Stephen Kellogg, songwriter extraordinaire, is visiting our fair city, playing in front of a sold out crowd at the Bitterzoet venue in downtown Amsterdam. A couple of hours before he hit the stage, Stephen was nice enough to answer a few of my questions and we had a very pleasant conversation in which he shared his thoughts and experiences as a recording and touring musician and the joys and challenges that come along with the profession.
Currently, Stephen is on the road with songsmith Gregory Alan Isakov, whom I also met on my way out. Not just a very talented musician, he comes across as a really nice and fun guy, so I imagine these two are having some good times touring together. Stephen explained that at first, when he came out to Europe, he was playing solo shows in Ireland and he was basically on his own. This brought along moments of loneliness and it may have reflected in his sets sometimes as those often reflect his current mood. Now that he’s traveling with Gregory and company he can share the experience a little more and Stephen really enjoys it to share it with others and he told me the tour is turning out great so far.
The tour doesn’t mark Stephen’s first appearance in Europe. He played some headline events when his latest album “Blunderstone Rookery” hit the shelves and toured with Josh Ritter and Milow previously. But all those visits were in the past 13 months, so he’s still discovering the territory here. And he’s trying to really enjoy his time here, taking in all he can. I asked him if he’s experiencing differences between the shows he plays back in the US and the shows he’s playing over here, taking in account the sort of venue he’s playing in. He answered:
There are differences. When I listen to music myself, all I care about is the words. The genre doesn’t matter; I can get into country, rap, hard rock, anything as long as the words speak to me. Knowing that about myself, when I’m up on stage, all I think about is [delivering] the words. It may also be because I’ve been touring with great artists but I feel like the audiences in Europe really give you a shot, they are attentive. They listen when you need them to listen and give back when you want them to give back. In the US, sometimes, it feels like you have to win [audiences] over first; before they give you a shot.
We started talking about Stephen’s music a little more, in particular about his latest record: “Blunderstone Rookery”. As you may or may not know, the title is a reference to the book ‘David Copperfield’ by Charles Dickens. I asked him if this was done on purpose, which I assumed it was. Also, I wanted to know why he’d picked that title and how it relates to the actual record.
I love that book. I read it twice, some parts even more than that. In moments of my life that I look for guidence [I keep coming] back to it. Almost like some people use the Bible, to look for answers. In the book Blunderstone Rookery is David’s childhood home, which at first he loved but then turned into an unhappy place and as a grown up he made his peace with it. I really liked that metaphor as [I would say] it’s the overriding theme of the album.
This lead to a conversation about books and inspiration derived from books, still somewhat in the context of “Blunderstone Rookery”. First off Stephen recommended ‘East of Eden’ by John Steinbeck and ‘With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln’ by Stephen Oates. To me it seemed like he may connect to characters or people that display a certain journey because many of Stephen’s songs feel like (part of) a journey to me. So we discussed this:
You know, a good story is great but if it helps you find your way that’s something special. I’m not necessarily looking for a journey but if I feel authenticity; ‘this is how it is’ and it gives me insight. Without sounding too cliché… life is a trip we’re all taking but we all end up in the same place eventually. I think about this a lot, about how in the end we all die. For all people’s good or bad intentions [and endeavors] everybody ends up in the same place. Almost every day, when I wake up, I realize that I might die that day. But not in a dark way but I ask myself: what would I need to do if this were my last day [and not leave anything unfinished].
The conversation turned a little philosophical here but essentially, realizing that life is finite and giving yourself the opportunity to live your days consciously is a way of allowing yourself to fully experience life and not take it for granted. This concept is still playing around in my mind after my conversation with Stephen because I think it can be a very powerful thing. We circled back to “Blunderstone Rookery” after that and how it came together.
I’ve always written what’s happening in my life. In the past I wrote about girls and I thought: is this all I’m ever going to write about? Now I have a family and I’m raising kids so I tend to write more about that. About the struggles of life, the dreams of my youth. How sometimes dreams come true but you don’t realize it or you start realizing that some dreams may never come true. Both of which are scary things to come to terms with.
As a metaphor he mentioned that as a 10 year old he had a dream of becoming Bon Jovi. Not to say that’s the only thing he wants his life to amount to but it serves as a good example. At some point you realize you aren’t going to be the next Bon Jovi and that even if you get to play similar sized events it will probably still be different and you have to face reality. Also, Stephen told me that the band he used to play with for over 10 years (Stephen Kellogg & the Sixers) needed a break and so they ended up in this hiatus but Stephen was still “in love with music” as he called it himself. He just didn’t have the same gang to share it with. On top of that, he lost a number of people close to him and it almost felt like the bottom was falling out of his life. But in his heart, Stephen is an optimist, so he was looking for a way to express everything that was going on. And this all came together in “Blunderstone Rookery“.
In the wake of “Blunderstone Rookery”, Stephen Kellogg is also looking to the future and recently started a PledgeMusic campaign to fund his new recording project “South West North East“. Stephen patiently explained to me what his plans are.
