Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.
In this morning’s edition of the Independent Spotlight, we shine our gaze on Kiya Heartwood, an award winning independent music veteran who’s recently dropped her latest studio endeavor, ‘Palo Duro.’ The singer songwriter’s flair for roots rock, folk, and country musings is particularly refreshing because of its remarkable authenticity. ‘Palo Duro’ is an album that embraces a grassroots style that is so missing in the indie scene right now. Let’s explore the new album.
It’s worth immediately noting that I spun ‘Palo Duro’ twice through in-studio on monitors. The production is very good. It’s simplistic, yes, but Heartwood is elegantly accented amidst very complimentary soundscapes of traditional instrumentation, and later on, edgier rock compositions. Often times in the indie scene artists struggle with this type of production. Everything on ‘Palo Duro,’ however, fits into itself nicely to create a pretty full portrait - no mastering problems or ill-organized mixes.
That portrait is very American. This is traditional Americana at its best in the scene right now. While the opening track, ‘Icarus,’ is perfectly pleasant, the titular track that follows is especially good. The atmospheric, reverberated space that Heartwood creates is reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s ‘Man in the Long Black Coat,’ with its raw harmonica sections and sharp lyricism. If the record exhibits anything, it’s that Heartwood is a strong storyteller. That’s her most admirable quality.
I’d argue there are other flairs to the album as well. ‘Mirage,’ for example, has hints of Latin influence scattered throughout. The nylon string classical guitar and hand percussion are very well performed - she’s got a strong backing outfit. It’s a stark contrast to the steel-stringed ‘Palo Duro.’ ‘Ferris Wheel’ then makes another jump, offering a soft spoken, introspective jaunt.
I was a bit worried that this album would fall victim to the same issue a lot of rootsy indie records do - being too long. At ten tracks, it’s a meaty offering that I was worried would get bogged down in repetitious stylings or lyricism. Surprisingly, however, each of the ten tunes is quite apt for inclusion.
Within her own genre niche, Heartwood actually carves out different subsets of styles. Take ‘Fame and Fortune.’ The upbeat tune sounds like it’s straight out of Nashville. Then, you hit ‘White Flag,’ one of my personal favorites on the effort, and you’re greeted with soft, but edgy electric guitar that dances about with rhythm guitar in an anthemic way.
The best track of the latter half of ‘Palo Duro’ may very well be ‘End of the War.’ Completing an electric evolution that was hinted at on ‘White Flag,’ the track hosts some electric guitar musings that are borderline bluesy. Heartwood’s lyricism is at her strongest, too, as she croons, “I never really understood what we were fighting for.”
As the record progresses, Heartwood’s musical themes actually become more rock oriented and more contemporary. This is very good - it gives her some basis in a modern scene that then accentuates her traditional structures. ‘Burial Ground’ is one of the more punchy tracks on the album, an exhibition of gritty, Texan-style rock. ‘Perfect’ then offers a ballad-esque excursion through similar territory.
To close out the album, Heartwood fittingly returns to the traditional stylings of the former half of the collection. ‘Veinte Anos’ directly delves into that Latin/Spanish influence toyed with on ‘Mirage.’ It’s actually a duet with a male vocalist in Spanish set to a sweeping classical guitar. It’s one hell of a closer, and a statement of immense versatility.
Kiya Heartwood genuinely excites me. As a deep lover of traditional Americana, blues, folk, and other similar avenues of music, I see Heartwood as a breath of fresh air amidst a scene very preoccupied with far less genuine endeavors. (A lot of the Americana that comes across my desk is indie rock with an acoustic guitar at best.) This is the real thing. Spin it below!
The Orlando Sentinel reviewing team has seen more than 100 shows at the 24th annual Orlando Fringe Festival, now underway at venues around Loch Haven Park. From comedy to dance, from music to mystery and magic, here are our 15 picks for the Best of Fringe, listed alphabetically. All critiques, plus video previews of many of the shows, are available online at OrlandoSentinel.com/fringe.
It was a particularly strong year at the Fringe — and we had trouble narrowing down our favorites. We didn't even let ourselves count the revival of "6 Guitars," which is among the Fringe's all-time best productions.
'Kiya Heartwood: Song Tales from the American Edge'
Kiya Heartwood is a modern-day American troubadour. She scours the nooks and crannies of history to find interesting tales of romance, injustice, danger and death. It's a simple show but it packs a powerful punch. Bronze venue, 55 mins., 7+, $10. Show: 2 p.m. Saturday, May 23.
Near the beginning of "Song Tales From the American Edge," Texan storyteller/songwriter Kiya Heartwood illustrates her tale of martyred labor leader Joe Hill by apparently drinking a glass of ashes onstage. While the moment made me reflexively recoil, it’s a perfect metaphor for Heartwood’s sincere commitment to speaking for the voiceless on society’s fringes. Most of her self-penned folk-rock story-songs are based on overlooked historical figures who lived on America’s edges – the razor’s edge, the cutting edge or even the edge of the world.
