Songwriter Christopher Paul Stelling discusses his Orlando roots and his Anti Records debut
By Bao Le-Huu
on Tue, Sep 1, 2015 at 12:09 PM
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CHRISTOPHER PAUL STELLING with Henry Toland, Austin Miller | 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 8 | Will’s Pub, 1042 N. Mills Ave. | willspub.org | $7
Christopher Paul Stelling is the latest Central Florida musician to arrive nationally. Now on Anti Records, the same boutique label that vaulted venerated Orlando hip-hop group Solillaquists of Sound in 2009, the rootsy troubadour joins a big-league roster alongside names like Tom Waits, Neko Case and Wilco. But as with most artists that finally break, the road’s been long and underground, his tracing back to his native Daytona Beach via the Orlando indie scene.
Orlando in the mid-2000s was his first taste of a scene, where he became part of the now-defunct but then-respected label collective Sleepybird Orphanage. “I remember when I was living there, it was incredible,” Stelling says. “That’s what kinda gave me my boost, like seeing Matt Kamm doing Dodger and the Punching Contest guys. There were just so many bands happening around that time.”
His wanderlust, however, would prevail. Even though he ultimately settled in New York City in 2007, his life is on the road. But it was a gradual slog just to be able to do that. After several years playing subways, open mics and opening slots, Stelling finally put enough pieces together to release a proper recording in 2012 (Songs of Praise and Scorn). From there, he got some professional PR help through a friend, received some positive reviews, went on tour (playing about 100 shows) and was bitten.
“I was thrilled,” he says. “At the end of the tour, we came back with $500 and I was like, this is it.” His every step afterwards was aimed at getting back out, including immediate work on his follow-up album (2013’s False Cities).
“Making the first [record], it took 33 years,” he says. “And then making the second one took six months after that.” He toured that second LP hard for a year and a half. Because momentum was gathering more overseas than at home, Stelling spent 2014 alternating between European tours and recording in the Rhode Island studio of acclaimed indie-folk band the Low Anthem. The fruit was the recently released Labor Against Waste, which finally prompted Anti Records’ overture.
“I think once they heard the finished record, I got a phone call,” he says. Now, the art he’s been honing all these years is finally seeing full daylight and his itinerary these days includes high-profile stops like the Newport Folk Festival and NPR’s Tiny Desk where his dazzle can catch more listeners.
Besides his fiery performances, the other most noted aspect of Stelling’s neo-traditional style is his technical virtuosity, which is capable of lush arrangement on its own and feels steeped in the canon of fingerpicking. But Stelling’s path to it was more purely intuitive and his kinship with the greats subsequent. Although he’s listened to a lot of John Fahey and Alex de Grassi, he had only become interested in other fingerpickers after he had come into it on his own.
“Fingerpicking was more of a proclivity that I sort of stumbled upon,” he says. “Maybe it had to do with playing bass in bands for years with my fingers and then having a classical guitar around the house when I was a kid.”
Amazingly enough, Stelling’s not particularly schooled in playing. “I know cowboy chords, and I can kind of wiggle my fingers around a little bit and make them do little things,” he admits. “It’s a lot of guesswork.”
Though much goes into his songwriting, little of it is shaped by formal music theory. Of his technique, he says, “My right hand can pretty much do anything I can imagine it to. I have a fluidity that I’m grateful for with my right hand. My fingers just feel really comfortable on the strings. I spent years improvising so I can just pretty much polyrhythmically do anything I can come up with. But I think that’s kind of like the equivalent of being a percussionist. My fingers are just drumsticks and my guitar is just a snare drum.”
The result is a next-level marvel that’s not just accomplished but spellbinding, a true supernova in an often wan singer-songwriter field. He says, “I think maybe the guitar playing just came from the fact that I didn’t have a band and I had to back myself up and I had to make it interesting, you know? Because let’s be honest, songwriters, most of them are just wearing a plaid shirt and they all play the same fucking Gibson J-45 and it’s just a real boring scene.”
Stelling doesn’t especially identify with the current folk renaissance happening either. Although of his generation, the fresh young face of pop-oriented folk music is something the 33-year-old calls a “tragedy.” In fact, he says, “If I have anything to do with it right now, I really hope I can pull it away from the bastardization that it’s going through.”
Still, this climate makes the iron hotter than it’s been in generations for a riveting roots-minded artist like Stelling. Despite enjoying the best positioning of his career so far on a premier indie label and garnering more notice than ever, however, the self-made bootstrap grind through which he’s come up may ultimately be the thing that not only delivers him but helps him outlast trend. “Even though I miss the idea of having a community or a local scene, it keeps me touring to not have that to fall back on,” he says.
It’s been a hungry path that’s shaped both his musical method and outlook. But it’s something Stelling embraces, like the stone to his knife, and it’s finally starting to see real return. “I heard Jon Stewart say something recently,” he says. “He just kind of reaffirmed my belief that creativity is born through limitations.”