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Interview: Kenny Foster explains the inspirations behind new album ‘Somewhere in Middle America’

Released today (Friday October 21st), songwriter, troubadour, philosopher and all-round-good-guy Kenny Foster’s new album, ‘Somewhere in Middle America’ is a raw, honest and uplifting tribute to mid-west, small town upbringings. We recently gave the album a full five star review, which, let’s be honest, you should really read first before you go deeper into the inspirations and ideas behind it.

We don’t give out many five star reviews but every time we listen to ‘Somewhere in Middle America’ a different song resonates and that’s a five star piece of work right there then!

Oh man, I love that. That’s great.

Copy Paste Repeat’ is my current favourite but it’s a hard listen sometimes. When did the germ of the idea of ‘Somewhere in Middle America’ begin to take hold on you?

I knew that ‘Copy Paste Repeat’ had to be on the record as soon as I wrote it. If nothing else, I needed a stark contrast to where everything else sits. Middle America isn’t all sunshine and roses, which is what that song is there to reflect. I usually lean harder into the darker spaces of life, generally speaking, so I knew that to sit here and just glorify small town life would be a disservice.

The track that continues to resonate with me from my previous album, ‘Deep Cuts’ is ‘Made’. I love that song. I wrote ‘Copy Paste Repeat’ with the exact same co-writer, Daisy Mallory, and we tend to go to those raw spaces. In this American moment, some things needed to be said and that’s what makes putting out this song and playing it so interesting.

On the album, as a whole, I wanted to capture a space and time that was good and true to me. That was a time when there were only four network television channels, we were all watching the same shows and listening to the same music. There was a sense of unity in this country that came through our shared culture – that kept us all connected, even if we didn’t get on. There’s something that is really wonderful about that and that’s where the idea for the album came from: let’s reduce everything back to the basic brass tacks – we may not agree on this and on that but remember when we saw this or remember when we heard that, wasn’t it good? Middle America is not just a place or location, it’s a concept where we used to come together in unity as well. I wanted to lean into my roots as a musician and lean into something locationally to reflect where I’m from too because it is not Southern in the way that everyone has heard from Nashville in the past decade or so.

I’m not Southern but I appreciate the culture and I’m almost jealous of it. What I wanted to explore was the culture of the mid-west and how it mirrored that of the south but how it was different too. I wanted to use this anthology of songs to reflect a kind of mid-west, middle America culture that doesn’t get written about as often as other geographical areas.

That clarion call for unity and kindness comes across on many of the songs on the album. That’s the unifying narrative of the album isn’t it?

I think so. It’s bit grandiose but somebody has to at least try to do it, right? I was doing it innocently – this is not an overtly political record, that is not what I wanted to do but it was inspired by the political moment that we continue to find ourselves in. I really do believe, in my soul, that there is going to be this ‘Ah ha’ moment when everybody goes, ‘What have we been doing?’ and I wanted to contribute to that process.

Which you address on the song ‘Find the Others’.

100%. I wrote that song with Marcus Hummon, who is a Nashville Hall of Famer. He’s an absolute monster. It’s not a political song, that’s not why we wrote that. The only line in the whole song that might stir some people up is, ‘the left ain’t right and the right don’t lead,’ but that’s about it! No matter what journey you are on, most people would hear that line and go, ‘Yep!’ right now. (laughing)

People are polarised right now because they feel not-seen, right? This album is my love-letter to the place that I am from, a place that has somehow veered away from who and what I know it to be because the people who live there feel ostracised in a way that they’ve never felt before. It was important to me to say, ‘look, I am a local son and I have gone out into the world but this place is still beautiful to me.’ I’m a guy who travels the world playing music and sees all sorts of people, communities and ideas but in my heart I just want to be back home, playing with my kid in a place that I love! That duality exists in me so it must exist in other people too – we all have more in common than the things that separate us, I just think as a society we’ve forgotten that right now.

How did you personally manage to break the ‘Copy Paste Repeat’ cycle?

I’m probably just going to say my dad! (laughing) He had already broken the cycle in many ways. We were produce farmers for a very long time – my grandpa was this jovial, wonderful man who was quick witted and kind. A true Missourian – not a hillbilly and I touch upon that in the song ‘Farmer’ on the record. It was my dad who walked away first because he didn’t want to be working poor so because he had the capacity for university he went. Doing that widens your expectations and by the time I was two years old I was in Japan, right? By the time I left home at 18 I’d seen 6 or 7 different countries and we’d been to 44 of the states – we were not a well-to-do family but we would camp and go see stuff!

