“It’s not Americana or alt anything, it’s really just soulful folk music,” Ben Harper says of Best of Luck, the new album by Christopher Paul Stelling, which he produced.
Harper and Stelling met a few years back when the Grammy award winning musician-producer invited Stelling to open a series of shows. “Ben gave me a true gift back then,” Stelling says. “I’d been on the road for a long time and he put me onstage in front of his fans. He took me to the Beacon, The Ryman, Massey Hall, all these legendary rooms. Just to see that what I could do would even translate in spaces like that was revelatory.”
Harper says he instantly recognized a kindred spirit in Stelling’s virtuosic finger picking and soulful delivery. “It was like finding a John Fahey or Leo Kottke that was a really great singer,” he explains.
The recording of Best Of Luck culminated on a rainy night in Los Angeles, but the whole thing really began back in North Carolina. Stelling calls Asheville home, though he has been in a state of near constant motion for years. Leaving Florida while young to roam and perfect his craft, he made stops in Colorado, Boston, Seattle, New York and eventually North Carolina - all interspersed with relentless touring - hundreds of performances a year, in bars, coffee houses, nightclubs and theaters.
“The lifestyle of constant touring was gaining on me,” Stelling says. “And then I was back home, and in the abrupt silence, there was a clarity. The fumes of hubris I had been running on for years were all but gone and my relationship with my environment and myself had turned toxic. I was scared but resolved to persevere. On Christmas Day, after a few false starts, I gave up drinking and decided to take a look at myself.”
And then, as if following some greater cosmic narrative, an email arrived that New Year’s Day. It was Harper asking if he would be interested in making a record in Los Angeles. “I had never worked with a producer before,” Stelling says. “I had always controlled everything; it was how I had survived. But I needed a mentor and a friend; I was too far from shore."
Stelling accepted an artist’s residency at the Stetson Kennedy House outside of Jacksonville Florida to prepare. Kennedy had been a folklorist and comrade of Woody Guthrie and Zora Neale Hurston. Woody stayed there for extended periods as well. “I moved into this little house in a North Florida swamp just an hour from where I was born and raised,” Stelling says. “And I proceeded to freak out. It was the first time I’d just sat still for years. Mostly, I took inventory of myself. But I left feeling like I’d found a thread. After that, I would send Ben demos. He would respond with encouragement and tell me to keep digging, so I’d keep digging. Looking back, the whole process was the medicine I needed.”
Best Of Luck is a supremely accessible and finely crafted record that deftly merges genres. Harper, who has previously produced records by Mavis Staples, Rickie Lee Jones, The Blind Boys of Alabama and others, recruited an all-star rhythm section with Jimmy Paxson (Stevie Nicks, Dixie Chicks) on drums and upright bass player Mike Valerio (Randy Newman, LA Philharmonic) to lend a versatility and finesse. “I really believe this record is the intersection where folk and soul meet,” Harper says.
The album’s title, Best Of Luck, mirrored perfectly the emotional landscape in which it was created. “Depending on how you say it, it can either be a blessing or a dismissal,” Stelling says. “And that was exactly the point I was coming to with myself, my career as an artist, as a friend and as a person.”
The first track, “Have To Do For Now” is a haunting evocation of a moment between an unexamined past and an uncertain future. The guitar refrain evokes a beautiful sense of wistfulness about the past. “It’s a song about the fear of losing memories and the relief of letting them go,” Stelling explains. “It was written in one sitting. A flood of memories moving back to when I was very young and I fell from a tree house and split my head open. I’d never really processed that trauma but it’s one of my earliest and most visceral memories. I can’t help but wonder how that day and others like it have influenced my life.”
The sonic simplicity of “Lucky Stars” reveals a richness of melody and emotionality. “It’s part love song, part lullaby,” Stelling says of the track, “with a gentle touch from the band and Ben’s haunting lap steel matching my guitar in the instrumental section, additional vocals by my partner. It’s about gratitude and the mysteries of the universe. Even to just be here and marvel at it all is enough for me most times. Even if it’s meaningless, it’s beautiful.”
Throughout the record, discontent and self-doubt are transformed into messages of resilience and hope. “Trouble Don’t Follow Me” captures this perfectly, with an upbeat almost anthemic rhythm and soulful, gospel-tinged vocals. “It comes as no surprise to me that one of my most optimistic songs could be written in the most difficult hour,” Stelling says. “When all I needed was a little hope and a song I could play night after night and not get tired of. Something that captured the basic recipe for endurance. A song about marching on, a warning to anything that might stand in your way, and needing to feel strong for the people around you, so you can inspire them to do the same.”
There is an uninhibited defiance to “Until I Die,” a revved up folk-blues featuring a beautifully raw guitar and beat. “This song is a kaleidoscope in the hall of mirrors, a psychedelic rant,” Stelling says. “One thing is for certain amidst the chaos and uncertainty, and that is having someone to love and who loves you back is unrivaled.”
