Through prosperity and heartache, Tyra Twist Amrein makes her own kind of music
By Laura Ross
Photos by Andrea Hutchinson
Tyra Twist Amrein is a mover, a shaker and a music maker. You could say she’s a rock star but she’s not. She is, however, a busy booking and musicians’ agent and owner of Twisted Talent.
Amrein is a blur of energy, booking and promoting artists in Louisville and across the world. She’ll throw an unforgettable event for your private gathering with her other business, Twisted Events. You’ll see her doing the mom-thing, hustling – one of her favorite words – her three kids through their busy lives. She enthusiastically supports her husband Jeff Amrein’s multiple successful businesses.
“He’s a serial entrepreneur,” his wife quipped with a deep, throaty laugh.
Life is good, if not great, for the Louisville native. But getting there wasn’t a piece of cake.
Needing to Pivot
After a tumultuous upbringing, Tyra married Jeff Amrein in 1994 and luck followed a lot of hard work. Jeff Amrein studied computers and coding at Murray State University, and by the time he graduated, he had founded a computer hardware consulting company focused on networking medical offices. As he built that business, he listened to clients’ needs and developed a scanning program that was quickly snapped up and distributed nationwide. “We were able to retire,” said Amrein. “But, that wasn’t really feasible for us since we were so young.”
The growing family – with children Zach, 23, Anna Leigh, 21, and Catey, 16, who were all little at the time – took a year off and moved to a house in the Bahamas. But Jeff was restless and missed his poker buddies stateside. He developed an online poker playing app, which became a new company, and when they moved back to Louisville, Jeff developed an area university’s online learning program, which he then sold to other university programs nationwide. He also recently became involved in the Kentucky hemp industry and is now consulting with hemp growers and manufacturers nationwide.
Tyra wasn’t one to sit back and relax either. As she raised her three children, Amrein sought her own ventures. She sold real estate and worked for a builder for several years, eventually “firing” her builder and taking on homebuilding herself. Simultaneously, she dove in to help her husband’s growing companies with event planning and management, and Twisted Events was born. “I focus on smaller, interesting events,” she said. “I didn’t want to be a wedding planner, but I can pull together a really unique event tailored to each client.
“I needed to pivot,” she added, noting that music was always the background to her life. She grew up around music and stage performers and was even a punk rock back-up singer for the late ’80s band the Happy Cadavers. “All I really had to do was yell,” she laughed. “I had a faux-hawk, and my sister who was a stylist styled me in red leather pants, a Union Jack ripped t-shirt and a safety pin in my ear.”
She was always around musicians and artists, and her children all have musical and theatrical talents. It all made sense. She launched Twisted Talent in August 2018 with the goal to help area artists succeed. “So many musicians in this area don’t have anyone advocating for them,” she said. “I got tired of seeing friends get ripped off by venues and bar owners all the time.
“I can sing, I can play the piano, but I don’t want the artistic side of it,” she said. “With Twisted Talent, I look at how the wheel works and how can I make it turn. I’m excited to produce moments then stand back and just watch it unfold.”
“Something I think people don’t realize about Tyra is how incredibly smart she is,” said singer-songwriter and touring musician Brigid Kaelin, who is a friend and client. “She’s both well-read and street-smart, and that’s a rare combination in this business.”
Amrein began representing Kaelin and Dave Ernst + The Early Favorites last autumn, and within a month, she was representing more than 50 independent musicians. One client out of Lexington, Mojothunder, is on the cusp of greatness. “They are the best original rock band I’ve seen in 20 years,” she said.
“Tyra is honest and great at pointing out inequities and calling out people who have been getting away with questionable business dealings for too long,” added Kaelin. “The music business needs people like her.”
“If reality wasn’t a part of the equation, I’d be Prince’s tour manager if he was still alive,” Amrein laughed. “I’m a gypsy at heart. I love travel, am super-insanely organized and I’d love being a part of a major tour. I see me developing young original bands that I feel have a real shot, getting them tours, having them open for larger acts, getting them in front of a recording label and seeing them succeed.”
On the outside, she thrives on the organization, frenzy and happy comfort of managing a successful business. But it hasn’t always been that way.
The story, as it is, has a twist: the family Twist.
‘Fake it ‘til you make it.’
Martin and Saundra Twist married young and had three daughters – Tonjua, Tyra and Tamara – in quick succession. “They were young, and my dad had to hustle,” Amrein said. “He was really smart, got into a lot of businesses in Louisville and got into a lot of bad businesses as well. He was the Bernie Madoff of Louisville, and he did a lot of oil, gas and well frauds later in life. He died in federal prison five years ago.”