Her subjects range from a legendary Cape Cod pirate’s ghostly lover, to the beleaguered Comanche fleeing the U.S. Army’s ambush at Palo Duro Canyon, to Walt Whitman, Heartwood’s favorite poet and “fashion consultant.” An autobiographical number about the death of Kentucky’s horse culture made me tear up, and the audience participation finale might inspire you to join the union’s Dishpan Brigade (or at least subscribe to Mother Jones). I grew up going to a summer camp run by socialist hippies, and many of Heartwood’s songs would have fit in fine around the firepit. Other have choruses hooky enough to rock a coffeehouse or club, though the well-researched verses can sometimes seem like Wikipedia entries set to music.
Heartwood is no modern pop princess, but her swift fingers and soulful voice hearken back to when being a rock star required talent. (Heartwood also projects and enunciates well enough to understand every word without amplification; other performers, please take notes.) Heartwood’s odes to outsiders and antiheroes are unabashedly left-wing, so if you’re a loyal Fox News viewer, this probably isn’t for you. Then again, maybe it should be; if more people understood and appreciated the last century’s labor and civil rights struggles, we might not be going through them all over again today.
"Short Stories – True Song Tales From The American Edge (Kiya Heartwood) It's easy to like a performer who calls herself shy, then vigorously headbangs to a song about Walt Whitman. Singer-songwriter Kiya Heartwood has a disarming openness which fills her short set with warmth. She plays straightforward acoustic folk, studded with occasional blues riffs and bluegrass flurries. Though at times her earnest lyrics feel naive, it's the true stories behind them that become the real focus. Built on bitter-sweet nostalgia for America's past, they're populated by steelworkers, rabble-rousers and underdogs of all kinds. Channelling down-home friendliness and shades of Janis Joplin, Heartwood is a fine and engaging storyteller. Quickly winning over the crowd, she soon has the audience singing along, and leaves them pondering those seldom told tales." 3/5 theSpace @ Surgeon's Hall, until 23 Aug. [Dave Fargnoli]
Kiya Heartwood is an award-winning American singer-songwriter who writes smart, funny and poignant songs about the famous and not-so-famous legends of America. She is making her first appearance at the Fringe with her acoustic show, Short Stories: True Song Tales from the American Edge. Broadway Baby’s Dave House caught up with Kiya Heartwood to talk to the artist about her work.
The Fringe is a beautiful festival, mad and inspiring. Of course I hope to come back next year and many years to come.
What is “the American Edge”?
To me it's the underdogs and outsiders who aren't living on Wall Street bonuses. As Margaret Atwood wrote in The Handmaid's Tale, “We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”
What artists have inspired your writing and musical style?
My influences are a combination of folk rock artists like Neil Young, Jackson Browne, or Joni Mitchell, contemporary folk writers like Cheryl Wheeler and Patty Griffin, Americana artists like Steve Earle, Joe Ely and Buddy Miller, British folk revival artists like the Watersons, Martin Carthy, Richard Thompson, and political singers like Holly Near and Dick Gaughan. Of course, Woody Guthrie. I hope to write story songs that are in the living tradition but I don't want to just imitate the old songs but actually keep adding new stories to the pile. There isn't as much of this going on in America as I might wish, but the stories I know best are American stories. As Woody Guthrie said, "Write what you know."
You've had a music career that's spanned nearly 30 years. What have been some of the highlights of your career?
Many beautiful moments… Getting signed to Arista in the late 80's with my Folk Rock band, Stealin Horses, being on MTV and playing Farm Aid in 1990. Playing the last gig in Cafe LMNOP in Lexington, KY, when the skaters and the punks left the bar singing the chorus to my song, ‘The Ballad of the Pralltown Cafe’ - "There'll be no rockin' in the Cafe tonight...", playing the Kennedy Center, the Philly Folk Festival and Kerrville Folk Festivals with Wishing Chair, and now as a solo artist, I'm making some amazing memories here in Edinburgh.
What do you think it is that makes these American tales so universally appealing?
These are the people who push the edges and change the center. I tend to write songs that keep my own spirits up. Many of these people are my compass points and sources of inspiration. I think people can identify with the uphill struggles of these characters.
How are you finding the Edinburgh Festival and will you come back again?
Performing regularly in Europe has been a dream of mine for many, many years and Edinburgh is amazing. Besides having many ancestors from Scotland, I love the layers of history and intellectual sparring carried in the very stones of the buildings. The Fringe is a beautiful festival, mad and inspiring. Of course I hope to come back next year and many years to come. I feel very at home here.