The way that Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Christopher Paul Stelling tells it, Asheville is really where his career began. He worked at Greenlife, lived near Asheville Pizza Company and eventually traded in all of his musical equipment for a nylon-stringed Gibson classical guitar. He credits losing a job in 2008 with propelling him toward his destiny, "because I really wasn't doing anything. I was hanging out," he says. "I knew I wanted to play music, but I was doing anything I could possibly do, except for trying to play music."
Before Asheville, Stelling traveled to Boulder, Boston and Seattle. He grew up in Florida, where he recalls finding old receipts from the Biltmore Estate in a piece of antique furniture. A great-great relative had done business with the Biltmore Dairy at one point, and that connected Stelling to Asheville. So did local artist Dustin Spagnola, who grew up with Stelling in Daytona. Spagnola moved to Asheville first and was "a great ambassador," according to the musician.
But ultimately, what Asheville contributed to Stelling's creative process was the impetus to move to New York. "I came up here and wrote a bunch of songs and now I've made a record," he says. That just-released album, Songs of Praise and Scorn, is 10-tracks culled from Stelling's last several years living in Brooklyn as a songwriter and performer.
The album opens with the rollicking “Mourning Train to Memphis,” all folky storytelling and syncopated strumming. It has trains, dudes who leave, haiku-style allusions to thunder and a sort of rolling blues feel of locomotion under a soot-colored sky.
“Solar Flares,” a standout track, sees Stelling at his hookiest. Here, the thump of finger-style guitar takes on the sway of a boat at sea or a steam engine heading for a distant horizon. That guitar (the one Stelling took when he left Asheville) is often the only accessory to his smoke and saltwater vocal, except for the occasional stomp of his own boots or a soft harmony from his girlfriend, Julia Christgau.
Scorn is serious about the whole stripped down recording thing. It's bare bones more than lo-fi, all emotions-on-sleeve and exposed to the elements. But at its heart it's a collection of complex stories that borrow from Americana troubadours as much as from sea shanties. Reverb and fuzzed-out electronics have no place on this palette of storm clouds and dusty roads. And Stelling, who doesn't even own a computer, isn't the sort of guy to collect a bunch of effects pedals.
"I love hearing someone and their instrument," he explains. "I'm a realist: I don't like to be tricked." Having spent three years developing his songs and performing live, Stelling says he likes to record in the same way. He finally made it into a studio because a friend in Kentucky offered a rate that he simply couldn't turn down. Scorn was the end result of 40 original tracks whittled down to 10, but those final cuts are a matter of "what you see is what you get," says Stelling. Songs are "like living things. Putting them on a record is kind of like taxidermy."
Some of those numbers that didn't make the cut for Scorn did find their way onto Stelling's recent Daytrotter session. That project is just one of the milestones for the musician who needed a push to get his career in motion. These days, the momentum is picking up. Now that the record is out, Stelling and Christgau are packing up their Brooklyn apartment and heading out on the road (dates include a stop in Asheville en route to a SXSW appearance), much like the roving spirit that Stelling's songs suggest.
"I don't do well with options," he says. "I've never had a plan B. I've made it where I have no easier way out. I have no choice but to do this."
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Christopher Paul Stelling (Emily Easterly opens)
where: The Get Down
when: Tuesday, March 6 (9 p.m., $5. http://www.getdownavl.com/