My music has different aspects. A little country, folk, some rock and occasionally some pop. People often think that you’re going in a certain direction when making a record but I wanted something different. I wanted to really feel something.
I’m going to record 4 songs each in different parts of the country, each with a different co-producer and different musicians and different surroundings. I thought to myself, what would I like as a fan and I came up with the idea of music released throughout the year in digestible pieces. And as a musician it gives me a chance to work with different people [to keep me on my toes and keep things fresh]. This is new ground for me too.
I asked Stephen why he chose to do this via the PledgeMusic campaign and he told me how previously he worked with a label and while he has no regrets whatsoever, he doesn’t necessarily own his own music of the past decade and streaming revenue is still finding its way so it’s not always a reliable manner to provide for your family. Instead he chose to take matters in his own hands realizing it gives him a chance to get his record funded while keeping an eye on his financial reality. He wanted fans to be able to get involved but making a record is still costly so he needed to find a win-win situation. And PledgeMusic offered a very accessible and easy platform for it.
As we started talking a little more about the new project we tackled the subject of songwriting and the creative process.
At first you just write. You write a batch of songs and then you figure out who you want to work with. After that, you try to match the songs to the people and go from there.
One of the people that Stephen will likely be working with on the new project is singer/songwriter/guitarist Josh Kaufman. Stephen sent him 20 songs and in the end there were 2 songs that Josh liked, so they started with those and are currently writing another song together.
To me, this project is as much about the process than it is about the product. If I would only be able to make 1 more record for the rest of my life, I probably wouldn’t be working with Josh Kaufman. Nothing against Josh but he thinks way more out of the box than I do and sometimes we work like oil and water. But because we’re only doing 4 songs it works out well. And because we’re not looking to create a radio single it gives me the freedom to experiment a little more.
After that Stephen asks himself what’s missing. He wonders what else he can explore. Touring with Gregory Alan Isakov, who is known for being able to paint a picture with his songs while being quite sparse with his words, Stephen got inspired to try his hand at that as well. Generally, it is not Stephen’s style but he shows he isn’t afraid to color outside the lines and challenge himself. He may even end up recording the ‘West’ installment at Gregory’s barn in California. Ever since Stephen is performing alone he’s much more involved with the people he meets and it has led him to new inspirations and collaborations. When he was performing with band, he wasn’t as involved with this part of it but recently it has been a significant part of his metier.For some reason we entered the topic of food and we talked about the annual BBQ that Stephen Kellogg hosts. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Annual SK Family BBQ, I asked him to tell us a little more about it.
One summer, 5 years ago my band and I were trying to play festivals but we couldn’t get booked to one. At the time I was reading Willie Nelson’s biography and it mentioned his 4th of July picnic. So I started thinking: what would I like to do with my favorite artists? I’d like to have a barbecue and hang out. So I invented this event around that idea. We play music and just hang out. Some lesser known songs, acoustically on the first day and then the second day we play tug-of-war or have a balloon fight and we have burgers and ‘dogs and we play a normal electric show. Initially I did this with the band so last time I had to make a tough decision if I was going to keep doing it and that is when I decided to bring in my actual family and encouraged people to bring along the people they love, whoever they may be.
I told Stephen that I thought this was really cool and that it really shows the spirit of art, and music in particular because in its core, music is about sharing something of yourself with others, about making connections. And events like this show the person (or the people) behind the music and (at least to me) add to the meaning of said music. So personally, it would make my appreciation for an artist and his/her/their art even bigger. And in that light, I thought that if you really think about it, it’s a little remarkable there aren’t more artists and bands who participate in events like this. Because to my knowledge, the annual SK BBQ is pretty unique. Stephen mentioned that for some musicians are apprehensive in doing things like this because you will have to show the real you during an event like this. You may get tired or sweaty and you can’t have a ‘mask’ on all the time. You have to let your guard down. And not everyone may be willing or able to do that. It’s a great thing that you get to share your life with others but it can also be a little frightening.Finally we discussed the balance between being a touring musician and also being a father and family man. Because I imagine it must be hard at times, especially when you are far away from home. Stephen had this to say:
It’s tricky. I won’t lie about that. When my daughter was born it was really hard but my dad gave me some advice on the matter. Everyone who decides to start a family will have that challenge. I don’t think it’s that different from a ‘regular’ office job. With long hours and coming in early you can easily get lost in a job like that too. When I come home, whether I’m [really] tired or not, the first thing I need to do is give my kids some energy, even if it’s just for 30 minutes or so. So the balancing of touring and a family costs a lot of energy but in the end it is all worth it. And it doesn’t really matter where you are. When you’re away you’re away but in some places you feel more comfortable than other places. In Southern California, for example, it feels very far away from home. I’m not really a beach, sunshine and palm trees kind of guy. I like the grey; I need a little bit of rain.
After this, Stephen had to set up the stage and soundcheck, so I thanked him for taking the time to answer my questions and let him get on with that. It was a real pleasure to take to you, Stephen and I hope the show was a massive success and I can’t wait to see you return to our little country next year!