South West North East and Beyond: Talking with Stephen Kellog
Stephen Kellogg’s latest recording, South West North East is an opus that should be required listening for everyone who hasn’t quite connected with today’s roots music. Once they give this album a listen, they’ll get it. It’s essentially a collection of four EPs that are connected because of Kellogg’s strong lyrics and ability to relate them to the four quadrants of this country—thus making an original Americana tour de force.
You’ve just released an ambitious recording called South West North East. From what I understand, the recording is divided into four sections which represent the musical vibe of the South, West, North, and East of our country. As you’ve traveled around this nation over the years, how did you best glean musical sensibility of those four quadrants?
It’s interesting because I wouldn’t say that I’ve necessarily gleaned the sensibility of those regions of the country, so much as intersect with the feeling of those parts of the country so the south section of the record has a southern rock flavor the west something of a cowboy feel, the north more angular and indie rock almost, and then east about as polished I get.
The fact that you decided to record each section of the CD in that region was pretty darn clever! Did you use musicians from those regions? How did you decide which cities to record in?
Well, thank you! I did tend to use musicians from the region, yes. The locations themselves were less important to me, than the idea of four distinct feels. The cities kept moving around and depending on the different co-producers I was in talks with and who I was going to end up working with in the end, these were the places it made the most sense to work. I have this saying (or there is a saying) “Home is wherever you are,” and I think that we could have made this same record regardless of the spaces we were in, but without the people, it wouldn’t have felt the same.
Were all the songs for this project written before you went into the studio or did you stay in the area to absorb the culture and become inspired to write?
I had most of the material written or arranged prior to going in. I wrote “Always Gonna Want You” (North) based on the way North had come out and my feeling that it could use a nice cool down. The same was true with the song “Last Man Standing” on East. At the end of the day, I felt that a song to tie the record together was out there and it ended up being the centerpiece of the record in both of those cases. I ended up working with yet more co-producers which really kind of fit with the spirt of the record. This idea “What if I just lean all the way into what is right for the song without regard to genres or the politics of making a record”
You’ve received some great press from a recent TEDtalk that you did about job satisfaction. You’ve said that doing a talk of this nature was a bit out of your comfort zone. What did you learn about yourself since doing it?
It was a great experience. Obviously I’m up in front of crowds frequently but giving a talk once and knowing that it’s going to be out there in the world, that’s a bit different than playing your songs at a show. I took away the importance of refining and editing from that. The talk went through about 13 versions until I really felt that I was saying what I wanted to say and then it was just about execution too often. I think we view editing as an admission that something’s wrong, instead of realizing that it’s okay to attempt to take ‘good’ to ‘better.” Since the talk I’ve become much more open to the possibility that there are ways outside music to share one’s ‘truth.’ I’ve found myself speaking to companies, visiting schools, writing much more in the essay style. I’m so thankful to TedX for inviting to do that talk.
In terms of deriving job satisfaction, would you say that you value your time spent crafting songs or singing them in public?
I enjoy the satisfaction of writing a song. That’s kind of like prepping a meal, and then singing them in public in the consumption of that meal with good friends. So, for me, I’ll take the singing of them in public option with the understanding that without the prep work, it wouldn’t’ be a good meal at all. Ha Ha, does tha make sense?
How would you describe the evolution of your music?
Great question. In the beginning, I just knew there were words around. I wrote because it was my blood and probably because it was a way to get some positive attention from people Later I started realizing that I had a world view. It might not be for everyone, but I believe in it. I believe it’s a good idea and the music started to be the vehicle to share it. Sonically nothing was really changing. It’s always been Americana, singer-songwriter, rock n roll music, but in terms of what I’m doing out here, that started to change and as the purpose has gotten deeper, so too has my own enjoyment of presenting it.
You’re a rabid reader and you have a fondness for Charles Dickens. What is it about Dickens’ writing that floats your boat? I admit, I was an English major, and reading David Copperfield as required reading in high school was a pivotal point for me as well but Dickens hasn’t stayed with me as an adult. I’m tempted to revisit that book, despite its length. Convince me to spend the time to read it again.
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody, these pages must show.” That’s the first sentence of the book. Are you kidding me? I feel that way every day! Also, on the first page, instead of saying something like “My father died before I was born, “ Dickens says, “My father’s eyes had closed upon the light of this world six months, when mine opened on it.”
He writes with so much empathy, humor, depth of feeling, tells incredible stories while also leaving the reader better off for it. My Christian friends hate that I say but for me, I’ll take David Copperfield over the Bible if I’m charting a course for a life well-lived.
Since you are such a lover of words, what songwriters inspire you these days?
Do you have any career goals that you’d like to achieve in the near and far future?
I do. Always beyond the usual goals of increased sales and better songs, I’m hoping to actually finish a manuscript by November 28th (my 40th birthday). I hope to have a late night TV opportunity this year and I’d love to see at least one of these songs find its way into a film. You need to believe that your music has a benefit to the world and the reason these things are important to me is that I believe they could reach people who might need them.
Stephen Kellogg will be playing at the me&thee in Marblehead, MA on April 8 along with Anthony D’Amato