Christopher Paul Stelling knows a few things about atmosphere.
A quick listen to his album Songs of Praise & Scorn reveals a songwriter that is raw and honest, absolutely unafraid to address the listener directly, something that’s evidenced by his stripped-down, bare-bones production. This brutal emotional attack is enhanced once you discover the album’s backstory, wherein Stelling recorded the album at an active funeral home in Louisville, KY, wherein he sometimes had to stop takes in order for services to be performed, that overwhelming sense of mourning and loss filling the air and permeating the recordings.
Now, having just finished up a stint at SXSW and actively touring the daylights out of Songs, Stelling finds time to sit down with PopMatters to answer 20 Questions, here revealing how he made slippers from a bolt of leather, why he traded in half of his recording instruments for a single guitar, and how exactly he’d recast Star Wars with characters from The X-Files ...
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1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
I reread The Giver a few months back. that did it. Around Christmas I shed a few over Finding Nemo (always) ... the last time I cried in a theater was Where The Wild Things Are. Forrest Gump, when Mama dies ... whew, that’s the “forever-go-to-cry-fest.”
2. The fictional character most like you?
I hope its Tom Sawyer. Reminds me of my childhood, setting the woods on fire, raising hell, climbing tress, jumping off shit into the creek, the river, getting caught, smoking cigs in the woods like it was a right of passage, skipping school, building forts. In my dreams though, I’m the narrator from In Watermelon Sugar.
3. The greatest album, ever?
I hope I haven’t heard it yet. I’d like to keep the faith that it’s still out there waiting for me to find it. if you’re giving me a desert island album kind of thing ... I have a deep love for Alex Degrassi’s instrumental guitar album Slow Circle, and Hamza el Din’s Water Wheel. My teenage self would have said In Utero, or Unplugged in New York.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
The X-Files! But if it has to be one or the other, Star Wars. Maybe we could recast: I just want the cigarette smoking man to be Darth Vader; “Fox, I am your father.” Scully can be Princess Leia, Skinner can be Hans Solo, the Lone Gunmen can be R2D2, C3PO, and Chewbacca, Deep throat as Obi-Wan Kenobi ... can I do that?
5. Your ideal brain food?
Silence and sleep. Noise and movement. If you mean art stuff, see the answer to question 8 (I answered these in reverse order, 20-1).
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
What, the record? I guess I am proud of that, sure. Mostly just cause it’s a document of this part of my life. I don’t know if proud is the right word though, but maybe. It’s really cool to see and hold a vinyl record with you on it, that’s for sure! I am honored that so many people helped me see it through and make it a reality. It’s more humbling than anything. I don’t harbor any illusions that it’s the best thing ever and that most people are gonna love it and that it’s my ticket to stardom or anything crazy like that, and maybe that is what I am proud of. I’m happy that I can go on tour with it, meet new people and visit with old friends, and maybe I’ll even make another record sometime.
7. You want to be remembered for ...?
Being complex and simple at once, being humane, loving my friends, writing songs, inspiring those around me to inspire me and those around them.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Henry Miller, Mark Twain, Emma Goldman, Baudelaire, Carson McCullers, Richard Brautiagn, Walt Whitman, Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, Leonard Cohen, William Blake, Rilke, John Fahey, Dylan, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Thomas Merton, Beckett, Remedios Varo, Kahil Gibran, Harry Partch, MLK, Kurt, Woody Guthrie, Rabindranath Tagore, Yuri Norstein, Hobart Smith, e.e. cummings, Dylan Thomas, Vladimir Vysotsky.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
The Tarot? The first guitar? Rainier Maria Rilke’s Letter to a Young Poet?
