Kaston Guffey is both a very talented artist and a driving force behind My Politic, a Roots band that embraces all that is great about the Americana/Country/Folk genres in contemporary music today. Growing up in Ozark, Missouri there is a strong likelihood that Kaston was influenced by the music of the Bottle Rockets and Uncle Tupelo, two bands who originated in the state. Also, the traditional Ozark culture, that includes stories and tunes passed between generations and communities, would have left a strong impression on him.
Kaston writes the lyrics across the seven albums that My Politic has released to date and he also plays a central role in creating the song arrangements with his long-time collaborator, Nick Pankey. As the creative hub of My Politic he has some interesting views on the human condition and growing up in the USA. His music is highly recommended and the band is certainly top of my list as most likely to succeed. An undiscovered gem for many people to explore and enjoy.
Tell me about your long friendship with co-partner Nick Pankey and the origins of the band?
Nick and I started playing together when we were around 14 years old. We played in a couple high school rock bands and when I started writing songs and playing more acoustic stuff, he peeled off with me and we started focusing on making albums. We did 3 full lengths in Ozark, just the 2 of us. We moved to Boston together in 2010 and made 2 albums there in our living room and then we made the move to Nashville in 2014 and got more folks involved. Nick and I have always gelled really well together in life and in music. Like brothers.
The first three releases were steps on the stairs; 2008, 2009, 2010. All produced by James Carter with both you and Nick. There is the strong sense of a group of friends, in a collective and producing music locally in Ozark, Missouri. Is this how you remember it?
Ozark is a small town, outside of Springfield, which is much bigger. We fell in with some great singer songwriters that were a bit older than us and we played where we could. Springfield has a really strong music community. Unfortunately, we left before we got fully involved in it but every time we go back and play, we meet more and more folks doing great things there.
These early releases have a very bare bones, confessional sense to the lyrics. They seem to focus on topics such as growing up, moving on, new beginnings, self-doubt, loneliness, relationships, existential questions and looking for hope in tomorrow. Have you always sought to explore the human condition in questioning both the past and the future?
I think so. It is what is most interesting to me. Those early releases were just things that were pouring out. I was pretty closed off emotionally and I think I was using writing as an outlet. I was also just exploring how to write songs. I think the later stuff is a bit more polished and crafted. The subject matter isn't all that different, I’m definitely interested in the human condition and trying to understand what folks are going through and how they deal with it. Myself included.
Is your song writing process from a personal perspective or do you prefer character songs that allow a freedom in adopting certain personas?
I like exploring both, often in the same song or collection of songs. Sometimes it all comes down to where a line I like ends up taking the song. I think a lot of them start from a personal feeling or anecdote and then that's when I can detach and start building characters, if that is the direction the story feels the most comfortable, or I can stay very personal if it's what is right for the song.
When did you move to Boston and was this move entirely focused on building your career opportunities further?
We moved to Boston in 2010. For me the move was mostly to get away from what I knew and experience something different. We ended up making two albums in our tiny living room, taking a lot of the things we learned from Jamie Carter and doing it ourselves. I think that experience taught us a lot.
Your fourth release, American Will, comes across as a more rounded, mature work with the fiddle of Eva Walsh a precursor for your current sound. The country influence seems more pronounced and the writing more observational of heartland America, as opposed to personal experience. Would you agree?
I have to wonder if that was caused by leaving Missouri. I was pretty nostalgic for it while we lived on Boston and I think that feeling was bleeding into the writing. I think that still happens now. We live in Nashville, which is a lot closer to home, but I still get in these writing moods where I want to explore what it was/is like back home; those different characters and experiences of growing up in Missouri.
Seven albums in ten years has been quite an output and you still have youth on your side. Do you come from a musical family background and what were your influences growing up?
I don't think either of us come from particularly musical families. My grandma played organ at church and my sister Keshia can sing beautifully. I’m not sure about anyone else. When we started making records together, we were also singing in the same choir in high school. That was a major help musically. I was listening to a lot of Dylan records and things like that. I started collecting vinyl when I was 12 years old, so there was a lot of old records to soak up.
