Christopher Paul Stelling's singing voice has a wisdom wedded to a certain amount of emotionally healthy distance. He's connected to his lyrics, as well as his bluesy fingerpicking, but he's not trapped by either.
His mellow intensity, always serenely locked in to the world around him, is also present outside of music. Speaking with Working Mojo from Dover, New Jersey, Stelling pauses while discussing his songwriting:
"Did that guy just bump me? In his Corvette?" Stelling asks, with the same tone someone might inquire about the caffination status of a drink.
"Are you in a car?" I ask, picturing a torrent of auto and body parts exploding through the air.
Stelling is in a car and he's fine, a minor bump that doesn't derail the interview or require neck braces. But there's no anger, nor even surprise about the incident. It's almost as if Stelling was expecting a Corvette to nudge his car. Perhaps it's the result of driving in New Jersey. Or, more likely, the product of a weird year, even pre-Covid.
After a long 2019 tour, all he wanted was to see his grandmother in Florida. Unfortunately, she died before he could make it home later that year. A few months after that, the world shut down and Stelling remained in her house, even recording his beautiful album, Forgiving It All, there.
The album, featuring only Stelling's voice and guitar, sounds like a combination of Cat Stevens and Mississippi John Hurt, timeless acoustic blues runs mingling with direct vocals to create something blues-influenced, but not a pure blues.
Stelling is reluctant to name the style: "I would say I'm just a songwriter," he says. "I like to refer to myself as a guitarist and songwriter, because I've always let my guitar lead the way and sort of lay the the brick foundation on which I write songs."
However, when pressed, he's willing to get more specific, calling himself a folk artist. "Because folk can be so many things," he says. "Going back to the beginning, of my understanding of folk and blues and all the different Americana type genres, most of the good ones in the early days always referred to themselves as folk artists. Hank Williams thought he was a folk artist. Robert Johnson thought of himself as a folk artist. Country was a form of song. Blues was a form of song. Those guys, the early country blues guys, they used to play a lot of different types of songs and the blues was one of the idioms. A 12-bar blues was a style of song. Maybe it's misunderstood now [but] they also played the popular songs of the day, a lot of them, whether it was show tunes, or popular ballads."
The explanation is almost academic, but there's a love and passion that's pure music fan. Which explains the cohesiveness of Stelling's sound. He's pulling from disparate influences, but he's not overthinking the synthesis, trusting his ear to construct songs and production that sound right, even if, on paper, the stylistic combinations might not make sense.
Ultimately, that's why I wanted to speak to Stelling. The guitar playing, and the overall underpinning of his songs, feel deeply rooted in blues, but not defined by it. He's a blues artist and lover who sees himself as someone who visits the genre, but doesn't live within it. That perspective comes through in this interview, where Stelling talks about his song creation process and how his early blues influences come into play with his writing. Like the Corvette that bumped Stelling, but wasn't a crash, the different musical strands shift songs without hurting them. In fact, they make them better. And don't raise anyone's insurance rates.
Daytona Beach Blues
Working Mojo: Do you remember how you got into the blues?
Christopher Paul Stelling: There was a local band in Daytona Beach, where I came from, this guy Mark Hodgson. He's still around. And my friend Joe King, older cats, they weren't older at the time. Younger than me now.
Then later, I think at Best Buy, I bought [The American Folk Blues Festival 1962-1969 (Volume Three)]. It had Skip James performing that version of "Crow Jane." It had Bukka White. It had Buddy Guy, Big Mama Thornton. And it was like this tour that was put together. It was a festival, I think that toured Europe. Son House was in it playing "Death Letter Blues." Howlin' Wolf, [who appeared on volume 2]. But what always really resonated with me was not really the band stuff, with the exception of Howlin' Wolf.
What always just resonated with me was the country blues guys. The guys by themselves. I just loved it, I just thought, 'Wow, that is a captivating entire world of music.' There's imagery, there's proficiency at an instrument. And it was all right there in this self-contained package. And I said, you know, that I could go anywhere. And it was almost the utilitarianism of it, that was appealing to me. In a world where it's like, 'If I only had this, and this material object, then I could really get to work,' with the blues and early blues, it was like, 'That guy has a guitar and a brain and a voice. And he did that. So what's stopping you?'
There's this idea that anybody can do it. And that applies to folk music, too. That's what those genres have in common. But I really think that the blues, what we now refer to as the blues, which just used to kind of be a song form, now is a genre. We call bluegrass bluegrass, because Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, that was their name, and that's why that spawned an entire genre of music, but at the time of Bill Monroe going around, he didn't think he was playing bluegrass music. He thought he was playing old time music. That was just the way that their band was set up, with a mandolin and a guitar and a banjo and an upright bass. And everybody since then has tried to do it that way. And I really feel like for those blues musicians, they were just songsters. And that occasionally they would play a blues. This is all semantical. Some people would disagree with this.
