Year in Music 2020: Talking With Kyshona Armstrong, Lilly Hiatt and Becca Mancari

Kyshona Armstrong, Becca Mancari and Lilly Hiatt

Just about nothing has gone according to plan in 2020. Though their industry — and the country — have stayed in a state of crisis, musicians of all stripes have still released extraordinary work and found ways to stay connected with their audiences, even if it couldn’t be in person. 

Kyshona Armstrong, Lilly Hiatt and Becca Mancari are among many Nashvillians who started this chaotic year with big ideas for sharing new songs. Armstrong, who performs as Kyshona, released the soulful and bluesy Listen in February, Hiatt’s rocking Walking Proof came out in March, and Mancari’s ’70s-pop-kissed The Greatest Part dropped in June. The three make very different music, but all make extraordinary records that tell us something important about living on Earth, and use both their work and their platforms to talk about serious social and political issues. 

Following a photo shoot at East Nashville’s The 5 Spot on a chilly afternoon, they sat down with the Scene, at a safe distance, around a fire in the yard of nearby bar Rosemary.

We were just at a music venue, a place most of us haven’t been in almost a year. Has being kept from that experience affected how you think about playing live?

Kyshona Armstrong: I’ve realized that I need to put more value on when I go out and play. If I’m going to stand onstage and be mad about something or uncomfortable, it’s not worth it anymore. I want to make sure that I am in a location that is safe for me as a Black artist, as a woman of color, as a supporter of so many communities. I want to make sure I’m safe. I want to make sure my people are safe. I want to make sure that the words that come out of my mouth will be accepted or at least heard, and that I won’t be questioned in any way or feel like I’m being threatened in any way. 

I want to make sure that I walk away with joy, and that my audience walks away with joy. I’m just really thinking about, “Where am I going to show up and how will I feel when I’m on that stage?” A lot of times we don’t know. But I’m just realizing not to take the gigs that just pay well, but take the gigs where I know I can leave an imprint, and they can leave an imprint on me in a positive way. … 

In the last year or so, I’ve been doing more community arts council programs in theater spaces or in art galleries, and I walk away, like: “Man, that felt great. These people came ready to receive, and that made it an easier job for me.” Whereas if I’m playing at a club, opening for a band in a town I’ve never been in, and they don’t know who I am, which is fine. ... Then I just feel like I’m battling something else. I feel like I’m in the middle of it. I don’t like to bring “Kyshona Armstrong” into it. I’ll keep “Kyshona,” the artist, as the one who’s out here like, “How can we connect?” But I don’t want Kyshona Armstrong to show up — my ego shows up whenever I’m in clubs, where my ego does not show up when I’m playing with a purpose in a community that wants to connect with me.

Lilly Hiatt: I definitely in the last few months have reconnected with a profound gratitude for all of the experiences I’ve had and the people that I’ve been able to meet along the way. And I do love, like Kyshona’s saying, that sense of community that you’re able to cultivate in an evening — it’s really valuable to me. It’s such a symbiotic relationship with your audience, and I would love, at the core of that, for the evenings that are my shows to be inspirational and bold and inclusive. That’s something I really want to be part of the night, for everyone to be able to participate in feeling together. 

And I think not having that right now has been really painful, because we can’t gather for an event of a shared love. And that’s something that’s so special — it’s something that we can all experience together, and it’s hard feeling estranged from that. But it’s also enlightened me, like: “Wow, I’ve had a lot of chances to travel to these places. I’ve been to all 50 states, and that’s cool. Thank you.” I have all the faith that that will be available again at some point. Until then, it’s, like, realizing that that is the power of music, that people relate to one another through it. And that’s really important to me.

The pandemic has provided many reminders of how important that connection is. That’s interesting in the context of living in a town with so many musicians, where it can get competitive.

Becca Mancari: Oh, you think? Honey, you think it’s competitive? [Laughs] Oh man. Switching the table on that, I think the last time Lilly, Kyshona and I all saw each other at the same time was [last year at this recurring series] that I started a long time ago when I first moved to Nashville, which is a night to just bring women together and play music. Or nonbinary, you know, however you identify. But I noticed when I first moved here, I felt like women were really pitted against each other. And I felt that from the community, even — I felt it from other women, and I felt like we didn’t want to, though. We didn’t want to participate in that, but everything in the business was teaching us that that was the way to succeed. 

