“They were a little scary, but they had big pig roasts, and there’d be music,” he recalls in a phone interview from his Connecticut home. “That was the doorway into the whole thing. As a got into college and started looking at the alternatives to making a living, I found it was a lot more fun to play guitar and sing and write. I could pay my bills the same as I could if I went to a more conventional job. After a couple of years of jobs I was ill-suited to — I sold ads for a while and did some other stuff — I decided to do this. A lot of good things happened.”
In the early 2000s, Kellogg recruited the members of his backing band, the Sixers. They had a good run that lasted until 2012. One Sixer was Sam Getz, who now plays in the Cleveland-based garage blues act Welshly Arms. Kellogg first met him at a music festival and realized he was one hell of a lap steel player.
“We talked all night and ended up really connecting,” Kellogg says. “I invited him to do a military tour with the band. We didn’t have a guitarist at the time. One night not too long after that, I told him he should be in the band. That was the beginning of a good friendship and a lot of cool music that we’ve had the chance to make together.”
Originally, the group’s music got tagged as alt-country. Kellogg says he’s fine with that, even though it doesn’t exactly take his singer-songwriter tendencies into account.
“Over the years that’s a positive thing to be called that and then a negative thing, depending whether or not it’s in vogue,” he says. “The music I grew up with is the Eagles-y ’70s songwriter/Jim Croce stuff. We always had that vibe. At times, when we first signed to Universal, we made more of a pop record because that’s what we thought was expected of us. You have to take those swings if you’re inclined to do it. At the end of the day, the music has never swung too far from this rootsy thing. I can hear that. The labels are essential to describe the music. How often do you meet people who say they like everything but country and then another person says he loves country music? It does feel distinctly Americana to me. Folk rock, as lame as that sounds, is kind of what I do.”
For South, West, North, East
, his first independent release in more than a decade, acclaimed singer-songwriter Stephen Kellogg celebrates his freedom with the expansive album that, as its name suggests, includes music from all four regions.
“I was wearing these different hats,” Kellogg says. “There were a few songs over the years that were clearly pop songs. One of the valid criticisms I’ve read about my music is that it goes this way and then that way. I knew I had a big batch of songs. I hadn’t made a record in a while. I thought it would be cool to make a record where you unapologetically give over to the genres.”
He recorded each section in a different place with a different co-producer.
“I thought that would be a great experience and musically make some sense,” he says. “I don’t know if it makes sense. I do know that when we did the ‘South’ stuff in Nashville, it would have a Southern rock vibe. When we did the ‘West’ stuff, I knew that would be the cowboy songs, the folk rock kind of thing. We didn’t worry about having a single. That was also the pitfall. We got to the end and I didn’t know if I should really release it. I could already hear the complaints. When we were picking a single, we picked one from the first foot we want to put forward rather than what we think is the catchiest tune. I don’t know anyone who has specifically done this. I have heard of people making collections of songs and usually it’s a collection of EPs. From early on, we didn’t want it to be an EP. It’s one record that’s a concept. I think it was fresh.”
A close friend of his, O.A.R.’s Marc Roberge encourage him to pursue the project as the two flew from San Diego to New York at 6 in the morning.
“Your conversation is wide open at that point,” says Kellogg. “He said, ‘You have all these songs. You should make a record for each of the seasons.’ I liked the idea but it didn’t hit. It was that initial suggestion that got me. I thought it would be good to have a certain focus for each section.”
Kellogg recorded “South” in Nashville and Atlanta with Travis McNabb of Better Than Ezra, tracking the song with a seven-piece band. Songs such as the snarling “High Horse” have a distinct Southern rock flavor and could even pass as modern country (think Eric Church).
“I asked everyone to remember why they got into this business in the first place and if we can tap into that stuff from high school,” says Kellogg when asked about the recording session. “I told them to make mistakes and let it fly. I didn’t want the same stock Nashville demo thing. I did that because that’s how I roll in the studio. We had a really good session. Travis said they hadn’t heard that particular pep talk that I gave them. It was a good mix of proficiency in session work and me not knowing any better and telling them to pick up the instrument they didn’t know.”
Recorded at a cabin in Woodstock, “North” has more of an indie rock feel.
“It was so very different,” Kellogg explains. “It was just me and this guy Josh Kaufman, who comes out of Josh Ritter’s band. We have been roommates when Josh Ritter and I were in tour in Europe. I got to know this guy and realized he was a genius and could play a million instruments. That was weird because we’re in this cabin in Woodstock and there’s all this snow. It was me and him and this drummer. It was just Josh having ideas. It’s like how I would envision Daniel Lanois. A lot of the best tuff I can’t even take credit for because it was him bringing cool things to the table. Within the course of a month, I had had these two extremely different sessions.”
The songs from “West,” which Kellogg recorded recorded at a farm in Boulder with Gregory Alan Isakov, have a cowboy motif.
“I’m a fan of Gregory’s and I wanted him to show me how he made his records,” says Kellogg. “The education of it all was incredible. He wasn’t afraid to play a song 20 times and recut it because he wants it to go two clicks faster. The work ethic was there and it began with me on an acoustic guitar and we built things from there. It was more work but when I hear it, I see myself. It was just a guy and his guitar playing the song and so in that sense they are cowboy songs. I feel like ‘Wallpaper Angel’ has that and I wouldn’t call ‘Those Kids’ a cowboy song. They did originate from this super organic place. Those songs more than others on the record I could see sitting around the campfire strumming them.”
With their shimmering pop feel, the songs on “East,” which was recorded in Washington, DC., come off as the polar opposite of “West.”
“Those guys [playing on the songs] were in the Sixers,” says Kellogg. “We get a track and play to it like they do in pop music, which is where Chip [Johnson] and Kit [Karlson] come from. That was cool too. At the end of the day, there were certain experiences I liked more than others but it was great to go through it all and see how many ways there are to skin a cat.”
The album is such a ambitious venture, it makes you wonder how Kellogg could possibly top it with his next release.
“Interestingly, I am starting to think about that,” he says. “Songs are starting to dribble out. The relief for me at the end of this whole thing was that I think the recording it is that it just felt like where I’m going for the next thing. I started writing some songs when we got the mastering done and I’m really excited about them. They lean toward the Americana, rock ‘n’ roll songwriter world. You lean where you heart leads you. My heart was telling me to take the favorite parts and use that as my compass. I found my north again. I can record a bunch of songs and it should be simple and easy to do. There’s an angle to this that makes it interesting to someone who isn’t even interested in me. I don’t see it as a shift. It’s not like I’m U2 and have to have a concept album to follow up the previous concept album.”
Stephen Kellogg & the SouthWestNorthEast, Liz Longley, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 24, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main St., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $20 ADV, $25 DOS, musicboxcle.com.
Singer-songwriter Stephen Kellogg might have grown up in the Northeast (Southern Connecticut and Massachusetts), but his uncles were “farmer guys” who taught him a thing or two about traditional American folk music.