Kath Bloom and Josephine Foster on Playing Music on Their Own Terms

The singer-songwriters and friends catch up.

Kath Bloom is the legendary Connecticut-based folk singer-songwriter; Josephine Foster is a genre-defying singer-songwriter from Colorado. To celebrate the recent releases of their respective new albums, the two friends hopped on the phone to talk about their relationships to their own work, and the inherent lifelike quality of music.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor

Josephine Foster: Well, hello. Good morning, Kath.

Kath Bloom: Morning! Haven’t heard you in a long time, and your music.

Josephine: Oh, yeah. It’s been a while since we were in the same room.

Kath: Yeah, definitely. I haven’t been in the same room with too many people since the pandemic. It’s always the same people. 

Josephine: I know it. It really is. You get to know each other real well.

Kath: Yup.

Josephine: So, I sure was loving your new record. I’m really, really grateful that that could cut through the distance. That means a lot.

Kath: Yeah. That’s nice to have music for now. I think back on the pandemic of 1918, and it must have been hard getting music around to each other.

Josephine: Yes, although I wonder if people were more actively musical then.

Kath: Families tended to be musicians, I think, more, but I’m getting into an area I just don’t know enough about. Talk about me! [Laughs.]

Josephine: Let’s talk about you! Well, I have been thinking about your songs, which I first heard, I don’t know, 2006 or ‘05, or something. I was thinking of you with your new songs and how constant you are, your message being very fundamental.

Kath: “Fundamental,” that’s good, because I get “depressing” also. “How constant you’re depressing me.”

Josephine: Not at all, and in fact, that first song on your record, “Blinded” — it was striking me that what is so important about your songs is that you know how to love, and you teach that in your songs.

Kath: Aw. I got goosebumps all over now.

Josephine: Well, you give goosebumps, because, what I always hear is you… witnessing your own mind, and learning about your own feelings, but also drawing back to a bigger perspective. Like, in that “Blinded” song, you’re talking to this person — I don’t know who it is, if it’s many different people, [or] one person.

Kath: Yeah. It’s really all a conglomeration — or, that’s kind of a business term, I don’t want to use that. But it’s more just everything, and it’s never one. I do remember I was sitting outside in the yard of someone who had severe cancer and who wasn’t destined to live very long, but it’s like, there’s so many things that go into any kind of creating, as you well know. It’s really about being open to it that’s important, don’t you think?

Josephine: Oh, absolutely. I mean, what I hear also is, there’s a wholesomeness in your songs.

Kath: Wow.

Josephine: Yeah, I was literally like, Oh, my god, these songs are wholesome, because you have a lot of awareness of your own follies, and then you forgive yourself and you forgive others. That’s really unique, and that’s why it really opens the heart to listen to you sing,

Kath: Sorry, where am I forgiving? Like, what’s the line where you’re like…

Josephine: Just to go back to “Blinded,” you’re like, “all I can see is this disguise of yours,” but you’re trying to get beyond that superficial block you’re having with this other person. And I’m really simplifying the lyrics because I don’t have the words right in front of me, and it’s a new song to me — and then you’re like, “but, hey, the sun is out and we’re here together.” You pull back to the larger perspective, and it’s about connection. I just feel like your songs are so much about connections.

Kath: Well, I can’t live without it. I mean, I can be alone if I’m so-called creating, but just being alone, I’ve never been that good at. I always knew how important it was to be alone, and that there’s nothing static about any relationships, unless you make them that way.

Josephine: So, [is] your day to day life the primary source of your songs? Just really domestic things that later, as they become slightly abstracted, [you find] that they’re kind of more universal? I mean, that’s what I hear, but I wonder how you feel about the source of them.

Kath: I feel like I just sit down somewhere and start playing and see what comes out. I’ve taken some notes — like, I probably have 300 notebooks of things. I think your feelings percolate to a point where you want to put them together somehow, and that’s where the composing comes in, because, I guess, in a way it’s… You’re trying to make something whole out of something that is already whole, but it’s so big. I don’t know how to explain it, but I think it gives me comfort to finish a song and go pop.

Josephine: Yeah, It feels so good, doesn’t it? It’s almost alive, it’s like a little creature. It has life in it, a song, because you’re going to later embody it and you’re going to speak through it to different people.

Kath: And you can have interpreting too. You can have the same… Well, it’s some different fashion of it, but, I guess just watching a video of Jacqueline du Pré, the cellist — it’s her playing a concerto with a symphony, and I can see just how much she put her own purity into the piece she was playing, and it’s so moving.

Josephine: Yeah. She’s amazing. You played the cello.

Kath: Yeah, I played for a little while. I do like that instrument. It has a beautiful tone.

Josephine: Oh, it’s an amazing instrument. So you played it when you were quite young?

Kath: Yeah, I only played for about maybe four years, not even that much, and I used to freeze up at recitals, so I was like, no way. I pretty much froze up at doing a lot of things. That’s why I kind of got into horses, I think because horses made me feel great.

Josephine: Yes, horses have the same sort of anxiety, don’t they, as a woman? [Laughs.]

Kath: That’s interesting. Well, they are anxious creatures in certain ways, and there’s some kind of magic about just joining up in some way with them, where they’re not minding you. Like, you’re freeing them, they’re freeing you, and that’s sort of how I look at playing music with people, too.

Josephine: Yeah, I love that. It is. It’s about returning to some sort of equilibrium, finding it. So, regarding those horses that you are spending so much time with, it’s been a real turnaround in the training the horses, hasn’t there? On a larger scale, there’s always more of the domination, and…

Kath: It’s more of meeting up with them and… Well, I don’t know. I do work with little children, too, doing the music, and that really opened me up tremendously just because the human spirit is so raw in those classes. In a way, they’re just within themselves at that point. They play together, but it’s different when they’re really young. I can’t write a whole book during this interview, but I don’t really know. It feels so good because it’s so spontaneous and nonjudgmental. When they’re that young, they’re not judging you, and neither do horses judge you, they just they react to you. And I was afraid of being judged, I guess it comes down to that.

Josephine: Oh, yeah. I mean, I taught preschool and that was my favorite age, like the three and four year olds, because I felt like… Like what you’re saying, they’re just so incredibly open and spontaneous. The programming hasn’t been put in, and the self-consciousness. It’s so beautiful to be around. Magic.

Kath: Because they’re so spot on, sometimes.

Josephine: Oh, yeah.

Kath: I miss it. I haven’t been doing it since the pandemic. They have asked me to Zoom at places, and I’m not up to it with that right now, because of the timing. I’m doing something, and their taught reaction is in a different time or something, and it really freaks me out.

Josephine: Yes. I know you have one granddaughter, but do you have more?

Kath: I only have one, but we do a… Oh, did I send you any of the songs she’s made up?

Josephine: You sent me one — you were singing together, and it was beautiful. It was joyful, about cats.

Kath: Oh yeah, “I’m in Love with the Cat.”

Josephine: Are you able to see her right now?

Kath: Yeah. It’s been a little spotty because she’s, like, 40 minutes away and we’re watching out for everything with the pandemic too, because it’s… Especially my husband has some things. He better not get this illness.

Josephine: Yeah. The vigilance right now for people of certain conditions, it’s quite overwhelming task.

Kath: And if people were all in it together, we’d be through it by now. It’s just no leadership and just a lot of hating. That’s the creepiness of the whole thing.

Josephine: Absolutely. What are your feelings for the children right now? I’ve been feeling a lot of… just sort of dismay.

Kath: Dismay.

Josephine: It’d be a new reality… My nephews have to be at home and [doing] virtual learning. You know, what effect is this going to have? What are they really learning? I don’t know. I don’t think there’s any answers right now.

Kath: Yeah. I’m at a loss for words. I could tear apart a lot about our school systems, but on the other hand, I feel very concerned, too, for moms and/or dads that are at home with children that have no place to go. That’s a big issue. It’s just so overwhelming, because we could all really be working together so much more.

Josephine: And your song about the houses burning, which I loved. It was amazing.

Kath: Isn’t David [Shapiro, guitarist]’s playing on that amazing?

Josephine: Oh, it’s gorgeous. It was funny, there’s so many fires in Colorado, and the day before I heard that, my mother and I were talking and she was like, “Well, we really have to make this fire plan, and I think I want to bring the…” This little tiny desk that her grandfather made. I was thinking, wow, that’s a pretty ambitious thing to want to carry out of a house if you have a fire. It is very ambitious, a handmade piece of friendship. But you talk about that in the song…

Kath: That song, though, was written quite a while ago and not about anything that happened. It’s really…

Josephine: Like a metaphorical song.

Kath: The thing at the end when they’re walking, Timmy and Martha, or whatever name I put in when I sang that song — they were inspired by the Raymond Carver story I read. I can’t even tell you exactly which story it was, but his short stories just totally swayed me. Another instance of where when you’re writing, you can’t ever pinpoint why you did anything that you did. It’s more important that the song itself is whole, somehow. That’s what’s important, I think.

Josephine: How do you feel the wholeness of it? Like, when do you know it’s done?

Kath: I think when I keep going in. I keep feeling stupid and I go, no, I’m not going to just run this into the ground, or… I don’t know, just feelings like that. Or sometimes, I actually just have a big catharsis. Like, I cry.

Josephine: Wow, yeah. When do you relinquish a song, like, not want to sing it anymore?

Kath: Oh, you mean sing it out?

Josephine: Yeah. Do you ever have that feeling?

Kath: Oh, yeah. But see, I didn’t perform as much as a lot of people. In fact, I’m much more into performing now, which is kind of sad because now you can’t just learn that. 

Josephine: Sad for us, yeah.

Kath: Maybe it’s the way it always is. And I just feel… I don’t know, it depends a lot on who I’m playing with. Before, I think I just wasn’t ready to let go of things. I can’t really put my finger on it. How about you, have you got to the point where you didn’t want to anymore?

Josephine: Well, yeah, sure. I have a song that comes to mind that, it’s so sad to me I actually almost hate singing it, because it’s painful. So, I did record it a couple years ago and it’s not released, but the only way to sing it is to enter that emotional state, or it’s pointless to sing it, and I find that such a dark place. So, I kind of was like, I just want to record this and just… I think it has its own value, but it’s not something I really want to feel again.

Kath: I understand that. And then some songs, you just tear up while you’re singing and you go, Where’d that come from? But you know, for me, a lot, it is, again, who I play it with or for. And then it feels really alive.

Josephine: Yes, and even the time of year, or the time of day — like I have some songs that I just don’t like singing at a certain time of the year, because they’re sort of tied to nature or even some just seem ridiculous to sing at night.

Kath: Yeah. This is really my favorite time of year coming up now here. It’s cooled a little. I love fall, fall is good. “Fall Again” was really, I want to say, the second complete song I ever wrote and I still really like it.

Josephine: When did you write that?

Kath: I don’t know, early to mid-’80s. Yeah, in there somewhere.

Josephine: So you grew up with a musical family, or at least your father a professional musician. Were you turned off from music for a long while? Just kind of from that harshness of the structured approach, or did you keep kind of a little personal flame of engaging in some sort of playing of any sort before you started writing?

Kath: That’s a great question. I was surrounded. My dad practiced the oboe a lot, he had a great musical tone that I feel still grateful for. His phrasing is very beautiful. My brothers and I would sit at classical concerts, and there was a point where we’d try not to giggle or something and someone would kind of slap our knees and stuff. But I really kind of got into guitar my own after I was out of the house. I tried to play cello for a while, but, like the same thing I said, I froze up at recitals. Wasn’t my thing.

Josephine: No, they’re horrible.

Kath: I just kind of wanted to go off and sit in a field and play, and that’s pretty much what I tried to do my whole life.

Josephine: I felt the same thing. Like, I was interested in opera singing, and I guess I’d get kind of thrown off and I would just retreat to the guitar and writing songs and this feeling of that incredible liberation. Not only just making music that suits you exactly how you want it to be, but also just being able to take the music out of doors and out of any sort of formal setting, you know?

Kath: Yep. I totally, I do.

Josephine: It’s the best. I would never have to depend on something else, somebody else, or a structure to make this piece of music.

Kath: Yeah, and not have anything expected of you.

Josephine: Exactly.

Kath: You know, I tried my hand at different things — I was a good runner — but nothing really said my private life, my feelings, all that stuff I found could come swirl around and something would happen after I learned a few chords, and it just opened up a new thing to me. I didn’t take it seriously. I really took it more like a therapy of some kind.

Josephine: Yeah. You were talking about having trouble letting go of things, and I wondered what you were referring to and how you felt about music as a more ephemeral thing, or how you view that.

Kath: Well, I feel I can let go of it unless it’s… If something’s recorded very badly, I don’t want to put it out there. Do you?

Josephine: Well, that’s kind of an interesting thing in terms of coming out of classical music. I was always very fascinated by the same song being done over and over by different singers and even by the same singer, and I was like, wow, listen to this version, and listen to this, and then

Kath: Like listening to Maria Callas sing this in 1952, and then listen to her sing it in 1968. And I’m like that with Billie Holiday, too. It’s amazing… You win some and you lose some all the way down the line.

Josephine: Yeah. It’s the beauty of seeing the arc of somebody’s life and their experience reflected through their voice, and I think that’s a little lost now because it’s like, OK, here’s the song, and then sometimes people are, even myself, I’ve been like, well, that’s not a good version, and I’ve tried to remind myself that was just how I was feeling. I was sick that day or this was a really hard moment, and that’s how it was. And I’ve tried to release things, re-record things, and some people are, “Well, you already did that,” and it’s like, well, yeah, but I’m still experiencing this in a new way. I still want to express this.

Kath: Yeah, go for it, I mean, Neil Young does that all the time. I think in the long run it should be up to you.

I really feel good right now. I do, and I love playing with the people I’m playing with and I want it to be heard and that’s… I really do feel that’s a big part of music: who you make it with and the life it has and the give and take.

Josephine: So, I wondered… Our friend John Ellingham, I don’t know if you know that he had a big record collection, and tapes and recordings in Nashville in a storage unit, and there was a meth lab in the neighboring unit that somebody had an explosion.

Kath: Oh, no.

Josephine: So he’s been kind of in and around with that news. What do you feel about these records in the face of… They seem like a permanent thing. I was thinking, wow, you make a record and it seems kind of substantial, but it really isn’t either. It could just melt in this fire, and in a few decades they might be gone too.

Kath: Well, we’re really getting into the metaphysical. I think it’s the energy, somehow. I think about these things all the time — I know you do, too — but it must be something to do with that. The spark of it, and if something carries through, even when it’s no longer here. Nothing will be here at some point.

Kath Bloom’s Bye Bye These Are The Days and Josephine Foster’s No Harm Done are both available now

Kath Bloom is a Connecticut-based folk songwriter. Her latest album, Bye Bye These Are The Days, is out now via Dear Life Records.