So when we started breaking down those walls ourselves, artist to artist, friendship to friendship, that’s when I saw all of the women start rising up together. And I’m telling you, that is a scene that is true in Nashville and in every city, where women have banded together and said: “Oh no, you are not going to tear us apart anymore. We’re in this together, we need each other, we respect each other, we like each other.”

LH: There’s room for more than one of us here.

BM: Yep. There’s room at the table for everyone. … I think a lot of wounds were healed when we were in that room together that night. Courtney Marie Andrews played a song [recorded for Old Flowers, an album that is] Grammy-nominated. It was just so amazing to see that.

Was this a show? Or is it a series with a name?

BM: Oh no, it’s definitely not. That’s kind of the point, is that we will not let it be infiltrated by the idea that this is like, “a thing.” … The first one was, like, 2013, and it was Brittany Howard, Margo [Price], Lillie Mae, Erin Rae, Jenny O — like all these singers and songwriters and guitar players. And it was sacred. The next one was at Margo Price’s house, and then it was another songwriter that was in town. So it’s just a thing that happens, usually once a year. I’ll just get the gumption to start texting everyone and be like: “Do you want to hang out? Come to this house, bring your guitar, let’s hang out.” And you know, it’s just kind of caught on. And a lot of people have become friends from this and are now working together on projects. It’s definitely not about the business, it’s just about really being together.

Year in Music 2020: Talking With Kyshona Armstrong, Lilly Hiatt and Becca Mancari

It feels like we’re getting an opportunity to put in some significant work and change some of the biggest problems in our society. What role do you see music playing in that?

BM: Just this summer, what people are calling an awakening of racial justice in our country — people are waking up to something that’s always been happening, and … I felt a lot of fear about jumping on a bandwagon. About participating in almost like a mob mentality, or this idea of, “We are good people, so let me show you how good I am.” Performative work. And it was interesting, because my partner was like: “You know, Becca, in your life, have you not always been fighting for justice in some form? Even your living as a queer person is an act of rebellion in a lot of ways from like this structure of what has been told to us.” We are just wanting a place at the table and to be accepted as equals, and as people who deserve to be there. And for a long time we haven’t had that. That’s changed a lot now, but it’s still something I’ve felt like I want to fight for and talk about in my music. 

I’ve been realizing that I know how to speak to what I speak to, and that’s what I write about. I don’t write about being a Black person, that’s not my experience. I should uplift other Black voices in using my platform. … I think that’s where I see us, again going back to that women’s night, we shift the culture by what we do in our day-to-day actions, in our day-to-day lives. And that’s how I want to live my life, not just performative, but in how I treat my neighbors, how I treat my friends, how I treat people. People know the difference. They smell it out. And I think people deserve our stories, and that’s what I write about, my queer experience.

LH: I write what I know, and my experience with this world. And if that can empower anyone to feel love or feel brave, then I am very honored, and that empowers me as well to want to continue expressing that sort of vulnerability. This summer, it was really exciting to get to see a lot of conversations starting to happen that needed to happen, and hopefully continue to happen and move beyond conversation into action. ...  

Kyshona’s record Listen has really set a very special tone for me this year. That’s something I’ve thought a lot about too: Listening is important. If somebody wants to express something to you, you know, I would like to be the kind of person that is there to hear it. And that’s honestly where I get fuel for writing, is kind of observing and taking in what people are and what they have to say and what they think and believe. And not just filtering it into my own little life for a song, but absorbing a bit of that and considering those kinds of things. It enables me to feel just a bit more confidence in being there for people. … 

I’ve struggled with, “How much do I need to express on my platform versus what really needs to be done in my life, that is of service to this world?” We are all performers, so there is an element of that in Twitter or Instagram or wherever — it’s meaningful too, but those things only take us so far, right? It’s complex at the moment. It’s important to make statements and stuff, and express your beliefs if you feel so inclined, but I think being good to the people around you and being willing to consider what they have to say is really important. And speaking out for what you think is wrong and right is a meaningful thing.

