Christopher Paul Stelling may have a beard, tote an acoustic guitar and craft fiddle-spiked folk songs, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t punk as hell.
His second and latest album, the ferocious stomper False Cities, started as a demo compilation. But then his second and latest arrest happened. Stelling threw his hands in the air and called the record finished.
“My head space was different and I was just like, ‘This is done. This is done and I’m putting this out,’” he tells me just outside Brooklyn’s beautiful McCarren Park. The result is a collection of raw, unapologetically honest songs. Although the unsavory incident pushed him to make what turned out to be a smart move, Stelling still has his gripes with authority.
“I’ve been arrested twice in the past six months,” he says through sips of iced coffee. His first was on a suspended license. “I have anxiety when I see a police officer. And they’re so arrogant [about their power]. They can just fuck up your life arbitrarily, just based on a whim.”
The grounds for his recent arrest? Three weeks prior Stelling stood just outside his apartment building in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood when a cop spotted a glimmer from his pocket.
“I press and assemble all my own records, so I’m constantly opening boxes,” Stelling explains. “And a knife is a very useful thing—I don’t think of it as a weapon, I think of it as a tool. So I got popped for having a tool [and now] I’m faced with having a criminal charge.” New York City outlaws visibility of knives, as it turns out.
Growing up in Daytona Beach, Fla., Stelling didn’t care much for the grand educational system, either. He never memorized his multiplication tables, he tells me. I ask how he got around that. “I didn’t,” he replies, smiling. “They just wanted to get rid of me so they pushed me through.”
Daytona served as a sculpting hometown. “In the summer and spring, people just flock there,” he says of the popular spring break/college vacation destination. “And in the winter, it’s completely abandoned. It’s got this bipolar existence.”
This instilled a convenient attitude for a touring performance artist. “I need both,” he says purposefully. “I need overbearing stimulation and I need complete being alone and quiet. So I get that. I go sit in the car and be on tour—drive, spend a lot of time driving not even listening to music. Driving six hours, being quiet, is nice.”
Stelling travels extensively and solo, playing national and international shows much of the year. He lives on the road so often, recording False happened barely wedged into two days’ worth of a break after touring the first album. After hollering on the road regularly for months, False was already destined to sound very different from Songs Of Praise And Scorn.
“My voice is clear as a bell on the first record and my voice is not clear as a bell on the second record,” he explains, moving his hands. “And that’s just from singing every night—and maybe a little bit of cigarettes and whiskey.” He laughs.
And thank Daytona’s sugar-white sand it isn’t. False Cities heaves into an emotive, roadhouse folk-stomp from the get-go with “Brick x Brick.” It’s an acerbic, spitting flame number with which to start a record. Stelling took a cue to start the LP with such a foaming cut from an idol of his, Tom Waits.
He cited Bone Machine; and Mule Variations as inspiration for False’s sloping song sequence. He wanted the organic full-length to kick off with an attitude.
“I like the way he starts his records,” he says. “You always think you’re going to get one thing and then you get something else.”
False Cities’s covers an enormous gradient of light. It flares blindingly bright in “Every Last Extremist,”—three tracks in—sprouting extra-Appalachian roots and finger plucking. Two later, it sinks to a deeper hue with the somber “The Waiting Swamp.” But even during the record’s most twilight numbers—violin-filled track “Writhing In Shambles” included—it always maintains a firefly’s worth of illumination. There’s a balance between the light and dark—always maintaining a bead of hope.
“I really appreciate calm when coming out of bedlam more than I appreciate bedlam when I’m coming out of calm,” he explains. “First you have to blow the doors off, then you settle into something nice. Whereas, if you’re in a nice environment, you don’t want to leave.”
But that’s the feeling Stelling perhaps intentionally summons, one that keeps False Cities breathing. “Go Your Way, Dear” guides golden thread into the most comfortable throw pillow created by the whole album—the same pillow upon which your guard falls. And he’s right. You don’t want to leave.