AN EMOTIVELY powerful singer and lyricist with an incredible command of the acoustic guitar, Christopher Paul Stelling is a cross-continental road-dogging indie warrior. His years of hard work have paid off, as he just inked a deal with Anti Records (home to Wilco, The Black Keys, Merle Haggard, and more).
The details about his forthcoming album are still under wraps, but Stelling had plenty to tell us about his great news, life on the road, and how Savannah Stopover is pioneering the future of festivals.
Big congratulations on signing with Anti Records! That's so exciting. How did it happen?
They got the record and they liked it. They're a label with integrity—they don't give a shit about how many Facebook likes you have, or how many Twitter followers you have. I was pretty surprised when they reached out about the record, because they didn't know much about my touring history or my previous records or anything like that—they just heard the record.
Did you reach out to them directly or did it just come across their desk?
It found its way to them. I've come to the conclusion that no one likes to hear from an artist directly because everybody that's decent in the business respects the efforts that artists make and don't want to say no to them.
I went to Europe four times—no, three times—last year. Toured the US four times and made the record. So it just got pretty exhausting, and by the end of that process, the record was done, and I knew it was the best thing I’d been able to make up until that point.
I was getting ready to try to do a fundraiser to release it on my own, because that’s the way I’d always done it—I never thought putting anything out on a label would be an option for me. So I was getting ready to fund it and I threw my hands in the air and said, “I can’t do this anymore on my own. I can’t. I’m tired, I need help.”
You know what they say: the first steps of recovery are admitting you need help? (Laughs) A really good friend of mine said, “Let me just send it to one person.” It’s the only label we really sent it to, because it was the only label I could really see myself wanting to be a part of.
So it was a big surprise when they called you.
Yeah! I wasn’t expecting it at all. I was a nervous wreck. We hit it off immediately, though. In the grand scheme of the universe, it doesn’t mean much, but in my little microcosm, it means a whole lot.
Do you prefer playing for intimate crowds, or do you like big rooms as well?
I love intimate crowds. I love being able to tell stories and interact. There’s something to be said for playing to a bar who didn’t expect you to be there, and, over the course of the night, I can win them over. It’s a personal challenge: by the end of the night, let’s get these people interested and interacting with the music.
Every situation is different. They say the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and—what is it?
Expecting different results?
Yeah, that's the definition of insanity. But I think the definition of insanity is making us insane. You're never going to do the same thing over and over again. Showing up at a venue to play songs, it's always a different set of circumstances.
So you can’t do the same thing twice. It’s always a surprise. It’s not always a struggle—sometimes you have a beautiful moment. Last year in Savannah was one of them.
Yeah, you’ve been very vocal about your love of Stopover. What is it about it that keeps you coming back?
I’m interested in the people that are involved. You meet a lot of musicians whose tour managers and people usher them in, usher them out. And the great thing about Savannah for me is that I’ve always stayed around. It’s the one festival where I try to stay all weekend.
I’ve been given the opportunity to know Peter, Kayne, and the people who run it. I’m very invested personally in their success, and they are very invested in mine. I like watching them grow as much as they love watching me grow. This is their passion and their project, just like music is my passion, my project. By encouraging each other and helping each other in our individual successes—well, that’s the essence of community in general.
Having played the festival for several years, what are you looking forward to this year?
It’s never the same! The only thing that stays the same are the faces. I’m playing the [Trinity United Methodist] church this year.
That’s a great space; it’s a new one this year.
That’s the beauty of the festival—it’s a city of possibilities and surprises. Playing in the church will be really cool.
It’s a great time of year to come to Savannah, and it’s a very tolerable music festival. I was reading this thing some writer put out that said, “Music festivals are the absolute worst way to hear live music.” They’re right! For the big festivals. But small town festivals are great because you get to experience everything the city has to offer: food, venues, streets, sights.
Do you check out the bands while you’re here, explore the town, or a bit of both?
I do both. I remember watching Hurray for the Riff Raff playing in the freezing cold last year. I had to go back to the hotel room and bathe myself with the hairdryer! Just to see my friends is great. I really try to—for example, I’ll be in Austin at SXSW next week, and I’m not even going to try. There’s no point. You get swept up in the deluge. You can’t conquer it anymore unless you’re just a diehard.
That’s what everybody’s been saying about SXSW for the last few years—you think small-town fests are the future?
Savannah’s paving the way for that. There are a couple others, like Midpoint Music Festival—that’s another I really enjoy. But small city-based festivals are the way to go. It’s a great way to see a city.