“It was like a fever dream. Every day counting blessings for safe passage.” Out there on the road with his battered guitar, playing 260 shows in just the last year and half, across 46 states and 14 countries, acclaimed troubadour Christopher Paul Stelling says he could see it all out there unfolding on the horizon.
Amidst the euphoria of playing in bars, cafes, theaters, festivals, under bridges and in living rooms, were late night conversations with friends, new and old, about the undercurrents of tension and change in their countries and concerns about what was happening back in his own. He witnessed immigrant riots, saw the fires burning. “Back in places like New York or Los Angeles it was harder to see,” he says,”But go the a Walmart in Oklahoma and tell me this wasn’t coming.”
And so Stelling wrote songs about it all. Darkly beautiful and powerful songs which became the album Itinerant Arias which arrives on May 5th. Months ago, these songs seemed cynical, even paranoid. After all, everything was going to be fine.
“I wrote this album about something that hadn’t happened yet, and now it’s happened,” he says. “I played the songs for people and they said, ‘That’s not what’s going to happen.’ And I would tell them, it really is. I’m not patting myself on the back about it. But I had been out their traveling the world, seeing it building. When driving by refuge camps and seeing people behind barbed wire fences it breaks you.”
Of the album title, Itinerant Arias, Stelling explains, “these songs have in common no single origin, or sense of place. like found objects, overheard stories, lost melodies.... with no real home, but from a single voice.”
Stelling has been on the move for years now. Left home early to roam and search. Periods spend in Colorado, Boston, Seattle, New York City and North Carolina, all interspersed with further destinations to play his songs. His debut record Songs of Praise And Scorn was recorded at a functioning Kentucky funeral home. American Songwriter heard it and proclaimed, “this what a real self-contained, modern-day troubadour looks and sounds like.” Stelling’s 2015 Anti debut was called Labor Against Waste. Big Takeover called him a “punk rock Leadbelly… a dynamo” while NPR Music wrote, “He's a great finger picker, a strong songwriter, listen to his words - you'll love what you hear.”
Unlike previous records, Itinerant Arias finds Stelling backed by a band, electrified if you will. It is a record inspired by movement and travel. The album cover a photograph taken by Stelling himself depicting an arrangement of found objects on his table. With a little more than a week before returning to the road, he retreated to a friend’s Connecticut cabin out in the woods with some musician friends. They slept there, ate there and didn’t leave for the next eight days, recording the haunting and powerful record.
“We would wake up in the morning, make coffee and record. The idea was just to live together, eat together and make this record. Having been alone and on the road, it was great to make a home with these musicians for those eight days. These songs were minimally demoed, arranged on the spot and recorded together live.
The album begins with the bittersweet ode to battered perseverance in “Destitute. As Stelling explains, “We begin at rock bottom. When all the layers of self pity are pealed away and all we have left to do is remind ourselves that it gets better from here. It's a song about putting one foot in front of the other, about looking up. A nice place to start.”
Later Stelling addresses the plight of the refugee with the lilting and soulful“Sleep Baby Sleep.” He explains, “I became aware of the Syrian refugee crisis first hand a couple years back when crossing the English channel from Calais to Dover. Seeing the camps, driving right past them, looking at me from behind the fences, desperate to find a home... and me able to pass, with the right passport, the right nationality, the right look made me feel ill. I've gotten to know some wonderful displaced Syrians in my travels and they are some of the dearest people I've met. This is a song for them.”
The politically charged appropriately raucous “BadGuys” rages righteously against the ones who create turmoil, “Those nightmares creep into your reality,” Stelling says. “You're reading about them in the papers. Who are these monsters and where do they come from? They're just terrified little children hell bent on destroying the world, but you and your people got some home-made and there's a second line coming down the street, everyones faces painted up like skeletons and you join in, because fuck it.”
The record ends with the intimate acknowledgement of life’s unavoidable uncertainty featuring Stelling’s melodic guitar picking backed by strings and a moving vocal chorus on “A Tempest.” “If we go, we'll go together. To think of life as many voyages that tumble into one. Each new journey informing the next, but there's always surprises and beautiful distractions along the way. We are on a ship out at sea, unsure if we are on our way back home or leaving for good. Who knows where we are headed? Nobody. So enjoy it.”