Interview with frontman, Chris Porterfield: talking songwriting, the influence of Milwaukee, and the power of connecting through new music
Check the wreckage, walk away ok. I’m gonna change
We ate the fruit, learned the truth, and spit the pits in the corner of the room
If one of us is the ocean and if one of us is the moon, we haven’t found a pattern yet, figured out who is pulling who
Gonna teach my wings to work again
I see you every time I go and every time I think of home
They buried us not knowing we were seeds
The good days come in waves, they crest and crash
There’s a couple ways this works and a thousand ways it can’t
Gathering all the clues you left for me to find, if I could still live inside your occupied mind
I don’t trust this moment, but I want to believe
Above, lies a profound lyric from each song in sequence off Field Report’s new record, Summertime Songs. I recently sat with frontman, Chris Porterfield, shortly after his solo acoustic set at Boston Calling, which was also 24 hours before Field Report’s full band set on Sunday afternoon. Listening intently to the new record, I was instantly reminded of what sets Field Report apart — it’s the rich layout of words Porterfield precisely places upon his canvas. Or perhaps a better way of putting it — the stories Porterfield reports from an open, yet navigated field.
This collection of isolated Summertime Songs lyrics reads like a poem with a narrative focusing on a relationship journey of ups-and-downs. You can choose your perspective through the muck and mire. Is this a relationship up in flames or one of slight hope where each person is holding on to the ring for dear life with one hand? Shaking. Half empty and call it a day? Or half full and squeeze until the ring bolts to your palm?
Regardless, through his own experiences, Porterfield invites you into Field Report’s world of human connection. The setting can change — be it sitting upon a stoop with an acoustic or plugged in at high volume, but the intent does not.
Upon chuckling over our mutual love for notebooks, Porterfield and I jumped right in to the summertime sea of words like a 60 second distance run across a tightrope, never to look back.
Many of your songs started by you writing on an acoustic — I’m curious, having just finished an acoustic set and then playing with a full band tomorrow, what is the transition like?
I love doing both. They are an integral part of this current project. With a full band, there’s an intentional emphasis on sound design and environments that are emotionally resonant. It’s fun to go back to just voice and guitar with these songs because I get to check in on the emotional core of them. They tend to inform each other — I learn something about doing a full band set when I play solo and vice versa. Songs are multidimensional things. They are these weird packages of story, history and longing. You can connect with them in many different ways -you can hold them on the front then turn them over and learn another side. So, performing the songs in different ways helps me stay attached to them.
The record we just put out, Summertime Songs, is a high-production value record, almost like a Peter Gabriel record. There’s so much we put into it, and you have to spend a few time listening to it in order to get to the emotional core. Another way to do it is to see it live. People in the audience have told me lately, that seeing this record performed live unlocks something for them. That’s what it’s all about — the audience having a relationship with the songs. It’s humbling that people want to climb into this thing we built, however they want to climb in.
I’m a lyrics guy, so I particularly take to your approach. I’ve heard your songwriting be described as poetry put to music, or “confessional”, what is your process in how you construct lyrics.
I’m always trying to refine my process. Ultimately, it just about being sensitive to moments. Whenever something in actual life happens, it’s important for me to document and catalog it. Then, I will go back and look through my notebook full of these thoughts. The thing about notebooks that’s different from recording a voice memo or a photo is that you can recall by your handwriting or the condition of the page — where you were, even mentally. It allows you to go back for other details that you might remember to ground that reality before you sort the idea. So, I will fill up notebooks with these things that struck a chord with me in that moment and then I will audition them. Very rarely does a song fall from the sky for me. It’s usually piecing things together and realizing what’s in my mind, in my spirit and going on in my life at the time. Then, it’s putting them together. I like to talk about it like a photographer who is putting on an exhibit — you have your gallery space and that’s like when your songwriting process begins. Then, you take these things and hang them on the wall, try to light them right, stick them next to each other, and see what tells a compelling story.
Did you have any lyrical themes with Summertime Songs? What were the fires burning inside?
