Married to his high school sweetheart and devoted to his four daughters, singer/songwriter Stephen Kellogg stands as evidence that the musician vs family conflict is little more than a lazy stereotype. Kellogg, who will appear at the Hi-Fi in Indy’s Fountain Square District next Tuesday night, brings two decades of experience to the stage showcasing both his innovative new album and an appealing life philosophy we could all learn from.
by Donovan Wheeler
In the final lines of the final scene of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufmann’s 1936 Broadway hit You Can’t Take it With You, protagonist Martin (Grandpa) Vanderhoff turns to his Antagonist, the turgid banking tycoon, Anthony Kirby and nails him with a pointed question:
photos by Will Byington
GRANDPA: “How many of us would be willing to settle when we’re young for what we eventually get?”
I was in my high school’s production of that play in the late 1980’s, and even though it never occurred to me to glance out of the corner of my eye toward all those 40 and 50-somethings watching us that night, I retrospectively wonder what I would have seen had I done so. Now of course I am one of those 40-somethings, and like virtually all my peers I don’t need to peek around for some hint of an answer to that question. Not surprisingly, when I chanced upon Stephen Kellogg’s 2013 TED Talk, I Can’t Get No (Job) Satisfaction, I had to hear his answer, and once I listened, I became a fan.
A native New Englander, Kellogg launched his career in the mid-90’s before signing on as the front-man for Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers. Over the course of next two decades, Kellogg would record a combined total of 14 albums (half with the Sixers, half as a solo act) plus an Early Hits compilation. While each of those records stands not only as testaments to the singer/songwriter’s artistic merits, they perhaps more importantly serve as time-stamps documenting the growth, development, and maturation of a youthful dreamer into a seasoned, peaceful professional musician. Earlier this year, Kellogg added another chapter to that musical biography in form of his newest and perhaps most innovative release, South West North East.
Donovan Wheeler: Tell me a little bit about your new record. Is it a collection? A series of EPs? Or a larger album?
Stephen Kellogg: “It’s an album, but it’s a concept album in four distinct parts. And each part showcases five songs, so very early on we sort of chatted about it. I’ve always held this stigma against EPs because I’ve always felt that they take away a little bit of the gravitas of making a record. So that was one of things I wanted to make clear at the beginning: I don’t want to make EPs, but I do want to make a cohesive, four-part record.”
DW: Each segment of the record was recorded in different locations around the country. How did that come about, and how do you feel about the experience making it?
SK: “You know, these things don’t drop out of the sky as a fully formed flash, but when that idea started to become an inclination then it started to help me wrap my head around it. I realized that I’ve been driving around this country for 15 years…I’ve got these different groups of musicians…I’ve got all these genres…what if we did something that brought all of these together yet allowed each section to exist as its own focused movement in its own direction? Wouldn’t that be neat? Wouldn’t that be fun artistically?”
DW: It strikes me as distinct from much of your earlier work because the pacing is more deliberate. Was the influx of slower songs part of what you had in mind when you set out to make the new record?
SK: “That’s been one of the things in my heart for years. I would write tunes, and the material that would move me was often the slower stuff, the more thoughtful songs. But because of the way my personality is wired, and because I’m one of those people who really wants to please everybody, then you sort of have to fight against that. Because when you’re making music and you end up totally in the middle where you’ve abandoned your own desires…and you end up with something that’s pretty watered down, then what have you really created?”
SK: “It’s taken me some time getting comfortable with the idea of leaving some space in the music—and compared to a lot of other singers, there’s still probably not that much space—but I went on a European tour with Gregory Alan Isakov, and I noticed that he leaves space everywhere. I was so inspired by that, and since I had less history and fewer expectations in Europe, I just tried it on and tried to let the songs be enough…or even play three slow songs in a row.”
“I’m turning 40 later this year, and lately I’ve found myself thinking, ‘Oh…so this is what my parents went through…’ This is the moment in your life when you start to really battle disappointment. It’s very normal, and most people go through it. Have I met all my expectations? All my hopes? If the answer is no, what do I do with the time I have left? And all of this is happening at the age when the doctor tells you that you need a colonoscopy, and those fears start to set in and suddenly we become keenly aware of our mortality.”
DW: So has this transition cemented itself or do you find yourself still adapting to the new rhythm?
