As he stomps his foot rhythmically and his face reddens, veins protruding on his neck as he lets go a soul rendering cry, Brooklyn-based Christopher Paul Stelling has the look of a Gold Rush era itinerant: pony tail, unkempt yet shaped facial hair, an olive green worn Henley, distressed (personally, not manufactured) grey wash jeans that probably started as black, worn leather boots, a collection of leather necklaces and bracelets, and a guitar reminiscent of Willy Nelson’s that he, as a carpenter, repairs himself. It is not too difficult to imagine him train hopping his way west, treating tired and tried men to the sad and powerful music that has come to define the struggles of Americana in our national subconscious.
What complicates Stelling’s anachronistic style and appearance is that he is performing in the library of the General Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen of the City of New York, a grand room dating from the early 19th-century on 44th Street just blocks from Times Square with marble columns, gilded ornaments, and a fifty-foot ceiling topped with a skylight. It is the second oldest library in New York City. Folk singer songwriter Christopher Paul Stelling was the inaugural artist for Muse & Music: A Performance and Discussion Series at the General Society Library, a series of performances and discussions that focus on the art and craft of songwriting. Hosted by rocknyc’s own Iman Lababedi, the first iteration of Muse & Music brought a good-sized crowd in from the torrential downpours that wreaked havoc on transportation Thursday evening.
After introductions from the director of The General Society and Lababedi, Stelling took the stage amidst a semicircular array of chairs. Christopher is known for his incredible plucking guitar work and he began his first song with an intricate quick melody that soon made the grandiose setting irrelevant. His voice, which has the raspy quality of a Cobain and the melody of a more technically accomplished singer, bursts with emotion, reflecting alternately ecstasy and pain, love and loss, joy and grief. He will stomp the ground forcefully with his worn boot in time with the downbeat, creating his own rustic percussion. In all, he produces an incredible amount of sound for one man and draws crowds into his world where day-to-day cares are forgotten in favor of Stelling’s aesthetic.
Stelling is occasionally joined by Julia Marie Christgau, who provides a haunting harmony on several songs. Ms. Christgau, who wore a dress that complimented Stelling’s attire, sways sweetly as she sings, and while Stelling will drop his vocals, focusing on his strumming, Christgau will hum and “oooh” a melody filled with bittersweet sorrow. Christgau, who sat in the front row when she was not performing, was twice extemporaneously approached by Stelling in the middle of a song and the two joined in to sing together, he standing, she sitting. As implied by this spontaneous duet, Stelling will often forsake the microphone in favor of a truly acoustic performance. At one point, before diving into a song where he opted to sing sans-mic, he said in his typical amicable fashion, “Those things are so weird, those microphones.”
In between songs, Stelling offered insight into his creative process. Some songs were based on specific personal tragedies, as in the case of “Mourning Train to Memphis,” a song about his great uncle, a priest, who passed away in a storm that is on record as the greatest storm in the history of Memphis, or on the collective fears, loves, and desires that Stelling harbors. Says Stelling, “Inspiration…for a lot of people, it’s love. For me? For me, it’s fear… and love.”
Stelling expounded further on his inspiration halfway through the set, when Iman Lababedi sat down with Stelling to talk about his craft and songwriting process, the stated purpose of the Muse & Music program. One topic that Lababedi brought up was Stelling’s use of religious imagery, a topic that permeates his songs in a fashion that is typically haunting.
“I use a lot of religious imagery,” Stelling says. I’m not religious,” He adds quickly.
“Why do you use it? Because it’s powerful?”
“Because it’s imbedded in my subconscious, you know?” he explains. “I went to Catholic school, and those images are powerful when you show them to children. We’re really responsible for our children, and somehow I think that they see and do, even at church, hearing people that are supposed to be offering the good news, and really it’s just the bad news and persecution of other people.”
And here we begin to see the philosopher side of Mr. Stelling, one that combined with his appearance and his work as a carpenter, my friend noted, leads you invariably to a Jesus comparison. Seeking to dissect the relationship between Stelling’s work as songwriter, carpenter, and guitar builder, Lababedi asked him to explain the “hands on” nature of his passions.
“Idle hands, you know, we’ve got to stay busy,” he says. “I’ve been watching the Ken Burns documentary on the history of New York City and they refer to New York as the great devourer because it’s constantly in flux and things are being reevaluated, reassessed, and rebuilt. It’s kind of like an emotional state. It’s getting it all out, it’s constantly reinventing itself. I feel like it’s one the tragic flaws and one of the good things about human beings that we have to keep busy. We have to keep doing something…we have to have a goal, we have to work towards something.” As if to illustrate his point, after a meet and greet he picks up his guitar and plays twp more songs to send us on our way.
“Working towards something” is exactly what Stelling has done, both with his carpentry and his incredible songwriting. His music can be slow and crooning but also rollicking, sad but joyous, an experiment that evolves with each song he writes. Stelling is equal parts musician and storyteller. The unique setting offered by the Muse & Music program, which allowed Stelling to explain himself in a way that differed from a one on one interview and engendered thoughtful public discussion, was a refreshing way to see an artist talk about his music.
The Muse & Music program will continue next month with the Brooklyn artist Jus Post Bellum. Christopher Paul Stelling, whom I strongly suggest people see in the flesh, will be performing at Public Assembly this Sunday, March 13th. If this is not a possibility, his Daytrotter session is excellent.
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