Photography courtesy of Star Shoults
With deep-rooted connection to fashion, self-expression, androgyny and a profoundly intellectual approach to creation, Gyasi is carving his name into the world of glam rock.
Gyasi, pronounced “Jah-see,” describes himself as a “guitar-wielding peacock,” one whose approach to art is an all-encompassing endeavor that utilizes storytelling, fashion and electrifying guitar prowess to create an other-wordly performance spectacle.
In 2019, Gyasi released his debut full-length album, Androgyne, and dropped his newest EP, Baby Blue, in 2023. His discography delivers a dynamic fusion of theatricality, driving guitar riffs, bold lyrics and rebellious attitudes. In 2023, his band stunned audiences at the annual Bonnaroo Music festival, completed a successful tour leg in France and is currently recording a new album.
While critics rave about Gyasi’s ability to captivate audiences with his enigmatic persona, he said the feeling of “being from another planet” traces back to his childhood, where he grew up in the small town of Hinton, WV. His parents were part of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s and moved to southern West Virginia in hopes of adopting a simpler way of life.
“My dad was originally from Long Island, but he was always moving,” he said. “In the 1970s, he was really interested in primitive techniques of living and old farming styles, and that entire movement was about getting back to a more primitive lifestyle. Him and about six others went in on this incredible, beautiful farm in West Virginia with two houses on the property; one was an original farmhouse built in 1890.”
A couple of years after he was born, fate brought a Russian family of immigrants escaping the Soviet Union into their lives. The family ended up stranded in West Virginia — and Gyasi’s parents offered their second house as a place of refuge, where the family stayed for 17 years.
“Living on the farm with us, they became like my second family. It was an unconventional way of growing up in Appalachia; my dad is living like they did in the 1930s while we’re living in the 1990s. My parents and my neighbors’ cultural influence heavily impacted my music.”
From spinning old jazz and blues records with his parents to watching silent films with Charlie Chaplin and the Marx brothers, Gyasi’s eclectic upbringing fueled his artistic future. It was his Russian neighbors, however, that first introduced him to the more rebellious facets of art.
“My neighbors came from the underground rock ‘n’ roll revolution happening in the Soviet Union. Rock records were illegal there, and Alexis, the father in the family, had smuggled all these rock records from David Bowie, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed. They were getting all this inspiration from the so-called ‘forbidden fruit’ and brought all this music knowledge to me.”
At just four years old, he crafted a homemade drum set out of pots and pans and played along with his parents’ Beatles records. At 6, he got his first guitar, and the creativity just kept flowing.
“I immediately started writing songs. I didn’t know how to play technically; I was making up guitar chords by putting my hands where I thought they should go, and I was writing songs about rabbits and other sh*t. I’d make my parents sit down and watch me do these little concerts, but it was definitely where I realized I had a natural affinity for rhythm and melody.”
As he got older, his musical mastery expanded. He started taking lessons, performed at summer camps and studied guitar at the Augusta Heritage Festival in Elkins, West Virginia, as a teenager.
With influences spanning jazz, blues, rock and Eastern European music, Gyasi assembled his musician’s toolbox — but he still wasn’t positive where he fit in.
“I always knew I wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll music, but when I was younger I was much more focused on becoming a really good guitar player and competent musician. I got really into jazz guitarist Django Reinhart, and I was just voraciously interested in any music that moved me. Before I wrote any of my own music, I wanted to have more skills at my disposal.”
Growing up, Gyasi always felt like an outsider. He didn’t feel “West Virginian” in the way that his classmates were, but he embraced his uniqueness in his own version of Appalachia within his close-knit community.
“I was very androgynous from a young age, and it was like there was no possible box for me to fit in. People at school called me a hippie, and I wasn’t a hippie — they just needed some sort of label for me. I was called queer, and all these things. I didn’t play football, I didn’t have the accent, I couldn’t get a girlfriend. Everything in my life up to this point was working against me, and music was kind of how I got through all that.”
One person who had a massive influence on his self-development was his neighbor’s daughter, Lisa. She was six years his senior, and he looked up to her as “one of the most brilliant artists” he had ever met. Together, they dreamt up flashy rock ‘n’ roll personas that would lay the blueprint for his ability to design his stage outfits today. “She would go to the local recycling centers and bring home stacks of Vogue, Elle and all the other fashion magazines and cut out her favorite designs to make collage books. Then, she’d sketch her own ideas and go to the local Goodwill to thrift the most interesting things. We would play these games and develop characters in everything from rock stars to Lord of the Rings, and I think that’s why creating the persona I have now came so naturally.”