I look at records as actual “records” — of a time and history of the world. When we were making Summertime Songs, there were a lot of people in my life whose relationships were coming to an end. There was a lot of mourning, reflection and hurt in the air as these songs were coming. My wife was pregnant with our daughter, who was our first child, so there was a fear and uncertainty in my world around — am I going to be able to subvert my selfishness in order to make room for another life that is my responsibility? It was also during the 2016 campaign cycle. There was this constant feeling of mistrust and are we going to be OK? Those were the triangulation points for where this record came from. It was then my job to light that and basically try and make a movie with music.
I completely relate to what you are saying about that time period and the knee-jerk reaction. I am impressed and inspired by how many artists feel they must do something about it creatively and not just stuff it down.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot. We are constantly being bombarded. You start to believe you are powerless and can’t do anything. What you can do is — have a one-to-one connection. If we make an impact in the small world in which we live in, that stuff multiplies. I am personally interested in using this insane time to be open and not afraid. I look out for those relationships that can grow into something bigger. There’s so much about our shared humanity that is mysterious and magical. If we can connect as individuals, even if I don’t agree with the selected path someone takes to reach their goals, if we can have enough humility to talk more, we eliminate certain boundaries and get to a shared human experience that can’t be boxed in.
I find Milwaukee to be a very unique carve-out in the country. It flies under the radar a bit in terms of artistry and creativity. Do you feel that way and how did your surroundings in Milwaukee influence Summertime Songs?
I agree, the creative community in Milwaukee does fly under the radar. That has been advantageous. The city is a beautiful incubator to me — to get my legs as a writer and a songwriter. Everybody in the band lives in Wisconsin. We recorded, mixed and mastered in Milwaukee. We did it all on our own, and now it’s out in the world. Universal bought it and it’s out everywhere. I fly the Milwaukee flag for sure. There are a lot of great people doing interesting and important work there. I’m pleased to have the opportunity to share with people everywhere what we made and built there. I would like Milwaukee to get a little more attention for what’s happening there, but not too much. I like our quiet attitude to get down and do work. It’s a blue-collar town in that way, but it would be great to shine a light on the people who are doing the work. Sometimes, I take the platform I have to push people out of the nest and say “You have to go. It’s time to go take things from all over the world and bring that back here.” It’s a great place to call home, I place I love to leave and come back to.
Given your history and mutual Wisconsin roots, do you still collaborate with Justin Vernon?
Yeah. He told me he really likes our new record. We speak often, but it’s rarely about music. We text each other about the NBA and the Bucks a lot. I played in a band with Justin when I was in college. When you go through that, you feel that group of people is a special cohort where you all understood each other. Your feeling out the world together. It was a formative part of life. It was exactly that for me and it’s been amazing to see people from that cohort move on and pursue that lust for discovery. We continue to play music and find our audiences in our own way. We reconvene a few times a year and get a beautiful energy from each other.
To come full circle here, riding this theme of words, there are a few lyrics from Summertime Songs that really resonated with me. The first is, “There’s a couple ways this works and a thousand ways it can’t” (from “Tightrope”) there’s hope buried in that line.
That’s really cool you took it that way. I really appreciate that. My headspace in the song had a woman narrator and this guy she was in a relationship with was going down a path of self-destruction. She’s explaining to him that if he can get his head above water and focus on what’s going on in their lives, they can make it work. The trick is there are only a couple ways. It requires some urgency and choice, and if that can’t be done, it’s time to walk away.
When I listen to a record that is lyrically deep I pay special attention to how the record ends. What is the last thing the songwriter is saying? How do you want the story to end as we part ways? What do you want to leave everybody with? With “Everything I Need” there’s a line with some real punch to it where you say, “I don’t trust this moment, but I want to believe.” What is the moment now and what does it mean to you?
That song ultimately is the key to the entire record. I’m a big fan of mining for darkness, but I don’t want that to be where people land. I want to provide something that is useful and enables people to re-calibrate themselves or their perspectives in order to get to another place. That song lyrically is the simplest and most straightforward. Everything is changing, but you are everything I need. All the characters in this record are going through breakups and changes, but somebody at the end is saying, “I still need you.” That’s been a very useful sentiment to me — embracing what I was talking about earlier, the one-to-one connection. If we do more of that perhaps it will have ripples throughout the rest of the world.
Produced/written by, and in collaboration with Jeff Gorra: