The Poetry Question

Discovering the Relevance of Words

INTERVIEW: Stephen Kellogg on Playing the Aces He’s Been Dealt

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Stephen Kellogg has long since been one of the most well-spoken singer / songwriters, and with his latest solo album, he also becomes one of the most honest, taking his listeners deep inside his own world. He wears his heart and influences on his sleeve on Blunderstone Rookery, and The Poetry Question had a chance to speak with him about this latest venture.

**As a side note, Stephen talks about Bird by Bird, and Margolin happens to have a full sleeve tattoo inspired by that same book **

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TPQ: Set the scene for us. Where do you do the majority of your writing? What does it look like?

SK: I WRITE ANYWHERE…ON NAPKINS, CELL PHONE MEMOS, NOTEBOOKS, COMPUTERS, JOURNALS…AS TOM PETTY ONCE SAID, “IF THE MUSE COMES KNOCKING AND YOU DON’T WRITE IT DOWN…THAT’S JUST RUDE” (-= I WRITE IN AN EXTREMELY UNFILTERED WAY AND THEN USUALLY WHEN IT’S TIME TO MAKE A RECORD, IDEALLY I CAN BE EDITING AT HOME BECAUSE THAT’S A LITTLE MORE BRAIN WORK (AS OPPOSED TO HEART WORK).

TPQ: To me, this is your most personal album to date. I feel like you truly opened up to your listeners instead of hiding behind character based songs. In your biography, you talk about 2012 being the year of change where your house was under construction, your band decides to take a major hiatus, you lose immensely important family members, and you start out on the trek toward a solo career. How did all of this effect the way you went about the album?

SK: MY FAVORITE BOOK ON WRITING IS ANNE LAMMOTT’S “BIRD BY BIRD” AND HER POINT IS ‘PUT IT IN THE ART’. IF YOU BREAK YOUR LEG, ‘PUT IT IN THE ART’. APPROACHING THINGS THIS WAY, GIVES A POTENTIAL UPSIDE TO EVEN THE MOST TRYING OF EXPERIENCES AND I THINK I EXPERIENCED A LOT OF THAT LAST YEAR. I LOST A LOT OF PEOPLE AND THINGS I LOVED AND THIS ALBUM WAS AN OPPORTUNITY TO MAKE SOME SENSE OF THAT. I ALSO DIDN’T HAVE TO SPEAK FOR A WHOLE BAND ON THIS RECORD, JUST MYSELF, AND THAT ALLOWED ME TO PUSH A LITTLE FURTHER TOWARDS THINGS THAT I BELIEVE-I’M GLAD IT WORKS FOR YOU. (-=

TPQ: The production on this album is incredible. I can hear your influences shine through in almost every track. From The Clash to Petty to Croce to a bit of Alison Krauss. Was it a conscious decision to allow those influences to shine through more on this album than previous ones?

SK: THANKS! THE GOAL ON THIS RECORD PRODUCTION WISE WAS TO JUST MAKE SURE THAT I WAS ‘FEELIN IT’ WHEN I LISTENED BACK. KIT KARLSON (WHO CO-PRODUCED THE RECORD WITH ME) AND CHIP JOHNSON (WHO PLAYED ABOUT EVERY INSTRUMENT), AND MYSELF WOULD LISTEN BACK AND JUST TRY TO DECIDE IF THE AESTHETIC ON EACH TUNE WAS DOING JUSTICE TO THE SONG. THAT WAS REALLY THE ONLY CRITERION. SOME OF THE AMERICANA LEANINGS WERE MY CALL BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT I LIKE…AGAIN HAVING IT BE ONE PERSONS ‘TASTE’ KIND OF GIVES IT A SLIGHTLY MORE PURE DIRECTION (FOR BETTER OR WORSE).

TPQ: What the major difference for you between writing on your own and writing with The Sixers?

SK: IRONICALLY I WROTE WITH KIT AND CHIP (BOTH SIXERS) MORE ON THIS RECORD THAN ANY OTHER RECORD. THE CHIEF DIFFERENCE HERE IS THAT, THERE WAS NO AMBIGUITY ABOUT WHOSE OR WHAT CORE WE WERE TRYING TO GET TO. FOR THIS RECORD, I WOULD BRING IN IDEAS AND ASK TRUSTED ASSOCIATES WHAT THEY THOUGHT. WHEN YOU’RE PART OF A BAND THOUGH, YOU HAVE TO REALLY LISTEN TO WHAT EVERYONE THINKS AND HONOR THAT. WHEREAS WHEN YOU’RE SOLO AND WRITING FOR YOURSELF, YOU LISTEN TO WHAT EVERYONE SAYS AND THEN YOU DO WHATEVER THE HELL YOU THINK IS BEST (-= NOT TO BE SNARKY IN ANYWAY, BUT MY THEORY HAS ALWAYS BEEN ‘MAY THE BEST IDEA WIN’ WHETHER IT’S MINE OR NOT, AND IT’S NICE TO BE ABLE TO DO THAT WITHOUT FEELING LIKE YOU’RE BUMMING ANYONE OUT.

TPQ: You are one of the very few singer/songwriters who, on your website, lists the causes you support – namely St. Jude Children’s Hospital, and CLIF Bar GreenNotes. Can you talk to us about these organizations, why you’ve chosen to support them, and your more philanthropic side?

SK: WELL THE THING IS, ST. JUDE CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL AND PEDIATRIC CANCER IS PROBABLY ONE OF THE MOST UNIVERSAL CAUSES IN THE WORLD. IF THAT’S NOT SOMETHING YOU CAN SUPPORT YOU’RE IN A STAUNCH MINORITY. FRANKLY, I LOVE THAT. I LOVE THAT IT’S SOMETHING WE CAN ALL AGREE ON IN A WORLD WHERE THERE IS SO MUCH TO DISAGREE ABOUT. I WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW I’M INVOLVED BECAUSE I WANT TO KEEP THOSE ORGANIZATIONS IN THE CONSCIOUSNESS OF THE PEOPLE WHO ARE LISTENING TO MY MUSIC. WHEN I DO FUND DRIVES, I WANT THEM TO GIVE. IT’S PART OF THE ROCK N ROLL TRADITION TO TRY AND USE YOUR MUSICAL ABILITIES FOR SOMETHING ABOVE AND BEYOND ONES GIANT SIZE EGOS (-= WHEN YOU’RE HAVING A PITY PARTY FOR THE FESTIVAL THAT YOU DIDN’T GET AN OFFER FOR, OR THE RADIO STATION THAT WON’T PLAY YOUR SONG, OR THE PEOPLE THAT HAVEN’T PURCHASED YOUR RECORD-IT’S GREAT TO HAVE BUILT IN REMINDERS THAT THESE ARE NOT TRAGEDY’S AND THERE ARE MUCH MORE IMPORTANT THINGS IN THE WORLD.

TPQ: Given that we are The Poetry Question, our goal is to show the relevance of words on the 21st Century. On your bio you say you play music in order to “[Use] words and intention in the hopes of a positive legacy for my family.” Can you explain this a bit more?

SK: WHEN I THINK ABOUT WHY I DO WHAT I DO FOR A LIVING. I’D SAY AT THIS POINT I HAVE TWO AIMS. #1 TO PROVIDE FOR MY FAMILY. MY WIFE AND DAUGHTERS ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD TO ME AND I WANT TO MAKE SURE THEY ARE TAKEN CARE OF AND THAT I LIVE IN A WAY THAT THEY CAN BE PROUD OF. IT’S A HIGH MOTIVATOR. #2 I ENJOY WORDS, PERFORMANCE AND THOUGHT. THESE ARE THE THINGS THAT HAVE EXCITED ME IN MY LIFE AND I’M TRYING TO PLAY THE ACES I’VE BEEN DEALT.

TPQ: As a high school English teacher, I always tell my students that it’s less my job to teach them about the importance of grammar, and more my job to allow them to learn one thing about themselves, because after all, grammar and syntax will only get us so far in life. What have you learned about yourself from creating Blunderstone Rookery?

SK: THAT’S A GREAT APPROACH TO TEACHING ENGLISH. IT’S AN IMPORTANT JOB AND I HAVE A LOT OF RESPECT FOR YOU FOR DOING IT. MAKING THIS RECORD, HERE ARE SOME OF THE THINGS I LEARNED… 1)IT’S IMPORTANT TO LET THINGS STAND OUT, IF YOU SMOOTH OUT ALL THE EDGES, YOU HAVE NOTHING FOR AN EAR TO GO TO. 2)YOU’RE NEVER BEAT UNLESS YOU DECIDE TO BE BEAT. SOMETIMES IT TAKES TONS OF ENERGY TO MOVE FORWARD BUT IT IS A PERSONAL CHOICE 3)THERE ARE NO RULES. THERE JUST AREN’T. 4)GO WHERE THE LIGHT IS. SOMETIMES WE STAY IN DARK PLACES BECAUSE THEY ARE FAMILIAR. AS SCARY AS IT IS AND AS MUCH AS IT CAN HURT TO ‘GROW’, IT’S THE ONLY WAY TO LIVE

TPQ: Take us back to your high school days. Who was the high school version of Stephen Kellogg, and what advice would you give to him now?

SK: I’M ALWAYS AMAZED BY PEOPLE WHO SAY THEY ‘LOVED’ HIGH SCHOOL. I THOUGHT EVERYONE KIND OF HATED IT. EVEN WHEN I WAS IN IT, I KNEW I WAS INSECURE AND I HAD LOTS OF EXTERNAL THINGS GOING FOR ME, SO I CAN’T IMAGINE HOW OTHER PEOPLE FELT. SOMETIMES WHEN I BRING IT UP THOUGH PEOPLE LOOK AT ME FUNNY, SO I CAN’T REALLY SPEAK ABOUT IT IN THE BROAD SENSE WITH ANY CONFIDENCE. I WILL SAY THIS. MY ADVICE WOULD BE THE FOLLOWING 1) BE KIND TO EVERYONE. EVEN THE TOTAL JERKS AND ESPECIALLY THE NERDS, JUST BE KIND. IT COSTS YOU NOTHING TO NOT TALK BEHIND PEOPLES BACKS AND ULTIMATELY THE SOONER YOU START TREATING PEOPLE WITH RESPECT (REGARDLESS OF THEIR STATUS), THE BETTER YOU’LL FEEL (I’M WRITING THIS TO 16 YEAR OLD ME) 2) I WOULD TELL THE YOUNG VERSION OF MYSELF THAT EVERY SECOND OF TIME SPENT WINNING THE HEART OF MY NOW WIFE KIRSTEN (WHOM I MET WHEN I WAS 15), IS TIME WELL SPENT. MARRYING THE RIGHT PERSON (AND SURROUNDING YOURSELF WITH GOOD PEOPLE) IS ALMOST THE WHOLE ENCHILADA IN LIFE. PEOPLE WHO VALUE YOU, PEOPLE WHO LOVE YOU AND LET YOU KNOW THAT, PEOPLE WHO ELEVATE YOU AND DON’T TEAR YOU DOWN. BY THE SAME TOKEN, DON’T TRY TO OWN THOSE THAT YOU LOVE-ALWAYS RESPECT THEIR FREEDOM TO FOLLOW THEIR OWN PATH. IT’S SELFISH TO SHUT DOWN THOSE WHOM YOU LOVE FOR FEAR THAT THEY’LL WANDER TOO FAR (REMIND ME I SAID THIS WHEN MY DAUGHTERS START LEAVING THE HOUSE) (-= 3) THE FINAL THING THAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME WHEN WAS YOUNGER, AND THIS SOUNDS A LITTLE NEW AGE, BUT IT’S NOT- ‘YOU’RE ENOUGH’. WORK HARD AND FOLLOW YOU’RE HEART, BUT DON’T WORRY ABOUT CHANGING THE WORLD, JUST BE THE BEST PERSON YOU CAN BE.

TPQ: Since we are The Poetry Question, we must ask: What is poetry?

SK: POETRY IS STATING SOMETHING IN A UNIQUE WAY THAT MIGHT NOT BE THE MOST DIRECT ROUTE, BUT IS THEREBY A ROUTE THAT SHEDS MORE LIGHT ON ESSENTIAL TRUTH. ANOTHER WAY TO ANSWER THIS QUESTION IS TO SAY “A CHILD’S LAUGHTER”

TPQ: If you could sit down for a drink with one author, artists, musician, or historical figure, dead or alive, who would it be, what would you drink, and what would you talk about?

SK: I’M JUST GONNA GO WITH JIM GAFFIGAN (THE COMEDIAN) RIGHT NOW. I THINK WE’D GET ON WELL AND I PUT A HIGH PRICE ON LAUGHTER (SEE PREVIOUS QUESTION). I’D PROBABLY DRINK CAFFINATED TEA CAUSE LIKE JIM I HAVE A MILLION KIDS AND I NEVER SLEEP. OTHER CANDIDATES WOULD BE ABRAHAM LINCOLN (TEA AND WE’D DISCUSS PATIENCE), CHARLES DICKENS (ALE AND WE’D DISCUSS ‘DAVID COPPERFIELD’ AND CREATIVE PROCESS), TAYLOR SWIFT (TEA AND WE’D DISCUSS SONGWRITING), MY GRANDFATHER (BEER AND WE’D DISCUSS ANYTHING) AND MY MOTHER IN LAW (WHITE WINE AND I’D CATCH HER UP ON HER GRANDCHILDREN).

About Christopher Margolin

Chris Margolin spent more than a decade in Education as a high school English teacher, and is now an Instructional Coach for the Longview School District. He is also the founder of The Poetry Question, an online journal which focuses on reviews of small press poetry publications, and runs a regular series called "The Power of Poetry," where notable poets share their personal stories of how poetry has affected their lives. Margolin resides in Vancouver, Washington with his wife, and daughter.

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