After years of fronting his rock band The Sixers, singer-songwriter Stephen Kellogg has readied his third solo album Objects in the Mirror for a November 23 release. We caught up with Kellogg to discuss his songwriting influences, working with Nashville rocker Will Hoge as a producer, his first foray into being an author with next year’s release of Objects in the Mirror: A Storyteller’s Take on What Matters Most, and much more!
NoiseTrade: As far as sonic inspirations behind your new album Objects in the Mirror, you’ve mentioned Bob Seger, Cat Stevens, Tom Petty, and Rod Stewart. What specific songs and albums by those artists impacted your songwriting on this album the most?
Stephen Kellogg: There are certain songs that I have spent most of my career chasing; tunes that inspired me growing up that I’ve been working to write my own version of. I’d say Bob Seger’s “Against The Wind,” Harry Chapin’s “Cats In The Cradle,” Steve Miller’s “The Joker,” Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” Jackson Browne’s “For a Dancer,” and anything off of Cat Stevens’ Tea For The Tillerman would be right at the top of that list. With Petty, it’s more about his general ethos in terms of what influences me. The thing about that era of ’70s songwriter music is that the lyric just sits front and center and that’s the part of songs that most drives me.
NT: I read that you serendipitously came across a 1946 Gibson acoustic guitar that played an interesting part in the songwriting for this album. What’s the story there?
Kellogg: Well, I certainly wasn’t shopping for another guitar, but I happened to be shooting a promotional video for my associates at BOSE and we were working at the Chicago Music Exchange – which is a wonderful music store. We were in there before the place opened and there was one guitar and one guitar only on a stand in a room of a hundreds of guitars. I picked it up and started strumming and it just felt and sounded so perfect. I started singing the song “Love Of My Life” which was one that I hadn’t quite been able to finish to my liking. Suddenly the lyrics and melodies that had been missing seemed to be there waiting for me. I know it sounds kind of new age or whatever, but that’s how it goes sometimes. A guitar has a song in it.
So I left the store and played the next two nights in Chicago dreaming about this beautiful guitar that was way out of my price range. I was leaving the next day to drive to Nashville to make the record and it hit me that I could sell some stuff to get it. So that’s exactly what I did. I traded three guitars, put some money down, and left Chicago with a 1946 Gibson Southern Jumbo that gave me not only “Love Of My Life” but a great guitar to play while making Objects In The Mirror.
NT: How did you get hooked up with Will Hoge as a producer for Objects in the Mirror and what did you learn from him during the recording process?
Kellogg: Will Hoge and I have been friends for about ten years. We’ve done a few shows over that time and sung on each other’s songs a bit and written a little together. More than anything we’ve just been pals, fellow road warriors, and song chasers. I texted him looking for some players and to get his opinion on who might be a good fit for me with the new record. He suggested himself. My initial reaction was “hell no” because making records can be stressful and I didn’t want to tax our relationship. I’ve lost friends making records before because things that aren’t personal can feel personal. It’s made me really careful about who I’ll work with in the studio. At some point though it became very evident that he understood the vision I was going for and was up for the challenge of trying to get there together.
One of the big takeaways I got from working with Will Hoge is the importance of being in the moment you’re in. I’m a planner. I like to know what’s going to happen. Will is a real contrast to that and has a lot of faith in the moment itself. Which is not to make it sound like he doesn’t think ahead, it’s more that if something is not working, you can adjust it right then and there and be ok. He’s also got a great sense of humor and an easygoing manner that I think is gold in the studio. He’s not overly attached to one way of doing things and that kept us moving in a great way.
NT: “High Highs, Low Lows” has ended up being one of my favorite songs on your new album. What’s the story behind the writing and recording of that song?
Kellogg: The writing of “High Highs, Low Lows” came like so many songs do – at one of the most inconvenient times imaginable. I was running late and driving down the road scribbling words in my notebook, trying to just stay with the cadence, and let it come through. Talk about distracted driving! The first unreleased version I recorded of it was more of a tempo piece, but ironically it was only the verses about the “low lows.” So I let the song sit for about two years. Then when going through tunes for this album, we tried it in a slightly different feel and suddenly it felt more like an Irish drinking song to me; a tribute to the best and hardest moments that life has to offer. I imagined it being like AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” for middle aged people who dig Americana; raising the glass every time the chorus hits with “High Highs, Low Lows.” I’ve only sung it out a handful of times since recording it, but I can tell it’s going to be a celebration at the shows. A tribute to life and resilience.
The recording itself was one for the ages. We thought we were just getting sounds and hadn’t yet ever played through the song together. I showed it to the musicians and we started it up. Just then it began pouring rain. I mean, absolutely pissing heavy Tennessee rain. Thunder and lightning too that made the lights flicker in the studio. We kept playing but I’m sure no one on the session knew that we were rolling unscathed. It was the first take on the first day and we ended up using the rough mix. So what made the record was an absolute moment in time. It’s fun when stuff like that happens.
NT: You also wrote a companion book of essays called Objects in the Mirror: A Storyteller’s Take on What Matters Most that’s coming out next year. How do the themes running through the songs on Objects in the Mirror connect with the essays in the book?
Kellogg: What’s interesting is that I launched the album and the collection of essays as independent projects. It was only once I finished the first draft of the book and the recording of Objects in the Mirror that I realized they were tackling all the same themes: raising kids, empowering my daughters with the knowledge that the current reality in America is not the de facto state of the union and that their voice matters, realizing that not all our dreams will come true, making peace with that, not letting it deter us from dreaming new dreams, not giving in to cynicism, letters to loved ones that they are appreciated for what they’ve meant to me, and forgiveness for anything that may have gone sideways.
NT: Finally, now that you are officially a “musician-slash-author” yourself, do you have any favorite books about musicians that you’d recommend readers check out for themselves?
Kellogg: Oh wow, there are so many wonderful reads – biography and otherwise. I really enjoyed Warren Zanes’ Petty. There’s also a novel by Dostoyevsky called Netochka Nezvanova that made a strong impression on my in terms of what a real musician is all about. There’s a musician/author named David Ford who wrote a book called I Choose This that is nearly impossible to find but well worth the effort. I have so much respect for the authors of the world.