A lot of our favorite musicians are pretty solitary individuals. It’s evident in the term “singer-songwriter” – many tour solo, but even those with a backing band are calling most of the creative shots. So when the chance arrives to work with an ace producer, there may be some unexpected hesitation at the thought of collaboration – giving up control isn’t easy. But the right mix can bring out the best in an artist. Asheville’s Christopher Paul Stelling recorded his latest album, Best of Luck (Anti-), with a producer for the first time, and he started off with a good one – Ben Harper. The result is a collection of short, tight songs exploring some of the changes Stelling’s made in his life.
The first track, “Have To Do For Now,” is primarily acoustic guitar and light percussion, while the lyrics explore stages in the singer’s life, from a bad fall as a young boy to the struggles of a less-than-successful touring musician, as he pauses, ever so briefly, to consider where he’s at: “I’m still alive, still alive/Wanna work more than to survive.” In “Lucky Stars,” Stelling finds some optimism in his self-examination: “Thank my lucky stars/They poke holes in the dark.” The song also features some nifty slide work from Harper.
The album’s first single, “Trouble Don’t Follow Me,” is positively buoyant – Stelling notes that he wanted a song that he could “play night after night and not get tired of.” Notes of defiance and resilience are sprinkled throughout the tune – “Tell injury you’re on the mend” and “Push sorrow away/Up ahead there’s clear bright skies” are but two of the perk-ups found in the lyrics – and it’s all set to a bouncy, Motown-ish rhythm (“You Can’t Hurry Love” came to mind while listening). Stelling comes by this fresh positively honestly – shortly before recording Best of Luck, he made several changes to his musical vagabond lifestyle, including giving up drinking. He says that “Trouble” was written in a “most difficult hour,” which makes its joyousness all the more rewarding.
As with anyone in recovery, Stelling knows that there are still dark hours ahead, and “Until I Die” is the swampy, bluesy rumination of a man who realizes he’s not yet free from temptation – “Hey now be good, there’s a hound dog/Baying out in the woods” – but has the love and support he needs: “My baby she gonna/Love me until I die/You know I keep on fighting until I die.” But the album closes with a little more of Stelling’s optimism. “Good Night Sweet Dreams” is a piano lullabye with the promise of more good days than bad – “So let’s go to sleep/So we can have all those things.” It’s a hope that, helps anyone, sober or not, get up in the morning.
Best of Luck was engineered and mixed by Jason Soda and mastered by Gavin Lurssen. All songs were written by Stelling, who also played guitar, piano and harmonica. Additional musicians include Harper (piano, organ, harmonium and bells), Soda (guitar and bass), Jimmy Paxson (drums and percussion), Mike Valerio (bass) and Julia Christgau (backing vocals).
Christopher Paul Stelling is scheduled to appear on “Saturday Sessions” on CBS This Morning: Saturday this weekend, February 8th.
You can order Best of Luck here: https://christopherpaulstelling.com/store
Check out Christopher Paul Stelling on tour: https://christopherpaulstelling.com/tour