For a singer-songwriter, there's no more basic function than getting onstage and getting something personal off your chest. The therapeutic qualities of the experience have seduced countless confessional composers, some of whom make known that they hold unfiltered expression as their highest artistic aim.
Kyshona Armstrong started out enabling others to enjoy the healing properties of songwriting, and keeping her thoughts to herself. When you're a music therapist to incarcerated and institutionalized adults and school children with emotional behavior disorders, artistic considerations aren't even on the table.
"I definitely had to accept the fact that when I'm writing with a patient, whatever they want to do is what they want to do," Armstrong tells the Scene as she nurses a latte in East Nashville. "It's their song: 'Even if it might not fit in a form, if that's what you want to say, say it. We're not writing a big hit. This is for you.' "
When Armstrong worked first in the state mental hospital, then the public school system in Georgia, she found that her co-writers often clung to chant-like, circular song ideas. "They would find this melody they liked and they would stick to it," she explains. "It was theirs to keep. It wasn't hard to hold onto."
Armstrong moved to Nashville in January 2014, spending the first couple months commuting back to Athens to record her album Go, but easily made friends and landed bookings in local folk singer-songwriter, pop and soul scenes once she was around more. Smack-dab in the middle ofGo is a song that distills the insights of her therapeutic work and the artistic aspirations she's developed since. Called "Cornelius Dupree," it's the turbulent channeling of a black man's real-life experience serving 30 years in Texas for rape and robbery before being exonerated. Rather than narrate the external details of Dupree's story, Armstrong gives voice to the searing physical and emotional strain he must've felt having to defend his innocence for so long.
"That one took me a long time," she says of the song, "because I wanted to do it right. I tried it from the outside looking in. But in the end I was like, 'I have to put myself in those shoes.' "
She adds, "The injustice that Cornelius suffered, on a much smaller level I have experienced that myself, just being a black woman living in the South. I've been held by the police before for nothing, and it's frustrating. I've never been imprisoned, but I've been held aside. I remember the injustice I felt and the anger I felt. But I've always been taught I have to be extra kind, extra polite to compensate. ...With his story, I think I just got fed up."
At college shows, Armstrong urges students to look up Dupree's story on their phones — and hopefully expand their awareness of human suffering — even as she's singing her song. "Cornelius Dupree" had a similarly awakening effect when she performed it at a house concert 20 minutes outside of Ferguson, Mo. She'd driven up strictly to join the protests after Michael Brown's shooting, but accepted a friend's invitation to a combination concert and cookout in the suburbs one evening. Folks there seemed downright oblivious to the neighboring turmoil. At the end of the night, the host thanked her for getting their attention.
Armstrong has reached the point where she embraces repetitive internal rhythms that emerge in some of her songwriting — likening them to both gospel spirituals and the viscerally simplistic utterances of her former patients — and she's delivering her roots-soul originals with articulate warmth and newly claimed authority.
"I feel like I'm only just now stepping into this activist role," she says, "or not activist, but someone who speaks out or brings up a subject that's uncomfortable. In the past, I haven't been the one to [say], 'I'm gonna throw some mess on the table, and we're gonna talk about it.' But I want to be."
- written by Jewly Hight // Nashville Scene // February 2015