After high school, Gyasi’s journey took him to Boston, to attend Berklee College of Music, in hopes of finding more people who shared his creative vision. What he found was somewhat the opposite.
“I thought I would go to Berklee and fit in, but I felt totally like an outsider. No one grew up like I did on a farm in West Virginia, so leaving the state definitely helped me appreciate how special it was. Berklee was like boot camp; I was taking courses in songwriting, music producing, conducting, ear training, all these things. I did learn a lot, but in the way that Berklee wanted me to. I was being trained to write songs in a really commercial, formulaic way, but it didn’t feel like I was really moving music forward or doing something really interesting.”
With hopes of breaking the Berklee mold, he searched for experiences outside the classroom and credits them with fully developing his musical individuality. He broadened his horizons, exploring the realms of gypsy jazz, bluegrass and other unique guitar styles that grew his repertoire.
“I was never into bluegrass in West Virginia at all. It was always in my ears and just naturally there, but I never actually tried to play until I got to Boston and started hanging out with all these bluegrass players from Asheville. This, with other elements of gypsy jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, cabaret, blues, fashion — it was where I realized I could put it all together.”
While in college, Gyasi started a two-piece rock group within the underground rock scene in Boston. This was his chance to apply what he was learning in and outside of class and to experiment with his own ideas.
“We didn’t play a lot of shows, but we created a lot of buzz in the Boston psych-rock scene, and that sort of helped make everything clear to me. I knew I wanted to start a band,” he said.
Gyasi’s passion for rock ‘n’ roll led him to one of the nation’s music epicenters: Nashville. With a few booked session jobs in the area, he soon found himself enamored by Nashville’s vibrant music community that somehow kept a small town feel.
“Nashville was always on my radar, and at one point only because Jack White lived there. The White Stripes were the first contemporary band that I saw be successful at doing something really interesting — even in the midst of the pop music that was dominating in the early 2000s. I remember going to Nashville and meeting Jack White really quickly, and that blew my mind how the industry was so accessible.”
Shortly after moving, Gyasi injured his hand. He briefly went home to recover in West Virginia, but got a chance to hone in on the music he wanted to create. With a book of songs, he was determined to make the record that he wanted to make — even if he had to record the instruments by himself. And thus, his new band (aptly-titled GYASI) was born.
“In 2016, I set up a studio in the farmhouse and played the instruments myself, with help from drummer John Solomon from the Mountain Stage band, and we recorded my first album. I took all of it and moved back to Nashville to finish things up with other musicians, and I started to develop what would become the band I have now.”
It was a serendipitous encounter with an LA club owner, however, that would propel Gyasi’s career to where it is in 2023. After witnessing Gyasi’s performance, he offered the band a permanent residency at the Electric Jane, one of Nashville’s hottest music venues.
“He came up to me in 2019 and said he wanted us to be the Saturday night house band, but I didn’t really believe it because people say things all the time,” Gyasi said. “But he reached out two years later when the club was opening, and he was true to his word. They take really good care of us, and we get to do something that most bands in Nashville don’t get to do — which is play the original songs I want to play.”
The Nashville residency snowballed into touring around the region, and eventually internationally. Gyasi acknowledges numerous career milestones but remains grounded, recognizing that every achievement opens the door to the next challenge.
“Touring internationally was something we’ve all been dreaming about, and the energy was different from anything we’ve experienced here. We had people come to France from London, one told us he drove 1,000 kilometers to be there. To know we’re connecting with this many people was really affirming.”
If the David Bowie t-shirt he wore for this interview wasn’t obvious enough, Gyasi credits the superstar with being an immense inspiration in his own self-development. Attending a small-town school felt stifling, and Gyasi was scared to express himself. But, Bowie inspired him to feel truly free.
“School felt like a monoculture; everyone had the same haircut, everyone wore the same Abercrombie shirt. That just did not jive with me and I was just trying to survive in that world. The different incarnations and musical styles Bowie explored were so inspiring. Even by studying his music, you’re studying Buddhism, fashion, literature, poetry — just an unending world of inspiration.”
With his shows and music, Gyasi hopes to provide similar inspiration to audiences, enabling them to discover who they truly are through the power of music. When it comes to writing music, he is often inspired by the journey of a young person breaking free and finding their individuality.
“I meet so many people at my shows that feel the same way; I’ve had people say they found comfort in my lyrics. Playing music is casting a spell, bringing the world into focus in the most tangible way possible. Seeing someone get past the negative connotations of being different and actually manifest an idea of their creative expression means a lot to me.”
Gyasi’s odyssey, spanning from small town to the neon lights, stands as a testament to the transformative power of music and self-expression.
You can catch Gyasi on tour through the end of 2023, and stay tuned for his upcoming album!