Sometimes raw honesty is the right spark to fuel a lasting musical connection. As singer Christopher Porterfield prepares for the release of Milwaukee, WI-based band Field Report’s new album Marigolden (out October 7 on Partisan Records), he feels fortunate that its creation from two years of touring to recording in snowy Ontario came together as one big surprise full of life changing revelations.
“The whole thing is sort of a pleasant surprise,” Porterfield says. “You want the whole process to be a surprise. You want to submit to the environment and react to it and work with it; you try to make something together in the moment in the environment, and with the people you have and tools you have, to make something honest. When that happens the whole thing is a surprise.”
It’s one of many surprises on Porterfield’s musical journey. He started his journey with DeYarmond Edison, which also featured Justin Vernon (who later formed Bon Iver) as well as Brad and Phil Cook and Joe Westerlund (who later formed Megafaun). When that band broke up, Porterfield continued writing but keeping to himself. Eventually he moved from Eau Claire, WI to Milwaukee, where he started playing his music around town. To his astonishment, a lot of people started listening. Seeing a big change was happening he put together his band Field Report (an anagram of his surname) and started recording a debut album with them at Justin Vernon’s April Base Studios with producer Beau Sorenson.
On the heels of rave reviews around the country including Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz, Partisan Records signed the band and released its debut in 2012. They soon found themselves being asked to open for the likes of Counting Crows and Aimee Mann, and toured heavily for two years. Their song “I’m Not Waiting Anymore” was also covered by the Blind Boys Of Alabama.
Life on the road has opened his eyes in more than one way. He found himself examining how to deal with sudden fame and balancing it with family as well as his demons and ongoing struggles including his alcoholism (he quit drinking in October). At the end of the day, he strove be the best person he could be. As a result, his lyrics became more personal – a mix of literate and devastatingly honest lyrics. Producer Robbie Lackritz, best known for work with Feist, helped Porterfield and his bandmates create emotionally explosive songs that had lasting power. Porterfield recently talked with us about his ongoing journey.
What got the gears working for writing this new album?
Well, there’s a million differences between this record and the first record. But this is written primarily on the road while the first one was written primary at home. When you look at it that way that kind of makes a lot of sense. I didn’t realize that until of friend of mine told me that that’s kind of the case. The first record sounds like something you’d listen to at your house by yourself at night, and the second one sounds like something you’d listen to in the car when you’re going somewhere on a trip. It works because that’s how it was written too.
We were traveling a lot, playing a lot, touring a lot on the first record, and I was writing the second one while we were doing that. So there’s a lot of talk about displacement by the geography, kind of wishing you were somewhere else. For the second record, that was happening in my life and it began to manifest itself in the songs. It came to be.
It makes sense as you’ve been on tour the last two years.
Yeah, it definitely was a transitional period for me personally. I think maybe that’s the biggest theme on the record is sort of this period of transition and maybe not ever transitioning into or out of anything. It’s just an acknowledgement that you’re in a season of change.
Speaking of changes you quit your day job as coordinator at Marquette University. It must be nice doing music full time like you’ve been doing.
It is, for sure. It’s super valuable to not have to divide my attention between my life’s work and something else. It’s not like I’m making a ton of money at it. It wouldn’t be possible without having a real job. But yeah I’m grateful to have the opportunity to focus on this and take whatever opportunities present themselves.
I would imagine that there’s some gambling hoping that the music thing keeps up. Do you think so?
Oh it’s a huge gamble, for sure. It’s just all uncertainty. There isn’t anything you can count on. I’m in the mind that if you’re ever in the position of that you’re able to check out and do what it is that makes you buzz you’re never going to have an easier time than today. So yeah, I’m glad my life is on board with that. [My wife and I] don’t have kids yet so trying to get all of our dreams explored.
I think I read that the band changed its lineup to a quartet. How has that affected things?
Yeah, the lineup has kind of been in flux. It was a four-piece that recorded and I think we’re going to be a different trio on the road this fall. I always wanted this thing to be a band and not a solo project. But you know, we’re three years in now and there’s not a single person left from the first record. And I don’t think it’s that I’m that difficult to work with. I think it’s, like I was saying, all the uncertainty around making a living thing. People can sign up for so long before they have to check back in with the real world.
Was there more focus this time around? It must have felt a little bit of working from scratch with some new people in there.
Yeah, I think we were more focused. I think we had a better idea of what it is that we wanted to accomplish and how to go about accomplishing it. And the lineup in the studio that made Marigolden, that core had been playing together a good while now, so we probably had a couple hundred shows under our belt at that point. So we knew how to play with each other and we were sort of familiar with the material from going through it a little bit on the road.
So yeah, we’re a good tight unit. Everyone brought a secret weapon or something in their back pocket. Our drummer obviously but our pedal steel player is also a great percussionist so I gave them a lot of license to follow any rhythmic ideas that they had. And I think that comes across on the record. It’s a way more driving, energetic record than the first one, which to me seems a bit meandering at times.
The producer that we worked with, Robbie Lackritz, was incredible in helping us shape these songs and really find the heart of these songs. He’s done all the Feist records and works with the Bahamas.
Would you say he’s a pretty hands-on producer?
Yeah he was. He didn’t just sit back and say “What do you want to do guys?” I mean he did, but if he had any input or an idea he would share that with us. And I think that was super helpful. I think it’s really easy to slip into just being an engineer. But he came in with a point of view which I really valued. And we had some conversations before going into the sessions and knew going in that our point of views were congruent; they would work together very well in the service of a greater idea. So I welcomed his input. It was super valuable. Working with him was an absolute joy.
What’s an example of a song he had a really big impact on?
“Marigolden” was one that I wrote in the studio. I had a few more verses for it and I had a very repeating melody line. That was one that he helped carve away and get to really the emotional core of it, rather than just throw a bunch of John Prine verses at it and not consider it sonically as much. He really helped us go in a different direction and keep it a nice, tight and shorter song…which I’m so glad that we did.
He really opened my eyes how to create musical moments as themes, like it’s a movie or something and you get different shots that provide different perspectives to let the listener in and guide them along the way. He’s really good at that.
The band decided not to record again at April Base but to record in Toronto with Robbie. How did that come about?
Yeah, that’s mostly right. We didn’t record in Toronto, we recorded out in the middle of nowhere a few hours north of Toronto. But we were in Ontario in December. I had scheduled a session at April Base and it was getting close to it but it wasn’t really feeling right. I didn’t feel we were quite ready. I sort of realized that I wanted to put us in a situation where we weren’t comfortable. I wanted there to be some nervousness, because we had all worked at April Base before on our record and everyone had been there multiple times after. It’s an incredible studio and an amazing place but I wanted to go to a place where we didn’t know everything already, not everything, but we weren’t super comfortable with it. I wanted to capture some of that discovery on the record.
So we put out the word out that we were looking for somebody to work with on this or a place to go. And we were put in touch with Robbie and from my first conversation with him I knew he was the guy. We spent a couple weeks last December at this ranch, in the middle of Ontario. And we tracked the whole thing there [Unicorn Ranch] for a couple weeks and I went up myself with Robbie, and we mixed it in Toronto like a month later.
Was the studio pretty rustic, being a ranch in that area of Canada?
Yeah it was really rustic. It’s essentially a house and then there were a couple other buildings too. The guys slept in the bunk house that had wood fire. It was incredible. It was on the edge of this Canadian national forest so, if we weren’t tracking somebody, we could go out and have a hike. We’d have to go into town to get groceries and cooked on site. There’s a sauna, so every night we’d fire up the sauna. It was a very healthy session. Everybody ended up losing weight and having lovely skin by the end of the time.
It was in December so there was all kinds of snow blowing. It’s in this river valley and the wind would just rip right through it. It was very beautiful. It had a quiet but powerful energy sort of when you’re outside and go inside, it was just a warm beautiful place.
Did the band bring your own equipment or was there stuff there?
Both. We drove a van of stuff up there. But they had a lot of cool gear up there as well. There was a beautiful piano that was there that we used quite a bit. Some wonderful old guitars a bunch of incredible recording equipment and synthesizers and stuff.
Why did you name the album Marigolden and how does it reflect theme?
I was just writing when we were up there and it sort of just fell out. I like what happens when you conjoin words together and imply multiple meanings when you put things together, like synthesize new words or ideas if not to the world but to yourself. I was really drawn to that word and I ended up putting that word into a couple different songs that were happening when we were up there. And it just became this idea that I saw running through all of it.
It’s based on the idea of a Marigold, a flower, that’s this hearty thing that kind of stinks, it’s not that pretty but you can plant it and it can withstand whatever the climate throws at it. But they still die off every year. You still have to dig them up and if you want them again you plant them again. So being in that season of change of digging up and being golden. If something’s golden then all is good and you’re in a good place but if it’s Marigolden you probably stink and aren’t too pretty and you’re going to die or are going to die. So that play on words just became this overarching theme in all the songs. I didn’t realize that the album was going to be called that until after the fact because it became clear that what it was asking to happen.
You’ve mentioned in the past that the band’s not a bar band, instead being more quiet band, and also going for a minimalistic approach with sound. Can you talk about that?
When we are our best presenting the material, in the way that it asks to be presented, is in a quiet room where everybody can just listen. We’re not going to rock you in ways people like to be rocked. That’s not to say we’re not without energy because we have a lot of energy. To get the most out of what we do you have to be actively listening and participating in that way. Sometimes that can happen in a bar but some of our best experiences have been in theaters or churches or living rooms or whatever. I guess it doesn’t have to entirely do with architecture.
David Byrne talks about how some music was designed for certain places. Like a punk club, where the music is tailored to it whether its conscious of it or not to those rooms. Some percussion heavy music comes from being played outside. Like African music or some of this sacred music was made to be a cathedral and was accented by the place it was intended for in the cathedral has tall ceilings and reverberant walls. It can’t have a fast changing musical thing. It sort of needs to be a drone or chant for the music to not get lost in the space.
So this idea, I’ve been thinking about it a lot, that whether we’re conscious of it or not, we are making music with a hypothetical space in mind. And I think it doesn’t have to exclusively live in those places. But there’s an ideal and the ideal for us is where people can be quiet and experience the nuances lyrically and musically dynamically with us and let the room do some of the work and let the ghosts float around in the air and become part of the thing.
That said, there seems to be a little more variety and texture in the sound this time around. Can you talk about that?
Yeah I think so. I think we came about that in an honest way in that we just knew how to do it better and knew what we were going for. And we had more time to achieve it. The first record we did in like ten days and didn’t know what it was, it was just a pile of songs and a bunch of buddies in a nice studio with a good engineer. This one there was more intentionality with it. More of an awareness of what we’ve capable of and we’re just better craftsmen too, having done it now for awhile. I think we were more sensitive to, like I was talking about themes earlier, more sensitive to what the songs are asking for rather than try to subject to some kind of Field Report treatment. Just being sensitive what they’re calling for and just be able to react to that better and be open to everything they’re asking for.
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