. I feel like it happened to me in hospital rooms, just with clients saying, “Oh, your voice is very soothing. When you sing this song, it makes me feel this way.” I think that’s when I realized ’cause I’ve never thought of myself as a singer. I’ve always thought of myself as a storyteller. The voice for me was just a tool to help people get through pain management or to help reminisce over memories. But I recall just patients telling me, “I love it when you hum the song.” I knew that I could use my voice in a different way. I still struggle with imposter syndrome because I’m considered a singer and I’m like, “No,” and the only reason I started playing guitar was because of music therapy, so I would not be an artist if I hadn’t been a music therapist first.
Rich Hobby: I’ve seen the same guitar featured in some of your photos, and I have to ask, do you have a special relationship with a particular instrument that you play with?
Kyshona: I’ve had a few. All my instruments are very special to me, but most recently, I’ve partnered up with Takamine. They’ve seen me play. I used to play a Harmony, which is hanging in the den. I still write on my Harmony. My Harmony guitar is, it was a rebuild by Scott Baxendale in Athens, Georgia. It just has this warmth to it. I love it electric, but it’s something about having an acoustic to your body. I can feel the vibrations. For me, it feels weird playing an electric instrument ’cause I don’t feel the vibrations the same. But I’m hard on guitars. That’s why I couldn’t play the Harmony anymore. I am just like, I dig in, I knock things out of tune, so Takamine was like, “Hey, girl. We see you. That Harmony needs to stay in the house. Why don’t you take this? You can beat it up all you want and it’ll still stay in,” so yeah.
Rich Hobby: So, you’re not going for that Willie Nelson look quite yet?
Kyshona: No, no. Not yet, not yet. I’m going to wait till I’m 60 for that, yeah.
Rich Hobby: Something else that stood out to me about your story is that I learned that you also oversee a nonprofit known as Your Song. Can you tell us more about that project and what it means to you?
Kyshona: Your Song is a therapeutic songwriting organization. It started in 2020, right in the midst of the pandemic. 2020, I had just released my album, Listen, and the plan was we were going to be on the road touring and I was going to see all these new countries. It was going to be amazing. Then when we were grounded and we’re inside, I realized, “Man, I’m lonely.” It’s really hard not being able to connect to the audience because that’s where I would recharge. I knew my purpose when I was in front of an audience. I knew what my mission was. But without an audience, I was like, “What am I even making music for?”, so I just reached out to my fans and said, “Hey, if you’re struggling, I know I’m struggling mentally. I have this skill I can offer you, or I can help people write a song. You don’t even have to have any musical experience.”
It started there and then it just snowballed into from individual rights with people from all over the world, really. It was amazing writing with people in the UK, in South America. But then it’s snowballed now from being virtual to me working in person with a lot of groups. Organizations around the country have gotten wind of what I do, so when I’m in town touring, we usually will ask the performing arts centers I’m playing at, “Hey, is there any organizations you would like for Kyshona, for me to come and do a therapeutic writing group with?” That is again, how I feel like I am planting myself in a community rather than just flying through town. How can I plant little seeds of positivity around the country?
Rich Hobby: I’m so lucky to have seen you perform live, but was wondering if you might be able to share what kind of show will audiences be getting on March 24th? Who will be performing with you?
Kyshona: Yeah, I’m going to have two of my very good friends. I’m going to have Nickie Conley singing with me on all the tenor parts. Then I want to have my friend Shannon LaBrie is going to be singing all the high soprano parts. Both of these women are songwriters and artists in their own rights, so I am honored when I get to bring them with me on the road because it’s not only fun, but I know when I’m around other artists, they understand the journey of a tour.
Our live shows are full of storytelling. I’m sure you can tell I’m a little bit of a Chatty Cathy. I love to tell a story, so it’s a little storytelling and it’s a lot of songs, a lot of harmonies, a lot of Kyshona backing off and letting Shannon and Nickie take the lead on things so I can receive at that moment. I love listening to the two of them just use their voices. Honestly, our shows are ones that make people think. We hope that people leave the show with a new perspective on how to walk around the world and how to see one another and see the strangers that we encounter every day.
