Christopher Paul Stelling woke up the morning of this interview in his Ford Transit van alongside the Malibu shoreline, dawn rising over the stunning vistas of the Pacific Coast Highway. It was, he admits, a scenic break from the sometimes bleak exigencies of life as a solo troubadour.
“The street was lined right up to the sea with RVs. It was an especially van-life moment,” he says with a laugh, navigating Los Angeles traffic en route to a radio performance. “Usually, touring this way means circling the Walmart parking lot a few times to see if you can stay, or maybe a Cracker Barrel. It can be pretty sketchy.”
For the last three years, Stelling has lived in West Asheville with his partner, actor Julia Christgau, and their dog, Ida Mae. That is, at least when Stelling — a gymnastic acoustic guitarist in the vein of Leo Kottke ,with a voice that slides between the gusto of Bill Withers and the entreaties of The Tallest Man on Earth — is home at all. Stelling is a month into the first of presumably several quarter-year tours behind Best of Luck, his hard-won and reassuring fifth album, produced by Ben Harper and released on February 7.
Maybe that sounds exhausting; Stelling just sounds thrilled to have the chance.
“I used to have these moments where I was waiting for the thing, my career, to happen. But I had the revelation that it’s been happening for years, that I’ve made it, that this is it,” says Stelling. “You always hope it will get better, but I’m not waiting anymore.”
This kind of contentment has been a gradual dawning for Stelling, a Florida native who spent his restless 20s roaming New England and the Pacific Northwest. After a stint in Asheville, he moved for the better part of a decade to New York, where his music career began in earnest. That’s where Stelling earned a deal with Anti-, the renegade label that’s long been home to Tom Waits and Neko Case, and landed in Rolling Stone and on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, where he strummed his battered guitar as if trying to break its strings.
But the travails of being a touring musician — the highs of a good night, the lows of a bad one, the tedium of white-line fever and load-in blues — took their toll on Stelling, who began to live too hard for his own health. When he took a full band on the road to promote 2017’s Itinerant Arias, he realized he was paying out most of his profits and often drinking the rest, despite surging ticket sales.
“I was in bars every night,” says Stelling. “When you grow up a broke kid from Daytona Beach and drinks are the only thing you get for free, you’re going to take as many as you can get — you know, eight or 10 a night, every night.”
In the months after the 2016 presidential election, the darkness of the news cycle and of his own mind seemed to close in around him. On Christmas Day 2017, almost exactly a year since Stelling returned to Asheville, he realized he needed a new plan: He stopped drinking. A week later, Harper emailed to ask if he’d like to make a record together. Suddenly, Stelling had a sidecar for his sobriety, something that he could focus on as he worked on himself.
“I just started to realize that the party’s over, and I knew I wanted to be awake for this,” he says of the Trump era. “When you’re making a practice of getting loose, it’s so easy to philosophize about the world’s problems. Any drunk can do that. But when you’re looking at your own situation and trying to be a better partner, a better friend, that requires a drastic change.”
Two months clean, he returned to Florida in early 2018 and sequestered himself in a writer’s residency; a year later, he headed to California to cut Best of Luck with Harper. Its 10 songs often feel like self-made medication for the worries of the world, along with nuggets of wisdom and resistance meant to remind Stelling to take care of himself and the people he loves.
The bucolic opener “Have to Do for Now” quietly celebrates the simple thrills of life at home, while the gorgeous piano closer “Goodnight Sweet Dreams” looks ahead to a morning of eating breakfast undressed and walking to the park. Stelling lashes out at the relentlessness of capitalism during the garage-rock delight “Until I Die” and escapes into instrumental oblivion for “Blue Bed.” It’s a record of resolve and the result of a lifetime spent searching for it.
“In the music business, there has to be growth, or it’s failure,” says Stelling. “But the growth I’m focused on is mine as a person. And if I grow as a person, the art will follow.”