And then, of course, you get into the whole [issue of from] where it arose. All these poor, disenfranchised people in the American South, direct ancestors of slaves, and some of them slaves. There's so much hope and despair and, and humanity in their music and I think that's ultimately what drew me to it. America met these people with its worst face forward, the things that they had to live through, and that music is what helped them survive. The blues is really just important for that. In some ways, it's an oral history of those people's experience. Some of them couldn't read or write. My music is not that because I have not lived that life, but they inspired me and I pay honor to that, whether I call myself a blues artist or not, I'm incredibly indebted to those people.
Writing Forgiving It All
WM: How did you write the songs for Forgiving It All?
Stelling: At this point, being six albums in, and having written songs for a long time, before I was releasing any albums, the process is just who I am, and it's habitual, and it's just my way of processing everything. At the end, I sit down to finalize things, but songs are always in some stage of development, because it's just kind of what I tinker with. I always am writing little, what used to be little scraps of paper, and nowadays is increasingly like, notes on my phone, phrases, and then, in the meantime, just playing guitar.
I was never really one to learn other people's songs, so the perfect storm of being somebody that's always jotting down little scraps of poetry and little scraps of lyrics, I would probably do that anyway, if I wasn't writing songs. Then just the fact that I've never been one to learn things on guitar. I make up things on guitar, so I have something to play; I don't really have the attention [span]. Even if you were to sit and teach me a piece of a song, I would probably get distracted and turn that little piece of something into something that I was kind of developing on my own.
WM: So how do these disparate ideas and musical patterns come together into cohesive songs?
Stelling: Typically, they'll just be something that I've been playing, an idea that I've been playing and lyrics that I've been messing with, and then I [look] for something to sing. And there's a lot more of these patterns that don't end up becoming songs. And then sometimes you want a new song to sing, so sometimes I'll put something together.
And these days, now that I have a little bit more of a reputation, occasionally, every once in a while, somebody will ask me to write a song for something, like a TV show or movie. And though I've never really had much luck in getting them placed, I enjoy the prompts. That's a very rare instance, but I just like having something to play.
It's just kind of become habitual at this point, I don't really think about the process. Even though sometimes I do sit down to write a song. Perhaps once I get something that kind of jives musically, like guitar-wise and vocally. You kind of sing a little line, and you're like, 'That's good. Maybe I can sit down and fill out the rest of this thing.' And maybe that's when I jump into my notes. Maybe that's when I see if there's a piece of something that I've been playing.
There's a lot of muscle memory involved with the guitar. Like familiarities, little thing you've been playing, all of a sudden, you've been playing this little note, this little pattern for a couple of weeks, and you just kind of start singing to it. And then once I have these ideas, when it becomes time, where I'm like, 'I'd like to record some stuff, I better get some stuff together.' Then I sit down and write it out.
But when I do get an idea now for a song, I try to sit down and write it in one sitting. When I see an inkling of an idea, I do try to work it out. Once you're fishing, you can spend a lot of time in the water, but once you feel a nibble you have to yank the line and set the hook. Otherwise the time might pass and you might miss the opportunity. And I think after years of thinking about missed opportunities, now I'm a little bit more decisive about when you feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up, and you're like, 'Oh, maybe I've got an idea that's worth pursuing.' It's a mysterious process, I think, even for the people that do write.
WM: That's definitely a common thought.
Stelling: Yeah, it kind of feels a little magical.
WM: At what point in the process did you decide to do Forgiving It All with just your voice and guitar, and to keep it so unadorned?
Stelling: That's always been the temptation. This idea that artists that go into the studio and do all [this] studio trickery, and layering, everybody's like, 'Oh, they're so brave, it's so ambitious.' I don't really find the studio as an instrument...for me personally, it never really felt brave or ambitious. That sort of approach to recording always sort of feels a little too easy, because the studio has become so easy. Maybe when the Beatles were experimenting or the first people were experimenting with multi-tracking, there's been a lot of terrain left unexplored. Nobody had heard a Kid A or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or or even a Music for Airports or Joshua Tree. There was a time where that was brave, but for me, what I was kind of looking for and searching for and what I found bravery in is just that unadorned nakedness of my voice and my guitar, because at that juncture, there's really nothing to hide behind. Your voice is your voice, your guitar is your guitar, and the song is the song.
