Don’t get him wrong: Carleton Stone doesn’t consider himself famous-famous, a capital-C celebrity, or anything like that. When I ask him how it feels to be recognized on the street or, say, never being able to visit somewhere like North Street coffee shop Java Blend in peace, I hear his brow furrow over the phone. “I mean, Halifax is like that anyway. Like, you could not be a musician and go downtown and run into everyone and your Aunt Linda,” the singer-songwriter says. Not that you’d blame him if he had answered me in earnest: As one part of the wildly popular trio-turned-duo Port Cities, Stone has travelled the world and been streamed over 10 million times. There is simply no way he can wander Halifax without garnering double-takes.
Then there’s the fact, of course, that he’s been doing his solo thing even longer—a bit of personal history never far from hand when listening to Stone’s latest, Papercut, which dropped this month. Across the album’s 10 tracks, he keeps his rearview mirror engaged, looking back over a decade-ish in the biz and what he’s learned. (A break from touring during COVID gave him ample time to reflect, shaping the album’s themes over the 130 nights he estimates he should’ve been on a stage somewhere.)
The pandemic, he starts, left him wondering “What is going to happen here, with the music business? Those kinds of thoughts were just swirling in my head. What it's like to be an artist, for better or for worse sometimes? I'm very grateful and very happy about all the decisions I've made that have gotten to this point in my career. But also, it's a bit of a commitment: Like you're definitely missing out on normal human things like settling down and having kids,” Stone tells me. “It’s like: ‘No, I'm kind of more committed to the cause of making art and travelling and performing.’ And that seeped into a lot of these songs.”
Case in point? Album standout “Monte Carlo”, which Stone calls “the thesis of the record in a certain way.” The slowed-down strumming of the track sees Stone wearing his Gordie Sampson influence on his rolled-up denim sleeve, singing “I wish I’d followed the smoke out the window/Instead of chasin’ down freedom in my dad’s Monte Carlo”—a wistful plume of words that could mean almost anything to anyone, but clearly comes from a place of personal specificity. It’s soft, almost-country pop that Stone says is lyrically driven.
It’s clear that here, Stone has carried over his producer’s mentality (lately, he’s spent any time not given to Port Cities helping make some of the city’s most exciting records—notably Willie Stratton’s 2022 country-western cordial Drugstore Dreamin’). Papercut is polished and digestible and refracted through the pop prism.
“Probably my biggest benchmark of what I like in songs is a really strong lyric, a really strong story,” Stone begins. “Yeah, I think those two factors coming together: My experience as a songwriter, being like, ‘These melodies should be more poppy!’ paired with loving Bob Dylan songs and loving Bruce Springsteen songs or Joni Mitchell where it's like, a bit more confessional and autobiographical a lot of the time. I think just where I am as a writer now, making this was kind of the perfect combination of those two parts of me, which I hadn't focused in on before.”
There’s a part on the bridge of “Monte Carlo” where the polish scuffs, the slick radio-readiness Stone’s long been buffed in scratches ever so slightly as emotion creases his smooth voice. “Everything you’ve been lookin’ for, I hope you found it,” he sings, clearly to himself. “Thought that we’d be famous/We were almost/Tell me, where does time go?”