Author: Allyson Wainright
Kamara Thomas believes in herself and her work. Her determination has carried her from the start of her career when she accepted to play bass for Earl Greyhound even when she didn’t know how to play to venturing into music video production with the release of her latest album, "Tularosa: An American Dreamtime."
Born and raised in Chicago, music was always in Thomas's life; whether it was choir as a kid or musical groups while pursuing a theater degree at William and Mary College. After college, she moved to Los Angeles to become an actress but switched to songwriting where she didn't have to "wait for someone to give her a role to make art." So, she moved to New York and spent time playing in the group Earl Greyhound which released two albums, “Soft Targets” and “Suspicious Package” during her tenure. They toured across America and Europe, but Thomas's favorite place they performed was Japan. Thomas was also a part of Kamara Thomas and the Ghost Gamblers and released an EP, "Earth Hero. nbsp;
Thomas mostly classified her music as Cosmic Experimental Americana, a genre encompassing traditional music styles, including folk, country, bluegrass, blues, gospel, and roots music. She’s constantly trying to “push the envelope and bring in new sounds and ideas.
After her time with Earl Greyhound, Thomas released “Tularosa: An American Dreamtime,” an album and a series of multidisciplinary theatre and film work that depict various characters’ journeys through Tularosa, New Mexico. The land was fought over by Apaches, Comanches, Mexican farmers, Texas ranchers, and eastern railroad capitalists, although now most of the area is a U.S government missile range. The inspiration that sparked this album is a book she received, “Tularosa: Last of the Frontier West” by C.L. Sonnichsen, from the family she babysat. The book fascinated her with its abundance of New Mexico region stories like the Fountain family, which depicts a father-son duo who traveled through the Tularosa region, never to be seen again.
"I feel like there are so many lost stories that have been suppressed or not told, and so I'm always trying to find as many as I can, tell as many as I can, and tell as many different points of view that I can. Especially in this work, in Tularosa. It's really about this storytelling idea, trying to dig up stories that haven't been told."
From there, the songs came first, with a lot of trial and error; something felt wrong to Thomas. She felt like she was trying to fit a bunch of ideas through the bottleneck of a soda bottle. Finally, she realized that she needed more. She needed a story to tell through theatrical performance and video. She created a Kickstarter fundraiser to fund the album and produced "Oh Gallows" Music video to give a sneak peek at what was to come. With no prior filmmaking experience, a small budget, some spare fabric and some hand-picked flowers, Thomas created the “Oh Gallows" music video. The process developed as she figured out what she wanted to convey with this album. Other performances include: Soapbox and Good Luck America.
"Society tells artists to stay in their lane, right? It's like if you're going to be a musician, then you better just stay in that musician lane. And so it discourages artists from trying new things because what if I'm not going to be amazing at it? It discourages us from being amateurs at things," Thomas said. Staying in her lane is a simplified version of some of the challenges she's faced in her career. "Stay in your lane if you want a reward, stay in your lane if you want success," echoed in Thomas ears as she released music in genres like roots, Americana and rock that weren't necessarily looking for black artists.
"Resilience and brilliance can come from a sprout that must fight to bloom. It's a different kind of art, stamina and internal power that the artist has. On the other side, I feel really thankful for it, but it didn't feel like it from the beginning. In the midst of it, it just feels painful."
She's always allowed her creativity to "create herself out of corners," so when she saw a lack of representation in the genres she was performing in, she decided to work together with Kim Registar from The Pinhook to create Country Soul Songbook. It's a media platform and production team that spotlights performances, interviews, in-depth conversations, and cultural offerings rooted in their mission to amplify historically marginalized voices (BIPOC/LGBTQIA+) in Country, Americana, and American roots music. In addition to the events played throughout the year, they hold a virtual summit that showcases artists like Rissi Palmer and Queen Esther. There are plans for more events in the summer of 2023.
Advice that has helped her since the beginning: Thomas reflects on the moment Tina Turner got discovered and didn't think about Turner's newfound success in her 40s but rather the fact that she had a career before that moment. A fact that listeners often forget had helped Thomas when she started as a musician.
"Whether I'm getting paid for it, whether I'm getting recognized for it, or if I do it every day. Whatever is. It is still my career, and my career begins when I say it does. I've relied on that my entire career. Like yeah it exists because I say it exists. It's so easy to get discouraged as a young artist that you have to gain some kind of recognition or success to validate that you're a thing[musician], and so much of that validation has to be internal."
Thomas started her most significant career highlight her Princeton Arts fellowship, in September 2022. So far, she's taught a songwriting course and is currently teaching a songwriting and musical storytelling course. As her time continues at Princeton, her classes will focus on American multidisciplinary storytelling (with a focus on Tularosa and future works). In addition, Thomas is ecstatic and thankful that she has institutionalized support to research and explore her work. She plans to produce another multidisciplinary album, “Bulgaria: A mid-Winter Tale”, with performances scheduled at Princeton in Spring 2024.
Regarding what's next in Thomas's career, there are many exciting things in the works, with a couple more semesters of teaching, new music on the way, and performances and events to showcase her work and other marginalized artists' voices. You can bet that she will bring the same passion, curiosity, and gutsy attitude to the table because Kamara Thomas believes in herself and her work.