Death of Influence: Christopher Paul Stelling Plays to His Own Drumbeat (INTERVIEW)

On a recent day off, Christopher Paul Stelling sounds tired and contemplative. He is travelling to The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, TN where he will soon close the curtains on a month long stint opening for Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals.

The Brooklyn resident, known for his explosive finger picking and honest narratives, often calls the road home because he tours so frequently. In fact, just days after the Harper tour wraps, Stelling plans on rounding out a year on the road with another solo leg in North America.

The humble, self- aware 34- year-old recently took a few minutes to catch up with Glide about supporting a three-time Grammy award winner on tour, the best advice he has ever received, and the story behind his well-loved guitar.

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Tell me about your guitar, it appears to be very well-loved and I hear that you play with nylon strings. That is uncommon right? What is the story behind it?

It isn’t the only one I have ever used. I have lots of guitars, it is just the one I play. I put a lot into it. In lots of ways, it’s a reflection of myself.

In what way?

Well, it has logged thousands of shows in over 12 countries. It is not really special but it has gone the distance.

In thinking about songs on False Cities like “Homesick Tributaries” and “The Waiting Swamp” and then songs off of Labor Against Waste like “Warm Enemy” and “Revenge” the lyrics and intensity feel very different. What was different about the making of these two albums?

What do you think feels different?

I find the lyrics on Labor Against Waste to be darker and the intensity of the finger picking a bit more dramatic.

Really?! I think it is just the opposite. False Cities is darker and Labor Against Waste shows there is no benefit to revenge. The titles on both are biting for sure. In terms of major versus minor keys, Labor Against Waste is lighter. However, I am not trying to inflict my intentions through my writing and music.

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Who are five artists on your playlist that we should all be listening to right now but probably aren’t – for instance performers who aren’t necessarily mainstream like Julie Rhodes or Joe Fletcher?

Those are my friends and I enjoy seeing them live, so that is a different circumstance. Recorded music is like taxidermy – it’s frozen where you are personally in that moment. I always prefer live music. Recorded music versus live music is so different, they are just different experiences. What should people check out? Whatever they find on their own, the little things. Personally, I like podcasts to find music and I have seen live music every night for the past month on tour with Ben (Harper), and it gives me a new appreciation. It is pretty cool to see the stuff he plays alone – it is stark, gorgeous. It has given me an opportunity to watch, listen, learn and appreciate.

Can you comment on what the experience of this latest tour has been like? The different fan base?

The fans have been the best part. Ben’s fans have been with him for over 20 years. He has not rested on his laurels. He has always experimented and they have always stayed with him. Everyone at these shows  – no one has expectations for me, but they are eager to see when he brings me out. No one ever really wants to see an opening act but Ben curates opening acts. It is so rewarding and uplifting. The experience has been dope. It has been nice to spend time and see how he conducts himself with a 12- person crew and a big operation with humility and grace while I am still touring in my car. I will get a chance to revisit a lot of these cities on a headlining tour next month and it will be interesting to see how they respond to those shows.

Do you notice any differences in how you play when opening a show for Ben and headlining one?

It was a learning curve. I have gotten better. As the opener, I get 30 minutes to play. As a headliner I would play for an hour and a half. I used to finish a set and be exhausted. I am just getting into the grove at 30 minutes! I had to learn how to be more prepared and refine my banter. For instance, if I take five minutes tuning my guitar and another five figuring out what to play then I could have played a song. It has been a really good experience.

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What is your favorite song  from your catalogue to play and why?

I don’t have one. Every night, I put these songs in order to make a new song. My favorite song is a nice, hour and a half long, sweaty set.

With all of your touring, are you finding time to work on a follow up?

I am always writing and always ready with another record. I don’t want to comment more specifically than that other than to say I am off the road after a year in May and will be approaching that phase.

What is the best advice you have ever gotten?

(Without hesitation) in my early 20s, I was really spinning my wheels about what I wanted to do. A good friend said “maybe do nothing for awhile,” so that is what I did. Maybe when I get back, I’ll do that. It’s important to make time available to yourself.

Christopher Paul Stelling kicks off his upcoming solo tour on May 5th at Dirty Floor in Haddam, CT. For a full list of dates and more music check out christopherpaulstelling.com.

Cover photo: Josh Wool

5/5 – Chester, CT- Dirt Floor Studios

5/6 – Somerville, MA – Thunder Road

5/7 – Peace Dale, RI – Lilypads

5/8 – Hanover, NH – Skinny Pancake

5/9- Montreal, QC – Divan Orange

5/10 – Toronto, ON – Burdock

5/12 – Detroit, MI – Majestic

5/13 – Chicago, IL – Hideout

5/17 – Nashville, TN – 12th & Porter

5/18 – Chattanooga, TN – Granfalloon

5/26 – Asheville, NC – Isis

5/27 – Charlottesville, VA – The Garage

5/28 – Vienna, VA – Jammin Java

5/29 – Philadelphia, PA – World Cafe

6/3 – New York, NY – Rockwood Music Hall

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