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Pittsburgh Artist of the Week: The Stapletons

The Stapletons are a family band comprised of husband-and-wife Casey and Kate Stapleton. Their unique style of rootsy chamber folk features acoustic guitar, harp, and the couple’s tranquil voices. They’re taking the show – and their kids – on the road this fall, traveling 6,000 miles in an old school bus.

Casey and Kate recently spoke with WYEP’s Joey Spehar.

The Stapletons are:

Casey Stapleton – acoustic and 12-string guitar and vocals
Kate Stapleton – harp and vocals

This conversation may be lightly edited for content, clarity, or length.

What’s your musical history up to this point?

Casey: I grew up in L.A. My first guitar was a handmade Mexican classical guitar from my uncle in Mexico. He was a lawyer and received it as payment for services and passed it on to me. I grew up playing that classical guitar, although I really wanted to play the electric guitar. My father was against me playing music at all, but especially against electric guitar playing because he was convinced that if I played the electric guitar I would become a drug addict. In all fairness, he did have some basis to believe that electrified music led to drug use. In middle school, my Dad was best friends with Bob Weir. In high school, he took banjo lessons from Jerry Garcia. Lindsey Buckingham also was a year behind him in school.

On my mother’s side, my Mexican grandfather played in a mariachi band, wore a drawn on pencil mustache, and was perpetually impoverished, so my parents were both against me playing music. They did allow me to take guitar lessons though, and so I played the blues as much as I could on a classical guitar, and then bought an electric one as soon as I could.

Kate: I grew up in the driftless region of Wisconsin, which is a million miles away from LA. My family were all church musicians- my grandmother played the organ and directed the church choir, my mother and my aunt direct choirs as well. Every household in my mother’s family has an old fashioned upright grand piano stacked high with crumbling sheet music and my relatives would gather around the piano and sing three part harmony together on holidays.

I fell in love with the harp the first time I heard one. I walked into my friend’s living room and her dad was in the middle of recording an album and a woman was playing harp AND 12 string guitar at the same time. It was just a glorious sound. I was immediately seized with the desire to make music like that, so I went out and bought a tiny 3 octave harp that was in the window of the local music store. I started teaching myself to play the folk harp in high school, but I actually didn’t get really serious about the instrument until I was 21 and got pregnant unexpectedly. While I was trying to decide what to do, I was sitting in this empty room with this huge decision and a tiny harp. I decided to play every day for at least an hour, to create something beautiful even in the face of my fear.

I ended up placing my daughter for adoption, and for me the harp was something that gave me hope and beauty and healing. She’s now 23, and is a musician, and later this year we will be recording a song she wrote. For many years I was playing solo classical and celtic harp music, for weddings and at Irish pubs. It’s crazy because it wasn’t until many years AFTER we married that we started playing together, and developed our own version of harp and 12 string and 6 string songs. So in a way, I’ve come full circle and arrived back at that sound I first loved about the harp.

How do you describe your sound?

Casey: However we arrange songs, it’s always for the harp & guitar, and we try to have them complement each other. It’s always a bit of challenge, since they share similar frequencies, so we have to make space for each instrument.. Many people tend to think of the harp as belonging to the string-section in an orchestra, but it actually belongs to the percussion. The harp is actually a percussion instrument. It’s riff driven, rootsy, chamber folk. We bring in elements from many different genres but at the same time what we are doing is so unusual- we’re really creating our own genre.

Tell us more about the song “Faraway.” What inspired you to write it and what does it mean to you?  

Casey: My father was a ship captain and he was often away for months at a time. and once, when I was onboard with him, I met a cook who looked at my own son and said, “Oh, he reminds me of my son. I haven’t seen him in two years.” He had been working, sailing around the world, sending money home.

Kate: I think this song is a really poignant piece about traveling, and the fact that when you hold someone in your heart in a way they are always home, because you take that home with you wherever you go. It definitely makes me think about our school bus. We bought the bus because we take our 6 kids with us when we go on tour and we wanted them to feel at home wherever they go, and to enjoy the journey. In the bus they have their own bunk, and couch, and books, so they kind of take home with them wherever they go. But also the song reminds me of the daughter I placed for adoption, because I have spent my whole life holding her in my heart.

What was the first album that really changed your life?    

Casey: When I was growing up in California, I bought REM’s "Out of Time." I loved everything about that album–the songwriting, the melodies, and the nostalgic undercurrent. Michael Stipe’s voice is so warm and emotive. “Losing My Religion” made me want to learn how to play the guitar. When I told my guitar teacher I wanted to learn that song, he was like, “Yeah…okay…” and then promptly introduced me to Jimi Hendrix.

Kate: Remember the harpist who was recording an album that convinced me to play the harp? Her name is Ariane Lydon and the album is "Lady of the Green," and I absolutely love her style. She has a killer voice and is doing something literally no one else is doing with the harp, and it’s just beautiful. Total inspiration to me.

Who are some other Pittsburgh artists you think more people should listen to?  

Casey: A while back, there was a Pittsburgh band called Omega Love–their tunes were the equivalent of film noir, and they had a super-unique sound. I also really like Brooke Annibale’s voice and sound.

Learn more about The Stapletons here:


Check out previous Pittsburgh Artists of the Week here.

Joey Spehar is a Pittsburgh native who started as a volunteer D.J. at WYEP, fresh out of college in 2006. He took on any job they’d let him do like editing audio, engineering remote broadcasts, and shoveling snow.