Rich Hobby: Have you all developed any fun habits or traditions when you’re touring?
Kyshona: Oh, yeah. We sage a lot in the car. We do a lot of sage. We do a lot of rose water. The immediate thing I’m thinking of is before we walk on any stage, we make sure that we… Because it can be a little… I like to be nervous. If I’m not nervous before a show, then I’m worried about the show, so something we always try to do is just touch and agree. We say, “Touch and agree.” We put our hands on one another and we just say the mantra that I have, which, “We are a voice and a vessel for those who feel lost, forgotten, silence, and who are hurting,” and we always say to one another, “Let’s get out of the way. Whatever the audience needs to hear, may they hear it. If we are to receive something from the audience, may we receive it.” It’s a little ceremonial in that aspect of let’s get out of the way. We’re just going to show up and do what we do with intention behind it.
Now, when we’re not on stage, we’re always looking for the best doughnut spot in town, so if you have any suggestions, let us know. Nickie has a nice little rolling tally going in her phone of who the winner would be, what town has the best doughnuts. But we love finding sweet little coffee shops, bookstores. We love a good bookstore and just we have to watch ourselves with the amount of books we come back with. But those are our main things, doughnuts and books.
Rich Hobby: Well, just a heads-up that we do have a Voodoo Doughnuts about a block from the venue.
Kyshona: Danger, danger, yes. Nickie’s going to be psyched.
Rich Hobby: After seeing you live, I have to admit, I had one of your songs stuck in my head for weeks, so we need to talk about Nighttime Animals. Can you tell us about how that song came to be?
Kyshona: Nighttime Animal, I wrote that song with my friend Zack Smith. ZG Smith is his artist’s name. Zack had the little “ooh” idea and a little bit of a verse and he invited me in to finish writing it with him. We were just thinking about the freedom that nighttime animals have. They have so much autonomy over their bodies and who they are. There’s nothing governing them but the moon. We are not surprised when a raccoon digs in our trash and knocks a trashcan over. We’re not surprised when a bear hunts for food. We’re not surprised by possums crossing the street, creeping around at night.
But when we think about how free nighttime animals are versus us humans, people that are walking around the world, there’s so many legislations against us. There’s so many laws and against us and… What’s the word I’m looking for? Biases. There’s so many bias and so much bias people have against us in our bodies that we can’t always walk around the world that free, so I love to a ask the audience right before we play it, or even after, “What’s your nighttime animal? If you could be any animal that roamed around at night, who would it be?” It’s always amazing to hear what people say, especially depending on the region we’re in. Vastly different answers,
Rich Hobby: We always love hearing from artists about the advice that they’d give to creatives who may be on the fence about going all-in their artistic endeavors. What advice would you give to someone afraid to take that next step?
Kyshona: I think it’s taken me years to figure this out, but I would tell anybody, make sure you’re doing it for you, not for the machine. To be an artist is to be a historian. You are allowed into spaces not everybody gets the opportunity and the privilege to walk into and you’re given a microphone. Not everybody gets the opportunity to use their voice, so I like to always encourage folks, people will tell you to think about brand, but forget brand. What’s your purpose? When you’re writing, when you are performing, when you are touring, what’s the purpose you want to put behind your music? A lot of times, if you have a mission statement for yourself, or just a mission in general, if you can let the music serve that mission, I think you will have longevity in this career of being an artist and a creator of music because your music serves something bigger than the machine.
Rich Hobby: Kyshona, this was such a pleasure, and I personally cannot wait to have you here at the Hult Center on March 24th. A quick reminder to all that each and every ticket is only $10 and those can be found at hultcenter.org. Kyshona, thank you again for your time, and we can’t wait to see you here live.
Kyshona: We are pumped, doughnuts and all, yes.