And that's kind of what I've always felt was the magic of country blues. That's the magic of Skip James and the magic of Robert Johnson and the magic of, gosh, I can go on and on with Mississippi John Hurt, or Mississippi Fred McDowell, or Bukka White, or Geeshie Wiley, any of the people that I consider to be early folk recordings.
The lyrics, of course, deliver. The songs deliver. All of those early country blues, and early folk musicians, they all have their own style, individualized style, and those were always tropes and things that kind of sounded familiar. You know, little turnarounds [sings a 12-bar blues turnaround], that kind of stuff. Though everybody participated in those little turnarounds and those little things that kind of defined genre, they all played differently. They all delivered differently.
And so there was this rugged individualism in country blues. But there was also this thing that made it recognizable. And also just the fact that they were stripped so bare, that I felt like I was really getting a picture of a human soul, an individual human soul. It's just always been the most honest, and enviable, and remarkable thing I've found in music. It's what does it for me. It's what made me want to do it. And though on my first two records, my first two records are probably 95% just me and guitar. I'd always throw a mic down on the floor to get my foot. I'd always do a little bit more, add a little violin, add a little backing vocal. And for this one, just with the general isolation, and also my exhaustion in the studio, after having made a more produced record, it felt like the time was right for me to just let the songs be what they are.
WM: How does one find new sounds within those familiar tropes? How do you discover your rugged individualism in that kind of environment?
Stelling: I don't really think of what I do as being folk or blues. Folk, if you're going to call it something, that works. I'm influenced, sort of sonically, by the things I've listened to; I'm very autodidactic. I learned how to fingerpick on my own. I believe if you just sit down and let the hands do their thing, certain hands will play it a certain way and other hands will play it a different way, and I just kind of let my body lead the way in learning how to play guitar.
Over the course of albums, it's changed. Maybe the answer to your question directly is just not overthinking it, and hoping, possibly, that you do [find something new]. Some people might disagree with you. There's a lot of detractors, especially in more nuanced genres. Some people might disagree that you have your own rugged individualism. Some people might disagree that you found your own way. You're really the only one that's able to answer that question.
One can only answer that question for themselves, if they're being honest with themselves. Does it feel right? Does it feel like you? And sometimes it's fun to lean into tropes. You know, what I like to think of as the Jim Croce approach; this style of songwriting where you might talk about the bad ass. The Leroy Brown. Sometimes it's fun to pretend and create characters. There's something honest in that pretending if you're admitting to pretending. Because sometimes characters and stories can get a little bit more to the point metaphorically than one would allow themselves to directly. It's kind of like the therapist who uses the puppet. You know, 'Talk to the puppet; you're not talking to me.'
WM: You were talking about the studio before and how you're not super enthralled by it. Did that factor into the process of recording in your grandmother's house?
Stelling: I am enthralled by it. It's just in this moment, because the studio wasn't even an option. That was the theory behind this record. Previous records, I've dove in and done a little bit more studio-y kind of stuff. But I'm not poo-pooing it for other people. I'm not saying I think one thing is better than the other, just to be specific about that. For me, in this instance, not only was it important for me, and this is getting more to your question, it was what was available to me.
During the year that we've come out of, unless you had a bunch of money for Covid testing and shit like that, the studio wasn't really an option unless you own your own studio. Not only did I want to spend some time in my grandmother's house, and spend some time at home, it certainly presented a good opportunity to do that, (A); (B) document a point in time for me as a songwriter; and (C) kind of pay homage to the time that we were living in, which was an isolated, stripped back time, right? We have all felt alone in the past year, year and a half now.
And I think the songs kind of reflect that too, lyrically. I hope. They're just time capsules, the songs. And then hopefully, if they don't have too much of a specific meaning, then those meanings can change. I like something not to be about too much in particular, because I'm aware, as I keep playing them, the meaning will change. Situations will change that will allow those songs to become and maintain relevancy. Hopefully, is the goal. Maybe.
WM: Have any of the songs' meanings changed for you since writing and recording the album?
Stelling: Absolutely. Some of them hadn't even revealed themselves to me. Sometimes that happens where I'm like, 'Oh, that's what that's about.' Because hopefully you're dealing with the subconscious mind. Hopefully, that's what you're mining. Hopefully, there's not too much thought involved. Hopefully you're channeling something that's revealing itself to you. Hopefully. That's not true for everybody. Some people like writing very literal songs that are about one particular thing. I love, I revel, in the mystery.
Two days ago, I was on the phone with Ben Harper, who produced my last record. We catch up every once in a while, and I sent him a test pressing of the new record, of Forgiving It All. He had sent me a test pressing of his record, Winter is for Lovers, after we had finished my record. And I thought that sending a friend a test pressing is great. He's been kind of a mentor to me, and a friend.
And so I sent him this record, and he asked me how things were with my wife and I, because of the song "Cutting Loose." He said, 'I thought, maybe because of that song, maybe you guys had broken up or something. Are you guys good?' And I said, 'Well, that song is more about me breaking up with my ego.'
But I maybe dressed that in the terms of a relationship, maybe using the language that one would typically refer to as a relationship. And he thought that was interesting, and I also didn't really understand what it was about until I had to tell him. Because breaking up with your ego, and your expectations, whether they be for your career, or for your art form itself, can be like breaking up with a person. This year, I think, for a lot of people, it kind of felt like we lost our careers, because we literally did. And we weren't sure if they were going to come back. Some of us still aren't. We hope.
WM: I wanted to ask you about that, because it did seem, and these things are always mysterious, but it seemed like pre-Covid, you were on a trajectory to maybe break out, and then Covid shut things down. So did you have that that sense that maybe you were on the precipice of something and now you're not?
Stelling: Well, it was a little of a mindfuck, making a big record, my third record for Anti-, with the big producer. We had just been on television, we'd done CBS This Morning, there was a lot of great press. But it's never really felt like break out. I've had lots of moments. I had a moment in 2015 that felt that way, doing things like Tiny Desk Concert, again, having been on a little TV, and done a big tour.
But every record kind of feels like, 'Okay, is this going to be the thing that's going to take me to the next level?' The concept of fame or acknowledgement, that has to be fickle. Because that's never going to be enough. Sometimes we just hope that we'll have an easier time paying our bills. Sometimes we just hope that we'll be considered for this, or that festival, or this or that gig, that's always seemed out of reach. I know what you mean, in that, if Covid hadn't happened, I just would have been able to get in front of more people and play more gigs, and put on more miles. But I'm not into the what-if game, because from this place where I'm sitting now, this is just part of the story now. How can you regret something that you had no control over?
WM: And when you're writing your songs, how do you know when a song is done?
Stelling: I guess when you're just done writing it. That's another thing about options. That's another thing about the studio and this process versus more of an overdubby-type arrangement-type record, right? Does it stand on its own two feet? Can you play it with a guitar? Does it feel like itself? I never had to ask myself with these songs when they were done. Some of these songs are really short. Some of them are under three minutes; a couple of them. But if you feel like you've said what you needed to say, it's just done. Don't overbake it.
WM: So you don't ever go back and tweak lyrics or sections?
Stelling: In the process of preparation? This record more than any in the past, I cut a lot. It was never the idea of 'Should I add more?' It was, 'Should I cut that verse?' In recent years I've fallen in love with brevity. If you if you go back and listen to a record like [2017's] Itinerant Arias, it's all like six-minute long, four or five verse songs, longer songs. That's fine.
But in this moment, and especially because it was just me and the guitar, I found myself being a bit more of an editor. When I sit down, I try to write more than I need, because coming back to a song, I've found that it can be harder to add more to it after that initial spark. So I would rather write more than I need and then cull afterwards. I'd rather trim.
[I'm a] big fan of Raymond Carver, the short story writer. Everybody knows that the magic there is in the sparseness of it. Nick Cave said—and maybe it was one of his Red Hand Files things— that 'I wish somebody had told me that I could edit early on.' And I kind of wish somebody had told him that, too. [He's] one of my favorite songwriters. It's just like, what ground have you not covered? What have you not done? And all these things I've said about a folk record and being sparse, the very next project very well may be very self-indulgent and very overdubbed. I don't know.
WM: Are you thinking of something like a Yes record?
Stelling: I was just listening to Yes the other day! Someone interviewing me brought up Yes and my wife was like, 'I never really got into that.' And I was like, 'Oh, we should listen to Fragile.'
But there you go, one of the points they brought up in that interview is that that band went in there sounding like that. From their rehearsal space to the studio. Nobody got into Pro Tools and Logic and did a ton of overdubs. The guitar, the keyboards and synths are that. The bass is the bass, the drums are the drums. Chris Squire sounded that way on his bass. I just think now, in recording for me, and in this project, it's not what you do, it's what you don't do, that can make a statement. And again, that's just me. It's not what I think is right or wrong. Because what's right for me in one moment might be wrong for somebody else. We're all on our own personal journeys. Nobody ever got anywhere by following trends. Things became trends because they weren't following.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.