For their creativity and omnipresence, musicians have become monoliths. Names like Lennon, Hendrix, Cobain, Beyoncé and Kanye have more meaning to us than the names of most U.S. presidents. We expect musicians to be a certain way—egotistical, eccentric, aloof. At a certain point, we even start to see musicians removed from what we would call “normal.” They’ve become pop culture icons. But Christopher Paul Stelling isn’t like that at all. Instead, he’s the kind of musician who just wants to express himself and make something meaningful.
Kind of a vagrant
Stelling describes the act of writing songs and endlessly touring succinctly: “It’s as good of work as you can get.” He doesn’t come off as arrogant or aggrandizing. He is thoughtful, humble, and intent on creating good art.
Discussing his views on music and what got him started, Stelling says, “I meet people occasionally that the music got them through a really difficult time of their life. And that means a lot more to me than any blurb in Rolling Stone or something like that. Intention is half the game, right? I intend to have that connection more than I intend to have the commercial success.”
Perhaps this mindset comes from the way Stelling got his start. Throughout his 20s he lived as “kind of a vagrant” in Colorado, Washington, North Carolina and Florida before finally settling in New York City. In 2006, he started playing open mics and finally released his first album in 2012. To promote Songs of Praise and Scorn, he embarked on a “completely DIY” tour of more than 100 stops. Faced with the reality of trying to make money from music, Stelling got a job when he returned to the States. But he “couldn’t have a job,” and returned to making music. Since then, he’s released three albums, including this year’s Itinerant Arias, and toured Europe several times.
For the most part, Stelling has toured solo. If you watch his Tiny Desk Concert, an online-and-unplugged concert series from NPR Music, he’s a guitar player with folk and classical influences and a voice that is somehow both coarse and smooth at the same time. He plays and sings with an almost spiritual intensity that’s matched only by his old and sometimes battered guitars. Critics and journalists have praised him endlessly for the energy and passion in his performances, something that is perhaps amplified because he has nearly exclusively toured as a solo act.
However, Stelling now tours with a band of his friends and his wife. The change has been refreshing for him.
“It’s so wonderful to be able to not just play with these guys but also to travel with them,” he says. “I really appreciate that after so much time alone.”
A lot of this is because of the new album itself. Whereas in the past he has opted for a sparer sound, Itinerant Arias is fuller and lusher. What’s perhaps most remarkable is that it was arranged and recorded over the course of eight days. The thoughtful lyrics and folk-style finger picking are still there, but the overall sound shows a clear evolution to his process. Stelling believes, “When people see us, it’s obvious that though sometimes we take the songs seriously or the songs are written from a serious perspective, we’re still having fun. You maybe would listen to the record and be like, ‘I don’t think this guy has very much fun.’” But that’s the advantage to the live performance—you see a whole new side to the artist.
Stelling clearly has a passion for the live aspect of music. He is an artist who believes in the ability of music to connect with people and he feeds off that possibility. Somewhat conversely, he says the studio album “is like taxidermy for your songs. You kind of freeze them in … what you would see as being the most complete musical state that they could be in.” His words as well as the pure volume of annual touring indicate an addiction to performing—one that is healthy not only for him, but also for his fans.
The last thing the world needs
Stelling, though, is aware that the influx of singer-songwriters is troublesome, as it has become a trope.
“The last thing the world needs is another singer-songwriter,” he explains. “But when it works it works, and I aspire to be that. That’s why there’s so much of it. There’s so much of it because it can be good. I really like the way that it connects with people. I guess some people connect with really loud rock bands with drums where you can’t hear the lyrics and there’s no real emotion other than head bobbing, but it really moves me mostly when people actually talk about that it’s the content they connect with.”
When asked about finding a connection with a broader audience, Stelling is hopeful and determined.
“It’s just been baby steps, you know? And we’re still making baby steps,” he says. “It’s gotten better. I think that the kind of music we play, it can’t be an overnight thing. It’s just indicative of the kind of music that we play that it has to be a gradual and earned progression.”
This belief in earning fans is derived from roots steeped in folk music. Stelling’s music carries history with it. He is without a doubt part of the movement of male singer-songwriters, one that was revived by artists like Sufjan Stevens and Iron & Wine. Its lineage traces back to Dylan, Cohen, Guthrie and Leadbelly.
Itinerant Arias presents a new way to connect. It has much stronger political undertones than any of his previous albums. “Sleep Baby Sleep” is a commentary on the Syrian refugee crisis, inspired by seeing camps in France during a European tour. Similarly, “Badguys” is an electrified folk song in which he attempts to come to grips with the changing political climates in both the States and abroad. Its chorus ends with the shouted line: “Bad guys always win.” But Stelling is resistant to the idea that he is a political songwriter.
“I’m certainly not an activist,” he says. “The problem is that, to regular people, songs are statements. Like, to people that don’t write songs, songs are statements, songs are ‘declarations.’ But I think to songwriters they’re just a way to process your feelings.”
It’s more than even that, however. For Stelling, a song is a conversation with his emotions and with his listeners.
“I like it when songs are more Socratic,” he says. “They ask a question. Because when songs start making declarations, they’re not art. They’re propaganda.”
Stelling doesn’t want to control how other people write their songs. He doesn’t have a problem with loud rock music or music with activist intentions or the kind of canned pop music you see in the Top 40. But he does worry about where music is going sometimes. As Stelling describes it, “A lot of music for young people, it just sounds cool. It’s peppy, it makes them feel cool to listen to it. But I wonder sometimes if the humanity gets lost.” What Stelling realizes is that his music, by being so personal, makes commentary less of a political statement and more of a personal reflection. He doesn’t insist that you agree with him—he just wants the words and the music to mean something to his listener.
Just a person and their guitar
Even after garnering exposure from the Tiny Desk Concert series and an NPR Music breakdown of his new album, Stelling insists that he doesn’t want to become an icon or some kind of character. He doesn’t want to become a trope. He just wants to make music that reaches out and means something.
“I try not to live in the third person,” he says. “I try not to think of myself as a character in a novel. I just try to be who I am and I’m sure a lot of that has to do with influences from the kind of music I heard growing up as a kid. There’s always something just pure to me about a person and a guitar and their feelings and passion. And I think that’s why it’s such a universal thing. It’s not marketing, it’s not brand research. There’s just something good about it.”
Whether he would ever acknowledge it or not, there’s plenty good about what Stelling does. The sense of care and introspection in his work puts him in the great company of songwriters who have cared about the music and the connection as much if not more than the money and the fame.
In “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” Leonard Cohen sang: “And that was called love for the workers in songs/Probably still is for those of them left.” The words are a reflection on the struggle of making enough money to survive. Stelling, like most musicians, seems to grapple with this as well. However, he continues to make progress. This July he’s playing at the Winnipeg Folk Festival and the Newport Folk Festival. He’s seeing larger crowds than ever, both in America and abroad.
Maybe we don’t need just another singer-songwriter. But we do need more artists who care about their craft above all else, and Christopher Paul Stelling falls easily within that category.
Catch Christopher Paul Stelling on Sat, June 10 at Firecreek Coffee Co., 22 E. Rte. 66. David Bixby and Dean Merrell open. Music starts at 8 p.m. $10. All ages. For more info, call 774-2266 or see www.christopherpaulstelling.com.