Stephen Kellogg and Tift Merritt
Singer / Songwriter
To understand Stephen Kellogg, look no further than the title track of Stephen Kellogg & The Sixers’ Vanguard debut album The Bear. As he sings passionately, “Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you. Sometimes you’re gonna win, sometimes you’re gonna lose…but you know in the end – there’s no apologies!”
Many artists talk about “keeping it real,” but in Stephen’s case, he means it. “I think it’s important to go with the feel of each moment and take chances. If that means to get out of synch or sing out of key once in a while, so be it. The crags are cool because they’re interesting.”
Producer Tom Schick (Norah Jones, Ryan Adams, Rufus Wainwright) signed up for the band’s most recent record and understands why Stephen has a growing legion of loyal fans. “You can hear Neil Young, Tom Petty and John Cougar in there. It brings back a lot of good feelings about growing up and listening to great people who can really play their instruments. It’s not pieced together on a computer. It’s very refreshing,” Schick says.
The Bear is the Stephen’s rawest and most cohesive album yet. With alternating tracks between producers Tom Schick and Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter, Erin McKeown), the album was recorded in an apartment studio in NYC and a big old house in Maine respectively. The duality of these settings fits perfectly with Kellogg’s description of his family upbringing as, “aristocrats and farmers.” Ditto the musical diet he was raised on, a strange bedfellow mix of his dad’s 70′s records and his sister’s taking him to 80′s metal concerts. Kellogg explains, “I’m as much a product of Whitesnake as I am of Jackson Browne.” The beauty of Stephen’s music is that he doesn’t have a problem with that.
Stephen has released four independent records as a solo artist. “I used to play 60 songs a night at this steakhouse. I was supposed to play only covers, but I would slide my own material in by introducing it as ‘an old Jefferson Airplane B-side’ or something. The Sixers brought me out of that and into the realm of making records and touring the whole country over the course of one great year.”
These days, Kellogg and his wife (his high school sweetheart) have two daughters and live just outside of New York City. Growing up and in step with his fellow band mates, The Bear looks at generations from two sides, both the vantage point of the child and the adult. Although The Bear is not a concept record, there is a conscious time line that the characters on the record follow and Kellogg even goes so far as to say that it’s “66 percent autobiographical.” Of course, he will only elaborate on it a little, “If I explained the entire story to you, it wouldn’t be as fun to dive in and figure it out for yourself,” he says grinning. “I’m sorry, but I just can’t take apart every aspect of the music without taking something out of the soul of it… you’ll have to experience it yourself and find meaning there.”
Stephen Kellogg & the Sixers are currently at work on their sophomore release for Vanguard Records, set for release in Fall 2011.
Tift Merritt is a singer-songwriter with what has been called a “unique” and critically-acclaimed body of work of “sonic short stories and poignant performances” that evokes comparisons to Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris.
Her father taught her guitar chords and how to play piano by ear to Percy Sledge and Bob Dylan songs, and she sang harmonies with him as a child. His eclectic record collection of soul, folk, R&B, rock, and country music records influenced her both then and later; she credits his “genreless” taste with influencing her to write and perform without regard to genre herself.
In her early twenties, though she had performed solo in public, Merritt has said she decided she was better suited for writing short stories. She enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to study creative writing. There, she met Zeke Hutchins, whose band had just taken a hiatus and who had decided instead to become a school teacher. “With his encouragement and a big box of LPs from the 1970s,” Merritt and Hutchins agreed to form a band.
In 2002, Merritt released her debut album, “Bramble Rose,” which landed on the top ten lists for both Time and the The New Yorker, and was called the best debut of the year in any genre by the
A song from the album, “Trouble Over Me”, was featured in writer Nick Hornby’s 31 Songs, and
while touring to promote Bramble Rose, Merritt opened for fellow North Carolinian Ryan Adams, who had helped her secure her first management and record contracts.
Her follow-up release, 2004′s “Tambourine,” featured backing by Benmont Tench, Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Neal Casal and Don Heffington of Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band and Lone Justice.
