“Do you remember where we were when all of this began,” sings Stephen Kellogg in a sincere self-reflection on “Those Kids”, the centerpiece moment on West, the second release in his 20-track, 4-EP collection, South, West, North, East.
The songs run the gamut from southern rock and singer-songwriter pop to westward folk ballads and his own version of indie rock. It’s a career that has taken Kellogg from major label recording studios to stripped-down compositions at truck stops, from U.S. military bases to Ted Talk stages. And you get the feeling that Kellogg is indeed, satisfied.
“I feel like i have some of my most interesting adventures in the last couple of years,” says Kellogg regarding the time since 2013’s Blunderstone Rookery, which included a few European tours, co-writing with other artists and the latest record.
“What’s fun about starting in Europe after being in the business ten or fifteen years is that you know [who you are as a musician and songwriter,” he continues. “You get to play these small shows with no expectations and a developed sense of what you do best.”
He then began work on the aforementioned SouthWestNorthEast earlier last year. Each EP was recorded in a different part of the country (South in Nashville, West on a Boulder, Colorado farm with fellow singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov (one of Kellogg’s former European tour mates), North with Josh Kaufman and former Sixer Boots Factor in Woodstock, NY, and East with Sixer Kit Karlson in Washington, D.C.).
“I’ve always had this thing where I mess around with different genres,” Kellogg says. “When I got signed to Universal, I think they had this vision that was going to this poppier guy since that was what was happening at the time like John Mayer and Jason Mraz. And the closer I ever envisioned to that was Counting Crows. You try on different hats and try to figure out what your music is to offer to the world. I would make this records that at times sounded poppy, at times sounded folky and other times an Americana thing. Looking back, I could see where some of the records were disjointed. I thought it would be cool to indulge fully each of those genres, where I would make four 5-song EPs exploring the cowboy songs or the southern rock songs or the pop songs. From there, the songs got tied into a region.”
The sessions also resulted in a short film, Peter Harding’s Last Man Standing.
“I had hired a guy who I didn’t know at all to do a two-minute promotional piece,” Kellogg explains. “It became a four-headed beast when he took it over and it became this much-larger film. At the end of it, the final cut was 30 minutes. It tells the story of a lot of people I know in the middle-class, someone between Springsteen and the starving artist. I look at it and wonder, if I had seen that starting out, would that have helped get my goals in line and prioritize things?”
Right before the journey ends on East with the acoustic-driven “Last Man Standing”, the listener is confronted by the bittersweet “26 Seconds of Silence”, a song about the Sandy Hook shootings that literally hit home for Kellogg.
“I am a part of the community where the Sandy Hook tragedy took place 3 years ago,” Kellogg elaborates. “It was and has remained the worst day I can remember. Just unspeakable and without redemption in so many ways. Even though I felt a lot of things about what happened, I just couldn’t find words to work it through, and I write my way through everything. In 2015 I started having something to say about it. A point of view. The idea that yes, sometimes illogical awfulness will descend upon us and all we’ll have is the ability to ‘huddle together’ and ‘die in each others arms if necessary’.”
The song reunited Kellogg with yet another Sixer, Chip Johnson.
“I told Chip Johnson that I had something taking shape and gave him a sense of what I was looking for and he sent me a really beautiful piano track which helped unlock the rest of the song for me,” Kellogg says. “The writing and recording of that song was emotionally brutal. I couldn’t stop crying when I was trying to record the song, and I didn’t even want to. I feel like we owe those families our tears as a currency for our failure to protect their loved ones, but of course that’s the nature of the Sandy Hook story.”