Q&A with Stephen Kellogg – March 5th at Rams Head On Stage

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Stephen Kellogg will be at Rams Head On Stage on March 5th supporting his latest album, “Blunderstone Rookery.”  The Massachusetts native recently returned from two separate week-long Caribbean cruise concerts, and he’ll finish up a few dates stateside before heading to Europe with Matt Nathanson.  Check out what Kellogg had to say about his busy year following the break-up of his band, The Sixers, the release of his first solo album since 2002, and the unique journey that one experiences during a life as a professional performer.  For those who are unacquainted with this very underrated songwriter, be sure to check out the live performance of his song, “Thanksgiving.”

ME:  You just got off the Rock Boat Cruise.  Can you describe what that was, and what you’re up to now?

SK:  I’m in Connecticut now.  I got in at 5:00 a.m. last night.  I’m at home for two days before the show.  I come back whenever I can get home, even for a day or two.  Right now, I’m just hanging out, catching up with kids, building a fire, and trying to be useful for my wife. We’ve got the Lorax playing in the background right now.

The cruises were great.  They’re basically floating rock concerts.  I was on two cruises:  Cayamo from February 7-12 (from Miami to the British Virgin Islands) with Bruce Hornsby, John Hiatt, Kris Kristofferson, and others. 

Then I did another cruise called Rock Boat.  That was more rock based with some older bands from the 90s, Edwin McCain, etc.  [The cruises] are great because you get a really concentrated community of musicians and music fans.  For these folks it’s a vacation, but for musicians it’s also like summer camp. We’re with friends and there’s nowhere to hide out.  You’re forced to be a part of it all, which is a good thing.

I actually just heard that the First Lady (Michelle Obama) was at Rams Head On Stage over the weekend (she was! attending the Rachelle Ferrell concert).  Someone tweeted at me that she must’ve mixed up the dates for the Stephen Kellogg concert…All I was thinking was, “Who was good enough to attract a national security situation?”

ME:  What are your biggest songwriting influences and what genres do you pull from? 

SK:  I love rock n’ roll.  I love Tom Petty, the Rolling Stones, The Band, and I’m a fan of great songwriters, be it Jackson Browne, Crosby, Stills and Nash; all the folks that have a lyrical bent.  And in the modern day, I really like Josh Ritter; he’s a guy I toured with last month, and Ryan Adams, among others.  My sound is similar.  A mix of rock, and a hint of country, with some roots.  That’s kind of where I land.

You started out solo then led the Sixers band for almost ten years (before the band separated in 2013).  How did that band come together and how did that experience compare to playing and recording solo?

The Sixers were kind of like my E Street Band or my Crazy Horse.  They were a band of guys with distinct personalities, you know, the fans really knew everyone in the band.  Right now I’m on tour with a band, but not the Sixers.  The Sixers were my brothers, figuratively speaking.  Compared to the solo act, you know, it’s just fun to be part of a band, but a couple of guys needed to get off the road and raise families.  Then all of a sudden fans act like it’s this big thing, but we’re still doing what we do.

This last year – It was sort of a transitional year, but it feels good to be playing with a band again.  People love to make drama where there isn’t any.  It felt like this huge thing at the time, but it’s nice to be at this point where people are just moving past it.

ME:  How have you personally changed over your career and how is that reflected in your music?

SK:  When I started playing music, I was just a dude that said this could be a fun job, but I didn’t know why.  If anything you play music to gratify your own ego.  I have a big family now with four daughters.  Family just became such a central part of what drives me, and your ego takes a few hits as you get older. 

Comparing myself at 37 and myself at 24…I’m playing now because I love writing and singing songs, and I want to take care of my family, as opposed to 24 when you just want to be a badass.  Looking back that was a stressful time for me.  I was like, “What if I don’t do anything with my life?”  I just hoped I would.  I just felt anxious all the time, and in some ways I kind of missed a lot of the fun.  It really is about the journey, and having faith that if you make an effort and you’re a good person it’ll work out.  It’s good now to look back on it all. 

ME:  What instruments do you play and when did you first start recording music?  Why’d you choose to pursue music over some other profession?

SK:  I had a metal band in high school and started recording in the mid-1990s, and I learned how to play guitar and harmonica and sing, but I never think of myself as a musician so much as a songwriter and singer.  I consider myself a songwriter first, then singer, and musician, in that order. 

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do at first. I tried to do other things.  I managed bands, promoted them, booked shows, and I was pretty good at those things, but the real telltale moment was when I got offered a gig at a steakhouse paying $125 to play 3-4 hours a night and I felt cooler playing that gig than anything else.  That felt sweeter than anything I was doing in my other jobs.  I thought, “I just need to not be a wuss.” 