When Harper talks about his admiration for Stelling, he refers to his family’s legendary folk music store, filled with instruments and a fluid merging of styles and genres. “When I listen to Chris, I hear my grandparent’s store in Claremont,” Harper says. “He’s carrying on that tradition. A guy that can play any instrument from any country and play it with real feeling. He crosses genres but manages to respect them; he is a folk singer with an unusual soulfulness. He understands where this music comes from and why it’s remains so essential. Of all the record’s I have produced, this is one I’m most proud of.”
For his part, Stelling says, “This record was about learning to trust the people around me. If anything, after years of closely guarded decision-making I’m delighted by the results of this collaboration. This record has an undeniable sense of clarity. The songs are lean but never feel incomplete. Ben knew how to coax me out of my well-worn comfort zones, how to move fast and spontaneously and put me on the spot, and how to retreat and give me space to process things. People who know me have said they hear a lot more of me in this album than anything before. Realizing I couldn’t heal the world, I started to heal myself, and I couldn’t be more pleased by how that sounds.”
“The musical storytelling of Christopher Paul Stelling embodies a long road full of lush folkloric, mythological and religious imagery.” — WNYC
“False Cities finds Stelling owning his particular pulpit with the strength of a dozen Southern Baptist preachers.” – SPIN
“heart-plucking stylings of an acoustic troubadour” – New York Magazine
“Every song on his debut album Songs of Praise and cooks with both down-home comfort and avant-garde brio, Stelling building earthy folk troubadour stories over a fluster of wild arpeggios.” – Village Voice
“The way this man delivers his songs, it’s not hard to imagine him actually “tap-dancing down the edge of this here knife,” as he sings at one point from within a small tornado of acoustic guitar and fiddle.” – SPIN
“…Stelling has put together an album that will hopefully draw people to live performances where they can see what a real self-contained, modern-day troubadour looks and sounds like. Songs of Praise and Scorn is a fine way to introduce someone who should be a voice to be reckoned with in the years to come.” – American Songwriter
“His intricate finger-picking style and emotional, sometimes howling, vocals are sure to leave you awestruck.” – Miami Herald
“…it wasn’t until Christopher Paul Stelling performed that the final emotional wall came crashing down. As though he was reliving every emotional moment that went into the creation of each of his songs, he dug deeper than I’ve seen just about anyone, and everyone in the room was channeled into every second…” — NY Press
“…organic, southern Gothic-meets-classic folk vibe. Everything about his performing style and songs was inspiring, refreshing, and also blissfully familiar…” – Beyond Race Magazine
“Christopher Paul Stelling combines the organic approach of the Low Anthem with the impassioned histrionics of a pumped-up Jack White…” – SPIN
“There is a reverence in and of Christopher Paul Stelling that is immediately perceptible. It’s striking and it’s powerful. It’s a draw. It’s a magnetism that sucks you right into the landscape that he sees.” – Sean Moeller, Daytrotter Founder
“…we’ll be hearing about this soul-tugging troubadour for some time to come.” – My Old Kentucky Blog
“…his folkie ramblings, growled with stark emotion over finger-plucked guitar melodies, sound like they should be coming from the gabled front stoop of a Southern swamp-side bar.” – Stuff Boston
“The finger-picking force sings his own quavering brand of hellfire and hope across these 10 songs, which whip the listener back and forth like a steam-powered hayride.” – SPIN
“Stelling is a troubadour in the truest sense. His songs find their roots in the storytelling methods of southern folk music. His meticulous finger plucking guitar playing couples well with his commanding vocal style as he weaves the two around stellar songwriting that encompasses subjects near and dear to early American folk artists.” – NBC New York
“beautiful and touching in an understated way.” – WYEP (Pittsburgh)
“like a campfire, he is mesmerizing, slightly dangerous and always a good time.” – NBC New York
“His abstracted folk is simultaneously alternative and traditional. Along with echoes of John Fahey, the spirit of old frontier ghosts can be heard in all their strife and nobility.” – Orlando Weekly
“The amount of talent that comes from Christopher Paul Stelling is difficult to put into words… press play to any one of his songs, and immediately you will find yourself transported to a place you will never want to leave.” – The Vinyl District
“Songs of Praise & Scorn evokes images of ghostly ruin and delicate beauty under endless empty skies.” – Music Connection
“The balance between beautifully crafted ballads and fast-paced jams on Songs Of Praise And Scorn is perfect…” – The Aquarian Weekly
“Songs of Praise & Scorn is a gem of a guitar-driven folk storytelling” – The Owl Mag
“With Songs of Praise & Scorn, Stelling captures the true essence of American folklore and proves with this album, that he is quite the force of nature this music industry needs.” – This Coast Magazine
“Like folk singers of centuries past, Stelling isn’t afraid to dwell on the dark side. When he feels like letting go, he writes in a symbolic, cryptic style that eludes simple analysis.” – iTunes