Record of the Week: Kyshona’s ‘Legacy’

Former WNXP Nashville Artist of the Month Kyshona has a collaborative songwriting program called Your Song. Its mission is helping people find their voices through songs while writing their stories and find healing through songwriting. On her latest album, Legacy, our WNXP Record of the Week, Kyshona does that in her own music. This album, which she’s been making for a little over a decade, goes back and tells the story of multiple generations of her family’s lineage.

“When I’ve lost an elder or a family member, I always want to memorialize them in some way through song,” Kyshona said. “But I hadn’t put this whole concept together until I had my very last grandparent, Grandma Eva. It was time to create something that the family can lean into. I don’t have kids, I can’t have kids, and I don’t have much of a legacy beyond the songs that I write. But I know I can take all the stories from our family and create a masterpiece that they can go back to over the years. Also, this is hard to say, but my mother has dementia. Knowing that she’s losing her memories and I’m trying to grasp every single memory that she has and as many stories as possible. Spending more time with her and what she has left of her childhood memories.”

On this album Kyshona takes listeners on a journey through her family legacy. She shares memories of her upbringing in 13 songs and interludes, while also creating her own legacy for the next generation.

“If anything, what I hope for my nieces and nephews for them to know through the messages on the album, your family is always with you,” she said. “They might not be here on this plane, but they are going to be with you in your memories and they’re going to be with you in your dreams. For other people, I hope that this encourages them to have conversations with their families. A lot of us don’t talk anymore. I want people to know it’s okay to ask questions. When I was growing up, I was always taught to keep your mouth shut, don’t ask too many questions, stay out of grown folks’ business. But then you become the grown folk and you’re like, ‘Why don’t we talk about that? That’s not a big deal.’ I hope this encourages other people to talk to one another and it might help you feel more seen. It might help you see some common threads with your family members and cycles that need to end.”

“With the kids, if you don’t remember me, when you don’t have photos of me or you don’t remember what my voice sounds like, you can always just turn this record on and know that I am singing all of these songs for you. I might not be here on this earth, but you can always go back and listen to my voice. And I have their dad’s voice on the record and their grandma’s voice on the record. So if you want to hear the voices of your elders, they are there on the album. You can hear them all.”

As we sat outside of a coffee shop in East Nashville, Kyshona walked me through the album’s concept, the songwriting and the importance of family on this record.

Collecting family memories and stories

“I have two great aunts — Aunt Verna, and my cousin but we call our Aunt Sarah — they were the family historians,” she said. “They were the ones that kept up with the family tree, all the photos. It started with my Aunt Verna, I went to her house after one of my great-grandmothers died and was just like, ‘Can I look at whatever photos you have?’ There were so many images I had never seen, family members I had never met, and I just started asking questions. As she tells me these stories about the land and her father, my great-grandfather, that encouraged me to go ask more questions. It started with like one question to one of my aunts and it forced me to ask more.”

She continued, “I’m going to my uncles and saying, ‘Aunt Verna told me this, what’s your remembrance of that?’ It helped me have conversations with my cousins about our upbringing. I remember talking with my cousins, about my grandma Alma’s love for basketball and how she smoked us all on the basketball court and how she could also Double Dutch. It was like ‘Who is this woman?’ But, like, forgetting those memories, but remembering my grandma Alma was a force. We knew her as the quiet, sweet one, but she was also like the feisty one that some people were scared of.”

Working with family on the album

“Grandpa H.T., with his song ‘Heaven Is A Beautiful Place,’ he had passed away when I knew that he had written a whole song. With him, I consider that a co-write from the grave, like a spiritual co-write. But with my brother, I’m such a fan of him. I try to always have one song with Kelvin on a record, at least. So for the last three or four records I put out, there’s always been a song that we’ve written together because I think his writing is clever.”

Kyshona’s brother Kelvin joined her for the advanced single on Legacy, “Comin’ Out Swinging. She said, “To me he’s more hip to what the styles are. But it’s always fun because it’s a time of creating that I don’t get to do with my brother. Usually we’re caretaking or I’m watching him be a father, but when we’re writing together, we have deep conversations, which is hard to do when you’re sitting at the dinner table with the kids. But when it’s just us and the instruments, I feel we have deeper conversations when there’s a song involved.”

Kickstarter and recording in Memphis

“It’s always hard to ask your fans for support, to ask people for money,” she said. “But it’s hard to make music these days, it’s expensive. I think the journey from asking everyone, ‘Hey, can you help me in the making of this family project,’ that is very personal. The mission of this record is not to save the world. The mission is for me to preserve my own history, but then people were so on board. Honestly, most of this record, I feel like the ancestors were at play because who we were supposed to work with came into the room. At no point was I worried because the moment I started worrying things checked out.”

“The last time I was here at this coffee shop right now was to meet Rachael Moore, who co-produced this record with me. She knew me from working together at Sound Emporium before. But she really understood the vision and having a team around that was like, ‘I support you in this vision.’ She’s best friends with Matt Ross-Spang and he was like, ‘Come to Memphis.’ It was like we would throw a dream out and the universe would be like, ‘Gotcha, here you go, what else do you need?’ You need a studio, let’s go to Memphis. We’re in Memphis, you need a drummer for this day because the other one can’t come here, take this drummer who is a legend and is on so many historical tracks that are on your reference playlist. I don’t know, it was magic.”

“I had built an altar in the tracking room with the photos of my elders,” Kyshona said. “We had crystals and sage, and we would walk into the studio, light the sage, and I would just say a prayer to my ancestors just telling them to please get me out of the way and show me. May I represent you in the way that you want to be represented. We would move the altar into the control room when the band came in. What I loved is that they would see the altar, they would look at it and say, ‘What’s this about?’ ‘Well, funny you should ask, this song we’re about to go track is about that person right there. So, I could point to a photo, tell them a story about the ancestor we were singing about or tell their story, and they would then tell me a story of their upbringing. It was special to have these grown men that are in their 60s saying, ‘Oh, man, I remember I had a great aunt that was like that.’ It was a different kind of community that it encouraged to happen in the recording room.”

On the benefits of co-writing

“After asking all the questions to the aunts, I would see there was a theme or a thread,” she said. “For example, I’m thinking about a song I wrote with Jess Nolan called ‘Always a Daughter.’ My Grandma Alma had dementia and my mother has dementia. Jess was thinking about her grandparents, who she’s close to and how she’s lost them. If anything, these little stories we could zoom out and see the theme is, ‘Oh, as an adult, especially as a child of someone, there’s that moment where you swap roles and the daughter turns into the mother again, or the child becomes a parent again.’ There was always a theme that I would find and have conversations with my co-writers and we’ll figure out, like, ‘I think this song is going to be about what it’s like to get older, what it’s like to become the caretaker for your elder, what it’s like to lose someone and realize even though they are no longer on this earth, they’re still with you.’ A lot of the information that I gathered from my family members, I sat with it for a long time until the conversations came, and I knew, ‘Oh, that’s what I want to write.’”

“I think what was more enjoyable about the writing process was getting to know my co-writers more, because we were all going through our family memories.” Kyshona shared that fellow local singer-songwriter Caroline Spence wrote with her on her front porch and one of the songs that came from that was “The Echo.”

“You walk into her home and it’s like a museum in honor of her grandmother. I loved the process of knowing my co-writers on a different and on a deeper level, because this forced us all to talk about our upbringing, what was important to us and what influenced us. I feel like I walked away with a deeper kinship with them all.”