Nestled in Kyshona’s Inglewood home is a combination office and studio with vintage, velvet seating that appears very inviting.
“This is the songwriting chair,” she says, inviting me to sit. “Isn’t that a comfortable chair? My whole thing is I want people to feel comfortable, at home, at least whenever we’re creating. So if we’re in person, yeah, what plushy things can I put around? What smells can I introduce?”
She picks up a bottle of room spray. “This is called ‘Humble.’ You ready? Alright, this is what ‘Humble’ smells like.”
Those who can’t enjoy a spritz of aromatherapy in person can still feel the therapeutic effects of shaping songs with Kyshona. She uses her computer to open a composition that was created virtually.
“One of the most rewarding, I think, experiences is writing with mothers who are in recovery with their children,” she notes. “So this is a lullaby. This one’s ‘Asher’s Song.'” Soft keyboard chords emanate from the speakers, followed by Kyshona’s soothing, feathery vocals.
That tender tune did calm Baby Asher; the sound of the sessions filtered into his ears as he lay next to his mom, and put him right to sleep. Kyshona was beyond infant stage, but still a small child, when she first discovered music’s salving qualities. When her favorite aunt passed, she took piano lessons with her aunt’s former teacher. “I would go to Ms. Moss’s house and take piano,” she recalls. “And I fell in love with piano because, first of all, your fingers can make music. I’ve always been a quiet, shy person, but I found that I could just close my eyes, play notes, and just be somewhere else.”
Later, Kyshona took up oboe and discovered that blending with an orchestra could also sweep her away. Up through high school, she didn’t yet consider herself a singer, but learned something that steered her attention away from performance: bringing sonic solace to people in pain was an actual job.
“There was one music therapist in my town, in Columbia, South Carolina, so I shadowed her one day,” Kyshona explains. “I watched this woman go from hospital to hospital room with a guitar. And it was just kind of eye-opening that you can calm a heart rate through notes and through sound.”
Kyshona enrolled in a college program at the University of Georgia, got board certified and started working in assisted living, rehab and mental health facilities alongside other healthcare professionals with people of all ages, teens included.
“They knew that in the treatment room with me, they could say whatever they needed to say,” she affirms. “I’m not judging. I’m not correcting. How you feel is how you feel. So there was a lot of rewriting songs that spoke to them. We would change the lyrics. We would even write short mantras. So I wasn’t doing full-on songwriting yet, but it was like, ‘Okay, well, what do you need to say to yourself in these moments of doubt?'”
Soon, spending her days attuned to others’ needs made her want her own private, musical outlet. She was new to sharing her songs when, nearing psychological burnout she decided to take a break from healthcare, and began to get bookings on the college coffeehouse circuit. “I was scared to call myself an artist and a songwriter,” she says, “because in my mind, ‘No, my identity is I’m a music therapist. That’s what I do.'”
It wasn’t until Kyshona moved to Nashville that she experienced collaboration between seasoned songwriters. She brought with her an openness to to learning how professionals navigated the business, along with a very different understanding of how the give-and-take of expression can work; so often, she’d placed her own ideas and inclinations aside as she coaxed others to say what they wanted, melody, rhyme scheme and song structure be damned.
“The first two years I went to every write,” she remembers. “I was writing with everybody. And I always felt inadequate. Imposter syndrome, they say, right? Because in my mind, I’ve only ever written really with patients or myself. I’d never done a lot of co-writing. But the people that I met when I first moved here are still in my life now.”
Two of them, Nickie Conley and Maureen Murphy, join their voices with hers on the stage and in the studio. On this particular day, they’re working out harmonies at Cinderella Sound for one of Kyshona’s new songs.
In the tracking room, their hearty laughter is interrupted by the engineer’s amused and unruffled voice: “Alright, are you guys ready?”
All three inhale deeply and attack their notes in unison, but hearing that they’ve hit a sour interval, fall into laughter again. This is a trio that can crack up and then turn right around and nail it, which is exactly what they do on the next take.
“With Nickie and Maureen, I found this perfect duo of women who I respect immensely and I’m intimidated by,” reflects Kyshona. “They always push me to do my best and be at the height. They’ve both toured with some huge artists. And so the fact that they come out here with humble little old me, they’re down to do the journey with me because they understand what the mission is.”
During most of their trio performances, this session included, Kyshona prefers to showcase the other two on the solos, to cheer on their vocal runs.
“It’s different than anything else I do,” observes Conley, who used to sing backup for Donna Summer. “It’s heart music. I feel like it comes from the heart. And that’s exactly where it goes, because of the intention behind the music and Kyshona’s vision.”
Murphy, who’s backed the Zac Brown Band on tour, echoes the sentiment: “Kyshona has always provided safety in being ourselves, and that’s exactly who she is as a person. I’ve never really known a lot of artists that do that. But with Kyshona, it just feels wide open. And any idea is a great idea.”
Kyshona’s own thinking isn’t confined to familiar models for making a living as a singer-songwriter. In recent years, she came up with a mission statement and launched a nonprofit called Your Song. When she tours now, she asks performing arts centers to choose local organizations that serve people who rarely have a voice, so that she helps them write songs.
“I’m going to invite them in when I’m in town playing that venue and give them the microphone,” she says, “because I know how important it has been for me to have the mic as a woman of color, as a 40-something-year-old woman, as a plus-size woman, I know how important it is to have the mic. So I want to be able to give the people and community the microphone and to let them know the space even exists and that it exists for them.”
There’s space to share because Kyshona is helping create it.