Notes from the Field

By
Photography Frank Sun

Published October 5, 2014

ABOVE: FIELD REPORT IN NEW YORK, SEPTEMBER 2014. PHOTO BY FRANK SUN.

“Field Report” is an anagram of the last name of its frontman, Chris Porterfield. But it’s an apt name anyway for his alt-folk project, whose lyrics are often so closely observed as to feel like notes written on assignment. (“Blue like the picture of your father and you / Blue like the label on the beer you always choose,” he sings.) That’s especially true on Marigolden, the band’s sophomore album, much of which was written, quite literally, from the field: its themes of homesick longing were inspired by the band’s first long tour, for its self-titled 2012 debut. Marigolden is a gorgeous, wistful album, with new electronic elements and occasional female vocals integrated just often enough to be effective, rather than overpowering. We caught up with Porterfield and a couple of his bandmates over coffee in Brooklyn.

ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: The recording process for this album was described in the press materials as a very intimate, all-in-it-together experience. How did you feel about each other coming out of it?

CHRIS PORTERFIELD: I think the reason we chose to work in the space that we did was in large part due to the fact that it was removed from everything else. There weren’t any other distractions. We had finished touring on the first record, and we had gotten to become a closer unit as people and players, and I think that continued to coalesce in the recording process too. We were away from everything, a good half-hour away from any grocery store, on a ranch in a river valley on the edge of this Canadian forest reserve, and it snowed all the time. There were wood-fired bunkhouses and a sauna to wrap up the day in. So yeah, there was a very fraternal close-knit vibe in the recording session for sure. We sort of dispersed after the recording. We didn’t hang out a whole lot for while, just because we were geographically spread out and we didn’t have any shows on the horizon immediately after finishing the record. I guess we had that intense time together and then didn’t see each other for a while.

SYMONDS: Now you’re performing songs about homesickness while you’re in the midst of another tour of roughly the same kind that inspired them. How has that felt?

PORTERFIELD: It feels really good, actually. It feels like that was the environment in which they were conceived. Right now, in this moment, I believe that I’ll be able to live in these songs for a long time. Whereas in the first record, I felt like I couldn’t live in some of those things and perform them in a totally honest, open way. That went into the writing—just building things that I can continue to grow into and that we can continue to poke and prod and be honest about.

SYMONDS: What do you feel like you learned about your home, being away from it? Sometimes it takes the experience of getting away from something for an extended period of time to start to understand what its essential qualities are.

PORTERFIELD: Totally. I think the idea of home on this record goes beyond physical home, or even a relationship or whatever—we’re aiming at the idea of just having some sense of balance. I’ve learned that a critical element to maintaining balance is actually submission, in a way—not to let yourself off the hook of engaging or having agency or actively doing something, but also to just take a step back and observe the rhythms of things and not fight them as much. Like if you’re in a river, to bend your knees so you can ride the waves a little bit and better navigate this thing that’s happening all around you. I’m continuing to learn that. I think that might be the theme overall of this whole thing.

SYMONDS: Touring imposes such weird artificial structures on your way of living, and weird, anti-circadian rhythms on you. So the idea of letting go and letting life wash past you—that seems like it would be really hard to do as a touring musician.

PORTERFIELD: It can be, but you discover that there’s a rhythm in it too. There’s a rhythm in the anti-rhythm. The hours are different and the job description is different, but once you get into it, you can kind of just pick up your feet and go.

SYMONDS: I would also imagine it’s probably hard to be a sober touring musician—there’s alcohol everywhere. It comes up on the record a lot.

PORTERFIELD: It does. I think in the past, I have used alcohol to sort of round the edges of this thing, to make it roll a little bit easier. And this is actually my first long trip being sober.

SYMONDS: Congratulations.

PORTERFIELD: Thank you! We’re not super far into it, who knows? I could fall off the wagon, you never know! But it’s been good. I can drive more. I wake up earlier. I don’t feel like total shit; I’m not angry. I’m more able to just go with the flow rather than be derailed by something, traffic or whatever. So far, I’m a much more pleasant touring partner. We were just at the Partisan Records office and I hadn’t seen some of those guys in a while, and they were like, “Oh shit, you’ve lost a lot of weight.” And it’s true. It’s all I changed in my life—I didn’t start exercising or eating well or quit smoking.

SYMONDS: “And I don’t plan to.”

PORTERFIELD: [laughs] Yeah, right! One thing at a time. But all I did was cut out, you know, a liter of brown on any given night. That’s a lot of calories.

SYMONDS: What are the physical components of homesickness?

PORTERFIELD: I think there’s restlessness in your limbs. There can be what feels like the beginning of a panic attack. There’s something in your chest, I think, that you can feel. And for me it’s not just, “Man, I wish it was in my own bed,” or anything like that, it’s almost like a feeling of guilt for being away and indulging in this silly fucking thing. Because really, “Oh, this is how I’m going to provide for my family?” Yeah, right. To be a songwriter or a musician or a touring artist, there’s so much selfishness involved. Yesterday was my eighth wedding anniversary, the third I was not home for in a row.

SYMONDS: I hope you sent a really big bouquet.

PORTERFIELD: I didn’t, even. Like I talked to my wife on the phone last night at 11, which was like, “Oh yeah, happy anniversary!” “Oh yeah, you too.” We don’t really think that stuff is super important, which I’m hugely grateful for, because it would make this hard. But there might even be some shame involved for being away. And I had to mow the lawn quick before we left, but I know that she’s going to have mow the lawn before we get back. And I’m sorry. So it can definitely have physical manifestations, and it plays in your head all the time. But it’s also really fun! And you feel guilty about having fun all the time.

SYMONDS: My favorite song on the album is probably “Pale Rider,” which is a beautiful song. Who’s the female vocalist?

PORTERFIELD: Tamara Lindeman. She has a project in Toronto called the Weather Station. She’s got a new record coming out sometime soon, and she’s stunning; she slays me. I’ve been a fan of hers for several years, and we were in the studio trying to figure out how to get a female voice on that song in particular, and several others. And Robbie Lack, who’s the producer and engineer of Partisan Records, said, “Well, I worked with this girl in town, she’s got a really great voice.” And we discovered several minutes later that it’s this person that I’ve been a huge fan of for a long time. I love her record, All of it Was Mine. Her mother just happened to live five miles down the road from the place where we were recording, and she just happened to be visiting her mother then. It was a very stars-aligning kind of thing.

SYMONDS: For most of the song her vocal track is in the background, and then at the very end she gets this beautiful foreground moment. It’s ballsy to construct a song that way, to hold onto your trump card until the end. How did that song get put together?

PORTERFIELD: That was written about a few different people that I know peripherally, who had actually lost children. It was just trying to understand how to relate to that and how to try to be a source of comfort in that and try to deal with that. All of them, it was a devastating experience. And some of them went down pretty self-destructive paths in dealing with that. That’s where that song was born.

SYMONDS: “He would have been six” might be the most devastating five words in the English language to put together.

PORTERFIELD: Yeah, thank you for that. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to record it for a while too. We had been playing it for a bit, and people would come up to me afterwards and say, “I lost a kid,” and tears, and it was really heavy, and I didn’t know if I should say those things. But everybody that had approached me afterward said, “No, it’s important to say those things.” Their giving me permission to do that I think helped a lot. And I wanted to be very careful with gender and pronouns and trying to take on some kind of role. Actually, Amelia Meath, from Sylvan Esso and Mountain Man, helped walk me through it some—she just changed one word, and I think it helped renew my sense of it. When we got in the studio, I wanted a sort of traditional Emmylou Harris duet sort of thing. But instead of a real consistent line with all of the parts, Tamara had a very loose approach that was just magical. Sometimes she would do a repeated harmony, but sometimes it would be a different line. Sometimes it’s unison, and sometimes it’s really free at that bridge part. Allowing her to have her own instinct or response, I think, helps take away from trying to force a point of view on it, and lets it breathe and be a story.

SYMONDS: Have you had the experience of someone talking to you about a song after a show and hearing something that is totally news to you?

PORTERFIELD: Yes. Absolutely. There was one time on the first record—we were somewhere in the desert, Arizona or New Mexico. But someone came up to me after a show and said, “So was it you or was it someone close to you who’s the addict?” And that blew my mind.

SYMONDS: What a thing to say to someone!

PORTERFIELD: Right! That was just based on the trail that I had left on the first record. I didn’t even realize then how much addiction and substance abuse played even in my first record, much less some of the songs that happened later. It’s crazy. A lot of the songs on this record deal with that, too—varying points on the timeline, perspective-wise. I’ve been doing some solo shows before the record has been out, and people will come up to me after a show and say, “Hey man, 18 years. Here’s my card.” I’ve had so many offers of sponsors, and it’s crazy that they can pick up on that—I’m open about it, but it’s not super overt. But if you’re tuned into some of these things, like that’s obviously here.

SYMONDS: The song “Ambrosia”—do you see that as a nightmare?

PORTERFIELD: That was my last drunk song. It was probably a year ago today, nearly, within a week or two. And I didn’t even know it, but that was sort of my red alert to myself. Some personal shit started falling apart pretty significantly, and that was, “Okay, I realize now that my energy and my love and my relationship with alcohol is so deep, but I don’t have unlimited love and energy and time. It’s a zero-sum thing. And it’s taking away from everything else. And they can’t. My love for alcohol and my love for everything else and my life are not able to coexist, so one of those has to go,” and I was choosing everything else.

I went back to that song a week and half or two later, after all of those choices had come down, and thought, “Oh my god.” Because when you’re in it, it changes your brain, and you don’t have a perspective, and you can’t come to those kind of realizations without something external because you’re so far in your own head. And so that song helped usher in this cross-fade into the new thing. It’s not easy, and it hasn’t been, and it probably won’t ever be, so I think about it all the time. But it was important for me to put that song on the record, and the version that’s on the record is the only take that was performed in the studio. It was one and done, it doesn’t need to be perfect. In fact, it should not be perfect. It should just be what it is.

MARIGOLDEN IS OUT TOMORROW, OCTOBER 7. FOR MORE ON FIELD REPORT, PLEASE VISIT THE BAND’S FACEBOOK PAGE.