Stephen Kellogg talks fear, family and Folk Fest
Stephen Kellogg has been one of my favorite artists for a long time. I first heard the Americana singer-songwriter almost seven years ago, and I’m still listening to what he — in all of his graceful, heartbreaking simplicity — has to say. In anticipation of his upcoming performance at The Ark’s Folk Festival this Friday, Kellogg spoke with The Daily on the heartbeats that keep him running, and the storytelling that has kept fans like me around for the long-haul.
There’s a certain fearlessness required in writing the way Kellogg writes. In “The Open Heart (South),” he sings, “And I still shudder at the memory of my failures and mistakes / Hey so what, it opened up my heart.”
He tells us exactly what he means, every time, and it’s not because he’s disingenuous, or he doesn’t care. It’s because he is, genuinely, unafraid to share himself with us. We get to hear his highest highs and his lowest lows because “Hey so what … (he’s) got an open heart.” What he does fear only makes him that much more human.
“I fear what I think many of us fear,” he said. “That somehow, the bottom’s going to drop, and you’re not going to be able to keep making art and expressing yourself. You’re afraid you’re going to run out of money, or nobody’s going to care.”
Allowing himself to ruminate in his own vulnerabilities, he progresses with a level of effortlessness that, as far as I can tell, only means one thing: This is what he’s supposed to be doing.
“The thing about me, and what keeps me going, and whatever drives me, is that I need to do it. It has never been an option,” he said. “When an opportunity comes up, I’m inclined to say yes: always. And I don’t think that that’s because I’m so driven. I think it’s just because — it’s just because I need to do this. I need to write, I need to play, I need to go out into the world and share it, and connect with others, and say, ‘Here’s what I think about things’ and have a dialogue — as much as that’s possible when you’re up there with a microphone, performing a show.”
Kellogg’s work is vocational for him, and, lucky for us, he’s good at it. Really good. He’s been in the game for a minute now, having led Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers for nine gorgeous years. The group went on hiatus in 2012, after playing over 1200 shows together.
“It was a little bit like a divorce where the couple still loves each other and, you know, hugs and cries and then moves out of the house,” he said. “As time has gone on, I think we’ve all done things that we might not have done had we been playing together, and you sort of look at it and go, ‘Well, this is exactly how it had to be,’ … and eventually, as happens when you go through some kind of breakup, it became not painful to talk about them, and it didn’t hurt.”
So, he kept on. As Kellogg grew — learning to do so both with and without The Sixers — his lyrics evolved in tandem.
“At some point, I decided that I wanted my songs to be vignettes of everything I need to say before I die,” he said.
He places so much weight on every word he articulates, and that’s why his music hits as hard as it does. It’s sincere, and it’s him. When I asked what inspires him, he responded in the most Stephen Kellogg way that he could have:
“This is going to sound hoity-toity, but Charles Dickens. When I read Charles Dickens, I want to go write lyrics. That brings out the rock ‘n’ roll in me.”
It’s hard not to like him — whether that be for his unabashed honesty, his never-ending love for his four daughters or the fact that he married his high school sweetheart (or all of the above).
“I think so many of us,” he said, “are trying to balance our lives in a way that feels healthy and right, and sometimes you get it more right than others. The biggest thing that I end up doing is… I love. I love my family so much, and when I’m home, I really try to be there. To really go for it.”
“But whenever there’s an opportunity professionally that I feel like I have and I should do, I really force myself to say yes. Even though it’s hard,” he continued. “I’m still a wimp though, when it comes to leaving the house. I’ll be blubbering as we pull down the road, you know, driving away. But you do what you’ve got to do.”
And, that’s exactly what he’s doing. Stephen Kellogg will play at The Ark’s 41st Annual Folk Festival this Friday.
“I am so honored to do that gig and to do that show,” Kellogg said. “The people who are playing it (and) running it — it’s just people I have tremendous respect for. It always, always feels amazing to be in company that you’re proud to keep.”
Go for the music and stay for his stories. I’ll be there (crying, probably), and singer-songwriter Joe Pug is set to emcee. Tickets are still available for both Friday and Saturday online and at the Michigan Union Ticket Office.
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41st Ann Arbor Folk Festival (Night 1)
Friday, Jan. 26 @ 6:30 p.m.
$42-$200 (single night); $75-$360 (two-night series)