Melding Americana, rock, folk and pop, Stephen Kellogg has always been one of the greatest musical storytellers of this century. From major records with his band Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers to striking out on his own with conceptually crafted records to writing with the likes of OAR and Robert Randolph, Kellogg just wants to communicate honest and resounding truths.
His latest record, 2018’s Objects in the Mirror, was produced by fellow artist Will Hoge. The two will be embarking on the Gentlemen of the Road tour this fall with a stop at WorkPlay Theatre on Wednesday, September 25th.
We spoke with Stephen Kellogg (or SK, as he is know to fans) at length about the new record, writing his first book and the community he has built over the years through his music.
Chris K. Davidson for Magic City Bands: With your last album, South, West, North, East, you had this ambitious project of writing and recording an EP in each region of the country. When the tour for that album cycle was dying down and you were thinking about what was next, what was your mindset at that point?
Stephen Kellogg: With South, West, North, East, it was almost like I didn’t know what I should do, so I decided to try all these different experiences and we made the album with that mindset. I definitely wasn’t swinging for the fences. I was just trying to figure out what I wanted to do next.
When I went out touring that record, in some ways it felt that way to me even on the tour. I was playing some solo shows and some band shows, just kind of fishing around for the next chapter, I feel like.
Then I got offered this great tour. It was going to be two months, and it was going to Ryman Auditorium and Red Rocks Amphitheatre. I was going to be the first of three acts on this big summer shed tour. I’d only gotten to do something like that in a very limited fashion in my career, so I was really excited about it. And then the second act shifted, and the new second act’s management decided that Kellogg wouldn’t be a good first fit. So then that tour went away. So at that point, it was too late to get anything going for the summer.
It crushed me. I was so bummed about this. I don’t know why. It was like my band [The Sixers] breaking up was easier than losing this tour. And the morning I got the news, I was supposed to be doing a writing session for a commercial or something with my friend Eric Donnelly. He had come over, and he could see I was bummed, so we talked about it. I’m a very emotional guy, and he’s a very Zen human Yoda-like presence. He said, “Stephen, as a guy that plays in your band, it would have been fun to go do [the tour], but you would have just been killing time out there. What you need to do is write the best songs of your career, make the best record of your career and just get back to work.”
He said it in just the right way that it really hit a chord with me. It’s not like I went out and immediately wrote a bunch of songs, but his message was noted and it came from a loving place. It really began the process of me trying to determine what would be okay to do, but what songs would I be so fired up to go on stage to sing every night? What do I have to say that I haven’t said yet?
And that began the process of making this new record and really within a matter of months, I set about just throwing myself into it. All of sudden, we started getting really sturdy songs and put a great team together to make the record. Then, the recording went well. And it turned out that when you have better songs, the shows are more fun to play. It’s been a year since we made that record, but it was just the beginning of what has been an incredible 16 months for me.
MCB: And the songwriter you’re touring with and the producer of Objects in the Mirror, Will Hoge, played on the South portion of South, West, North, East, correct?
SK: Yeah, I went down to Nashville, and he came in and sang on the EP. We’d always been artist friends, but that was the beginning of us getting involved together in different things.
MCB: The new record does seem like a bit of an expansion of the music that was produced on that South EP, especially the first couple of tracks.
SK: We made the new album in a similar fashion in that we used some Nashville guys. What we did that was a little bit different than South was we brought in half the guys from my touring band and the other half were from the really talented crop of Nashville musicians that exist down there. Something about that approach seemed to balance things out and still give it a rawness to the songs. Sometimes, those Nashville musicians are so good, they can make something sound perfectly clean, and that’s never really felt like my style. It is an extension of South, but we built on it.
MCB: When did writing the book become a part of this particular creative process?
SK: This book is kicking my ass into the stratosphere. The book came about because around the same time I had that conversation with Eric Donnelly, he said that I needed a new idea. For a long time, I thought it would be neat to write a book like a lot of people. I had written a bunch of talks and essays, but I hadn’t really done something of that magnitude. But I decided that it would be cool to do a collection of essays that I would release as a companion piece, and that would be a cool new idea. The album came together quite seamlessly. We got the studio we wanted and the musicians we wanted. It really went well. We made the thing in like eight days and it was all happening. The book was the total opposite. I started working on it and quickly realized it’s not something you just do like that.
Announcing the book before I had really finished the manuscript was foolish. But the good part about that announcement was that it’s kept on the course. And as we talk today, I’m doing the last round of edits before we go to copy editing a full year later than I thought I would be on that deadline. I just needed more time. It takes a long time. But the book really is a companion piece to the record. It just turns out that writing a book is hard.
MCB: At least you can say you got it done.
SK: I’m going to celebrate like a sailor on shore leave the night I get a copy in my hands and know that I’ve officially completed the process. But I can see the light at the end of the tunnel now.
MCB: One of the questions I had about both the album and the book, but in the documentary about the making of South, West, North, East (Last Man Standing), you talk about how hard it was for to sing the song, “26 Seconds of Silence,” which was about the Sandy Hook shooting. In the new record and this book, were there any lyrics or portion of the book that was hard to put into words or record the song because of the emotion behind them?
SK: I feel like I always have that. If I don’t have that happen on any of my records, something is wrong, because that’s my speed, so to speak. Probably to a fault, I burn off a lot of emotion in that I love being right on the edge of falling over into the emotional abyss.
On this new record, that song would have been the title track, “Objects in the Mirror.” That was one, that when I wrote it – similar to “26 Seconds’ – you felt like something was coming through you. You felt like you were the vessel to get these particular lines into the universe. I was supposed to meet my mom at a friend’s backyard barbecue, and I never came. She asked me about it later, and I told her that I was writing something that I would be singing until the day I die. That’s a good feeling, and you don’t want to walk away from that.