Your insights and observations are very much part of the attraction in listening to My Politic. Does writing come easy to you or does the creative muse visit you on a more sporadic basis?
Thank you for saying that Paul. I feel like I am always writing in some way. I’m sporadic when it comes to sitting down and putting pen to paper, it usually happens when I have 4 or 5 songs going at once. That's when I have to start organizing. Lines and ideas are things I’m constantly looking for, because you always have to be ready for that moment when things start to line up and you feel inspired to actually write it out. The one thing that can always improve is the craft and that just takes doing it over and over and over again.
My initial introduction to your music was through a review copy of Anchor. One of the key songs on that release is God vs Evolution and I wondered how this song idea arrived?
I wrote that song in Boston before we moved to Nashville. I think that one came out done in one sitting. We grew up in a very religious area and then moved to Boston where things were more scholarly. I liked playing with the differences there.
The latest release is built around twelve story songs, from different perspectives. Are these characters doomed to loss or is there any hope of redemption?
I think there is. I was going through a lot when I wrote that album. I think there are pieces of my psyche in each of those stories and it was a kind of snapshot of what I was feeling in that moment.
Since moving from Boston to Nashville have you found it easier to get a foot on that ladder to greater recognition?
Boston felt like a more transient city for people. You go to school then maybe you leave. It was a great place to write, play out and record but Nashville is just a whole other thing. It feels more permanent for us here. There are obviously more opportunities because it's kind of the centre of the song-writing / music universe. More than that though, it's really nice to be around creative folks every day and watch each other grow. It makes you want to be better and that's probably the best opportunity we have here in Nashville.
How did you find the other members of the current band?
We met Will Cafaro, our bass player, up in Boston through a band called Tumbleweed Company. We didn't start playing with him till Nashville. Wilson Conroy was a similar story, we met him over at the Tumbleweed band house too. I heard Jen Starsinic playing her own songs and I thought they were really incredible. When I found out she played fiddle too, I really wanted her to play our stuff because I knew she would approach it from a songwriter's perspective. They are all so incredibly talented and we are lucky to play with each one of them!
Is touring something that you currently do on a local basis only?
We have done a decent amount touring through the South, Midwest and New England. We haven’t made it over to y'alls neck of the woods yet, but hopefully soon.
What are the constraints to bringing the band out on tour?
I just want to make sure everyone gets paid and that I’m not wasting their time. That can be difficult. Also, space… Ha, ha! We travel in Kia minivan and when you pile 5 people and all our gear in it, it becomes very close quarters. We all get along pretty good in spite of that. Also, we are really lucky to play a lot of house concerts around the country and the hosts are always so gracious. We usually end up staying at their houses and it makes it so much easier.
Playing the AMA Festival is recognition for what you are building. What comes next?
We will inevitably make another album, hopefully soon. We would really like get out on the road more that we do. And maybe we come to Ireland? That would be a dream come true.
Do media outlets such as You Tube bring you more admirers that you are aware of?
I think so. I certainly think YouTube is a place where people go to discover new artists. Videos are important these days.
What is the idea behind the Mad Valley Lodge?
The Mad valley lodge is a house concert series we have been doing once a month for about 5 years now. We usually have 2 artists (mostly local) play. The idea is that it is a listening room. The focus is on the artist 100%. It can get really disheartening when you play gig after gig to folks that couldn't care less that you are there. It has also been an incredible way for us to meet amazing folks in Nashville and build a community of like-minded creative people. The idea was basically to have an intimate listening room for folks that we admire to play their songs in and for the audience to get to have that up-close experience. We love putting it on.
It has to be all about self- belief, especially based in Nashville where the competition is so fierce. What is the essential glue that makes you endure?
Writing songs and being a part of a community of creative people is what it's all about. Being around really great writers and musicians on an everyday basis just makes you want to be better. These folks become family.
Well, there you are … Words of wisdom from a talented singer-songwriter who has a real shot at enduring success. There is an energy and enthusiasm that shines through in the performance and creative output of this artist and the music of My Politic is well worth investigating.
Interview by Paul McGee