“Tambourine” was honored with a 2004 Grammy Award for Best Country Album nomination, though it’s sound was frequently described in quite different terms, such as “rock-soul throwdown.”
In 2005, Merritt and “Tambourine” were also nominated for three Americana Music Awards by the Americana Music Association: Album of the Year, Artist of the Year, and Song of the Year for “Good Hearted Man”.
During the tour to promote Tambourine, Merritt opened for Elvis Costello and recorded Austin City Limits –a performance later released as a DVD by New West Records.
The sold-out homecoming concert for the tour—at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, North Carolina—was recorded for a live album release; “Home Is Loud” was released in 2005 and re-released by the German label Blue Rose Records with bonus tracks in November 2009.
After extensive touring, Merritt rented an apartment in Paris, where she wrote the songs that would become 2008′s “Another Country” album. Before signing with a new label and making that record, Merritt performed Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” at the I’m Not There tribute concert at New York City’s Beacon Theater in 2007, with guitarist Joe Henry.
According to the New York Times review, Merritt had “the night’s purest voice.”
Released in 2008, “Another Country” featured the core of Merritt’s long-time band, along with Bob Dylan’s guitarist Charlie Sexton.
Emmylou Harris has described Merritt as sticking out “like a diamond in a coal patch” and says she carries “a promise of great things to come.”
Merritt’s latest album “See You On The Moon,” was released June 1, 2010 and features My Morning Jacket frontman Yim Yames on the track “Feel of the World.”
In addition to Austin City Limits, Merritt has appeared on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and the “Late Show with David Letterman.” Her music has appeared in “The L Word,” “Men In Trees,” “United States of Tara” and the film “New in Town.” She has also written two songs for the upcoming animated film “Dorothy of Oz,” starring Lea Michele and Dan Aykroyd, set for release in early 2012.
Sound Observations with Stephen Kellogg
By David Moye
Stephen Kellogg is best known for his work with his band, The Sixers, but as anyone in a partnership — personal or professional — knows, it is sometimes good to break away for some alone time.
That’s why he’s been spending the last few weeks doing a solo show with fellow songwriter Tift Merritt.
The two come to Anthology May 17 and Kellogg is enjoying a chance to share a different side of his muse than he can in a band setting.
“This is rare for me,” Kellogg said. “Most of my work is playing with the Sixers, but we have a new album coming out in September so this is a chance to play some of my more introspective material. I play some songs that I do with the band, but differently than how we play them on stage.”
It’s more of a change in mood, than a change in sound he says.
“Not to take anything away from the Sixers, but our music is my world vision,” Kellogg said.
Kellogg, who released four CDs as a solo artist in his early days, prides himself on being relentlessly honest in his music, especially lyrics. Lately, however, he has decided that he can take different approaches to reach that state.
“In the beginning, my songs came from personal experience,” he said. “I would take the filter off in hopes people would connect. Now, I am trying to new hats on in the interest of growth. For instance, now I might try and write from a character rather than myself.”
Another approach he’s tried is trying to come up with a title first.
“Many times, the title comes afterwards, but I decided to create a list of titles for songs I haven’t written,” he said. “I also use a rhyming dictionary. Now, you shouldn’t force the rhymes but they can lead you down roads that aren’t on the top of your consciousness.
“Also, while lyrics have always been my thing, I now want to pay more attention to melody.”
All the work he has done songwriting has turned Kellogg into a very focused songwriting machine.
“Really, I can sit down and write a song in any context,” he said. “But, it’s like basketball, to win the big game, you really have to get up and prepared. When you have a great idea, it’s great to be able to run with it.”
Of course, there are some places where he sits that may be more conducive to songwriting than others.
“Do you want an answer that’s honest or cool?” he asked.
Honesty is cool, Steve.
“Well, I get a lot of ideas when I’m in the toilet,” he admitted. “But I don’t keep a guitar there.”