Photo by Chris Phelps
From the first few rolls of deliberate fingerpicking, you can hear Christopher Paul Stelling turn over a new leaf on Best of Luck. It’s the singer-songwriter’s fifth studio album and his third since signing to ANTI- Records, but his first collaboration with a producer–Grammy-winning artist Ben Harper.
Stelling came into the process at a crossroads, freshly sober and facing the prospect of life post-label in his near future. With a little help from Harper, he comes out of it with a wide-ranging album that takes new kinds of risks. He hasn’t abandoned sharp-tongued folk-poetry–just turn up “Until I Die”–or strayed from his history of stunning guitar work, as on the opener “Have To Do For Now.” But on the latter, as he unpacks a previously-unexamined childhood injury, he takes the opportunity to look at himself from the outside.
That sets the stage for a lot of introspection and a few good stretches outside his comfort zone, but Stelling also shines at his most straightforward and unabashedly poppy. “Trouble Don’t Follow Me” is a rollicking, toe-tapping groove. “Lucky Stars,” with its gentle, melodic sway, oozes love-struck contentment and even features backup vocals by Stelling’s partner.
From his first-ever instrumental track to a piano-driven closer, Best of Luck shows Stelling’s range as a multi-faceted musician keeps extending, all while he keeps up an unusually rigorous travelling show. Before leaving his home in Asheville, North Carolina for another year of marathon touring, Stelling spoke to The All Scene Eye about planting seeds for future songs and improving his art by improving himself.
The story of this album, as I’ve heard it, starts New Years Day 2018, when you get this email from Ben Harper about making a record. We’re two more New Years out from there.
Has it been that long? I guess it has.
Have you had the chance to take stock of the past couple years?
I mean, I’m constantly taking stock, you know? When you at least attempt to do what I attempt to do for a living, it’s a constant state of taking stock. That’s the songwriting process, really. That’s the humility of continually putting yourself out there and searching for some sort of acceptance or acknowledgement, even though that’s not necessarily why we do what we do, hopefully. It’s just the process that one goes through if you attempt to let your songs and your music carry you through life.
What stands out when you look at where you are now versus where you were at the start of this?
Well, I was kind of done. I’m always kind of done, you know what I mean? When I put out the last record, I think it was May of 2017, and I went out and toured. I took a band out on the road for the first time, and I came home pretty broken and exhausted, and with a new president. Not just that; I kind of over-invested. I do alright as a solo, but taking a band out is a whole other level of expense. I don’t have a problem talking about that because I want people to know that the artists they support are also taking chances with their lives. Not just physically on the road, because the highway is a really dangerous place to spend the majority of your time, but also financially. It’s a risk every time you put out a record. And so, you know, I came home and immediately quit drinking. I got sober. Things had gotten pretty out of hand.
That’s one less risk in your equation.
Yeah, I was kind of at this point where I was like, “I’m gonna die,” you know? I’m going to experience some sort of [laughs] health-related thing–mental health, physical health, something in that equation. You can’t drink that way every night. It just never ends well, so I made that resolution. I started working on myself and my ego and assessing what kind of walls I had put up, what kind of things I was insecure about.
A couple weeks dry, I got that email from Ben, and it threw me. We knew each other–he had taken me out on the road back in 2016, and that was incredible. Just to stand on the side of the stage at the Ryman, or at Massey Hall, at the Beacon Theatre, and see a guy like that kill it to an audience that he’s been cultivating and maintaining for, like, 25 years–and to play on those stages every night before him. And to do it solo. I always had a theory that what I was doing could translate to more people; I just never had the opportunity. To be able to get up on stage and try my shit out in front of a couple thousand people every night was revelatory, and it kept me going.
It carried me through the making of the next record, and after the making of the next record, I hit this wall. If you’re going to keep doing this, you need a boost every once in a while–whether it’s a new record, whether it’s somebody to put their weight behind you–because the reality of it is some people will stick with you and some people will be into you for a minute and then have other things to do.There’s always people coming in, there’s always people coming out, so we always need a boost.
Anyway, I wasn’t expecting Ben to hit me up, but it was time, if I were to continue. I had one more record on my deal with ANTI- Records. I was pretty sure they didn’t want another one–I mean, not artistically. They’ve always supported me artistically. I just mean the sheer numbers. Once you’ve been in Rolling Stone a couple times, once you’ve done the Tiny Desk–once you’ve done all the things, those little boosts are fewer and further in between. After five records, everybody’s just kind of like, “Yeah, we know him.” [laughs]
Ben hit me up, I was freshly sober, I was like, “Alright.” I had set up a writing retreat–It was this place down in Northern Florida in a swamp. Stetson Kennedy, who was an early civil rights activist and a companion of Zora Neale Hurston, he had this house that had become a double literary landmark and a foundation because he had written some important books there and Woody Guthrie had lived there and completed one of his books there, so they started this writing thing.
