Stephen Kellogg & His Objects of Hope

Stephen Kellogg stands with his arms outstretched on stage beneath the din of thunderous applause. Dressed in a black velvet jacket with his initials tapered in white on his right breast, and a grey hat that keeps a tuft of curls from erupting across his forehead, he appears as if he wants to embrace everyone in the room. Beside him, sporting his own ragged fedora in a dark short-sleeved shirt and grey jeans, is his musical partner, co-songwriter, sounding board, and main instigator, Eric Donnelly. Sitting with a bemused smirk on his face, Donnelly grips his electric guitar and waits for the man to give him a cue. Eyeing him, Kellogg flips his guitar strap over his shoulder and counts off. These compatriots in song and travel have been on the road now for three weeks touring behind an album that took them a month to record, nearly nine-hundred miles south of here in Music City—Nashville, Tennessee. Kellogg ended up calling it Objects in the Mirror, because, like the memories he frames in each of its songs, they can sometimes be “closer than they appear”. It is indeed an album filled with snapshots in time, both past and present, and make up what might well be Kellogg’s finest work. It is at least his most autobiographical and eerily relatable.

He sings in its title track “Surrounded by family, 12 o’clock on New Year’s Eve/Throwing paper on the fire/Nothing else that we require/’Cause a heart with no regrets/Is as good as it can get.

“I’m gonna play some songs from the new album and then we’ll take requests,” Kellogg sheepishly tells the audience. “First part’s for me… the second one’s for you.”

That sentiment could describe the tour thus far, two-parts struggle, one-part joyous. To review, Kellogg has had to rush back home to tend to his family (his wife and four girls) who were in a bit of a car bang-up (everyone’s fine); he severely sprained his left thumb (the one that grips the guitar neck); he also battled a pretty nasty throat bug. That said, he’s played to packed houses of adoring fans, and used the opportunity of this roving duet to bring these close-to-the-bone sonnets to love and loss, age and death, family and money, and social and political concerns to the public completely unfiltered.

It goes beyond the music, though. There is a connection Kellogg makes with his audience that is unique; the shared experience of his personal story, the way he finds the universal thread of humanity that gets under the skin with a voice that is a mixture of sultry, country-tinged, pinpoint melodic crooning, and genuine rock and folk aw-shucks. He sings without the haughty weight of symbolism in the album’s first single, “High Highs, Low Lows”; “Only one way the river flows/Was it comedy or tragedy/Both I would suppose/High highs and low lows.

And, when he is done, everyone in the room is with him.

“The tour we’re doing, just me and Eric sharing it all night after night—which is the first of two ways we’re bringing this album to the audience—just feels so correct,” Kellogg told me a few weeks back when he began this journey. “These songs and these venues are the perfect introduction, but then we’ll go out and play the album the way we recorded it with a full band.”

Donnelly, who plays in both incarnations, co-wrote six of the songs on Objects in the Mirror, acting as co-producer along the way. He was also the impetus for the entire project, as he prompted his friend to come on and make an album already.

“It’s really special having Eric with me on the road and being able to share what I see going on out in the audience when we play these songs,” Kellogg said an hour or so before showtime. “Beyond being a great musician to play with, a lot of his heart is in this record, too, and it’s been pretty nice to soak it up together.”

The room is pin quiet when the new songs come. Well, mostly, as on this night Kellogg has to uncharacteristically berate some loud chatter over by the bar, which garners righteous applause. You get the feeling when listening to one somg after the other that the songwriter is peeling back layers from his life. “Song for Daughters,” wherein he sings my favorite track on the new album—spoiler alert, I too have a daughter—has begun to move people as much as the songwriter. It’s chorus of “Don’t be too hard on yourselves” is chill-inducing, but not in any maudlin way. Just the opposite, there is a genuine sense of communicating with his children the way Kellogg does with the audience, through his most powerful tool: music.

He sings, “This is a song for our daughters, cause there’s some things they need to hear/We never know when it’s our time to go, so let me be perfectly clear/You’re gonna win, you’re gonna lose, you’re gonna walk around in your shoes/‘til one day it’s you who will say…  Don’t be too hard on yourselves.”

One of Kellogg’s female brood has joined him on this leg of the tour, 11-year-old Adeline, an adorably semi-bored soul who occasionally puts her head on daddy’s shoulder during our backstage chat. Of course, I have to ask her about when her sisters had first heard the song. “Well, I remember Dad got all of us together in the living room at my house and he played it for us, and at first I didn’t really want to hear it because I didn’t feel like listening to a song right then.” Laughter fills the room, and after she politely allowed it to die down, she finishes. “But, I listened to it and I really felt some kind of connection, and it is an incredible song and I was really proud of him for writing it.”

Adeline’s dad’s performances on this tour, and the current one he’s embarked on with a full band, suitably reflect what he achieved on Objects in the Mirror; This sense of self, and a surge of positivity that comes from never having abandoned that most precious of human resources: hope. It is all over his record, from the sometimes humorous but endearing “All The Love (That Comes To Me)” (I’ve got all I ever wanted/But I still cannot believe/How I love to take for granted/All the love that comes to me), to his profession of undying love from the very start for his wife of nearly17 years (they’ve been together “26 years and counting”), Kristen, on “Love of My Life” (“But of all of the best memories that live in my head/It’s you in those blue jeans on the day that we met), there is a fierce embrace of life.

“I’m feeling that the presentation of these songs is a different role than I’ve played before,” Kellogg tells me. “It feels more inclusive and it sort of operates on the basic premise that most people are fundamentally good and trying to take a breath and get back to that. And you know what? That feels really important these days.”

