When Christopher Paul Stelling plays the Living Room on August 5, the show will serve as a milestone of sorts: The performance will end a mini Northeast tour for the finger-picking singer-songwriter’s new Labor Against Waste, which he embarked upon shortly following a run in Europe, and it will not only expand from his usual solo format, but will serve as a double celebration.
“I’ll have some people come up and guest: a fiddle player, a bass player, some drums here and there. It’s more of a party for New York, a record release party,” says the Bed-Stuy resident. “It’s kind of actually our engagement party, too,” he adds excitedly.
It’s fitting that Stelling would celebrate the engagement to his longtime girlfriend, Julia Christgau, whose band Ginger-Lee opens the gig, in a public music venue. After all, he proposed onstage one week earlier at the Newport Folk Festival in front of 2,500 people, and the event is all over the internet.
“I didn’t know they would film it,” he giggles. “I didn’t know I was going to do it — originally I was going to wait till the end of the day, but then I was onstage and I thought, Just do it.”
Seizing the moment and not wasting time is the theme behind his third album, and first for ANTI- Records, as indicated by its title. “Hard work, man, you’ve got to work hard and not waste time,” he says, speaking a few days after Newport as he embarks on a drive from New London, Connecticut, to Portland, Maine, for the next gig. “The first line of the first song [on Labor Against Waste] is that time doesn’t mean anything if you waste it. We have plenty of time, but it’s a finite resource. You can’t waste your time.”
Since self-releasing his debut album, Songs of Praise and Scorn, in 2012 and following that with False Cities, Stelling has put his proficient finger-picking and rich, rustic voice to good use. But at 33 years old, Stelling has lingering thoughts that he came to music late and wasted his post-high-school years, when he dropped out of college and moved from city to city. The Florida native did time in Colorado, Boston, Seattle, and North Carolina, working in bookstores and the like, before settling in New York City seven years ago.
“In my case, I feel like I did waste a lot of time,” he says. “But not really. I was developing and wrapping my head around things. There was a period in my early twenties when I was figuring out how to be a human being. But I came to the music thing a little late by normal standards, for sure. You are expected to be fully formed by the time you are 22 years old, but for some of us it takes longer to do that.”
Taking the long road was the right road for Stelling — and now he’s happily on the road almost permanently, performing. Since the album premiered in June, Stelling has performed 38 shows in Europe, then played the Northeast dates, and plans to be out for the rest of the year.
“I enjoy it. I wake up with a sense of purpose,” he says of being a road warrior. “I have wanderlust. I love getting around and seeing places, and having friends there. That was it; that was what first pointed me in this direction. I’ve played guitar since I was little, and I had a band when I was eighteen. We did some local touring, and I thought, I like moving around. If I got this moving thing together and I could do that professionally, it would work.”
It turns out he’s glad he worked a lot of personal stuff out before signing with a label and embarking on a bona fide music career. “It’s good to learn how to handle ourselves: how to be happy. Why is happiness such an elusive feeling? I think there’s a simple formula, but I’ve felt at certain times that it’s impossible. But now I’m actually happy it’s easy to say this.”
Getting to this happy place meant spending some time in a place he didn’t like, and taking time to get to know himself. Once he started listening to his inner voice and trusting it, he found his path back to music.
“Follow that little voice we thought was wrong,” he advises. “Like, I’m going to go out and play concerts in all these countries? I thought that was impossible. There is this thing of keeping the diamond in your mind and putting one foot in front of the other. No,” he asserts, “I don’t feel like I wasted my time. My failures and false starts add up to who I am as a person.”
Christopher Paul Stelling performs on Wednesday, August 5, at the Living Room in Brooklyn. Labor Against Waste is out now on ANTI- Records.