Christopher Paul Stelling Explains His New Album 'Itinerant Arias,' Track By Track : All Songs Considered Christopher Paul Stelling, a singer and songwriter with a fingerpicked sound and a poetic sensibility all his own, runs through the inspirations of his new record, song by song.
NPR logo Christopher Paul Stelling Explains His New Album 'Itinerant Arias,' Track By Track

Christopher Paul Stelling Explains His New Album 'Itinerant Arias,' Track By Track

Itinerant Arias by Christopher Paul Stelling Courtesy of the Artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the Artist

Itinerant Arias by Christopher Paul Stelling

Courtesy of the Artist

The first time I saw Christopher Paul Stelling his face was red and his eyes were wide, singing as if he were about to burst apart, as if he had so much to tell us and too little time, as if his mind was racing faster than his tongue could keep up with. He's a singer with the spirit of Woody Guthrie both deep within and showing on his sleeve. Stelling has a new collection of songs he has titled Itinerant Arias, which he says "sounds a lot better than 'travelin' songs,'" but that's exactly what they are. Songs which have in common no single origin, or sense of place. Like found objects, overheard stories, lost melodies.

And so today, to mark the release of Itinerant Arias, we thought we'd let this man of words take you on a tour of his new record, track by track.

1. Destitute

"We begin at rock bottom, when all the layers of self-pity are peeled away and all we have left to do is remind ourselves that it can always get better from here. We are not destitute, even if we are going to meet our maker, because life in some form will go on. It's a song about depression and its antidote, about putting one foot in front of the other, about looking up. I think it's cheerful. A nice place to start."

2. Cost of Doing Business

"I wrote this in a hotel room in Oostende, Belgium, a seaside town that prides itself for having provided refuge for a road-tired and drugged-out Marvin Gaye. I had just flown in on a red-eye for a festival, on no sleep and after driving straight there from Amsterdam. The hotel room was a six-floor walkup, no elevator. I passed out, only to be shaken awake by the promoter to get me to the gig. When i got back, the bones of the song were scrawled into my notebook. It's about that Faustian riddle — and you can dance to it."

3. Oh, River

"This song was written for a painting; Hugo Simberg's 'Finnish Elegy.' A museum in Groningen, in the northern Netherlands, was asking artists to write songs inspired by paintings for an exhibit. It was through my connection with the museum that I was able to book my first show in Europe in 2014, but the song never received a proper studio recording until now. The painting shows a somber man, head down at sunset, standing over a canoe at the river bank. To me it looked as though he were about to cast off into the night. "

4. A Day or A Lifetime

"I woke up on a floor in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans without any idea how I'd gotten there — and with a splitting headache. There were teeth in the street outside in a perfect, bloody little pool. I was alone in a friend's house. I had a pack of matches in my pocket advertising a retirement home that had scrolled across the bottom: 'For A Day or A Lifetime.' After that, the three scenes wrote themselves — the three white teeth, the parade of young soldiers, the two dusty lonesome books on the shelf."

5. Sleep Baby Sleep

"I became aware of the Syrian refugee crisis firsthand a couple years ago when crossing the English Channel from Calais to Dover. Seeing the camps, driving right past them; kind-eyed folks looking out at me from behind the fences, desperate to find a home, and me able to pass through cause I had the right passport, was the right nationality. It made me feel ill.

"The next year, when making the same crossing, it had gotten worse; razorwire and plywood shanty towns. It was pouring rain, and we ran into the building where we'd be playing a small house concert that night. All i grabbed was my guitar. We came back five minutes later and everything in the car was gone, all of our clothes, all my gear, merch, and the GPS. There was a man standing a block away, spinning a hammer in his hand, glaring at us. We didn't ask and got the hell out of there. The next morning, after getting lost and finding a store to replace our GPS, we were late for the train to cross to the UK. As we approached the ferry we saw fires in the distance — that day, the refugees had had enough. That was the day the world found out about what was happening there. We cut through parking lots and backroads and were the last admitted to the ferry.

"The next day, they closed the tunnels and ferries for a week. I've gotten to know some wonderful refugees and displaced peoples in my travels, and they are some of the most kind people I've met. This is a song for them. It's a lullaby."

6. You Have to Believe

"Well, don't you? But in what? What do you believe in, after you can't? It's a psychedelic, dream-state rendering of symbols, each one blending into the next, searching for some meaning in there. Is it finding the meaning, or the search for it, that's important? I'll choose the latter, I'll be searching in my last moments. That's my faith. It consoles me. This was written in my old kitchen in Brooklyn, over a cup of coffee and Dylan Thomas, the sun rising after a difficult night of wild fear."

7. Stranger Blues

"The fear takes over, the paranoia. That search for meaning lead you down the wrong dark ally, hell hounds on your trail.

"When it's night time and you're somewhere outside of Wichita and theres a one-lane road with an alternating stoplight in the middle of a corn field, no street lights. You are freaked the f**k out. Though it's not your turn you gun it, but there's another car coming straight at you from around the bend in the road...

"Or when you're in the bath, trying to find silence and get your heart to slow down, and you hear a voice deep in the back of your head and the water goes cold. This is a song of nightmares."

8. Badguys

"Those nightmares creep into your reality. Now you're reading about them in the papers. Who are these monsters and where do they come from? They're just terrified little children, hell-bent on destroying the world. But you and your people got some homemade and there's a second line coming down the street, everyone's faces painted up like skeletons. You join in, because what else can you do sometimes?"

9. Red Door

"Letting go of it all, the grief and the pain... they become small. Giving into it and realizing there was never anything to fear anyways it was all a construct of your own mind.

"This song is of three characters; The Captain of a war-bound ship, who'd rather sink it himself and take him and his men down with it, rather then ask them to face a cruel enemy intent on destroying them. He finds compassion in doing it himself, but who put him in charge; The Lady on the roof, on the brink, a mental break, begging anyone that'll listen to dare her to jump before she sees a light that perhaps saves her; and The Kid who found his father's gun out in the garage and dares himself into a game of Russian Roulette, to prove himself a man only to see a glimpse of a near future when his own mother finds him there on the floor. The refrain 'the only way to win is bowing out' is different for each one, but the conclusion for them all. They survive."

10. A Tempest

"If we go, we go together. To think of life as many voyages that all tumble into one. Each new journey informing the next, but there's always surprises, uncertainties and beautiful distractions along the way. We are simply on a ship out at sea, unsure if we are on our way back home or if we are leaving for good. Who knows where we are headed? Nobody. Enjoy it."