Christopher Paul Stelling is a gifted Brookyn songwriter walking an austere, somber, gloriously pastoral line between William Elliott Whitmore-style indie-blues and the ever-emerging new breed of fleet-fingered Faheyesque fingerpicking. Every song on his debut album Songs of Praise and Scorn (just out via Mecca Lecca) cooks with both down-home comfort and avant-garde brio, Stelling building earthy folk troubadour stories over a fluster of wild arpeggios. “Solar Flares” finds him following his fingers and then floating away from them in every verse. His lyrics about “tired hands on broken plows” may not sound like the products of a subway-riding Brooklynite. But he has a stance on making idyllic music in a noisy city that’s particularly illuminating.
What is “Solar Flares” about?
I guess it’s about coming to terms with our failures. Not with despondency, but through acknowledgment and perseverance. Hardships can be blessings in disguise.
What inspired it musically?
My guitar, a G chord, a long day at work… It’s got a simplicity to it, it’s not trying to stun anyone with its loftiness. We make the same mistakes over and over, but we gotta keep moving. And it’s part of that quality we have, that need to keep moving, that often leads to our repeated mistakes, but that’s the way it goes. I wrote the whole thing in about ten minutes, lyrically, after sitting with the guitar part for a few weeks.
When you started playing, what was the first record to really inspire you as a guitar player?
Ya know, the finger picking was something that happened on its own. I had a knack for it, so I started seeking out people who had done it after I had made my way a bit. When I was getting into Skip James and reading about him, I heard about John Fahey. I was working at a used bookstore at the time and the man that owned it had a bunch of his records. I followed that strand from him to Robbie Basho and Alex DeGrassi. Nick Drake’s Pink Moon was big for me.
What about this haunting album cover?
It’s a painting made from a photo taken of me in the sand dunes of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in Colorado. The photo was taken by Nicole Stevenson, but we couldn’t get it high-res enough to blow it up to vinyl sleeve size because we lost the negative, so Julia Christgau’s sister, Colleen Barry, who is an amazing painter, painted it from the photo. I love it, I think it really captured the feel of the record. That person on the cover may be in the desert, but he’s got a swagger, and he’s still pushing on, almost carefree, almost like the Fool of the Tarot… That’s not who I am per se, but it’s who I’d like to be.
Your music is very pastoral—how is your music a reaction to living in the bustle of NYC?
Thank you. I find living in NYC to be somewhat pastoral… which sounds contradictory at first, but we walk everywhere. We don’t drive for the most part. We see each other on the trains and in the neighborhoods. There is such a separation out there in America with everyone in their cars and parking lots. It’s that pedestrian element of NYC that keeps it full of small independent business, as opposed to the heavily homogenized towns out there where everything is the same couple of corporations, all identical no matter where you go. The biggest reaction and influence NYC fueled was through its intensity. It shocked me into motion, woke me up. If you don’t move, you get mowed over here.
And I always ask: What’s your favorite place to eat in New York?
We just had dinner for my birthday at this new place, Speedy Romeo, on Classon and Green in Bed-Stuy near my apartment. Really great brick oven pizza.