Field Report Get Serious
“I’m not waiting anymore,” Christopher Porterfield sings with stern conviction on his band Field Report’s song of the same name, with zero doubt that these words hold the truth.
Those words have been lurking in the minds of Porterfield and his bandmates for some time. For Porterfield, his journey has gone from doubting his path in music to fully believing he had a future in music.
Years ago when the rest of Eau Claire band Deyarmond Edison – a band which also featured Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and future Megafaun members – made the decision to relocate to North Carolina, Porterfield knew he couldn’t make such a drastic move since he still had college to finish and was about to be engaged. He was uncertain about playing music professionally or if there was reason to continue in the field.
But he soon would he would move to Milwaukee and start writing his own songs under the new moniker of Conrad Plymouth. After finding other local musicians to play with, Porterfield started playing as often as he could around town. As more people heard his music, things quickly snowballed. Soon he felt that his solo project had turned into a successful band project. It was time to do something and get serious.
“That’s me saying, ‘You know what, this is ridiculous. It’s time to get real, let’s do this. This being music,” says Porterfield of the aforementioned song. “That song was my personal revelation that if I wanted to try to be a songwriter and a musician that it’s really time to do that and to dedicate time and energy to that endeavor. It’s about the struggle of making art and about destroying things that are precious and it’s about coming to terms with who you are. It’s about being hungry while being patient but mostly giving into the hunger of it and just wanting something.”
Ditching the old moniker for the new Field Report name, Porterfield and his band came out fully engaged and motivated about doing things in a way larger than before. They recorded an album, due out September 11 on Partisan Records, and are in the midst of their biggest tour opening for the likes of the Counting Crows. With help from some unexpected places and new revelations along the way the time for waiting is over.
Growth of a Songwriter and Band Leader
Porterfield wasn’t always a confident singer/songwriter. In Deyarmond Edison and prior bands, he never really wrote songs except occasionally helping Vernon on some lyrics. He was always a sideman in the band, playing instruments and being a harmony singer.
That’s not to say he didn’t learn a thing or two about songwriting and being in a band. Porterfield says that it was a real honor playing with Deyarmond Edison as they proved to be skilled players and active listeners.
“Justin and the guys in Megafaun have gone on to great success and acclaim. But even back then we were sort of a college band, and you could see that those guys were thinking about things that young musicians wouldn’t be thinking about. Always writing new things and tweaking new things,” says Porterfield. “I think I learned listening from them. It was an incredibly important period in my life that I learned how to be in a band and how to direct a band. I learned so much about what it means to be a working writer and musician.”
Once he and his bandmates went their separate ways, Porterfield would start writing his own songs in 2006. He started plugging away into the Milwaukee music scene, going to open mic nights and meeting new people. It was a chance for him to try out new material and kill off old material that didn’t work.
“It took me awhile to figure out what my voice was and to figure out if I had anything I had to say and to get better at it,” says Porterfield.
Conrad Plymouth proved to be the perfect way to hone his skills.
“It was my little safety net to operate under without putting myself out there, like on the internet, but as a way to grow and develop,” says Porterfield.
For Ryan Schleicher, promotions director at 91.7 WMSE and a member of fellow Milwaukee band Juniper Tar, he’s gotten a chance to watch Porterfield’s growth on stage and off.
“When he first ventured out on his own he was very raw, especially emotionally. He’d let the song affect him to the point of distraction, at least on stage,” says Schleicher. “But everything about Chris, from understanding the song to recording it to performing it has matured at an enviable rate. He took his time and got to a point of comfort with himself and the song, which are often one and the same.”
Schleicher added that this newfound confidence of Porterfield is “letting the band be the band so he can focus on the song.” When playing with Chris, it’s also evident the passion he brings as a band leader.
“Playing with, and generally being around Chris, is fun and positively challenging,” says Schleicher. “Fun because Porterfield is an absolute gas and has not an ounce of pretension in his body.Challenging because he’s whip smart and asks tough questions. When he’s fun Chris there is no better fun. When he’s serious Chris, he doesn’t let you off the hook.”
Another big supporter of Porterfield and his band early on was Muzzle of Bees creator Ryan Matteson.
“I’m not the quickest about listening to stuff, so I didn’t listen to the disc right away, but when I did it was one of those instant connections that come around infrequently with music,” says Matteson. “I was a fan at first listen and had the good fortune to be able to watch Chris grow as a songwriter and band leader.”
A Band with Focus
With this added sense of confidence and added attention to their music, it was time to start anew, so to speak.
“When this band started to really do things in a way that I had never done before, that’s when I knew to treat this as a truly collaborative project and to kill off that name I had been using as a default,” says Porterfield.
Field Report, recorded and live, features Porterfield ,who also plays guitar, Nick Berg on keys, Travis Whitty on bass, Damian Strigens on drums, Jeff Mitchell on baritone guitar, and Ben Lester on pedal steel.
“The one thing I like about the players in this band is that everyone is usually patient and willing to really go with songs and choices,” says Porterfield. “Nothing is ever really finished. The arrangements change quite a bit and we’re always tweaking things.”
Almost everyone in the band plays an instrument that’s not their primary, which Porterfield thinks helps the band.
“That sort of makes it so that people’s first reactions aren’t the easy ones,” says Porterfield. “And it’s less muscle memory and first easy choice than it is just listening and making choices to serve the songs.”
The Field Report name was a natural fit for such an approach. The band wanted to make people to put some effort into not just listening to the songs but finding them on the web.
“It seemed to be a reference to the documentary nature of some of the songs lyrically,” says Porterfield. “There isn’t a whole lot of baggage with it. They’re sort of starch words and I wanted something that could take on its own meaning that didn’t have a whole lot of flowery language to it.”
The one thing that remained was finding a place that would do the songs justice. Fortunately for Porterfield and his band, a chance encounter this past fall with Justin Vernon was the spark they needed. When Bon Iver played Milwaukee, Porterfield got a chance to talk to his old bandmate, who suggested use of his own studio, April Base Studios in Eau Claire.
“I had run into Justin last fall when he was in town with Bon Iver and he said he had heard that I had finally found the right people to play music with. And I said ‘Yeah we’ve got these songs that I think we’re going to be able to record pretty soon,’” says Porterfield. “And he offered the use of his space while Bon Iver was on tour in December.”
That space, Porterfield says, was perfect as it had a giant room for recording live. Field Report went in wanting to capture a band playing together with a lot of air in the sound.
“When we went into the studio we really wanted this to be a band record,” says Porterfield. “It was recorded all together. So we went to a studio with a good live room and I think this is a sound of a band playing songs that they’ve spent some time figuring out. And this is sort of a snapshot of an honest performance of those songs.”
Fortunately, further help wasn’t far behind as the band worked with recording engineer Beau Sorenson on the record. They also worked with Paul Kolderie (Radiohead, Warren Zevon, Pixies, Uncle Tupelo) to mix the album and Dave Godowsky of Figure Eight Management, a company related to Partisan Records, as manager of the band.
“We went in there in December with Beau Sorenson, who is one of the best engineers – at least that I’ve worked with. He came from Portland and navigated that big room and unfamiliar equipment and all of our personalities and was a total pro,” says Porterfield. “We hammered out 15 songs in 6 days. Then we did some tweaking and narrowed it down to 10 songs. Most of the record was made in that room, mostly live. And I think you can hear that on the record.”
In addition to using the dynamics of the room, the band and Sorenson used their appreciation of later Talk Talk records to add “empty” spaces to the music.
“There are a lot of spaces instrumentally and musically, really allowing the emptiness of a song to really become a major player in the music,” says Porterfield.
Several of the songs recorded for the album have been around in some form for a year or two, since the Conrad Plymouth days. Porterfield says while he went in wanting to make a whole new slate of songs, the point was made during recording that most people outside Milwaukee had never heard the songs. So the band set about reinterpreting these songs. At the end of the day, it proved to be a wise decision as the old and new songs compliment each other.
Mining the Songwriter Craft
At the forefront of these songs are Porterfield’s lyrics, the heartbeat that drives them forward.
For Porterfield, these songs “don’t happen unless I have something to say.” Once that happens, it’s like a construction zone where he patiently unearths an idea to its core.
“I’ll come up with a line or two that I’ll like and I’ll sit with that for awhile and try to find out what’s going on underneath that,” says Porterfield. “Something will come from there and it becomes kind of an excavating process. You dig under that for awhile and then a narrative starts to unfold.”
This usually happens in sets of three where one song turns into another into yet another.
“Generally they tend to relate to each other,” says Porterfield. “It’s usually not until after the fact that I can see the connections. Once I have an idea how things will go I’ll take them to the band and see what happens then.”
Through patiently examining each idea, Porterfield’s lyrics are fleshed out with vivid detail. Ryan Matteson noticed this early on in Porterfield’s writing.
“Chris is without a doubt one of my favorite songwriters. His perspective and imagery put you right there in the songs he sings,” says Matteson. “There’s a lot of weight in the songs and I have a hard time not playing the songs over and over again.”
If you count the proper nouns in the lyrics, you’re sure to count quite a few. Proper nouns are essential for Porterfield in writing his lyrics.
“I think proper nouns have just enough baggage for the listener where you can zero in on the specific detail, whether it’s a person or a place or even a product. They can be drawn to that, like a bug to a lamp or something,” says Porterfield. “Once they’re there and their eyes have adjusted to the light then you can start and you have a home base. Then you can start looking around and seeing what else is in there. And once you’re grounded to that thing you can start piecing together the rest of the story. Those geographically or otherwise details help navigate the listener through the stories in the songs.”
This is something he attributes to his music heroes. People like Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon, who have a career’s worth of material that grows and evolves over the years but always keeps a strong integrity. This includes some of the underappreciated records by “the great folkie artists” like much of the Dylan material from the 80s. But Paul Simon, especially the first verse of the title track from “Hearts and Bones,” really has a lasting impact on Porterfield:
“One and one-half wandering Jews
Free to wander wherever they choose
Are travelling together
In the Sangre de Cristo
The Blood of Christ Mountains
Of New Mexico
On the last leg of the journey
They started a long time ago
The arc of a love affair
Rainbows in the high desert air
Mountain passes slipping into stones.”
“Just unpacking that first line in that song, there’s so much there. You learn about their history and their relationship, this fresh start, and it grounds you in this place in New Mexico,” says Porterfield. “His use of place and proper nouns and specific details help you triangulate where you are, to get your head around some of these things. He is the best at that.”
Field Report’s songs combine Porterfield’s lyrics and the lush, airiness of the music, creating a powerful atmosphere.
“So if you take some of those classic songwriter folks and bring in some synthesizers and open up a room and let it breathe I think that’s a big part of what we sound like,” says Porterfield.
Many of Porterfield’s latest songs revolve around a Midwest location, although now with their national travels the places he uses are more diverse.
“I don’t want to have anything tied down necessarily,” says Porterfield. But this batch of songs was definitely written in the Midwest and there’s definitely a big chunk of theme and narrative that references the Midwest and Milwaukee.”
Throughout Field Report’s debut album, Porterfield creates narratives, many detailing of character’s struggle at making the right and wrong choices as well as the struggles and pitfalls with searching for the American Dream. Many speak the truth intentionally and some unintentionally. For example, “Fergus Falls” is written from the perspective of a woman who finds herself in an unhappy situation with a man and wants to remove herself from it. She’s pregnant in a small town and is dreading having her life be with this man.
“She’s able to get out and that song is a celebration of looking back and knowing you made the right choice,” says Porterfield.
A Counting Crow (and others) Takes Notice
Sometimes it takes a simple act to tilt the scales from normalcy to fame. Dave Godowsky, doing what any good band manager would do, sent out a pair of rough versions of Field Report songs to a number of people to get the word out. One of these people happened to be Adam Duritz, lead singer of the Counting Crows. Godowsky, a songwriter himself, had played on a lot of Counting Crows Outlaw Roadshow tour showcases which features a collection of handpicked bands opening.
“He called me up and said ‘Can I send you some mp3s by this band? Their record isn’t out but I’m working with them, and would you consider them for the Outlaw Roadshow?’ And I said ‘Oh course,’” says Duritz. “He sent me two songs – I think it was ‘I’m Not Waiting Anymore’ and ‘Fergus Falls.’ They weren’t even mixed yet, they were just rough studio versions. But they were clearly great.”
From there Duritz contacted Ryan Spaulding of Ryan’s Smashing Life blog, who had been helping run indie showcases at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, with him for the past few years. They both agreed that they should book them and promptly scheduled them to play Duritz’s showcase at South by Southwest – Field Report’s first official show.
“It’s weird because we did it without hearing much of their music but out of the faith because the two songs were really great,” says Duritz. “And Dave said ‘The album’s going to blow your mind when you get it. You’re going to flip out.’ So we took it out of faith. They’re the only band on the tour that we hadn’t heard the record or seen them live or both because no one had seen Field Report before. It was one of the first people we had on the bill and I’m proud of that.”
For Duritz, it’s a thrill working with bands on the rise and watching them learn about playing gigs every night and Field Report was no exception. At the showcase, he met with the band and got to know them better and was blown away by their set. On the flip side, Porterfield – a huge Counting Crows fan – and his band soaked up this huge opportunity.
“He was a really supportive genuine awesome guy,” says Porterfield. “When they were looking for people to open for their tour they reached out to us and we were super humble and grateful and thrilled to be able to do that. It’s going to be an amazing trip – we’re going to see a big chunk of the country. We’re going to play some incredible venues. To have his support is pretty mind-blowing.”
Porterfield said that he grew up listening to the Counting Crows and thinks elements of that band subconsciously have seeped into what Field Report is about, from the confessional nature of songs, the ability to reinvent a song on any particular night, and to be honest about the songs rather than just be a static performance.
With both coming from a singer/songwriter background, it’s little surprise that Duritz was in awe of Porterfield’s detailed lyrics. Listening to the lyrics is one thing but once Duritz saw the lyrics, which were mailed to him, it was a revelation. So much so that it reminded him of the times when he would read and listen to the lyrics on Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks.” Duritz received a big lyric book not too long ago and would scan the lyrics as he heard them.
“I know the words in the songs because I’ve heard them a million times. I was listening to it while reading it and being able to have it in front of you and see the whole paragraph what went past and what’s coming,” says Duritz. “Listening to the music while reading the lyrics, it’s incredible the depth of detail and sense of place and scope of that record.”
When he got Porterfield’s lyrics he got the same reaction.
“It really knocked me out and reminded me of the same experience I had putting on Blood on the Tracks and reading the lyric book with how well-written it was and how broad the scope and the ambition of what he was writing about. There’s such a perfection in the songs that I wonder how long Chris spent.”
Duritz highly recommends checking out the lyrics on the Field Report website as the experience is “great and makes it even better.”
These songs have had such an impact that he once missed a plane from being in such an awe of listening to the album. Having to leave South by Southwest for an appointment out west, he brought a burned cd of the album with him to listen to on the way to the airport. He had only heard the album on his computer’s small speakers.
“I put the CD in the CD player and that’s the first time I heard it on speakers with the great atmosphere of being in a car listening to a record. The first time I heard it anywhere like that and it really floored me,” says Duritz. “I hadn’t heard how rich it was until that moment. I couldn’t bring myself to go park the car so I missed my plane. I kept driving around to finish the record and I ended up missing my plane. I had to get a plane later that day, a red eye which was a nightmare but the main story is that Field Report made me miss my plane. But I guess it was worth it.”
Ryan Matteson feels that Duritz’s endorsement will help get Field Report more attention.
“He’s always seemed to appreciate great songwriters. I got turned onto Joni Mitchell because I read that Adam was a fan of hers in the interviews he gave,” says Matteson. “In that respect I think the Counting Crows audience will really appreciate what Field Report is doing and their music deserves an introduction to the widest audience possible.”
The band, which also earned an equally humbling opening spot for a couple shows with Emmylou Harris, hasn’t let the pressure of impressing get to them.
“The opportunities are really cool and we’re trying to be Vince Lombardi and pretend like we’re suppose to be here, pretend like we’ve been here before and not get distracted by anything,” says Porterfield.
Quietness is the Key
Remembering who they are as a band is key as they get more attention, says Porterfield. During another showcase they played at South by Southwest at Central Presbyterian Church they crafted a strategy to remind them of that.
“We wrote down on pieces of paper in Sharpie just the word ‘Quiet’ in all caps just to remind ourselves that we aren’t a bar band, we aren’t a rock band,” says Porterfield. “The idea is to handle the songs honestly in that moment and to try to convey a mood. And those quiet signs around the stage helped us remember that.”
So far that strategy has worked. Each band member now brings a crumpled up paper in with their gear with this word to each of their shows.
“That’s a really important part of what we sound like and who we are, which is that we don’t go for anything easy,” says Porterfield. “We want quietness to end up being the thing that ends up winning the night. It’s the struggle to translate that at any given show that makes us who we are.”
Ryan Schleicher feels the same way.
“The band is incredibly lush but never overdoes it,” says Schleicher. “The best word to use is probably ‘tasteful.’”
For Porterfield and the rest of Field Report, every note is a choice. Just like “I’m Not Waiting Anymore” is Porterfield’s and the band’s anthem for getting serious about music.
“Every moment is a choice. And any time you lose sight of that is when you lose focus of what’s possible,” says Porterfield. “And that’s not to say that everything is a paralyzing, crippling decision. Some of these things are inside you and the songs. But being conscious of every note, every moment, every crescendo, every quiet part is a choice in that you have agency in every single thing, and is a big part of who we are.”