JBL Emerging Interview: Kenny Foster tackles polarisation in Somewhere In Middle America

The long-awaited second album from country artist Kenny Foster, Somewhere In Middle America, is out now. In this Emerging Headliner interview powered by JBL, the Nashville-based singer-songwriter explains how his second record addresses the beauty and the limitations facing Midwesterners who, like him, carry a complicated relationship to their hometowns and the polarising mindsets that increasingly define our times.

You have performed at the highly-acclaimed C2C Festival in London before; being from Missouri and now living in Nashville, are you ever surprised at the immense popularity of country music outside of the USA?

I was surprised, but also, I'm not, because the UK's version of country is all-encompassing and brings in folk and Americana. A lot of influences come under the country umbrella and that’s exactly why I love playing [in Europe] because you get everyone on the spectrum – there's no delineation. 

This music seems very particularly American, but it's not as if we didn't all come from the same place at one point in time. I think some of the best country Americana music does well to universalise its message so that it transcends the boundaries that normally hold it in.

artists are lightning rods to the human experience.

Another country artist Headliner recently spoke to remarked that the universal appeal of this genre of music is that it inexplicably feels like home; would you agree?

I love that! I might steal that for the future. It's a major topic for me when I sit down and write, and especially with this new record, which is about where I grew up. Even though I've been in Nashville for almost 20 years now, Missouri was still home to me and I think it always will be. 

My family has been there since the mid 19th century in the same 20 mile radius, so I feel very much tied to the ground there. But as my dad always says, ‘He gave us roots and wings so we knew who we were’, but then we always had the freedom to go and find ourselves in new pastures, and that makes you love a place even more, even if you have to leave it. It's such a strange confluence of emotions.

I would say that the feeling of home is a very universal human emotion. Whether our home was good to us and our family was good to us, which is not everyone's case, I think the sensation of home and what it could and should be – that's universal. 

The interesting challenge with this record was to say, ‘This is my very specific experience, but how is it so much like nearly everyone else's?’ Whether you’re in Germany, Singapore, the UK – how are we all having the same lived experience so far from each other? 

I think it's beautiful, so I tried to capture that. Music is a human connection that forges knowing between strangers, and I love that. When you go to a concert, you don't know anybody, but you know that it was important enough for them to be there that night.

We have become more polarised and more separate, and I don't like that.

Did you always gravitate towards country music when you were growing up and began taking an interest in music and songwriting?

I was into everything: Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, James Taylor, Paul Simon, but then I would get into sugary pop in the late ‘80s, and then the alternative rock boom and the ‘90s. 

I got swept up with Counting Crows, and then later on in that decade, emo, and then I had a scar phase. I loved anything that I could surround myself with that felt real, and that's what ended up making me gravitate towards country music as I got older. 

Home is a really important concept and country music was where songs lived – songs that I didn't know that shook you at your core. I love what words and a melody can do when it's very earnest.

How integral has moving to Nashville been to your career as a country artist?

100% I didn't know music was a job, I just knew that I loved it and that the people that I surrounded myself with loved and participated in it, but it was never a job until I moved to Nashville. 

Then the light bulb just went off and I had a sense that it might be a job someday, but I didn't know how tangible it could be. It took a shift in thinking that I don't think many people ever really get to experience unless they've chased something that seemed impossible. 

It expanded my mind in such a way that it's kind of difficult to describe, but maybe I'll put it in the song someday!

Some of the best country music transcends the boundaries that normally hold it in.

What were some of your earliest songs like and how has your songwriting evolved over time?

I was always writing poetry, but mostly it was to girls. I wanted to be very deep and romantic but I didn't know that you could write a song. In middle America, music wasn't a job and art wasn't something that you created for a living like it was for other people. 

But I think we're all creators and we all have these outlets. We all have things that we want to say, and I knew to write those down. I journaled a lot when I was young, and they're full of the most inane teenage dribble ever, but it was so important to express that. 

I never really put my journaling into a musical form until I was in college; I didn't know that I was allowed to do it. But nobody has to give you permission to create, and that was another change in mentality that just hadn't ever occurred to me. 

