Posted February 11, 2016 by Jeff in Tunes

Stephen Kellogg: All over the musical map

Stephen Kellogg
Stephen Kellogg

For his first independent release in more than a decade, acclaimed singer-songwriter Stephen Kellogg celebrates his freedom with the expansive four-part album, South, West, North, East. In the past decade, Kellogg, whose music can be heard in numerous films and TV shows such as One Tree Hill, Men of a Certain Age and Mercy, has performed more than 1500 concerts in more than a dozen countries. Currently streaming via Spotify, the album arrives in stores on February 12. Kellogg talked to us via phone from his Connecticut home as he made a sandwich while taking a break from tour rehearsals.

Where did you grow up and what drew you to music?
I grew up in the Northeast, Southern Connecticut mostly and Massachusetts a little bit. My uncles were farmer guys. They were a little scary, but they had big pig roasts, and there’d be music. That was the doorway into the whole thing. As a got into college and started looking at the alternatives to making a living, I found it was a lot more fun to play guitar and sing and write. I could pay my bills the same as I could if I went to a more conventional job. After a couple of years of jobs I was ill-suited to — I sold ads for a while and did some other stuff — I decided to do this. A lot of good things happened.

How did the Sixers come together?
Not being one of those guys who can say he always knew he was going to make it — I was never that guy — I had signed three record deals and played in ten different countries and I was still thinking about what I was going to do when I grew up and when the bottom was going to fall out. I was looking for compatriots to share the experience with. I found that in the Sixers. For ten years, we had a steady thing. They’ve been on hiatus since 2012 and I have toured with other outfits. One of the Sixers who just toured with me and is a collaborator is Sam Getz, who is from Cleveland and in the band Welshly Arms.

How’d he end up in the group?
Long before I knew much about Cleveland, Sam became the guy. Sam and I were on a festival together. I couldn’t even hear him playing because I was asleep. My bedroom was attached to the venue.  My drummer told me I had to see a pedal steel payer. I went and saw him. If you know him, he’s a cool-looking guy. We talked all night and ended up really connecting. I invited him to do a military tour with the band. We didn’t have a guitarist at the time. One night not too long after that, I told him he should be in the band. That was the beginning of a good friendship and a lot of cool music that we’ve had the chance to make together.

Do you think of the group as alt-country?
It’s part of it, for sure. It’s funny. Over the years that’s a positive thing to be called that and then a negative thing, depending whether or not it’s in vogue. The music I grew up with is the Eagles-y ’70s songwriter/Jim Croce stuff. We always had that vibe. At times, when we first signed to Universal, we made more of a pop record because that’s what we thought was expected of us. You have to take those swings if you’re inclined to do it. At the end of the day, the music has never swung too far from this rootsy thing. I can hear that. The labels are essential to describe the music. How often do you meet people who say they like everything but country and then another person says he loves country music? It does feel distinctly Americana to me.

Folk rock, as lame as that sounds, is kind of what I do.

Talk about the concept for this new album. How’d it first come to you?
I was wearing these different hats. There were a few songs over the years that were clearly pop songs. One of the valid criticisms I’ve read about my music is that it goes this way and then that way. I knew I had a big batch of songs. I hadn’t made a record in a while. I thought it would be cool to make a record where you unapologetically give over to the genres. I recorded each section in a different place with a different co-producer.  I thought that would be a great experience and musically make some sense. I don’t know if it makes sense. I do know that when we did the “South” stuff in Nashville, it would have a Southern rock vibe. When we did the “West” stuff, I knew that would be the cowboy songs, the folk rock kind of thing. We didn’t worry about having a single. That was also the pitfall. We got to the end and I didn’t know if I should really release it. I could already hear the complaints. When we were picking a single, we picked one from the first foot we want to put forward rather than what we think is the catchiest tune.

Is there any precedent for this kind of album? It seems pretty unique.
I don’t know anyone who has specifically done this. I have heard of people making collections of songs and usually it’s a collection of EPs. From early on, we didn’t want it to be an EP. It’s one record that’s a concept. I think it was fresh. One of my friends is Marc Roberge from O.A.R. I ran into him one morning. We were on a flight from San Diego to New York at 6 in the morning. Your conversation is wide open at that point. He said, ‘You have all these songs. You should make a record for each of the seasons.’ I liked the idea but it didn’t hit. It was that initial suggestion that got me. I thought it would be good to have a certain focus for each section.

