Stephen Kellogg says that the year preceding the release of his solo disc, “Blunderstone Rookery,” was tough, emotional.
His grandmother died. His mother-in-law died. And the Sixers, the band he’d played with for a decade gaining an increasing following and acclaim, went on hiatus while he headed out solo. The split wasn’t acrimonious; it was just time.
But “Blunderstone Rookery,” named for the boyhood home of David Copperfield, his favorite character in his favorite novel, is anything but somber. Yes, it’s reflective at times, but it’s also what fans have come to expect from Kellogg: thoughtful lyrics and catchy melodies steeped in folk rock and classic rock, sort of early Tom Petty and mid-career Jackson Browne meet Ryan Adams.
“The biggest recurring theme that goes through those songs and the whole record is one of hopefulness, of coming through the storm and eventually watching the sun rise again,” he says. “It was not an easy thing when you’ve been playing music with guys for ten years and you take a break. It’s an emotional thing. It was a tough year by my standards, but still not earth shattering. I was coming through tough stuff, but there is a lot of good. Ultimately, there’s a lot of redemption in the record and a lot of hope.”
Kellogg clearly loves words. Just listen to the way they roll off song after song on the album. He’s written some essays and book reviews. And he’s not afraid to put his heart, his emotions, high and low, out there for the listener.
“Blunderstone Rookery” is Kellogg’s first solo album since he and his band The Sixers went on indefinite hiatus following a tour that ended in November. They recorded seven albums together between 2004 and 2011, including 2007’s “Glassjaw Boxer, which was named one of USA TODAY’s best albums that year.
While the songs on the album aren’t overly political, Kellogg felt he could make a few statements standing on his own. On “My Brain Is a Beautiful Thing,” he looks at different viewpoints. “I still believe in things we’re free to choose like who we love and who we’re praying to,” he sings in one verse. In another, he pokes fun at reality TV.
“It’s the whole idea it’s ok to disagree,” he says. “You just can’t be an asshole about it.”
One of the album’s stunners is “Thanksgiving,” a 10-minute rumination on life and family and relationships he would never have brought to the band. “The silver lining (going solo) is it would have felt weird to bring the guys a 19-verse song and said, ok, figure this out,” he adds.
He ended all the shows in the past year — 115 of them – with the tune. “Thanksgiving is an adventure to play,” he says. “You just know you’re going to get to bite off a lot, you can’t phone it in. You have to throw yourself into it. Anything that brings you into that moment and demands that of you is fun.”
It’s also draining. When he played it for the last time in December, he says, “It was a relief knowing for six weeks I wasn’t going to be out there ripping my own heart out.”
Now in his 30s and with that family for balance, Kellogg says he is challenging himself to break out of the detailed autobiographical tunes of his past and create songs more open to interpretation, much like Bruce Springsteen. “Men and Women” is one cut off the new disc that falls into that category. “It takes a little bit of women in the heart of every man, “ he sings.
“They’re open enough (songs) that you can find your way in,” he says. “I’m looking for those opensongs, songs that are a little wider that can really grabt onto something different for everybody. I think there’s so much magic in that.”
“I’m a very open person. I wear my heart on my sleeve,” he adds. “I do it more unapologetically these days. It’s just the way I live. The rest of the world doesn’t all quite live that way so it’s almost more challenging for me to dial it back and be less autobiographical and think this is how I react, let me just go one deeper and think about how those around me react, and see if we can write something that feels more touching on a unversal scale.”
For Kellogg, who now juggles a family — he and his wife have four daughters — with time writing songs, it was also an opportunity. “I guess the advantage to finding yourself solo for the first time in a while is that you really only have one master to serve,” he says. “I took some thematic chances on this album. Because it feels like when you’re speaking for a band, you have to be careful about what you’re representing. But when it’s just you, you can say whatever you want.”
He’s found that having a family means writing in those stolen moments. “You’re sneaking in 20 minutes here or there,” he says. “It’s not at all how I envisioned myself (when I started). I imagined hanging out in a cabin with another writer and letting it happen. It’s like writing on a deadline. You don’t get as much mulling time as you thought.”
Kellogg peppers his conversation with admiring mentions of ’70s songwriters like Happy Chapin, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, and the Eagles. “Nobody was afraid to shift gears dramatically and without warning and that’s something I don’t really hear in current music,” he adds.
Kellogg started writing when he was nine and says a Whitesnake show when he was 10, yes, Whitesnake, sent him on the path to rock and roll. ‘Walking into an arena and seeing rock and roll on stage. It was out of a movie,” he says. “You just look at it and go, that looks awesome. I want to do that.”
The other formative shows were seeing The Grateful Dead, then Ryan Adams and finally John Prine. “By the time I saw Prine I was in my late 20s and you get to the heart of what actually is important — authenticity, good songs, connections with people.”
As a kid growing up in southern Connecticut, he says it took him a long time to square himself with the idea of playing music for a living. “It was really ten years before I said, ok, this is what I’m doing,” he explains.
After graduating from high school, Kellogg enrolled at the University of Massachusetts in 1995, where he studied communication and theater. One of his first gigs was playing four-hour sets of covers and a few originals at Montana’s Steakhouse in the Northampton area. “I look back on that: how the hell did I do endless sets, but it felt so much better even to be at the bottom of all that than it did when I was climbing up and working jobs that were less interesting to me,” he says, adding that he’d been selling ads to make ends meet. “They called me one day and said we bought a player piano. So I got replaced by an inanimate object.”
In 2000, he self-released his first album, South of Stephen, financed by his day job selling newspaper advertising. After a second album, he formed the Sixers. Their 2004 release, “Bulletproof Heart,” broke them. Universal Records came calling and the album, “Stephen Kelloggg and the Sixers” followed in 2005. “Gift Horse” in 2011 was their final release.
For the first time, Kellogg played Europe last year and when he talks about those early shows, he sounds like someone remembering that initial rush of grabbing an audience. For his first showcase in a London club, the crowd was chatty and inattentive.
“In the old days I would have been jumping up and down trying to grab everybody’s attention, but I just started playing, doing my thing,” he says, “and by the end of the second song we totally had them. And it just felt great. You can bring people around. That’s where experience comes in. You do what you do and bring them around.”
Stephen Kellog at The Jewish Mother Hilltop. Feb. 20, 8 p.m. http://jewishmother.com/VB/index. Tickets are $15.