KA: In the last few years I’ve gotten really into having a mission statement and talking about having a mission statement as an artist. Because what I’ve found is it’s guided me on how to live my personal life, which affects how I write. So if my mission statement is this thing, then I know that Kyshona is going to go out there and be in the community, working with this population, or I’m going to be doing outreach or whatever. And that is naturally going to affect the words that I write and the things that I’m singing. I think it’s just a natural occurrence of, “How you live your personal life is what will affect your music.” 

I’ve been seeing a lot of friends’ music change. Like a lot of friends, and not even friends but just artists — I’m noticing that their messaging has changed. And I’m hoping it stays like that. I’m hoping they stay aware. But I’m also seeing artists that have now found what they want their mission to be, from this summer especially — and hell, this year, just realizing like: “This is really important to me. I didn’t realize I needed to use my platform in this way.” Now people are speaking out about what it is that is important to them, what it is that matters to them and how they are in their community. By doing that, it is naturally affecting our music and how we use social media and what we’re saying. I’ve found that I’m not saying anything on social media if it doesn’t contribute to the greater good. If I’m not lifting somebody up, then there’s no point in me hopping online to say anything.

As we’ve gone through this difficult year, are there some things that you’ve recognized about how the array of music scenes in Nashville can change to be more equitable going forward?

BM: My friend S.G. Goodman, a great songwriter, she was like: “When I first heard ‘Summertime Mama’ on the radio, and I was like, ‘That bitch just sang about having a crush on another woman, and they’re playing it on the radio in Nashville, Tennessee, in the South?’ That’s a big deal, Becca. I didn’t have music like that, with pronouns — you were, like, just saying something.” I don’t think I even knew back then what was happening. I was just like, “Well, I like women, and I’ve got a crush on this girl.” 

And it was really interesting to me, because now I feel like people wouldn’t even think about that anymore. Maybe? But I’ve seen from touring in the South, it still matters that we’re talking about certain issues, and it’s how I feel as I continue to write music — unless that changes, I have to speak about those things. For the kids in Mississippi and Alabama who come up to me at my shows and say: “Hey, I got kicked out of my house. I got nowhere to go. I love your music. I need to know that I’m going to be OK.” And I can look at them and say: “You are. I’m telling you. Find other queer folk, find people like you.” 

And I think Nashville is working her way, but I think there’s a lot of powers that be, still, that want to keep down different voices. Even like the rap community here! My friend Chico Rashad — brilliant! And he did this whole thing recently where he asked me to be in his video. … He wore all this country gear — it gives me chills, with his dreads, but he wore the outfits, and then went downtown and stood just in front of the camera with all these bachelorettes and people behind him. And he went to all these famous Nashville landmarks and stood in front of them as a Black man. And there was nobody that looked like him behind him. … He’s like, “Nobody looks like me.” I’m over it! I want to see some Latinx people. I want to see some trans people. I want to see some Black people. I want to see some rappers.

LH: I’m ready to see that. … I’ve played shows with all kinds of acts, and it’s great, I’m grateful for them all. But I feel like there’s this thing of like, “How about these bands that kind of all sound alike tour together?” And, “If you want these bands to support you, they need to be bands that kind of sound like you.” And it’s like, screw that. I used to play on bills that were all kinds of acts, and it was really special. I remember a night at The End — it was the most random evening, but it was awesome. Because you get all these people hanging out and interacting from different scenes, but at the core of it we’re all there for music, and that’s something in common right away. I think it’d be really cool to get that genre stuff thrown out of it more. I understand it for a marketing purpose or whatever, like, “What kind of music is it?” But I’d go to a show with country, rap, Americana — I’d be there. I’d be excited to have that variety. That’s something I’d love to see attempted.

KA: I think it’s going to happen, but I think it takes us, the artists. Anytime that I’ve been on a bill — especially when I first moved here, nobody knew me. But friends of mine that were not in whatever the music I do is, were inviting me on their bills. And it would be a pop artist and then a Christian artist, and then me, wherever I sit, and then a country artist. And that was a lot of fun, but it was because the artists put that bill together. 

This year I think has allowed a lot of us artists to take back control of where we perform and how we perform and who we’re highlighting. I’ve found that my name has been thrown into hats from you guys. A lot of people that I’ve been able to connect with, because we’re not seeing each other, so when people are like, “Such-and-such gave me your name,” I’m like, “That was really kind of them.” 