Tragedy struck early in Amrein’s life. Her mother was killed in an auto accident in 1981, a day before Amrein’s 16th birthday. A stunning sculpture of Saundra, crafted by famed artist Barney Bright, features Saundra with outstretched arms, and is one of the most notable and visited gravesites in Cave Hill Cemetery. The iconic sculpture includes an inscription that reads, “God always seems to pick his prettiest flower.”
Growing up was difficult in the Twist household. “My father was not a nice guy. He was abusive emotionally and physically, and you never measured up in his world. We butted heads like two rams from day one, but I survived because of that,” said Amrein.
Her older sister Tonjua fled the nest early and dove into her artistic dream of becoming a stylist to the stars. She worked with legends like Bill Murray, Tony Bennett and Michael Jackson. She made a name among the most famous fashion designers and fashion magazine editors, who were eager to work with her in styling the stars.
Her fame came as the stylist to Mariah Carey. “She helped brand Mariah Carey and was solely responsible for the trend of the low-rise ripped jeans in the mid-1990s, when she ripped the top off of Mariah’s jeans,” explained Amrein.
“I learned so much from Tonjua,” mused Amrein. “She was on a worldwide tour with the hottest, most important star in the world and styled every album, every video and every stage performance outfit for Mariah Carey and many others. She’d call me and say, ‘Can you believe I’m sitting on the set of Michael Jackson’s video?’”
Tonjua reached the apex of her career in 2000, but the pressures overwhelmed her. Amrein received the phone call no one wants. Her beloved sister had killed herself with a precisely measured overdose. “It was so tragic. She was so burned out over seven years and had no anchor,” Amrein said. “She told a friend, ‘I am just so tired of this world.’ It was mind-blowing the people who contacted us from the fashion industry, the music industry, the theater. They all loved her. She was an incredible mix of a very sweet, shy and funny Southern gal but could get on set with an artist and make them feel so at home because she was a charmer.”
Tonjua left instructions that she wished to be cremated and have her ashes mixed with bluegrass seeds and wildflowers. “She said, ‘Scatter them some place where it looks like nothing bad can happen to me,’ so we took half to my mother’s grave and scattered the other half around a gazebo we had built at Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve in Oldham County,” reflected Amrein. “It’s so peaceful there. I feel her spirit all the time.
“When you are as close to someone as we were, we shared all the same secrets, we talked constantly and that never goes away,” she said. “It’s like she’s in my head all the time, and I can hear her voice guide me. I didn’t understand how incredibly talented she was before she died. You take that stuff for granted because I had no context outside of our family. It’s like if you’re hanging out with Picasso and you’re Picasso’s brother, do you realize how incredible he is at that moment? Now, I understand that.”
The stranglehold of grief remains, years later, as Amrein’s youngest sister, Tamara, committed suicide just months ago.
Despite the preponderance of personal tragedy, Amrein remains strong. “My philosophy is always, ‘Fake it ’til you make it,’” she said. “Push through; stress later. I get things done, no matter what life throws at me.”
Mastering the Hustle
Why dive into a new and challenging business with no guarantees when you’re a mom of three and financially comfortable? “I need to build value in my life. We only go through this life one time,” Amrein said quietly. “I’ve had my mother die. My sister committed suicide. My father died in prison. My other sister committed suicide two months ago. I am the last one standing in my entire core family.”
After a long pause, she added, “I don’t want to be on my deathbed and say I wish I’d done whatever. I want to fill my life with as many valuable experiences as possible. For me, that’s through music.”
She sees herself as an advocate and cheerleader – and perhaps, benefactor – to struggling musicians, and she wants to help elevate Louisville’s status as a music epicenter.
“I think we are on the precipice of having a music renaissance in Louisville,” said Amrein, noting the rise of the bourbon entertainment industry, the exploding festival scene and growing base of quality artists. “We could be the next Austin, Texas. We must take care of the grass roots musicians who are putting the music out there. We are a year-round tourism and foodie destination. It’s not just the two weeks of Derby anymore, and that has raised the bar for entertainment because we have to match that level of hospitality.”
Amrein hopes to be a major part of that equation, one delightful twist at a time.
“My motto has been ‘If you can’t figure out a hustle to make your dream come true, you’re just chasing clouds. I figured out my hustle, and my dreams are coming true.”
And that is music to her ears. V