So I was very late in life, but it also meant that what I ended up focusing on in my songwriting was more mature, more deep, more far reaching things than if I had just written about missing a girl that broke my heart. At that moment I don't think I had the capacity mentally or emotionally to know how to say that or how to process that. Coming to it later actually helped me find my niche.

What inspired your second full-length record Somewhere In Middle America, and how does it differ to your debut full-length release Deep Cuts?

I know that some people were scared because they really loved the first record, and it's what made my mark in the UK scene, so I was as scared as everyone else was, but I also knew that I wasn't going to put out crap – it's just not something I do. I take my time and I have patient fans. 

This record is called Somewhere In Middle America, which is actually borrowing from a Counting Crows lyric, which was some influences that I pushed away from on the first one. People have said, ‘Deep Cuts went deep, and this one somehow found a way to go deeper’. That was a great compliment to me. 

I'm constantly deconstructing – I want to get to the bottom of ‘What is this life? How were we all thrust into it? How are we all having similar experiences all over the globe? Is there something to be gleaned or to be understood by all of us?’ If there's anyone that's going to do it, it's got to be a thoughtful group of people all seeking it – and that's both for the creator and the listener.

This record is about growing up in all of its complexities and states of emotion that we've found ourselves in at one point or another, and whether or not the specifics are the same, because no one has lived our experience, but the core of it is so much the same, so it’s trying to figure out why it is.

Somewhere In Middle America was me trying to take a snapshot not only of me and how I came to be this way, but also I want to harken back, because we're in a very interesting moment in American history. 

We're trying to figure out who we think we are, and who we want to be going forward. Everybody has a lot of different ideas about that, and we have become more polarised and more separate, and I don't like that. I don't know why individualism has crept in to supersede what is best for us as a community, and I mean that both from an American standpoint and from a human standpoint. 

So what I wanted to do was harken back to that middle ground – the one that everyone has. I wanted to encapsulate what it was like to grow up, because I lived in a country in a time and a place that felt very unified. It felt very open to discussion and leaning into making things better for one another.

How are we all having the same lived experience so far from each other? I think it's beautiful.

What do you hope people feel when they listen to the new record?

I hope that people feel a sense of space and I hope it gives people a sense of time. I also hope that they really enjoy it and see themselves in some way, shape or form in the music. And if they don't, I hope that they see a place that they wish they could visit. I think that place still exists in middle America somewhere, even if only in my mind.

Do you have a particular favourite song on the album that means a lot to you?

It's a rich anthology and these songs were chosen on purpose, with great intention. Said to Somebody encapsulates what the album is really all about – this stark human honesty with one another. 

The song itself is goading people down a road to say, ‘Have you ever thought about saying this?’ – and also making them ask themselves, ‘Why didn't they?’ It's a very human thing to want to do things, and not do them. 

We need to look at overcoming our aversion to being honest with each other, because it makes us vulnerable, because it puts us in a place where someone could hurt us, or maybe knows a little bit more about us than we can protect ourselves from. 

I wonder if we all dropped that a little bit, what we could say to one another that would be both helpful and edifying…

People have said: Deep Cuts went deep, and this one somehow found a way to go deeper.

With that in mind, do you find it difficult to be so vulnerable through your own songwriting?

I think it's the only way forward, this vulnerable, not knowing what we're doing. To be perfectly honest, once we've put something in the world and somebody has given us enough information or we've lived enough life where it's changed, we must go back and say that we've done that too – that we've changed. 

We have to normalise repentance, we have to normalise being vulnerable. By exposing something in a journal, while it is scary, you may end up finding out that there are a lot of people that feel the exact same way, and you would have never known if you'd not done it. 

Not everybody has the courage to say those things. They might not even write them down or they may only think about them. I think artists are lightning rods to the human experience and are the ones that take the hit. I think it's why reaction videos are so popular on Tik Tok and YouTube – you want to see how other people are reacting because you know how you did. There's a strange, voyeuristic thing that happens.

I think the role of anyone who creates is to spark a conversation and come to some sort of understanding, not just about the individual, but us as people as humanity. That's the only thing that keeps me going. Art is far too difficult a pursuit to not care that deeply about it.

Photo credits: RORSHAK