My friend Brad, who plays in a band called This Frontier Needs Heroes, he had set it up, so I went down there to write knowing I was going to make a record, and I transcribed five years worth of notes into a book. All of the notes from my phone, all of my ideas. I just sat and wrote for a couple hours a day and read for, like, two weeks. I got my raw materials together and then spent the rest of that year touring sporadically. I went to Europe a couple times, toured the U.S. a couple times, came back to writing, and just kind of gathered my songs together. I’d send them to Ben, and he would send me notes–really the kind of notes that a songwriter would appreciate. Nothing too invasive. Always encouraging. His whole thing was, “Just keep writing. Just keep going,” so I wrote a lot of songs, and come the next year, we had a lot to choose from. That’s the best part.
I’ve heard you phrase it before as he told you to dig deeper. Is there anything on the album that sticks out to you as something that happened because you were digging deeper?
Well–no. Typically, once I finish a song, I don’t mess with them too much. You hear these stories about people spending years on a song–that’s just never been the ones that worked out for me. I’ve done it, but what I’ll do is write more songs. I had written, like, 25 songs, and I thought I had the record. I thought I had more than enough, and just getting into that habit of creating space for songs to–I don’t like the term “reveal themselves” because it implies that it’s not also work, but the kernel, the seed, will reveal itself, sometimes in a flash of inspiration, and then you’ve got to work the metal. Then you’ve got to put it in the forge and hit it with a hammer.
The first three singles that we’ve released, the songs that we thought were–I’m still holding some cards, but the first three songs, in a way, are putting our best foot forward. There are some wildcards in there, but those first three singles were three of the last songs I wrote in the process. Had I not gone back and given the old desk one more go, I couldn’t imagine the record without those three songs. That’s what came out of telling me to dig deeper, and sometimes “dig deeper” isn’t “try harder.” Those were three of the easiest songs I’d written because the first ones are the labor-intensive ones, and then while you’re farming, you tend to drop some seeds in the ground, and It’s the accidental plantings that tend to take root best.
I’m curious then–you had a wealth of material going into the sessions for this album. At what point did you see the track list or the arc start to take shape?
That was all Ben. I put my demos on a Soundcloud and, day one, he sat there and just skipped through the songs. He had listened to them before a lot because he had given me notes on all of them, but it was interesting that–I understand now that probably what he was doing was trying to forget all of his preconceived notions, working fresh and spontaneously, and that’s good. He was just like, “Let’s do this one. Let’s set it up. Let’s go.” And I’m like, “Okay.” We had perfect agreement about more than half of it. There were a few songs, maybe four songs, that I probably wouldn’t have picked, but I couldn’t imagine the record without them now, and I couldn’t imagine the record with some of the songs that I would have put in their place. It makes me recall a lot of past decisions that I’ve made and wonder how different it would have been if I had only had another point of view, but there’s really no point in worrying about that. It is what it is.
As far as I know, I don’t think you’d done an instrumental track in a few albums.
No, I had never done one!
How did that get made?
I was driving through Belgium with my band on the previous record, and I was starting–I’m always thinking about the next record. This was before I knew Ben would have some involvement, and I was cruising through little voice memos I had made–you know, sometimes I’ll have an idea and I’ll put the phone on record and play something, just so I know it’s preserved somehow. That instrumental, I hit play on the phone in the van, and that instrumental was there, fully formed, note for note. In one of the groupings of songs that I sent Ben–he was keeping a list of what he thought were the more outstanding tracks, and that one went straight onto the list.
I was like, “Wait, wait, wait, no. I’m going to put some words to this.” He was like, “I wouldn’t.” And I’m wondering, like, “What are we going to do with it? Are we going to add some stuff?” And he’s like, “I don’t know, we’ll see. It’s pretty good. You should leave it.” And I was like, “…Ok.” Which is hilarious, because if you would have asked me 14, 15 years ago, when I was in my early 20’s–which you wouldn’t have, because you would have never had any desire to speak to me–my goal was to make instrumental records. You know, like Robbie Basho, or John Fahey, or Leo Kottke, or one of those Takoma Records type dudes. I guess songwriting got in the way and I always felt like they weren’t good enough on their own, you know? But that was a total improvisation. I figured out what tuning I was in and just re-learned it. It was pretty simple. And yeah, I’m happy that there’s an instrumental on the record because I feel like it’s a nice palate cleanser.
