Road Warrior

On his new album Itinerant Arias, songwriter Christopher Paul Stelling documents his life as a touring musician

click to enlarge Christopher Paul Stelling plays the Bartlett on Friday. - JOSH WOOL
Josh Wool
Christopher Paul Stelling plays the Bartlett on Friday.

Christopher Paul Stelling is a musical nomad, and a busy one, too.

The singer-songwriter estimates that in the year leading up to the May release of his newest album, Itinerant Arias, he played something like 280 shows.

"You get a little sick of the sound of your own voice after a while," Stelling says from a tour stop in Oakland.

Normally he's traveling alone, though he'll sometimes enlist an available backing musician or two for a handful of shows. This time, however, he's performing with a three-piece band that consists of a stand-up bassist, a fiddler and his wife on percussion and backing vocals.

Stelling is actually a bit late for his scheduled interview with the Inlander, but that's because he and his band were in their B&B learning a song by country legend Doc Watson, and he simply lost track of time.

"That's new for me," he says. "At this juncture, it's definitely a relief for me to have friends on the road, only because I was up against a bit of burnout before."

That feeling of creative depletion isn't new for Stelling, whose earlier tour schedules involved him zipping around the country for awhile, making enough money so he could go back home (wherever home happened to be at the time) and record some tracks. Then he'd do it all over again.

"After so much touring, I just hit a wall," he says.

It's something of a catch-22: Being on the road all the time is exhausting, sure, but that's where the money is. It's also where the best ideas come to you.

"You have to be careful, because you don't want it to become your job," Stelling says. "When you get into a record cycle, you want to be sure you personally need to. You don't want to just be in the habit of releasing records. But with all the things happening in the world, I might need some therapy. And that's what songwriting is."

Stelling grew up in northern Florida — "Allman Brothers country," as he calls it — though he lived for several years in Brooklyn and is now based in Asheville, North Carolina. Though he doesn't remember a time when he didn't want to be a musician, Stelling admits it wasn't until his mid-20s that he committed to performing full-time.

Now 35, Stelling recalls touring around Florida before moving to New York City, where he busked on the streets at night after clocking out of his dishwashing job. That's when he started collecting original songs and opening for more established artists, and he self-released his first album, Songs of Praise and Scorn, in 2012.

"I went out and did 100 shows and just ate like shit for a year," Stelling says. "But I saw a taste of freedom, and I wasn't going to give it up."

He later toured in support of Ben Harper, playing in larger venues than he'd ever headlined, and began cultivating a fanbase beyond the U.S. He's since played all over the world, and the title of the folk-infused Itinerant Arias evokes feelings of wanderlust, of people who are meandering aimlessly, chasing after a purpose that eludes them.

Stelling and a small group of session musicians recorded the bulk of the album in a matter of eight days, completely taking over Dirt Floor Studio in rural Chester, Connecticut. They'd start working in the morning, Stelling explains, drink a little bit in the afternoon, record some more and then crash for a few hours just as the sun was about to come up.

Without wanting to sound too categorical about it, Stelling says Itinerant Arias is, without question, a Trump-era record. It's a quintessential songwriter-on-the-road album, but the songs aren't about, as Stelling puts it, "loose women and whiskey and cigarettes." They're about Stelling reacting to the refugee camps in Europe, the tension of Brexit in the UK and, naturally, America's toxic political climate.

"I wanted to try to look at what I was doing a bit more like an observer," Stelling says. "I feel like traveling gives you a different vantage point. Maybe that's what the record is about. ... It's like I see a storm coming, and I'm upset because nobody else sees it.

"But it's also about the beauty of travel. Traveling is an emotional thing. Maybe that's why I didn't call it Traveling Songs. It's a little bit more related to my emotions than it is about the human element. It's not just about the honky-tonks." ♦

Christopher Paul Stelling with Planes on Paper and Bart Budwig • Fri, June 30 at 8 pm • $6/$8 day of • All-ages • The Bartlett • 228 W. Sprague • 747-2174

Virtual Concert Series @ Baby Bar

Sat., Nov. 28, 8 p.m.
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About The Author

Nathan Weinbender

Nathan Weinbender is the Inlander's Music & Film editor. He is also a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, where he has co-hosted the weekly film review show Movies 101 since 2011.