Singer-songwriter Christopher Paul Stelling is on the road to the Newport Folk Festival in a recently purchased, unassuming white touring van he has affectionately named Walt Whitman. As he recounts the various jobs he held throughout his 20's — grocery store worker, luthier's assistant, bookstore employee, sushi chef, dishwasher — a male blowup sex doll emerges from a car of teen girls passing by and waves at Stelling.
I'd like to think that this odd vignette registers among the least bizarre scenes the 30-something Stelling has beheld as a folk musician who, by his count, has easily played more than 1,000 shows in his still-young career. No stranger to Rochester, the New York City-based musician has played at both the Bug Jar and Abilene's. He returns on Friday, August 7, to play the South Wedge Mission — a beautifully intimate church at 125 Caroline Street — alongside local supporting acts Hieronymus Bogs and Downer State (Tony Gill of Archimedes) as part of the concert series "Live at Mission Hall." The show starts at 7:30 p.m. and there is a $10 suggested donation.
Stelling is a charismatic performer whose raw yet tuneful voice and fervent fingerpicking guitar style emit a musical electricity that is seldom heard among the neo-folk stylings of musicians such as Devendra Banhart, Sufjan Stevens, and Sam Beam of Iron and Wine. And while there are some similarities in acoustic instrumentation and stripped-down settings of such artists, Stelling's music is much closer to the folk music of earlier generations, the ones that gave us Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk, whose music was celebrated in the recent film "Inside Llewyn Davis."
"I just kind of have this question of, 'What if you took elements of country blues and elements of classical guitar and elements of American primitive guitar playing and put 'em with the kind of lyricism that some of your favorite lyricists would do?'" Stelling says. "'And then what if you made that an intense live experience?'"
Even with his obvious musical gifts, one gets the sense that Stelling would just as readily have become a professional "people person" rather than a musician, if it only paid the bills. "Touring and playing music live is almost just a response to trying to make a living rather than working for somebody else," he says. "It's the only way I have to work for myself. If I had a Plan A, I probably would have used it."
In his frank yet easygoing manner, Stelling is more eager to recall the generosity of those who have hosted him while on the road, and his relationships with the musicians he considers his true peers — Greg Jamie of O'Death, Will Houlihan of Haunt the House, and Joe Fletcher among them — than he is to opine about his own music.
Still, it's clear that Stelling was meant to make music. "I've played guitar for 23 years," he says. "It's just like I feel more comfortable holding a guitar at this point. When I'm not holding my guitar, my shoulders hurt, my back hurts. When I hold the guitar, I feel at rest."
On his recently released third album, "Labor Against Waste" (out on ANTI- Records), Stelling is more measured, wiser even, than on his previous release, 2013's "False Cities."
"It was a little bit more calculated," Stelling says of "Labor Against Waste." "I made 'False Cities' in less than a week. You know, I just sat down and did the damn thing. I'm a bit more grateful and gracious of a person, I'd like to think, now around the time of making 'Labor Against Waste' than making 'False Cities.' I've caught up with myself a little bit. I was experiencing a new lifestyle that left me kind of frayed. The lifestyle's actually gotten more intense, but I've approached it with a little bit more grace."
While Stelling's music is far from preachy, his lyrics have a message. In the song "Hard Work," he communicates what amounts to his life philosophy: "And I know even when my song gets sung I will still recall where they all begun / and I just work real hard try not to complain till that sweet love make me whole again / and I know my work is never done till I can see the good in everyone."
This statement seems perfectly in line with Stelling's "work-with-what-you're-given" approach to songwriting. "I don't really ever sit down and try to write," he says. "I just do. When it happens, it happens, you know? And I'm glad that it happens. I just try to make time for myself to be available, which basically means to not really have any plans, and not do anything. And then if something shows up, that's cool, and then you wrestle it to the ground and kick its ass."