You recorded “South” in Nashville and Atlanta with Travis McNabb of Better Than Ezra. Talk about what those sessions were like.
Travis knows a lot of great players. We went in and tracked it with a seven-piece band in the room. We did five songs in a day. I knew it would have a Southern rock flavor because we were tapping guys from the country genre and that world. Travis works with people on sessions all the time. I don’t. I asked everyone to remember why they got into this business in the first place and if we can tap into that stuff from high school. I told them to make mistakes and let it fly. I didn’t want the same stock Nashville demo thing. I did that because that’s how I roll in the studio. We had a really good session. Travis said they hadn’t heard that particular pep talk that I gave them. It was a good mix of proficiency in session work and me not knowing any better and telling them to pick up the instrument they didn’t know. That was the first one we did.

“North,” which was recorded in a cabin in Woodstock has more of an indie rock feel.
It was so very different. It was just me and this guy Josh Kaufman, who comes out of Josh Ritter’s band. We have been roommates when Josh Ritter and I were in tour in Europe. I got to know this guy and realized he was a genius and could play a million instruments. That was weird because we’re in this cabin in Woodstock and there’s all this snow. It was me and him and this drummer. It was just Josh having ideas. It’s like how I would envision Daniel Lanois. A lot of the best tuff I can’t even take credit for because it was him bringing cool things to the table. Within the course of a month, I had had these two extremely different sessions.

The songs from “West” have a cowboy motif. You recorded them on a farm in Boulder with Gregory Alan Isakov. What stands out from those sessions?
He has a barn in Colorado and there are sheep on the other side of the wall. There’s no internet. There’s no mirrors. I’m a fan of Gregory’s and I wanted him to show me how he made his records. The education of it all was incredible. He wasn’t afraid to play a song 20 times and recut it because he wants it to go two clicks faster. The work ethic was there and it began with me on an acoustic guitar and we built things from there. It was more work but when I hear it, I see myself.

Do you think of them as cowboy songs?
It was just a guy and his guitar playing the song and so in that sense they are cowboy songs. I feel like “Wallpaper Angel” has that and I wouldn’t call “Those Kids” a cowboy song. They did originate from this super organic place. Those songs more than others on the record I could see sitting around the campfire strumming them.

And finally, talk about the songwriter pop of “East,” which was recorded in Washington, DC.
That was almost the polar opposite of “West.” Those guys were in the Sixers. We get a track and play to it like they do in pop music, which is where Chip [Johnson] and Kit [Karlson] come from. That was cool too. At the end of the day, there were certain experiences I liked more than others but it was great to go through it all and see how many ways there are to skin a cat.

Did you have songs you didn’t use?
I did use a lot of what I had hanging around. I looked at it when I was done. I thought it would make a strong single record in terms of the ones that came out close to how I hoped they would come out. I thought there was maybe a record’s worth. There are a quarter I thought were pretty cool and a quarter I would have left off. By the end of it, so much of what we had done was about the concept. I called my manager and said, ‘Do we have to release this?’ I thought it was crazy. She told me not to worry so much and overthink it. I didn’t record everything or release everything we did. There were certain songs we didn’t bring into the sessions. And a couple of recordings didn’t make it. The most noticeable thing is that “Last Man Standing” wasn’t on any of these sessions. I thought something as missing. Two days before mastering, I wrote “Last Man Standing.” I recorded it with my best friend from high school, who was the only person who would take my call on July 3. It was a time when nobody should have been working. We went to the studio for 36 hours to do the song that I needed to do. That is a big departure on the “East” thing but I thought it was the right way to end it.

Where do you know go next?
Interestingly, I am starting to think about that. Songs are starting to dribble out. The relief for me at the end of this whole thing was that I think the recording it is that it just felt like where I’m going for the next thing. I started writing some songs when we got the mastering done and I’m really excited about them. They lean toward the Americana, rock ‘n’ roll songwriter world. You lean where you heart leads you. My heart was telling me to take the favorite parts and use that as my compass. I found my north again. I can record a bunch of songs and it should be simple and easy to do. There’s an angle to this that makes it interesting to someone who isn’t even interested in me. I don’t see it as a shift. It’s not like I’m U2 and have to have a concept album to follow up the previous concept album.

Upcoming 2016 Shows

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Ames, IA – M Shop

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Milwaukee, WI – Shank Hall

Evanston, IL – Space

Indianapolis, IN – The HI-FI

Cleveland, OH – Music Box

Rochester, NY- Record Archive

Burlington, VT – Higher Ground Showcase Lounge

Portland, ME – Port City Music Hall


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].