To that end, Objects in the Mirror does not shy away from the current climate of anti-civility that exists from Washington D.C. to the Internet, as in “Symphony of Joy” that cross-checks the breaking of glass ceilings and when they finally shatter; “Those who pinned you to the margins, baby, they’ll be sweeping up.”

“I’m trying to find ways to discuss the way the world is right now that is beyond ‘they’re wrong and we’re right’,” says Kellogg. “But I feel anger too, and I am constantly battling this sense of just being furious with what’s going on. But, I just can’t use my emotions up on that. I have to find the happiness in there.” And for this he presents perspective, specifically, and perhaps not coincidentally, on the two penultimate tracks on the album, “I Will Always Have Your Back” and “Right There By You”.

However, there is one track on Objects that may explain this sentiment the best. It hits on several themes, some controversial, some spiritual, but mostly inspirational. It is called “Prayers,” but it’s not like you’d think it would be. Played softly on a piano—one of the first Kellogg has written on an instrument he is just beginning to comprehend—it is a beseeching to go beyond the vagaries of detachment and the impulse to give up, and offers a rather strict edict: “Every unkind thing we say leads to our unhappiness/No one in the world gets by without feeling bad sometimes/I’m not trying to be a jerk/But say your prayers, get off your ass and get back to work.”

Some have bristled at this as a tad insensitive, but when watching the songwriter hunched over the piano and singing it softly on this night, with zero pretense, it is hard not to embrace his refrain.

“I reworked that one a lot, almost as much as I’ve worked on a song, because I didn’t want it to feel [like being on a soapbox],” he recalls with some measure of humor. “I was going for this idea, you know, say your prayers, hope for the best, but then roll up your fucking sleeves and let’s go! It requires you too, and that’s always been my shaky relationship with religion and spirituality. I found myself wanting to sing about it and the lyric really isn’t totally where I can land for songs—that end line, ‘Say your prayers and get off your ass and back to work’…. So, I wanted to make sure that I was one-hundred percent behind it and comfortable, and ultimately by the time that I was done with it, I was. But in no way did I expect what that song was going to mean to people.”

When Kellogg and Donnelly perform the title track from Objects, there’s not a rustle in the audience. Suddenly, all the hoopla by the bar and the clinking of glasses and murmur of the back tables drop silent. “Last day I remember mama acting like herself/When the angels took her home/I was never so alone. “Objects in the Mirror,” as a song and an album—as Kellogg likes to point out—is an idea that speaks of the journey, the one we have taken and the one we find ourselves on. Most of it has little to do with our choices. Life happens, and it is good to remind one’s self of how and when it changes us. His touchstones are right there for us to see—childhood impressions, iconic public events, personal tragedies, the loss of innocence—the moments of mourning or the slow passage of time, or the ever-evolving heart and its comprehending of an oft-times cruel world. This is both an unblinking glimpse at the tragic while celebrating the survival of it, as is his show, which is open, and conversational—in both storytelling and song-sharing.

Donnelly’s recollection of the song speaks of how the album’s themes began to emerge. “Stephen had given me a Dropbox file of about 80 different ideas and ‘Objects’ had a couple different iterations, and I remember that line wasn’t quite there yet, but it was close, and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s something, but I don’t know what it is yet.’ And at the very end of the process, Stephen mentioned liking what he called then ‘the date song’ and then connected those dots of the objects in the mirror idea with this date song, and we started texting ideas back and forth. That’s when I knew Stephen was off to the races.”

Donnelly, whose work on the album Kellogg is quick to point out was not only paramount, but crucial, made sure I knew that he watched his partner at the top of his game when it came time to working with some of the best Nashville session cats, as if catching a glimpse of one of the world’s most accomplished athletes in his prime. “Maybe it’s because Stephen didn’t have a set band and was completely in charge of the project, but he became this person that I hadn’t seen before,” recalls Donnelly of the duo’s first days in Nashville. “It’s incredible to say this, whether playing the guitar or singing, I don’t think he made a single mistake, and the entire record was done live! I mean, that just doesn’t happen. On ten songs in four days, there wasn’t one time that we listened back to a take and said, ‘Oh, the vocal wasn’t good, but we’ll just have him re-sing it.’ It was just a really cool thing [observe] how focused and how in his element Stephen was throughout those sessions.”

“I feel like… ‘woah, this album has created a moment for me’,” Kellogg concluded during our initial conversation, when the sessions were still freshly in his own rearview. “And for every listener that quotes it or shares it or someone who writes about it or you guys podcasting about it (Adam Duritz of Counting Crows and yours truly played some of the songs on our weekly Underwater Sunshine podcast), [it’s] part of the momentum that allows you to believe in yourself enough to think like, ‘Yeah, I have things to say and we’re going to get this out in the world and act as the medicine that we intended it to be’.”

The ovation continues throughout the night, and it will continue even further, as Kellogg takes his band across the country, getting these songs of hope and loss and love out in the world. I can hear them now, still bouncing off the walls of the venue, long enough to last like memories—like objects in our own mirrors—for a little longer than a single show.

Kellogg thanks everyone, gayly tips his hat, and begins his journey to the next stage, ready to administer another dose of his musical medicine.

Be sure to catch Stephen Kellogg at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City, NJ on April 20, and also at the Long Beach Island Foundation of the Arts & Sciences in Long Beach Township, NJ, on June 13. For more information, please visit: