Making every note and word hold purpose, Christopher Paul Stelling spoke with Atwood Magazine on the process behind his latest album ‘Best of Luck.’
Christopher Paul Stelling is patient with his words. Thoughtful and kind, he doesn’t sing or speak a note without knowing its intention. Focused and determined, Stelling gave everything he had to his latest record. From writing double the songs than usual to secluding himself to get perspective to collaborating with some of the best – Stelling has laid out all his cards with Best of Luck, and we think it has paid off in a big way.
Atwood Magazine sat down with Stelling to learn a little bit more about his time in the industry and how it’s shaped his point of view, how his music shapes his lyrics, and the love for leaving songs and words up for interpretation!
‘Best of Luck’ – Christopher Paul Stelling
A CONVERSATION WITH CHRISTOPHER PAUL STELLING
Atwood Magazine: How did your writing process for this album differ from previous albums?
Christopher Paul Stelling: I made a concerted effort to just sit down and write. I wrote a lot more than I needed to for it at times. It wasn’t that the process changed so much – there was just a lot more of it. More rounds at the desk. I walked in with 35 ideas rather that 10 or 12.
Tell me about the collaboration with Ben Harper. Did he have a heavy hand in writing as well as producing or did you bring all the songs to them ready to record?
Christopher Paul Stelling: I brought them songs. The collaboration was more in the choosing and in the arranging. Having an editor can be a really great thing. Sometimes you just have to kill your darlings, lose a verse – tighten things up. It always hurts a little to lose a favorite verse, but then you lose it and you realize it’s better without it.
I know this was your first time collaborating. Would you do it again?
Christopher Paul Stelling: I learned a lot of things. Nobody has signed up for the job for the next one, so to speak. I made the decision forever ago that this wasn’t a band, this is me, and this is what I’m going to do for as long as possible. I’m not going to break up with myself, you know? I’m just going to keep doing this through good and through bad. But yeah, I would definitely collaborate with a producer again depending on if it’s right. In addition to the fact that opinions should always change, I kind of have the opinion that creating things and being creative is just a process of making decisions and once you set foot on a path you should just continue with those decisions until it’s finished. The most important thing – in any phase – is getting to the point where you can call it done.
There were a lot of things about Ben’s decision process I found inspiring. He was able to be the observer and remove himself from the process. I absolutely would work with someone again. I’m more open to doing it with someone else than ever and also open to working with just myself more than ever – we’ll just have to see what happens.
You described the title of your album Best of Luck as being able to be interpreted as either a blessing or a dismissal. I love that because as I was listening to the album it felt that there was a lot of acceptance and kind of – what will be will be – did you tie all of that in on purpose or did it just kind of happen with the way the album was going?
Christopher Paul Stelling: I just like things that have multiple meanings. It’s kind of a bit of a Rorschach test. I appreciate creative things that don’t necessarily give you the answer and can kind of mutate and change depending on what kind of mood you’re in or where you’re coming from. It’s also coming from a place where I am personally. I did my three records for the record label. I never really thought I’d do this on this level. So, I’m kind of like “Wow I did it, I guess this is my chance.” I have the Grammy award-winning producer on my big record. It’s kind of like, well…best of luck!
I’m not saying that I haven’t spent many sleepless nights worrying about my career, but at some point, you just have to accept that you did all you could do. You climbed these mountains – now you’re going to go out and play all these shows.
Of course. And yeah, your upcoming tour is going to be quite the run.
Christopher Paul Stelling: I’ve started to look at touring as this exuberate punishment. It’s kind of like – let me go see if I can go and endure this crazy challenge. At two weeks, you’re probably as tired as you’ve ever been in your life. At three weeks, you start to gain momentum. At a month, it’s a lifestyle, and then at three months you could probably just keep going, but that probably wouldn’t end well.
Incredible. One thing I really wanted to discuss with you is your ability to create such a specific feeling solely with your guitar playing. You introduce each song so well with those little licks that make us feel what the lyrics are about to say. How do you go about doing that? Do you write the lyrics and know the feeling you want and then create the music? Or do you make the music, which makes you feel a certain way, and then go to the lyrics?
Christopher Paul Stelling: The idea that you’re talking about – how the instrumentation will set the tone before the lyrics even show up. This is actually the way the lyrics show up. A lot of times things get written down without music, and more written down for the sake of placing them in the subconscious. I actually have a giant book of prompts – typed out, attached together, all the notes I take on my phone just to have a book of things that I’ve written in case I get stuck. But typically, I start playing the guitar or piano and kind of sink into what I’m playing and how it sounds. That usually creates a mood that causes me to improvise lyrics. Sometimes they’re nonsense, but I get to a point where I’ll record where I’m at and they slowly start becoming words. But yeah, it always starts as more of that feeling. And then at some point, you get a hook in the fish and the song takes off.
That makes a lot of sense. Now to get into a few specific songs from Best of Luck. 'Made Up Your Mind' is so beautiful. I don’t think many people have what it takes to be so honest and really go there with themselves. How did you go about creating this one?