I’m seeing the voices that were at the bottom being pulled to the top because we the artists are doing that. And it’s we the artists that are going to bring the crowds, so we can tell the venues who we want on whatever bill. We can do this. So I’m hoping we come out of all of this realizing the power that we have, and that it is on us to lift up these voices and to have the [people like Chico Rashad] out here. Who do we go to talk to about getting them a mural?

It comes back to building personal relationships with people in the community around you, and recognizing the power of the platform you have.

BM: It’s really interesting, because who you surround yourself with too — like Juan Solorzano, my guitar player. … Where is a place for a Spanish-speaking person in Nashville? There’s very few places. When Juan first moved here, he went by John. That’s mind-blowing, but he felt like he had to. Now, we’re like, “He’s from Honduras, he immigrated to America.” I think there’s so many stories that need to be told. It’s going to come from the artists. It’s not going to come from the business, I know that.

KA: It’s who we put on the stages with us in our bands.

BM: Who we hang out with, who we hire.

Year in Music 2020: Talking With Kyshona Armstrong, Lilly Hiatt and Becca Mancari

Do you have anyone in mind that you’re excited to work with in the future?

LH: Honestly, I miss the whole community. I miss running into people backstage, and going, “Hey you’re funny, let’s grab a coffee,” and it budding from there. I’m open to working with anybody, you know. I love meeting new people and creating new relationships and experiences. I mean, there’s a ton of talent in this city, there’s no lack of that. 

KA: It is hard to think of any one person specifically. I will say though, and maybe it’s just because I’ve been in this world since this summer, I’ve been working with the youth a lot lately — online, just doing songwriting courses and classes with kids up in Philly, and some kids here. But what I’ve been given the privilege of seeing is these kids have a lot to say. So I want to figure out how to lift up their voices. A lot of times we’re not listening to the youth, or we think they don’t know what they’re talking about, but they are very wise, they are watchful. And I would love any way to lift up the music that they’re making, the messages they want to put out there, give them a moment to speak.

BM: I’ve just been really challenged this year in that I want to learn so much now. And I don’t know if I ever thought I was going to live this long. Not to be heavy, but I didn’t think I was going to make it. I was like, “Nah I’m going to fade out.” I used to party hard, you know what I mean, I wasn’t taking care of myself, let’s just say that. So now I’m really working on loving myself and believing in myself, and so I’m like, “Oh wow, you have this whole life ahead of you.” I really want to work with other women, and I want to produce my own records. I want to produce other people’s records. I’m going to do that, I know it now. I’m like, “OK cool, this is your path.” 

And I’ve noticed with some of my other women friends in music — or musicians we should just call them, but they identify as women — they have been hiring me to play guitar for them, and keys. I did a thing with Hayley Williams yesterday, because she was like: “Dude, we’re friends. Why don’t my friends just play with me?” And like, I never thought I could do that. And that is something that, again, artist to artist, we pull each other up, and that’s what I’m interested in now. I just want to make real art with musicians and artists who care about really going back to the core of why we did it in the first place.

LH: We got into this because of a beckoning in our souls. … You hear someone’s words and you’re like, “I’ve felt just like that!” And it usually starts in your bedroom, quietly tinkering around with an instrument or pen to paper or whatever, and goes from there. In that sense, this year has been incredibly hard, where it’s like, it’s impossible for us to not have our egos in it too. We have to promote ourselves, we have to create images for ourselves, we have to say our piece and take stances, which is important, but it’s really beautiful to get back to that innocent part of it.

Sort of like being a little kid in front of a mirror.

KA: We weren’t fearful in the mirror as kids, we weren’t judging. At least, not so much. We weren’t self-deprecating as much as we can be now. And seeing ourselves through other people’s eyes, especially when you’re really young, you’re just playing, you’re just being youthful — you’re just creating and being your goofy-ass self.

BM: And your gay-ass self. Just looking at herself like, “Something feels wrong.” I’m still working on that Kyshona, but I’m getting there.