SK: “I used to be an 80’s metal-head, so this really went against my instincts. But—and I sometimes think this would be embarrassing if this appeared as thought-bubbles over my head—but I often have to remind myself that the songs are enough. Just give it its space and let it ride. And when you’re a grown-ass man, you should do that. If it doesn’t work, then do whatever you have to do at that point. But at least try it because you don’t get any do-overs. But I think this record helped me begin thinking about space and pacing…of course I’m saying this to you now, but then I flash back to last night’s show, and I’m just ripping around the stage playing rock and roll…but the fact is I like to listen to music with more space, and this album was definitely a move in that direction.”
DW: In your TED Talk you speak lovingly of your family, and it’s honestly an incredible experience to watch you stand on that stage as a rock-and-roller who is also the average family man. Do you have trouble balancing these seemingly different landscapes?
SK: “This notion that music and family conflict is sort of a myth. If you’re born to be a musician, then you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. And your family is going to get that. They’re going to understand it. But it is also work, just like every job which somebody chooses. But I also think [the work/family dynamic] is really different for everybody. It may depend on what kind of music you play and how much time you’ve got to devote to the road. But for me these are the two loves of my life—the two things I feel like I’m kind of good at.”
DW: But not everyone finds that balance.
SK: “When other guys have said to me, ‘I’ve got to get off the road because I have a family,’ I find myself thinking, ‘if that’s what you need to do…okay. So long as you’re not selling a part of yourself short and not creating something that will grow into resentment later in life.’”
SK: “For me the issue isn’t whether I should or shouldn’t take my music on the road. For me the question at hand is how to explain to my kids why I’m out here in this shitty van just killing myself to play shows? How do I explain to them what I’m doing? So sometimes I bring them on the road with me, and I do what I can to expose them to this so that they understand that it’s not really a choice for me. I’ve got to do this.”
DW: Your TED Talk was honestly one of the most impressive and profound things I’ve watched. I had listened to a lot of your music prior to seeing it, but it sincerely transformed my understanding of you and your music on a significant level. What kind of response have you gotten since giving that presentation?
SK: “The cool thing about the TED Talk is that it was a different format. It really opened something up for me because I realized that experience was as great for me as was playing music. It was intimidating, and it was a challenging process, but it also filled the same space. I’m trying to make my life mean something to both me and the people around me, and if it can’t be on a quantity basis, then I want it to be on a quality basis. And getting to stand for that TED Talk offered me this amazing chance to reach people I wouldn’t have reached through my music. And because of the Internet, and the structure of the TED Talk network, that presentation takes on a life of its own and continues.”
SK: “The messages are the same. It was eye-opening, however, in the way that the Talk led to very cool conversations. I’ve been invited to give speeches to a couple companies to talk to them…and play a little music as well. Those are incredible opportunities because they take me out of my comfort-zone. I mean who am I offering life-advice to these corporations, right? If you want to make a serious middle-class income and work your ass off then do what I do.”
DW: My personal take away from that TED Talk is that you speak as someone who inspires people to dream, but to do so responsibly. That it’s great to take risks, but you should also maintain your priorities. Is that a fair interpretation?
SK: “It comes down to self-awareness. You’ve got to dream without limitation. If…say…your dream is to play music, then the clichéd sky should be the limit, for sure. But if you’re not making any money, or you’re just sitting at home not doing anything about it, then you need to be honest about what is currently going on. How do I take steps to share my music with the world? Then you need to follow through on that. The last thing anybody needs is someone crushing their dream with ‘dose of reality.’ It’s awful when people say, ‘That’s a tough living.’ I always want to answer them with, ‘Really? Have you done it?’ Because a tough living is anything you don’t enjoy. So, you don’t dream with limitation, but beyond that you have to be straight with what’s going on. You have to be willing to reevaluate and ask trusted people what they think about where things stand how to move forward.”
DW: How so?
SK: “I’ve put myself in plenty of wrong situations where I’ve really teetered on the edge of meeting obligations as a father and as a husband. Risk is okay, but if you fail at something you’ve got to get back up quickly, dust yourself off, and resume it…you’ve got to work.”
DW: Like a lot of the new bands I’ve discovered in the last three years, I found you on one of those online mix-up radio channels. How do you feel about the impact that this new form of technology has had on music?