The one thing about recording fast is you always wonder if you could have gotten a better version of something, but you also can suck the emotion of a song sometimes. I’d just finished “Objects in the Mirror” three weeks before we recorded, so it still had that very new feeling, for better or for worse. I was definitely choking my way through some of the lines, but I’m not sure if I had taken voice lessons a month prior, that I would have fared any better. It’s hard to sing songs that you’re deeply invested in sometimes.
MCB: Speaking of the title track, I was curious about that voice that the listener hears at the very beginning.
SK: That’s my grandmother. She had passed away the year prior. I tell this story onstage sometimes about how all of the records I was on would want me to reach a wider audience and try to use less specific dates and names. I think they thought that advice would help. So I had to laugh when I was doing this record, which I’m recording independently, and I have these dates and names.
I love how on hip-hop records they tie things together and have all of these little segue ways. So I was considering that, and I was looking through my voicemails, and I have this series of voice memos from my grandmother. She was just about my best friend in the world. She had passed away, and I can’t bring myself to delete these memos, so they stay on my phone. I was just sitting there listening through them, and I came across that one that’s now on the record. It was her last message to me on one of my birthdays. And it just occurred to me how great it would be to have her on my record, so that every time I hear my record, I think of her. It just keeps her that much more present in my life.
I call people who have passed all the time just to hear their voice on their voicemail, and it’s a comfort. It makes you feel like they’re less gone.
MCB: And the line in that song “hope for another year” is an incredibly powerful image.
SK: These songs are all sort of like prayers. They’re wishes, they’re hopes. It’s some attempt to manifest what I’m experiencing here as a human. Just to make sense of the things that we come across. We certainly all hope for just a little more time with the people that we love.
MCB: Not sure if you did this intentionally, but the new record has lyrics and titles that call back to songs and albums you’ve written before. For example, on several of your past records, you’ve had at least one song written for each of your four daughters, so the track “Song for Daughters” seems to tie that all together.
SK: You get themes and ideas, and you mine them. One of the goals that we had on this record when I was thinking about what I wanted to say was that for years, I had been fishing around for who I’m supposed to be, and when you’re on record labels, you kind of have to listen to what you should be doing because they’re paying for you to make records. You’re trying to be reasonable and hear them out. But finding myself independent for a while, one of the silver linings of that is to ask yourself what you want to be, and let yourself be the most unapologetic version of that.
One thing I realized is that I like writing about family. I like being a sentimental guy. I like that I’m an emotional songwriter. I don’t want to be cool and please the cool kids and make songs that are so obscure you have no idea what’s being sung. I don’t really enjoy that music myself. On this record, it was a true north that we wrote down when we were planning the whole thing out. If there are songs about family, then let them be songs about family and not try to obscure them in any weird way. Let’s just go for it and be who we are.
Those themes that have been kicking around for years and years are still the themes in my brain. I just tried to develop the thoughts and maybe share a little new insight or maybe say something a little more succinctly, or in a few cases, just give them a palate to jump from. For “Song for Daughters,” if I’m going to play one “daughters” song that night, that’d be a good choice. It’s not like I wrote that song, and I’ll never write about that stuff again. But I definitely brought some thoughts that have been having for a lot of years home on this record.
MCB: And you worked with Peter Harding again (director of Last Man Standing) – for the “High Highs, Low Lows” video?
SK: I did. I thought he was something else on that film. I was going to do a video, but when you’re paying with your own money, you ask yourself who do I know that actually cares about this process and will give it their all? Peter was super busy; he’s doing a movie right now with Lukas Nelson, but he had a few free days, and I said let’s come up with an idea for a video and make it in three days. Most of it was shot while on tour at 6 a.m. We were in Portland, ME, when we were shooting the beach scenes, and it was freezing cold. Peter kept asking me to take my hands out of my pockets, so I was trying not to look like a popsicle.
MCB: For the new album, you reached out again to your fans to fund the record. It’s very cool to see you interacting with your fans, and your fans interact with each other because a lot of people were paying it forward by buying the record for other fans that they didn’t even know.
SK: That was a beautiful thing when that started happening. It’s not a big community on a global scale, but it is an incredibly thoughtful group of people that come out to these shows. I am so pleased and humbled by the people who come to the shows now in 2019. I just feel like we’ve cultivated a thing where people show up and you see these friendships that have been built across state lines and you see people looking out for each other. There are little gifts going around all the time, and there’s this deep ability to relate to strangers and to share this whatever the hell kind of music I am. It’s kind of rocking, kind of folky, funny at times and super not funny at other times. It’s really something else.
MCB: That’s the thing I’ve always admired about your music. Humans are complex. They have different parts to them that we don’t always see, but they’re there. Your music is able to weave this kind of web that connects people.
SK: I’m just in there as a part of it, but it does make me feel good about the work that I’ve been doing. There was just a point five or six years ago when I wondered if my best work was behind me. It’s not that I don’t want to be entertaining, but I started shifting away from having entertainment as a paramount value and moved more towards storytelling and the idea of what happens if I really try to speak my truth. Is everyone going to be like “ah, you used to be fun, but I don’t want to come to your shows anymore”? And I really didn’t know because The Sixers were such a high entertainment value band, and I wasn’t sure I could do that. I tried to do it, but it didn’t really go well, and I started wondering what’s my purpose here? It’s so pleasing to me now that six years later, I’m having more fun playing shows than I ever have in my life. And this tour is going to be so much fun. Just to play with such a great songwriter and swap stories every night, I’m very pleased with what’s happened over the years.
Stephen Kellogg will be at WorkPlay Theatre with Will Hoge and Hailey Steele at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, September 25th.You can order your tickets here.
Chris K. Davidson is a writer and musician in Birmingham. He sings in the band Waterwells.