My dad always said that he wanted to give his kids ‘roots and wings’. It’s a song I’ve tried to write a few times but just can’t get right! He wanted us to know that we always had a place at home when we wanted it but he also wanted us to get out and see the world. University was always a discussion in our household and it was always a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ I was going to leave the house. So, I was always set up to break the ‘Copy Paste Repeat’ cycle thanks to my dad and my family. I care about the shoulders of the giants I am standing on, be it people, a community or even the country itself and that gives me a rarified position to be able to comment on life right now. I’m an escapee but one that still feels tethered to the community and the way of life that he came from.

You touch on father / son relationships on album closer, ‘The Same’. It feels like that song had nowhere else to go on the album but in that final spot.

Once the message of ‘The Same’ came out and I realised that I wanted this kind of Beatles ‘White Album’ type of vibe we realised that we could tuck in these musical motifs that we had already built in that song that links it, full circle, back to the opening track, ‘Somewhere in Middle America’. I wanted to lyrically pay tribute to my dad, who set me up for the success that I’ve had. It’s hard for me to see a community who tries to rip itself apart and tear down other people for wanting to do well for themselves. You don’t realise, until you get older, just how much your parents sacrifice in order to provide a steady home life and continuity, which is an important thing for children to receive. And it wasn’t just my dad, it was the whole thing that was built there, back home and the mentality of my family as well, which is what I wanted to touch on in ‘The Same’.

What I actually do is open the record with the wider, 30,000 foot view with a track like ‘Somewhere in Middle America’ but then I pull you down, myopically into something individualised and personal, like on ‘The Same’. It’s a journey and a real conversation.

Has becoming a father yourself this year had any impact on your creativity and writing yet or will that be reflected on your next projects?

I haven’t tapped into it yet at all, I’ve mostly just been trying to sleep when I can! (laughing) I’m excited to see what might happen next though. When I wrote the songs on this record Townes wasn’t around yet or even a thing so it didn’t inform what I wanted to say on this project but I can tell I have changed. It’s hard when a kid wakes up smiling and saying ‘da-da’ not to want to give yourself over completely to that. I do feel like if there was any kind of desperation left in me it’s gone now, you know? There’s a contentment now and a feeling that I’ve come full circle which will be interesting to channel.

There’s a couple of love songs on the album too in ‘Dreams Change’ and ‘The One’. I’ve never seen you as a love song guy.

Yeah, I’m not really. ‘Everything’ from ‘Deep Cuts’ is probably the closest I’ve gotten to that before. ‘Dreams Change’ is a quiet love song but it is also very philosophical too whilst ‘The One’ came from a real place from every writer in the room that day. The first time we got together the song actually ended with a longing for the girl who was the previous one in a kind of unrequited love way. I liked it but if it was going to go on my record I knew it needed to change because it wasn’t accurate to me or for my life, you know? I need to stay authentic, whether I’m writing about my family, my upbringing or the loves in my life, you know?

You talk about the seeds you’ve been planting over the years in ‘Farmer’ and link the idea of being a musician to your family’s original trade.

I’m writing about the lineage of the Foster family on that track. Townes is the next part of that lineage. I want my pastor and my grandma and the people that know me to really know who I am. I’ve always been aware of the importance of legacy which is why I gave up the possibility of commercial success in order to make sure that my message and my values were never compromised. There’s things that you know are right and then there’s commercial success and those two ideals don’t always occupy the same moral space. Sometimes you get lucky – those ‘House That Built Me’ moments, if you will, where the thing that everybody wants and the thing that is good and right come together for one sweet moment – I continue to strive for that and hope it might happen one day but if it never does I won’t have compromised myself or lost out in any way.

Faith, I know, has always been important to you. You address it for the first time in ‘For What It’s Worth’ – what impact and influence has your faith had on you over the years?

It’s part of what made me want to speak about the moment that we are in right now. Even the American Evangelical Church has been hi-jacked by power-hungry manipulators of human beings. It does two things: It boils my blood and it breaks my heart. Do you try and reverse or fight the changes you can see happening or do you quietly go into that dark night? The way that faith is being used by some people as a cudgel or a bludgeon is not in line with the faith they claim to be part of at all, which saddens me greatly. I try not to be super-overt about my feelings because there is so much charged language, be it political or religious, around right now which turns people away from the underlying message of religion, which is that there is goodness to be had and things that are good and right and true in life. It doesn’t even have to be a Christian message, this is a philosophical message about the goodness and kindness of humanity.

I recognise that I am not in control of this situation I can see and I have to let it play out, all I can control is the myopic part which is the part that I speak to when I am writing.

Check out Kenny Foster’s fantastic new album, ‘Somewhere in Middle America’ now

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