In one way you’re not choosing it, it’s choosing you.  You’re getting these opportunities that feel great, and you follow the light and you’re chipping away, and then all of these things are suddenly happening:  I get a band, we sign with Universal Records, I get married and have a baby, and I’m like, “Is all this really happening?  Will the bottom fall out?”  

But now I’m at the point where I can be like, “Okay that happened, you didn’t really choose it, you just kept going and said ‘yes.’” I’ve always felt, as long as you have baseline talent, that it has less to do with talent, and more with being the guy who keeps trying and keeps saying yeah I’ll take the gig.  I gave one of those TED talks and they asked me talk about music first, but I didn’t think I was really that qualified to talk about music.  I wanted to talk about job satisfaction. 

ME:  What’s left to accomplish on your bucket list?

SK:  Some dreams are still unrealized.  I’d be lying to say that’s not the case.  There’s still some stuff I’d love to do:  late night TV before it disappears all together, headline the Beacon Theatre in New York City… But, I’m not sure I would change anything.  I’m still ambitious.  I’m not disappointed or unhappy in any way, but I still have some things I’m working on and hope that I have the ability and good fortune to make them happen. 

When I was getting started, every time you get to do something it’s really cool, and a lot of times it’s not what you think it would be.  Our friends would get songs in TV shows…and finally we got a really big one, and then the song goes on and everyone sees it and knows about it, and then it’s over, and you get some money and then it’s totally over.  There are a lot of things like that.  The bigger shows I’ve gotten to do where we sold a bunch of tickets were great.  When you’re having a great show, it is such a great high and memory but once you walk off stage you can’t hold on to the good shows or bad shows, you just have to experience it.  You can’t harness it and walk around with it. 

My friend Josh Ritter recommended this book, Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott that I really liked and really helped me.  It’s a little about writing but a lot about life. 

Time goes fast, people die, things happen; good and bad.  But, in the end you just want to be able to say I took my shot and I can look at myself in the mirror at end of the day.  I’ll still play shows in Kansas or something, and I play to 100 people and I’m like, “Shit, I can’t get any more people?”  But, if I ever stop touring, it’ll be by choice, not because I didn’t give it a shot. 

ME:  You just came out with a new solo record last year, “Blunderstone Rookery.”  Any new records in the works?

SK:  Blunderstone Rookery is the album I’m supporting now.  I’m going to Europe right after this with Matt Nathanson, and then March 28th I’m finished after about 6 months of really heavy touring.  I’ll think about writing again soon, but I’ve got to catch my breath first.

ME:  How much of the new album can the audience expect to hear at the show?  Who’s in the band that will be supporting you?  Also, Boots Factor is opening for you – he’s a former member of the Sixers.  I’m not too familiar with his work.  What can you say about his music? 

SK:  I always mix it up.  Definitely about half of the show will be new stuff from the last album, and half will be older.  I’m pretty committed to making it a slamming selection of songs people know and dig while also keeping it fresh for myself.  I usually play something once or twice a night that I have absolutely no right playing to keep myself on my toes.  

The band members are Travis McNabb, the drummer from Sugarland, he played on Blunderstone Rookery.  Chip Johnson on bass and piano, and also vocals.  He’s a musician and producer from the Mid-Atlantic.  Ryan Hummel on pedal steel and guitar.  We’ll have some scene changes – there are parts of the show that are delicate and quiet and others that are out and out rock n’ roll. 

Boots Factor was the drummer for the Sixers.  He’s also put out a record and he’ll probably join us on stage at some point.  His music is a little more indie rock than mine, more song based, but sounds a little ‘punky.’  Kind of like The Head and the Heart…quirky roots rock.  Anything I wrote with the Sixers that was remotely weird he’d always want to do that. 

ME:  Is it true that your nickname is Skunk?

SK:  Yes, but not for either of the reasons you’d probably deduce – we were just fond of nicknames.  In my boozier days, when I got pissed I could have a less than pleasant way of relaying a message, and they’d say, “Uh oh, the skunks out now.”  I hope I’ve matured past that by now…

ME:  You’ll also be putting on a barbeque event in Virginia this summer.  Can you provide some more details on that and who will be there?

SK:  It’ll be held in Vienna, VA this year.  It’s called the SK Family BBQ.  We partner with a hotel and invite a bunch of friends.  They travel in and I usually play the first night solo, then later on with other artists.  Jon McLaughlin is coming in.  You can buy a weekend pass and we have a huge barbeque and field games, followed by a big jam in the park and a rock n’ roll show that night.  We’ve done it a bunch of years.  I came up with it because I was like, “What would be my favorite day with my favorite artists?”  It’s loosely based on Willie Nelson’s July 4th party.   

– Matt Ellis

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