10. Your hidden talents . . .?
My friend gave me a big bolt of leather that they had come across, I’ve been making it into messenger bags, back packs, wallets, and I even made slippers, it’s almost used up; don’t know that I’ll buy more, but it’s been fun. I really enjoy making tangible things. Fixing stuff. I’ve been a carpenter, made a couple guitars.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
When I was like 22, I’d re-enrolled in community college and then dropped out about three times, I’d started and broken up bands, I had ideas and not followed through, I still lived in my old hometown, I had no idea what to do with myself, and so I expressed this to a friend, a girlfriend of those days, I said “I just don’t know what to do, I don’t know what I’m good at or what I’m supposed to supposed to be.” And ya know what she said? she said, “Maybe you shouldn’t do anything for a while.” And it hit me like a punch to the gut. I gave up on school, got a job at a used book and record store, and hung out. I spent time reading and playing guitar. I didn’t worry about it, I became an observer. Traveled, took it easy. Freaked out and got stronger. Learned about myself. And then all of the sudden I wasn’t doing nothing, I was on a path.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
The guitar that I play, that I’ve written my songs on, it’s beat to hell and held together with superglue and tape. I bought it for 200 dollars in a shop in West Asheville, NC. I actually didn’t even pay cash, I traded in a bunch of shit I had, pedals, and a looper, and another crappy guitar. I was trying to sell all of that stuff, cause I was planning on catching a ride up to NYC to stay with some friends here for a spell, but when I walked into that shop and saw that guitar, and played it for about ten minutes, that was that. Never even had a case for it for the first couple years. it was bought on a trade, but I’m only borrowing it, holding onto it for a while. I don’t steal, that stuff is for the pigeons.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or . . .?
Hate clothes, but naked is drafty; I got this onesie, ya know, a union suit, red button up one piece with a but flap, and an ol’ pair of LL Bean sheepskin slippers—in fact that’s what I am wearing as we speak. When I go outside, it’s always jeans, boots, shirt, and I have two favorite coats when it’s cold, both passed down to me from my pops, a leather bomber and his Navy p-coat.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
If I’m gonna have a dinner guest, I’d like to offer them a bit more than a Ritz, that’s just a snack, through some cheese and some pepperoni on it though, maybe even a Dill pickle slice, and then your talking ... what? Oh!
Oh, you mean the Ritz Carlton? Do I have to pick up the check? I hope not, how about Mark Twain, I sure would love to get some hang time with that guy. Can I invite two? Him and Will Rogers. Oh, man, that would be a hoot. I’d just sit back and listen. I wonder if they ever met? It’s possible, I need to look into this. They are two of my favorite Americans.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
I’m traveling through time as we speak, believe it or not! Where I am is the best place for me to be. I assume if we had this ability though then we could probably stop time then too huh? I’d like that, if only for a minute ... but if it did stop how would we know when the minute was up? Geez ... yeah, I think it’s best to just leave this one alone.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
A walk, maybe a long hot shower. Play my guitar. A couple of push-ups on occasion, maybe a stretch. Mac n’ cheese. My lady is real great at keeping me from stressing, she laughs at me when I’m being serious, she’s good at that. If it had to be one of the three: spa ... cause violence is bunk, and Prozac is wack.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or . . .?
Switch that vodka with a shot of whiskey and a can of beer and you got yourself a deal. All of the above, yes please, as long as that chocolate is dark. Those cigarettes have got to go, I smoke cigs at night, but they’re dumb, we all know that. gimme some mustard on my sandwich and an extra pickle and you might just win my heart forever. You forgot my guitar. I love to play my guitar.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Love the city, love my apartment, love the road, love leaving and love coming back. Love the country. It’s all a privilege. I’ve been enjoying the city for the past couple of years, but I think the country is calling ... ya know what’s odd? It seems from my experience, it can be so much easier and simple living in the city, if you don’t count its excesses and expenses. But I don’t need a car here, I am a pedestrian, that’s kinda country living if you ask me. You can’t get away with that in the country.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
“Good luck.” Maybe we should go back to a monarchy? Not really, but come on, ya, know? That way someone has to take some damn responsibility ... keep the people happy ... American politics, this obviously failed (what hasn’t though?) experiment we call democracy, but clearly isn’t. I don’t get it ... it’s like a game of ping pong ... back and forth between two imaginary parties, everyone always blaming the other, smacking the shit out of the ball till it’s all banged up and won’t hardly even bounce anymore, it’s lost its ping. Meanwhile people are losing their asses. I don’t know if there is a solution for all this mess, so good luck Mr. Leader Man, you’re gonna need it. Stay kind, that’s the rule. And please man, don’t go starting another war ... wrap up the bullshit we let those other fuckers get us into and shut the damn war machine down for a sec ... it’s no use.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
Getting ready to have my record release show and head out on tour for two-and-a-half months; lots of list-making and stuff like that. Getting the apartment packed up. I need to eat something ... I wrote a little something last night on a napkin, maybe I’ll work on it a bit. Gotta find someone to watch my cat while I’m away, she’s the best.