To say that Stephen Kellogg, formerly of Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers, had a rough year in 2012 would be the ultimate understatement. 2012 saw Kellogg’s last show with the Sixers before the band’s indefinite hiatus, as well as the deaths of his mother-in-law and grandmother. These losses manifest themselves in the form of Kellogg’s newest solo endeavor Blunderstone Rookery, which drops June 18. We talked to Kellogg about life after the Sixers, his songwriting process, his musical influences and moving forward.
You suffered some setbacks recently – how are you feeling now?
I’m not sure they were setbacks, so much as life doing what it does. People die. People leave. Plans change and occasionally bad things happen. Through the difficult year that was 2012, it always felt like that – like that run of tough luck, but nothing personal. 2013 hasn’t felt that way and I’m thankful for the relief.
Have you spoken to anyone in the Sixers since you went on hiatus?
Oh yeah. I talk to most of the guys weekly or somewhere there abouts. There isn’t any acrimony, lots of love. In one combo or another, everyone has played with each other at least once, since our last show 6 months ago. I miss the company of the guys, but I don’t think it could be any other way at present.
How was that last gig?
Emotional. Amazing. Triumphant and at the same time a little sad. We played for three hours to a sold out Webster Hall in NYC. We drank Dom Perignon (tasted like Korbel to me). After nearly 1300 performances together we just put it all into that last tour. The fans came out, everyone had positive energy and for that month when we were on tour, nothing else mattered beyond playing our hearts out every night. We tried to do that throughout our career but on that last tour, the level of the music came up to meet our previously unmet standard and at the risk of sounding arrogant, I’m proud of what we did – it meant a lot to a modest number of people – but it did mean a lot.
Tell us a bit about your new album.
It’s called Blunderstone Rookery, which is the boyhood home of David Copperfield (the Dickens character). His home was a happy place that became unhappy and eventually he makes his peace with it – that became the metaphor for this record. I produced it with the help of Kit Karlson (fellow Sixer and longtime musical collaborator). I started out shooting for Jim Croce and landed wherever it is I’ve landed. It was very very cathartic and I enjoyed the process of making this record a great deal, though as Tom Petty says “no one cares what you did to get it, they care how it sounds.”
How would you compare it to your previous album?
Well the thing about making a solo record vs. a band record is that a band is a democracy (or something like one). On Blunderstone Rookery I was able to kind of run with just the rootsy aesthetic that I dig, and with the help of my co-producer Kit Karlson, associate producer Chip Johnson and engineer Chris Sanchez, we pursued that exclusively.
I wanted the songs to be able to do all the lifting, so that even if my voice was shot (Which it often is) and the band couldn’t make it, I could still get across the tune. The lyrics are more front and center, the production is organic and I tried to be patient about getting performances that felt inspired and a little edgy, even if slightly off kilter.
The last big difference is that a band sounds like a band. On this record if we didn’t have the vibe right on the tune, we used different instruments, musicians, etc…There is no need to sound like the same band on every tune…so there are horns and strings and n that sense it’s a very new ground for me.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
John Prine, Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, John Mayer, Ryan Adams, Josh Ritter, Sheryl Crow, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter, Emmylou Harris.
When did you start writing songs?
It’s funny because I was cleaning out my office recently and I came across notebooks from when I was a little boy and they were filled with lyrics. I have such a sentimental heart that it brought tears to my eyes to read my 9 year old musings. Then just yesterday my wife sent me clip of a song my 8 year old daughter wrote and well you can imagine the impact that had on me…
Were they good right away, or did that come later?
My songs have improved with age, let’s put it that way. I’d be surprised if anyone’s songs are good right out of the box…
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
I could sing you the riff…it was probably the last time I based a song on a guitar riff…and it had a lot of numbers “loved you once, twice today, three times, she ran away…” something like that – nothing I’ll be resurrecting any time soon.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
I’m just about done with “Greta Girl” which is a super upbeat tribute to my fourth daughter. Each of the other girls has a song and the fact that this one wasn’t done in time for “Blunderstone Rookery” is totally unacceptable to my other girls – but I didn’t want to force it and I was just getting to know Greta when this record was being wrapped up. It’s a nice tune and a different kind of melody than I’ve written before. I see part of my purpose in writing to be making sure that people I care about most have a clear picture of how I felt about them. Is that indulgent? Sure, but it’s part of why I do this.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Stories of sadness, forgiveness and redemption. More and more the idea that we must follow the light and be brave in the way we live. When I see great movies, or read great books, or have a great conversation with someone, when the lump forms in my throat and my eyes tingle – I find myself needing to write, needing to make sense of the struggles.
