Stephen Kellogg | Ain’t the Future Bright

w/ Emily Hearn | 10.03.17 | Old Rock House, 1200 S. 7th Street | $20 in advance, $25 DOS

When I first interviewed Stephen Kellogg six years ago, he was on tour with his band Stephen Kellogg & the Sixers, and they had recently released their sixth studio album, Gift Horse. In the time since then, things have changed: the band went into an indefinite hiatus a year later, the former members have scattered to different projects, and Kellogg himself is about to release his third album, and first solo live record, in November—named Tour de Forty, recorded on the tour of the same name that took place near his 40th birthday. It follows 2013’s Blunderstone Rookery and 2015’s double album South, West North, East. His family, always a focus in his music and his life, has grown as well with the addition of a fourth daughter, Greta, and a cat, Holly Ivy.

The amount of time and change to cover seemed a bit overwhelming, but once Kellogg was on the phone, he was as cordial and informative as ever. We got a chance to talk about his feelings about turning 40, how things are different now as a musician with the Sixers no longer in existence, the current political climate, and of course, his cat, who he FaceTimes with. Upon hearing a cat had run across my laptop, he responded, “That’s so delicious. I miss my cat so much.”

His longing for his furry girl aside, the first question I had for him was how the songwriting process had changed now that he wasn’t writing for a band. He had been with some members of the Sixers since college, touring 250 days a year, and now he plays with a more revolving group, every tour potentially having different musicians accompanying him. While he didn’t think the process had changed radically at first, he amended that to say, “One thing I would say about the songwriting is that when you’re in a band, you tend to write for that band. You think about what that band’s weapons are and you try to utilize them. In this case, I found myself writing more for the sake of the songs.”

With that in mind, we did talk about the hiatus a bit, and I inquired if he thought in 2012 that the hiatus would be over by now. “No, I knew it might be indefinite.” He seemed to muse for a moment, and added, “I knew that it wasn’t the end of the world, and I knew we’d remain friends, and I knew we would keep working together, because there’s always been a synergy between us in terms of that, but I was pretty sure at that moment that probably this wasn’t something we’d be coming back from.” He pointed out the various projects everyone is working on, before adding, “It feels very much now that everyone’s where they’re supposed to be.” He sums it up well, as he does, with, “There’s a lot of love in what was, and a lot of happiness in what is.”

What “is” for Kellogg right now is turning 40, and what that means with regard to where he thought he’d be in life and in his career. He said, “The biggest thing that happened when I turned 40 this year was you realize that your life may well be, if not more than half over, at least half over. I don’t mean that in a grim way, but it’s like you realize that if you pass away, it will be sad, and you’re still a young person, but nobody’s going to go, ‘Oh, they didn’t get a shot, didn’t even get started.’ Even though 40 is just a number, I do feel like that came home in such a big way.”

Kellogg remains as grounded as he’s ever been, however, something he attributes to the practice of making sure he remembers he’s part of a bigger picture. “We found ourselves working with some really unfriendly people who just seemed really unhappy with their lives. You’re there, and part of your ego is under total assault, because you want to be like, ‘You know what? I’ve been doing this for twenty years, I’ve got four kids, I’m a human here.’ So you’re there, and you’re doing that, and then it goes one step further and you’re like, ‘Wow, this person, this is how they operate in the world and what have they gone through that has made them be so unpleasant?’ You remember that the world isn’t just about you.”

Even if life is disappointing, it’s a gift, and it has to be lived.

He then explains how keeping this in mind helps him stay humble. “I don’t need anyone to keep my feet on the ground, they’re pretty firmly entrenched,” continuing, “You learn what most humans—that aren’t narcissistic artist types—experience, which is some level of disappointment, like, ‘I had these dreams, they didn’t all come true, but that’s okay.’ There are other dreams that do manifest and do happen, and it’s learning to be grateful for the things that do go right. Even if life is disappointing, it’s a gift, and it has to be lived.” He adds, “I find myself a little more engaged with trying to live it, and focus on the things that are most important because this is real.”

One way Kellogg stays engaged is being active on Twitter, with his account being a mixture of glimpses into his music, political commentary, and professing love for the women in his life (his high school sweetheart and wife of 15 years, Kirsten; daughters Sophia, Adeline, Noelle, and Greta; and cat Holly Ivy). I asked about that, because some people claim that artists should keep their political opinions to themselves. I wanted to know if he felt it his responsibility, as someone who would be more well-known than the average person, to use his voice to speak out. “I think that there’s a hierarchy for all of us, in what is important to us. There’s my work as an artist, there’s my work as a human being, and I think that what you do as a human is above what you do for your work. Just like everything in life there are priorities. I’m not saying I get this perfectly right, but I think that for me to exist and to be the guy that I want to be in the world, there are certain things that I have to vocalize. I know I have a small megaphone, but I do have some megaphone.”

That said, Kellogg knows the political climate has started to impact things that might be considered far outside of politics. “The other night in Dallas, I did something. It was a little chatty, and I said ‘Hey, if you guys want to nudge your neighbor and tell them that you’re trying to watch the show, that’s cool with me.’ That’s all I said. A fist fight broke out.” While he may have strong opinions, he does keep the shows generally politics-free—and it’s an intentional choice. “I think people also need a soul break from what’s going on in the world and I assume that anybody that’s coming to my show, Republican, Democrat, whatever, I assume that anybody that’s taking this music to heart is probably a very, very decent person.”

All of those people will have new music to take to heart soon. While the live album is due to officially drop in November, Kellogg is working on new music. When I asked what was waiting for us, he assured me, “I have a bunch of songs, some of which are done, some of which are on their way, and I’m seeing if it’s possible, I’m going to try to get in and record it before the end of the year.” The current tour doesn’t end till the end of October and “It’s just a matter of pulling it together, but I do have an idea for a new record that I’m pretty excited about.” He sounds as excited as I’ve ever heard him about the new music, telling me, “There’s more to say, happily.”

One place he’ll be saying it is at Old Rock House next Tuesday, October 3rd, with Emily Hearn supporting. I asked him how it was different playing an opening slot as opposed to headlining, as he is this tour, and he told me that his place in the lineup wasn’t the issue. He explained, “As much as the audience lets you in, you’re able to connect, there’s no homework required, just show up and be present and we can do it.” He loves the idea of having people check their phones at the door—not to keep people from recording, but to make sure they’re mentally present for the show. He hasn’t done that on this tour, but he urges people to make sure they’re present for the shows they’re attending. “Have an experience, give it a shot, and if you do, you’re probably going to have a great, great time. I’m trying to make that the case for folks when they come. You don’t have to know all these songs when you come, I’m going to tell you what they’re about, I’m going to articulate my words, it’s going to be good. You just have to give me your attention.” The setlist is up for grabs on this tour—the band is letting the audience at each show vote on what they want to hear—but it’s sure to be the “great, great time” Kellogg and the band are aiming for. | Teresa Montgomery

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