Smile Politely

Face your fears, not your shame: A conversation with Chris Porterfield

Late in 2014, Field Report released its sophomore album, Marigolden, following up on the ambient folk beauty of its self-titled debut from 2012. Unlike so many second albums, Marigolden is a triumph and refuses to succumb to any prescribed slump (which is a real, scholarly researched phenomenon). Rather, Marigolden takes what works from Field Report and hones it, creating a rich soundscape reminiscent of Neil Young and Paul Simon while remaining firmly grounded in the present.

Marigolden was my favorite album that came out last year, but not solely based on its musical virtue. One of the best aspects of the music of Field Report is the lyrics penned by frontman Chris Porterfield, who created the group in the wake of the break-up of DeYarmond Edison (which also featured Justin Vernon, of Bon Iver fame). In Marigolden, Porterfield waxes on subjects like loved ones, being close and far from home, and his new sobriety. What makes the lyrics so memorable, however, is the candor and depth Porterfield expresses when singing about these intimate subjects.

Before Field Report’s performance at the Highdive on Friday, Porterfield took some time to talk with me and showed the same enthusiasm for those subjects, revealing a truly kind and open personality.

Smile Politely: Thanks for taking time to talk with me today, I’m a big fan of your work, particularly your most recent album. It seems like you’ve gotten a lot of praise for this album from a lot of different sources, including the mayor of Milwaukee, how has that reception been for you?

Chris Porterfield: It’s been good, you always wonder when you’re putting something out into the world if anyone is going to hear it and once they hear it what they’re going to do with it. But it’s been nice that some people have been able to find some space for themselves in it and relate to it. The mayor of Milwaukee proclaimed it Field Report Day last October [22nd] and I have the proclamation hanging in my bathroom downstairs at my house. I don’t know where else to put it, you know? [Laughs]

Smile Politely: Yeah, that’s not something everyone has a place for in their house. It took you some time to get to this spot, going back to DeYarmond Edison, do you feel like everything that you did musically brought you to this spot and Marigolden is a culmination of all the work you’ve done?

Porterfield: I think so, yeah, and I think even…yes. In order to get anywhere you have to start moving, and…you know, you have to write one song to get to the next and play one show to get to the next show. I feel like Marigolden was a record that was the next point on the line for us, and we’d been setting ourselves up to make that record at that time. It was kind of a synthesis of a lot of influences and ideas that were sort of actively working on and then we made that thing. It’s easy to sit back and say, “Ahh, we’ve done this thing,” but we’re always trying to continue to grow and develop. And it’s just a day-to-day thing; it continues to grow.

Smile Politely: Specifically between your debut album and Marigolden you paired the band down, correct?

Porterfield: Yes, that’s correct.

Smile Politely: How did that make a difference in how you wrote the songs?

Porterfield: I don’t know, I think when we made the first record we didn’t know what we were doing: it was just a bunch of friends playing these songs with me. As touring commitments added up after that record and real life got in the way, kind of one-by-one everyone had to drop off. This time we went in with a little more intention, I think, knowing we were a band and we were gonna make a record that would be heard by some people. We had played a couple hundred shows since the first record, so we had just gotten to be better players and arrangers and listeners. It’s also a little easier to work with a leaner group too because it’s easier to understand where everyone is coming from and bounce things off fewer points. It makes for a more controlled reaction, I guess, if you’re throwing things against these walls made up by fewer points, so it makes it more predictable and easier to work with. In fact, now we’re down to three people touring. And that’s been really great for the same reasons.

Smile Politely: In that Wisconsin music scene, specifically around Eau Claire or Milwaukee, you can trace lines between a lot of acts, like Justin Vernon or Megafaun. How does that shape your perspective on the music you make and does it affect your writing?

Porterfield: It’s not like a daily reckoning thing, like, “What would those guys do?” But I definitely spent a lot of time with those guys and we learned a lot about ourselves and each other and music and creation and brotherhood and family and friendship and everything. I spent some of my formative years with those guys; so some of the things we’ve discovered at the same time definitely carry through. Shane Leonard, my drummer, was also a part of that Eau Claire community, and Tom Winseck, who’s the third member touring—he didn’t play on the record, but he’s really helped us discover new elements of the material and how to present it live—he’s also a part of that Eau Claire community, too. So it’s cool having a group that’s all familiar with that heritage and history and are all friends with that group. We all kind of learned lessons together, so that period was definitely formative and definitely seeps into what we do today.

Smile Politely: Thanks for playing along with that question. Are you sick of getting asked something along those lines?

Porterfield: [Laughs] Oh no, it’s fine, it’s part of the story. It’s part of how some people have come to discover what I do, and its totally fair game and I’m happy to talk about it.

Smile Politely: One other thing that maybe has been talked about with you about your album, is the theme that comes through in a lot of songs is your sobriety. How important was that in the making of Marigolden?

Porterfield: That was definitely where my head was at in the moment. When we went into the studio I was about two months into that journey. It was a thing that…I loved and still love drinking, you know? And that love was at the expense of everything, from my marriage to my band, my work, my health and all those things. It just kind of came to a head, I guess it was…jeez, what year is it? [Laughs] ‘13, it was October of ’13 it came to a head and I realized I realized I couldn’t give it as much love as I was giving it. I was still reeling. I was figuring out how to write, how to perform, because those things were always sort of enhanced with alcohol. There are a couple hairy lines in Marigolden and some heavy tunes, but that’s just where my head was at the time. Since then, it’s been over a year now, it’s been remarkable how much the quality of my life has improved and, I dare say, the quality of the people around me as well. I’m a lot easier to be around, and healthier. I’ve lost a bunch of weight just from not drinking. I’ve learned how to write not all about booze all the time anymore, so it’s been good. It’s still a journey, still something I think about every day. But it’s been good. And I’m glad I was honest about some of that stuff, too, because I feel like for some people booze isn’t a problem but for others it can be dicey. I’ve gotten to experience some of those people sharing their experience with some of those songs and some of those things and how that’s been a positive influence in their lives. It’s a pretty powerful, special thing, and while it might be a little bit raw I’m glad I did it that way.

Smile Politely: Is singing these songs and playing in bars difficult, something that you struggle with at all?

Porterfield: You know, I thought it was gonna be harder and it isn’t that hard. I think it’s due in part to the fact that I was so up-front about it and there’s some built in accountability because of that. There will still be some people [laughs] that haven’t connected with it lyrically who want to buy me a drink after the show. I just politely decline. But for the most part it’s become almost this support group situation, where people are really protective of me in that regard, both my bandmates and other people who come out to see the shows. It’s actually hardest coming home, weirdly enough. When you’re on the road and moving all the time, there’s a very sort of different rhythm to it: your only focus is the next thing. And suddenly, when you get home, you’re just staring at the wall trying to recalibrate. That’s when, I find, it’s the most difficult. But my wife is great and my friends around here are great. But, yeah, it seems like it’s almost more difficult at home than on the road.

Smile Politely: Interesting. When you and your band come through Champaign you’ll be playing with PHOX, another Wisconsin band. What’s that opportunity like for you?

Porterfield: We’re really looking forward to it, we’ve known those guys for a number of years now and we’re really proud of them and so pleased to travel with them and play shows together. They’re Wisconsin folks, like us, and they’re on Partisan [Records] like us, who have become like extended family to us, so yeah its been really great and we’re really looking forward to it.

Smile Politely: I can’t think of anything else I had in mind to ask you, is there anything about your tour or the album you’d want me to mention?

Porterfield: No, I think you’ve hit on some good stuff. I think this is going to be our first time in Champaign, which is weird. That surprises me somehow, but I think it’s true. So we’re looking forward to that quite a bit. It’s been a whirlwind year already. I did two weeks solo with a group from Canada called Bahamas. I wrapped that up in Dallas and flew straight to London and we did some dates with Jeff Tweedy in the UK with the full band and then got back two days ago. Then we leave on Monday morning for the PHOX tour, which I think is a three-weeker. Then I’ll be home for a week and then I go out with Joe Pug solo again for another three weeks. So it’s been a really busy year already.

Smile Politely: Sounds like a pretty good year, though.

Porterfield: Yeah, it’s been great. I love the opportunity to get out and make new friends and present this record to people in person. It’s really a pleasure and an honor to be able to do that. I guess moral of the story is I’m really excited to get to Champaign.

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