How do you go about writing songs?
Two ways. If inspiration comes knocking in any form (usually it’s lyrics but once in awhile music), I sit down and grab whatever is readily available and sort through it later. I write the lines in my journals (pen and paper, computer or notebook). If however I’m writing “on demand” so to speak, for myself or another artist, I think the most important thing is determining what we want to say. Then considering it, chatting about it, and “getting underneath the hood” until it’s been said. The melody and music should support those lyrics as a vehicle to take the words to the people. And that vehicle has to be comfortable for the given artist. For me, I’m most comfortable in an old pick up truck, but when I was writing with Javier Colon for his record, we can make his vehicle a shiny red Corvette. His voice and personality work like that. When I wrote with Marc Roberge from OAR for their new record, his vehicle might be an Escalade or something – haha (ah, the metaphors)…
The last thing about the songs which I’ve learned only fairly recently is that you can’t be too afraid to mess them up. It’s ok to edit and I do that a lot more now – cutting lines I like that just don’t serve the song, making sure the arrangement actually propels the casual listener, etc…
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
Oops, I kind of answered it above. The soundbite though is “edit for content” — I try not to let any BS get in there. Nothing that is in there for rhymes sake — it’s got to be the right tone and feeling. A guy once called my lyrics “over reaching” and it stuck with me in a hurtful way for a good bit. My feeling is that I’ve lived or been close to almost every lyric I’ve written in the last 10 years. I know I’m not the greatest singer, I understand that my music isn’t on the cutting edge of what’s en vogue at the moment, I accept those critiques more readily, but if there is any question that I believe what I sing, I just don’t listen to that criticism because it’s inaccurate. My approach is tell the truth.
What’s a song on Blunderstone Rookery you’re particularly proud of and why?
“Thanksgiving” is one that I’m proud of. It was an ambitious concept with a lot of moving parts and a song that no one including us thought we would be able to sort in a way that stayed exciting but I think it came out nicely.
What’s a lyric or verse on the album that you’re a fan of?
Oh you know I have my babies on there “Those years we spent talking, learning to agree, the truth is I’m just thankful you tolerated me” … or I have a ball singing this one “When it comes to daughters, I know a thing or two, I teach them that they’re gonna have to be brave and look out for all of you” — this is my weakness, I love words and once I find the ones I want to say, I kind of fall in love with them. I need trusted help in editing, because I know sometimes I get too attached.
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
It’s getting easier. The more you live, the more there is to write about and I’ve been very lucky to learn a little more each year about this. I look forward to the songs I’ve yet to write.
Are there any words you love or hate?
It’s simple but I love the word “heart”… I play this game with my oldest daughter where we bounce words off each other that we like or dislike. I think that there is a time and a place for all words, it’s just figuring out where that is and placing it there.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
I sure do. I wrote a book review blog for the last year that I’m pretty sure almost no one (including my book club friends) read…haha! But I loved doing it. I’ve been at work on some essays too and I recently started writing some thoughts on life as kind of a “I hope you know these things” to my girls. I love writing non-fiction in most any form.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
I’ve been very lucky to have a close relationship with the people that listen to my music and I’m always very touched when someone shares a story with me. I think my song “Father’s Day” has meant a good deal to folks, but that question is probably more accurately answered by listeners.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Well, I’d love to write with Bob Marley or Tom Petty. Somehow all their songs sound great and massive in theme without the arrogance that can accompany broad strokes…and they are probably two of the most economical writers I know. Economy is something I still strive for and am learning about and I think they are the masters.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Hmmn…that’s tough. Underrated by whom? I think Bob Seger and Billy Joel should be universally accepted by critics the way Petty and Springsteen are because their songs are just as good. But Seger and Joel aren’t what your average person would call “underrated”…I think Matt Nathanson has a catalog full of interesting songs that are slowly being discovered by a large audience…if we are talking completely underrated though, I think Luke Brindley’s “Hidden Wholeness” album is absolutely incredible and I bet any of these writers can and will write more brilliant songs for the world.
What do you consider to be the perfect song (written by somebody else), and why?
I think Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” is perfection. It’s so honest. It has the signature lick, it has the chorus, and when you get to that last line of the song, oh man does it pay off “my boy was just like me, he’d grown up just like me” … and every person who hears that song knows exactly what Harry’s talking about.