Christopher Paul Stelling: It’s always refreshing when the first thing that someone mentions are the songs that were easiest to write and the songs that took the least amount of time to arrange and record. That song was just me and the guitar and the mic recording – and that’s reassuring. It reminds me of the whole reason I got into this and the outlook of all of the first records that I made – my most successful time was this record Labor Against Waste and the most popular listened to song on that record was the one of just me and the guitar. Once you are in the process of writing and doing the hard work you are a lot more likely to have a happy accident after months. And that’s cool that you see a sense of honesty in it – it’s very simple.
Another one that I love so much is 'Goodnight Sweetdreams' – The simplicity in it is so moving. Tell me about this one?
Christopher Paul Stelling: I wasn’t expecting to find that one. When I started the record, I was down in Jacksonville, Florida – it was a writing retreat. So, I went down there, I just got sober and I was in this house freaking out because it’s a lot of pressure. I felt like I wasn’t going to get anything done. One of the most important things to do when one feels like everything they’re writing sucks is just to go ahead and write a bunch of stuff that sucks.
For this one, I just got a text from my partner and she said “Ok I’m gonna go to bed,” and I sat down and wrote that song as just like a goodnight thing. Then an emotion took over in the song that was spontaneous in nature – what I really found in it that made me love it was the idea that though there is no disparaging sentiment in it, it could qualify as one of the saddest songs I’ve ever written. In a weird unacknowledged way, it’s kind of about death. This idea of like goodnight I’ll see you in the morning.
“Goodnight Sweet Dreams” – Christopher Paul Stelling
Yeah, there is a melancholy to it that can’t quite be placed.
Christopher Paul Stelling: Right and I don’t understand – that is what is ultimately compelling about it. There are no minor chords, no acknowledgment of any type of sad sentiment, but somehow in the simplicity of it all, a sadness is captured. I do hate to even say that, though, because, again, I want people to interpret it however it means to them.
Absolutely, and people will. A few more questions and I’ll let you go. First, which is your favorite song on the album and second, which is your favorite to play live?
Christopher Paul Stelling: I really enjoy “Something in Return.” It’s become really fun to play live – I wasn’t expecting that because it was a little bit of an afterthought. “Hear Me Calling” is incredibly exciting to play live – it’s really getting the response that I would hope a song would get like that live. “Have to do for Now” is also one of my favorite songs lyrically that I have, but it’s less of a live song. And “Lucky Stars” is another simple little baby song that I love. It took a while for me to get to the point where I could just accept a simple gratitude and not write the emotionally complex gratitude – so hopefully that’s growth.
Those are all great picks. And all that the crowds will love on your tour. I’ll let you go now but thank you so much for your time and best of luck on the tour – we’ll be looking to catch a show!
Christopher Paul Stelling: Thank you, Kelly. Appreciate it – have a good one.
:: Best of Luck Song Analysis ::
Have To Do For Now
Bright plucky guitar strum, raspy pleasant voice introducing a feel of content and hope for the future. Feels like it could accompany a This Is Us or Parenthood seen – when you appreciate the people around you, that you love that, and that bring you up when you’re feeling down.
Watch: “Have To Do For Now” – Christopher Paul Stelling
More country-western feel. Slow and steady to begin, entrancing our ears to the lyrics he’s about to sing.
Until I Die
More of a rock-and-roll feel. There is grit to this song. Brings a new energy to the album, introducing a new side of Stelling.
Made Up Your Mind
A bright melodic guitar riff begins the song. A stream of consciousness, telling of the heart. Raw, vulnerable, acceptance.
Listen: “Lucky Stars” – Christopher Paul Stelling
A rich guitar riff grabs your attention right away. Stelling has a way of capturing you with the guitar before his equally as captivating voice even enters the picture. You aren’t sure what you’re about to hear, but you like the way the music is making you feel.
Something In Return
Gliding guitar riff takes us through this song. This song is one of acceptance that will lull you into a trance and make you feel that it is okay to not be perfect. “If only I had listened before I got it wrong.”
Hear Me Calling
Back to the rock-and-roll vibe. Strong bass drum guides you through with smashing high hats, claps that will wake you right on up. This is a song that FEELS like it would be amazing to play live.
“Trouble Don’t Follow Me” – Christopher Paul Stelling
An old school bluesy piano vibe– a ballad. Something so distinct and almost cool about the way he does things. The lyrics he’s singing come off with such ease but there is so much depth to them.
Goodnight Sweet Dreams
Another piano-led ballad. Soft tones introduce us to the beginning of the end. This is the type of song you would actually want to listen to before bed. A peaceful reminder that today was ok and tomorrow is going to be ok, too. A literal walk through a life that is good. This song makes you want to take a deep breath and say, “ah, life is ok when I’m with you.”
? © Chris Phelps
:: Stream Christopher Paul Stelling ::