SK: “I don’t enjoy what’s happened to music. I’ve occasionally benefitted because of what is possible due to technology. I remember some years ago my manager wanted me to connect with [one of those streaming services], and my reaction was ‘Screw those guys! They’re ruining everything!’ But now of course, that’s the way things are going. One of my kids said, ‘Wait, you mean this is like iTunes, but for free?’ Well, once that’s out, you can’t go back. I suddenly realized that I’m like one of those guys who responded to the Beatles when they put out records: ‘You can’t do that! It’s singles!’”
DW: So it’s still about making music, regardless how it gets out.
SK: “I don’t play music because I love sonic soundscapes. I don’t think, ‘Wow! These are such fresh beats.’ That’s not what I care about. But I didn’t always know that. I used wonder why I didn’t like anything that was hip but the cheesiest country song in world would captivate me. And I finally realized that if I dig the lyrics to something—if I like the message in it—then I don’t really care what genre it is. And if that sentiment isn’t there then no matter how hip or fresh something sounds, it just doesn’t do it for me. And that was a good epiphany for me because it helped me feel less weird about cranking up Poison when they came up on the radio.”
DW: Now that you’re three years into your post-Sixers phase, how do you feel about some of your older work when you play it or listen to it?
SK: “The songs which I still play—which are a lot of them…it’s fun to play them and be calm and play them from a point of experience. That’s all a part of my journey, and as often happens the cream rises to the top. What I have are the four of five songs off of each album which still really speak to me. Sometimes I’ll re-listen to an old album and find something I hadn’t heard in while which also connects…then I’ll put it into the mix as well. I’m thankful for all of them, and I’m also thankful that I get to headline because you end up in a spot in your life where you can go back and revisit the old material in front of an audience who is familiar with me. Then I can play what I want to and make both the crowd and myself happy. That’s so much better than having to choose songs which are ‘hip-driven.’”
DW: Do you find yourself thinking about the phases we go through in life very often?
SK: “That’s like a 3-D question because…you know…we’re in one of them right now. I’m turning 40 later this year, and lately I’ve found myself thinking, ‘Oh…so this is what my parents went through…’ This is the moment in your life when you start to really battle disappointment. It’s very normal, and most people go through it. Have I met all my expectations? All my hopes? If the answer is no, what do I do with the time I have left? And all of this is happening at the age when the doctor tells you that you need a colonoscopy, and those fears start to set in and suddenly we become keenly aware of our mortality.”
SK: “But the beauty of going through these phases as a musician is that you have these albums which become these benchmarks of your life’s experience. That’s why I hope I get to keep making them for as long as possible. Take Gift Horse in 2011. We made that record when I was absolutely tipping over having kids, so when I look back on it now I discover that seven of the songs on that record talk about having kids.”
DW: Kind of makes you wonder what kind of record you’ll make when your girls are in high school.
SK: Laughs. “It’ll be a punk-rock record.”
DW: So I know that right now you’re focused on your new record, but when you look down the road and peer into some of those later phases, what do you see in the future?
SK: “What I’m hoping to create for myself is an ‘Empire of One’ where I can create songs, write songs with folks and help them articulate their truth. I still want to hit the road with my brothers-in-arms and play good shows in respectable-sized concerts. But I also hope that I can eventually utilize my writing in some non-musical way which will still allow me to provide for my family. I want to be healthy, be present in the lives of my children, and help them seek whatever dreams they decide to pursue.”
DW: Do they enjoy music?
SK: “Right now they’re just as excited about basketball and Barbies as they are the piano, but it is a beautiful thing when they play a little piece. It’s moving and fun, and I want to be around for that. That requires time for rest, so I’m hoping that I’m building enough of a thing here where I can eventually live that life. That’s the goal. I will achieve it, or I will die having tried to achieve it. Either way, we’ll have been swinging.”
As Kellogg himself said in that oft-mentioned TED Talk—that moment when he knowingly or not answered Grandpa Vanderhoff’s 80-year-old, fundamental question—life never exactly ends up the way we imagined when we were young. But a modified dream is no less intoxicating. No less fulfilling. In fact, from just about every angle, the modified dream often brings us greater joy than the fantasy we thought we wanted.