There are some other interesting points on the track list–things like ending the album on “Goodnight Sweet Dreams.” It’s this very straightforward lullaby and it’s very piano-driven. Where did that come from for you?
It came from the piano. I play all the piano on it, and I’ve never really–I think there’s a point on Labor Against Waste where I play a little piano on the last song. I would say it’s different, but also, I’ve gotten into the habit of ending all of my records with these little lullabies. Every single one of them. I probably should change that at some point [laughs] but it seems like an appropriate place for a lullaby. You’re putting the album to bed. And, you know, the album should start with a sunrise. It should end with a lullaby.
What does that say about the way you go into the album? What is it like then waking up the musical thing again?
I think songs that start records–I wanted to start this record with “Trouble Don’t Follow Me.” I wanted to start the last record with “Badguys,” which is kind of a chaotic piece. There will come a time soon where nobody is there to give me good advice. I’ll take it while I can get it–good advice, that is. Right now, I have a nice team of people that have worked with some of the greatest artists of the 20th century. The team at ANTI- and Ben–I mean, this is a record about trust. I can follow my weirder, darker, more strange inclinations some other time.
I never felt like anything in this process was making me be untruthful to myself, but I did feel like there were good people on my side that really cared about me that wanted me to try some things, and I’ll be honest, I hear more of myself. The people very close to me feel like they hear more of me in this record than the last one even though the last one is extremely confessional. The last record was, like, “Here’s what’s wrong with the world,” and this record is like, “Here’s what’s wrong with me.” Because I can’t fuck with the world, you know? I can’t take on the world. I can barely take on myself.
It’s interesting you say that, because there are points on this record where it really feels like you’re talking to yourself. “Have To Do For Now” is one–you tell this story from your childhood, and it’s told in the second person.
I’m always talking to myself. Words like “you” and “me” are always interchangeable. You know how in dreams, perspectives change and all of a sudden you’re the other person in the room? I think there’s a purpose for that. I think there’s a learning thing that’s going on. Even if our brains are really just defragmenting, part of that processing and part of that vehicle for empathy is understanding the other person’s perspective. And sometimes you have to parent yourself a little bit–sometimes you can only bear to hear those truths directly from yourself, right?
I said in a little thing the other day, I think for Bluegrass Situation or something, that I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure there’s no right or wrong way to write a song, and I do think that’s true. “Have To Do For Now,” Ben was really floored by that one, and I was really happy he was. I went on a walk. A couple lines started circulating. There was a tree covered in crows, and it was one of these weird winter-day walks–one of those weird days where you’re kind of electric with the hoodoo. A car alarm starts going off as you walk by, street lights are turning off over your head, and all the weird shit. I was electric with something, and I came home and sat down and wrote that song, beginning to end.
I couldn’t believe they wanted to put that out as the first single. Hey, man, like, I’m glad they did. I always have approval. I always get to say what I think, but one thing I’ve learned over the course of releasing three records now with a really good label is, you know, listen to what they have to say. It took me forever to not be super guarded about everything, and if anything, by the end of this experience, I’ll know how to try to be a little bit more open. If you want to get better at your art, don’t work on your art as much as you work on yourself. Because if you can get to be a better person, that’ll solve the art problem. At least, that’s my theory at the moment.
“Trouble Don’t Follow Me” is definitely the way I’d like to wake up, but I think “Have To Do For Now” is more honest, just for me personally.
Eh, you know. I couldn’t have written one without the other. I can’t write a lullaby without writing a barn-burner.
“Hear Me Calling,” I think, would be the counterpoint.
Sure, or “Until I Die.” You know, “Until I Die” and “Hear Me Calling” are both pumped up songs, but one gets more emotionally and lyrically involved than the other. It’s the same thing with “Trouble” and “Have To Do For Now.” I like an album that plays like a playlist that maybe you would make by lots of different artists. There’s a lot of records I hear these days–I don’t listen to a ton of new music, but sometimes I’m a little dismayed by the fact that you hear an artist, and you’ll be like, “Oh, this is kind of groovy.” Then you listen to the record, and you’re like, “Oh, basically the same song for 10 tracks, just sped up or slowed down.” There’s not a lot of dynamics happening. I mean, that’s not true, first of all, but it’s kind of true. It seems to be a thing in indie rock, where there’s one kind of tempo, one kind of stylization.
An overarching vibe.
