Field Report’s Chris Porterfield talks new directions

Field Report

Field Report Photo courtesy of the artist

The line between “personal” and “political” has always been porous.

When Field Report’s Chris Porterfield started writing the follow-up to 2015’s Marigolden, he was about to become a father for the first time. His forthcoming album Summertime Songs reflects all the anxiety, self-doubt, and hope that follow from such a massive life change, but it also speaks to the context in which he was writing: the 2016 election.

The band’s sound adjusted for this new material. In the past, Field Report staked its name on the singer-songwriter’s M.O.: poetically charged lyricism confessed against an earnest guitar. On Summertime Songs, the bands casts its net wide, drawing in synths, up-tempo rhythms, and chromatic crescendos to electrify Porterfield’s lyricism with a resounding crackle. The opening song “Blind Spot” magnetically captures the moment a person can change another’s life. Porterfield describes himself in terms of space—“This heart is a cold cave, my mind is a parking lot”—but in recounting those absent places, he failed to account for the presence lingering in one. “You were in my blind spot,” he sings on the hook, the band’s backing vocals adding a touch of shoegaze.

Out this week, Summertime Songs is a remarkable step forward for Field Report, electrifying their music with a fresh undercurrent of emotion. Worry and talk—and talk about worry—have a special place within the singer-songwriter tradition, but so does physicality, movement, and life. “I love you in the low light baby, but let’s dance,” Porterfield sings.

Summertime Songs is a departure in several ways from the past two albums. As poetically steeped as your lyricism remains, you’re now painting much more personal and clear vignettes. What elicited the desire to be more up front?

The opening conversation in “Summertime Songs” is somebody asking me, “Why don’t you try summertime songs?’ and all of the things that that implies, which would be maybe more simplicity, maybe a little more upbeat, maybe a little less verbose. So there’s that, and then also me doubting my ability to be a good parent and maintain sobriety, and be as good as required for that kind of thing. It’s a bit Springsteen, it’s a big Arcade Fire, it’s a bit LCD Soundsystem, it goes into some soaring U2 stuff at the end, all tongue in cheek at first, but then it tied into this thing that felt right.

Speaking of influences, you’ve incorporated more synths and electronics in this new album as opposed to your previous two. What prompted that shift for you?

We just had more time in the studio. We recorded this on our own in Milwaukee at a studio called Wire & Vice. Daniel Holter was the producer and engineer, and he owns the studio. He and I work really well together. I would show up every morning and we would work every day. A lot of songs were written during the recording process. It wasn’t so much me showing up with a folk song and needing to dress it up; these things were happening at the fundamental level. It was a little more collaborative, too. [Guitarist and keyboardist] Tom Wincek, and [bassist] Barry Clark, we three have our own sort of penchant for those kinds of sounds, and we were aiming at whatever would get us to vibrate, hoping that would vibrate the listener too. A lot of the synth stuff plays the role of a finger-picked guitar.

As far as listening, I’m obsessed with this band the Blue Nile. They actually got signed to their first record contract by the people who owned Linn, which went on to obviously become a very influential sound. Their first record was made to showcase the capabilities of that. It’s become a thing we all know and recognize as much as a guitar. We were drawing on sounds from all of these records that we’ve loved from all kinds of different eras, and it sort of all got synthesized.

And beautifully so. Your lyricism has always been such an attractive quality of Field Report’s music, and the instrumentation is playing into that in some interesting ways.

I appreciate that. We really wanted to build these things sonically to highlight and underscore and do some creative lighting with the stories being told.

I can see that, especially with how you depict space on “Blind Spot.” But speaking of another theme, there’s also a sense of temporality running throughout the album. I’m thinking especially of “If I Knew.” Is progress a linear experience for you, or is it messier?

Oh ho, that’s a beautiful question. Yeah, I think it’s very much messy. Progress doesn’t always mean forward, it just means different; I think that is what this record is all about. It’s looking back in that you’re reckoning with where you were, and that’s a different place than where you are. It looks forward and backward and up and down. It’s not linear. It’s multi-dimensional.

How do you cultivate a sense of patience when it comes to knowing you should be better but you’re not there yet?

I think there’s a restlessness required to recognize that you’re not where you want to be, or where you should be, or where you’re aiming toward. One way to continue to move is to take stock of where you were, and allow yourself to be pushed off your spot a little bit and recalibrate. We’re all hooked up to these different suspension wires, and there’s different points of triangulation. You’ve got to continue to test the limits of one to find out what another one you’re hooked up to can handle also. It’s this constant negotiation with any given situation. Sometimes you’ve got to cut the wires and just jump, and sometimes you’ve got to test them so they’re pinging some high hum, but they’re stretched, but they’ve still got you locked in.

You wrote this album before your daughter was born, but in the wake of that major life event, how has your sense of worth changed?

Man, I’m constantly being burnished against my daughter. One of my big concerns before she showed up was, “Will I be able to subvert my deeply rooted selfishness in order to make a good life for her?” I still struggle with that, and there are some days where I forget that this is the reality now. But she’s incredible. Everybody talks about, “Oh, it changes you, it’s amazing, it’s beautiful,” and it is all of those things, but fundamentally it pushes you off your spot and you have to sort of try to figure out how to balance and how to not fall off. You’ve got to be around, but you’ve got to try to keep yourself, too. It’s another thing you gotta negotiate. But she’s beautiful, she’s incredible, she’s funny, she’s smart, she knows how to sweep the fill on the synthesizer, she knows how to play guitar. She dances, she knows my music.

What does music-making look like now with her in the house?

We’ve got instruments all over the house and we’ll sing songs together and play them, and she knows Field Report songs, but also that’s such a different environment to try and be creative in, so I’m actually speaking with you from the studio right now. I have an office space set up here where I’m able to come and make music, so I’m sitting in my space away from the house. I’ve got a babysitter a few days a week, so I get to go put on my different hat, or pull my brain out of the jar and put it in a few hours a week.

That’s fantastic, so many creative individuals work from these domestic spaces, and you do have to cultivate that ‘outside’ in some way.

For a while, I tried to set up an office at the house. There was a period where I had a standing desk and I had a little studio system, and I tried to have her strapped on with one of those baby bjorns, and it was impossible. Being a parent requires too much, there’s not enough to give to the creative side. I wasn’t able to strike that balance.

You’re a staple of Milwaukee’s music scene, which itself has undergone significant transformations in recent months let alone years. Where do you think it sits within the larger regional scope? How have you seen it change?

There’s a fresh energy happening in Milwaukee right now. I think a lot of the old guard are finally clearing out some space for the young people—I’m kind of neither so I get to exist however I want to. There are a lot of young kids coming up doing amazing things, and they’re super hungry. For a long time, there was a feeling that dogged Milwaukee, like, “Oh, we’re not Chicago, and we’re not Minneapolis,” and so there was an uncertainty about how to be a professional working musician in Milwaukee, but a lot of that is changing because of radio stations really stepping it up. 88.9 Radio Milwaukee has done a great job cultivating energy around the people doing the work here. I think there’s a new scene coelescing, and that’s the thing with scenes, they cycle. I’m really excited about who of this younger crop is going to spill over outside of the city.