LH: The thing that I’m just thinking is that I’m really impressed with my friends in this city that are creatives, and that have vocalized their experiences this year and in their lives. Whether it be via songs or their social media or whatever, I’ve seen a lot of expression and endurance, and I’ve felt very enlightened and inspired and humbled by all of it. So even though I don’t feel like I get to see the community at this moment, I feel it and I know it’s here, and that’s what makes our city’s heart beat. And I hope we all are going to get better together and come out of this with tears, hugs into this really beautiful, unified time. I know it could be there for us. … I’m impressed by people’s candor and ability to adapt and keep going.

KA: I feel like we have the opportunity to come out of this as a stronger community of musicians. Because now we see what it’s like to miss those moments of just shooting shit in a coffee shop, like, “Oh my God, hey let’s grab coffee.” And I’ve learned that there are more ways, and I’m hoping these things carry over, there are more ways to see each other than just grabbing coffee. [To Hiatt:] Like, we’ve had walks.

LH: The walk was cool, we saw a couple bluebirds. It was beautiful. 

KA: I think one thing that I’ve seen a lot of the music community do is really spend time with each other. Rather than the crowded room, “Hey,” [waves] trying to catch up with each other over loud music. But I feel like I’ve gotten closer to people and just really gotten to know them in this. And I’m hoping we can keep that going and we do come out of this stronger, knowing that we have all these other tools now that we learned this year on how to connect, outside of being in a club or a music venue. Like literally doing even this, lighting a fire. Let’s go sit around a campfire and talk about life. Not about how your music’s doing, but about “How are you?”

BM: I spent a month after my record came out on the couch. I was just devastated. … We put so much work into a record, so much change happened when I put out the record. I signed with a label for the first time, I got a new manager, got a new booking agent, got a new press person. It changed everything. And then the pandemic hit. And I was just devastated. I was like, “What am I doing?” And I think something I picked out of this is, just like you said, “How are you doing, how are you as a person?” And now, I’m starting to love music again. Playing with my friends and being like: “Oh this is fun. Remember how we used to play music for fun?” And I get even better at it because I’m having fun. 

I’m so glad that you all are doing OK. I hope you’re doing OK. Are you out of the depression phase? How are you guys doing right now?

KA: Every day’s a journey.

LH: I’m with you, I feel like, with the record stuff. I got so crushed by it, but you know, it really put a lot into perspective for me. Because I was so obsessively, like tunnel-vision-focused on what I thought this would turn into this year. And then when it got just like yanked, I was like, “Holy shit.” 

BM: Yeah, this sucks.

LH: But we’re musicians, we’re resourceful, we’re able to adapt.

KA: We know how to pivot.

LH: We do! And it’s taken me back to a part of myself, as cliché as this might sound, that I felt like I had lost sight of the last couple years … that just enjoys life. And putting a record out is hard. 

BM: You become like a narcissist. My poor girlfriend.

LH: I’m, like, shitty to the people around me, because I’m thinking about the record. But I’m at a point now where I’m just rolling with it. What about you? 

KA: Same here. We put the album out and thought I was going to be touring different countries for the first time. And I was really proud of this one, for the first time I had a team, and I was like, “All right, here we go! Never mind.” But I will say, one thing I’m grateful for is that my music did find people, sadly, because of what the country had to reckon with this summer. It wasn’t the way I wanted it to happen. I’m glad my music was there, and it allowed me to be quiet. The people that were like, “How are you feeling?” I’m like, “Go listen to the record, I wrote about all this.”

BM: You’re like, “I’ve been talking about this way before.” 

KA: This is the longest I’ve been home in a long time, and I’m getting to know myself again, and I’m getting to know like — I haven’t really been that healthy up here [points at head] in a while, and it’s allowed me in a different way to go back. The way I started writing was with other people who had never written before. And so I’ve been honing my writing skills, [returning to] writing with people that haven’t written, and it’s making me, I think, a better songwriter. Like you’re saying, going back to why we started doing this in the first place, and just trying to be kind of like, “All right, the album’s out there,” and surrendering. … Talking about the record is making my heart hurt right now. But it found who it needed to find, and it’s still out there. 

BM: That’s what a friend of mine said. I had coffee right before this and he was like, “The music is still fucking good, it’s still out there.”  

LH: And we’re going to have that moment of playing those songs live eventually, and it’s going to be so intensely beautiful, because you’ll know all you went through to get there. It’s also kind of cool, because now I’m like, “Dude, I don’t know if I’ll ever get this wound up about a record release again!”

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