Right, and it’s crazy these days. It seems like we’ve doubled down on genre. Forever it’s been like some artists would have a country song, but now all of these artists want to be country. How could you want to be one thing?
It reminds me of genre literature–there are writers who write only mysteries, or only science fiction, or fantasy. I feel like a lot of musicians fall into that same space.
Yeah, whereas I would like to write–if “Have To Do For Now” is William Faulkner, I’d like “Trouble Don’t Follow Me” to be James Patterson or [laughs] something a little more pop. You’d never read just one style of book. No, I guess some people do, don’t they? Some people just read mysteries or thrillers. I never really thought of it that way. But yeah, at the end of the day, I would never sit down and say I’m going to write a this-song. I just sit down, I bang at the piano or I bang at the guitar, and a lot my shit is fueled by the fact that I just like to play the guitar. I like to play the piano, but I’m not as accomplished as a piano player, which can be really refreshing. I don’t have all the dexterity, but at the same time, it’s easier to understand as an instrument. It’s weird.
As a listener, are there any artists who stand out to you as people who make albums that play like playlists and aren’t just one thing?
Tom Waits is kind of the ultimate example of that. I mean, look at a record like Mule Variations. Dylan to a certain degree, but more from record to record. I guess my thing is just to keep surprising myself. And I really do like limitations. That being said, there is something to be said about a record that casts a spell from beginning to end and doesn’t change it up too much. There’s no right or wrong way, but this record has a lot of surprises. If you started the record from track one, you probably wouldn’t have expected “Hear Me Calling,” right? You probably wouldn’t have expected “Until I Die,” or the instrumental, or the lullaby. Maybe I’m biased because it’s me, but I grew up with a lot of different musical influences, so I have to let them all collide.
Do you have any New Year’s resolutions for 2020?
Well, everything is out the window when I’m on tour. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I tend to tour in a way that not many people tour, which is–it’s just an assault. Most people are sensible. They do maybe two weeks at a time with little breaks in between. I’m going out for, like–tour starts on February 5th and doesn’t end until mid-May. In those three and a half months, I’ll do the entire U.S. and all of Europe, so, no real days off. And that’s just the first leg of it, right? We can only book so far into the future, but that’ll continue all through May, probably June and July. I’ll be back in Europe in August and September. I’ll probably do something in October, November. So what I mean is, usually when a record comes out, I’ll tour for a year or two. It’s nuts.
My New Year’s resolution is typically just to get through it. I’m trying not to smoke. I’m definitely two years off booze, so that’s a thing, and just trying to be present. Really trying to remember people’s names on the road. That can be hard with a lot of people coming in and out of your life every day. I’m getting pretty good at it. You know, always taking that extra second to remember the sound guy’s name and the people that help you out because–fuck, it’s really important. But also, keep writing. I’m starting to hack away at what will be the next record. You’ve got to think of new ways to keep doing the same thing.
How do you avoid burning out on the road?
I’ve been burnt out for, like, five years. You just learn to live with the burnout. I feel like burning out isn’t burning out–it’s leveling up. If you’re burnt out, you’re about to level up, so, you know, pull up your socks. You get bursts of energy. You’ll fall asleep standing up sometimes. You just keep going, man. Anybody that’s paid enough attention to these patterns of life should appreciate that the second you think you’re done for, you get a wind of energy.
A typical day on tour, I’m up at 7:00, driving all day, getting to sound check by 3:00 or 4:00, loading in all the shit, loading in all the merch. I do all the driving. I do all my merch. It’s just me. It has been other people in the past, but what I’ve figured out is the tour can’t just sustain itself; I have to take money home. What I’m really working for is time. Time to write songs. Time to make recordings. You don’t get paid to sit home and book a tour for six months, right? I go out and work as hard as I can so on the other side of it, I have the time to sit still, think about what’s next, and refill the tank.
Do you have any inklings of what the next thing is?
Yeah, man, it’s like making kimchi. The good stuff, they put it in a pot, bury it in the backyard, and let it ferment for a year. I’ve got all my celery, my cabbage, and carrots, and it’s all chopped up. The jars are ready and sterilized. Basically, over the next couple weeks, I’m going to get everything prepared. The hardest thing is, it’s like gardening, you know? You have to attend to your ideas, create a space for them, and keep them somewhat organized if you’re going to walk away from them for any duration of time. I make lists every day of all the shit I have to do because if I don’t, I freak out thinking–I can never relax because I feel like I’m going to forget something. It’s like that with the songs. I have to keep all my ideas somewhat organized because I’m afraid I’ll forget one. Once that happens, it frees me up to come up with new ideas.