Photo courtesy of Sandlin Gaither / Amythyst Kiah grew up in Chattanooga and now lives in Johnson City, Tenn. She will perform at 2 p.m. Saturday on the Poplar Stage.

Growing up in Chattanooga in a predominantly white neighborhood, Amythyst Kiah attended schools in the East Brainerd-Ooltewah area, hung out with friends and played lots of sports, which she excelled at. But then puberty and middle school hit and she began to notice her interests were no longer those of the people around her.

Her father and late mother noticed, too, and realized a change was needed.

"I had a lot of social anxiety developing," she said.

First, they thought music might help, and then they made the big move to transfer her to the Chattanooga High School Center for Creative Arts. Kiah, who moved to Johnson City after college, said CCA changed her life on many levels.

"It played a huge role in my life," she said. "I was athletic and into a lot of sports, but in between middle and high school I started to have a lot of social anxiety developing. I had low self-esteem, and my parents bought a guitar and I got more and more into music and art and leaning in that direction."

Kiah was listening to a lot of Nirvana and Tori Amos and started writing poetry and songs after transferring to CCA at the beginning of her sophomore year. There she found kindred spirits who liked music and the arts, and it was there she found people who didn't care about the color of her skin and that she felt comfortable being openly gay, she said.

"It was where I felt wanted and everybody was like me. All the weird kids were there."

She gives much credit to her parents for recognizing her need to grow and develop her own way, but around like-minded people.

"I can't imagine life if I had not made that switch," she said.

Today, Kiah is a successful singer/songwriter who will perform Saturday at 2 p.m. as part of the Moon River Festival. The festival has music Saturday and Sunday. Her last performance here was at Nightfall in 2018 when she was the headliner.

"It was epic," she said. "I saw people I hadn't seen in years, including my next-door neighbor who I used to skate with."

Kiah is known for her honest and open music that blends folk, blues, rock and raw emotion.

She made her recording debut on "Dig" and last year released "Wary + Strange."

Pitchfork called the latest album, "An intensely personal document," and said, "the Tennessee singer and guitarist's third album examines the realities of being a Southern Black LGBTQ+ woman in songs both defiant and vulnerable."

Recording it was a challenge, Kiah said, "Because "I'd never done an album with such a big team before."

In fact, getting used to allowing others to basically do the job they were hired to do for her is also something she is working on in general, she said.

"I've had all these amazing opportunities [recently] but the catch is, when you are starting out, you learn to do everything. I mean everything. Now, I'm doing press for a record and going on the road after doing virtual videos and I haven't had all this stress since grad school," she said with a laugh.

"I feel a little triggered because I quit grad school to pursue music, but I have a therapist that I talk to regularly. I explained this to her and that it can't be this stressful because I don't want to quit this. She was like, 'You are learning all these new things with a lot of firsts. Don't bottle it up.'"

She admits that one of the biggest challenges has been realizing that while it's called "playing music," it is a business. Once again, she has turned to her father, who in addition to sharing his love of music, made a living in the business world as a traveling salesman.

"He helps a lot," she said.

Contact Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354.