Come for the Bon Iver connection; Stay for the layered, gentle songs about death, self-sabotage and redemption
If you were to follow the thread of Field Report's name and ask what findings the band's first album reveals, the answer would be this: "Disappointment, and family and friends, and America, honestly, and yourself. It's about self-sabotage through drug and drink, it's about death, and ultimately I think there's a redemptive element in there," says frontman Chris Porterfield. "I hope people can pick up that it's a hopeful record."
Basically, the field is life, and the report is this ten-song, self-titled collection.
That sounds terribly serious, which the album can present itself very purposefully as, at times. It can also sound serenely playful in its rustic twang, its countrified cadences. It's 31-year-old Porterfield's first project of his own, after years tooling around with bands from his native Wisconsin, the most notable being DeYarmond Edison, better known to some as Justin Vernon's last band before he created Bon Iver. (Post-Vernon, the group went on to become Megafaun.)
Listen to "Fergus Falls"
"I know a lot of people are probably going to come to Field Report through the connection with my friend Justin, and I struggled with that for a while," Porterfield says of the Vernon connection. "Whatever gets people under the tent, gets 'em in the door, I guess I'm okay with. I just hope they can get there and then experience the record on its own merit and hopefully make their own connections rather than have to tread on these other ones."
The Bon Iver tie goes beyond a friendship. Field Report (an anagram of Porterfield's surname) recorded their album at Vernon's April Base studio in Eau Claire, Wis. Toiling in the very space where his massively successful pal created the record that earned him a Best New Artist Grammy, Porterfield and his six-piece group captured the first batch of songs Porterfield had ever been satisfied with. The result will arrive through Partisan Records on Sept. 11.
"I think we made a really honest document of a band in a good place," says Porterfield, who plays guitar, sings, and writes all the lyrics. "We ended up doing 15 songs in six days. The ones we picked, I think, make sense together, and they sort of speak to a larger narrative. It shows a band that's patient with itself. I think we've carved out enough space to let the stories take over."
The stories told on the record encapsulate trials Porterfield faced in the several years writing the songs, but they're told through characters and images of Americana more so than through his own eyes. A standout is "Taking Alcatraz," directly inspired by Richard Oakes' 1969 occupation of San Francisco's island prison along with nearly 100 other Native Americans. There's a line -- "and if I die here, well at least I made a choice" -- that comes from Porterfield as much as Oakes or anyone else.
Listen to "Taking Alkatraz"
Having worked at Marquette University in student affairs until this past spring, Porterfield is trying for the first time "to make a legitimate go of this thing" as a career. "It remains to be seen if I'll be able to pay my mortgage as a musician, but I've never been in a better situation for that to become possible, so I'm just really grateful for that," he says. "It remains to be seen if this was a huge mistake or if this is going to be become something that is viable for me and my family."
Speaking from the back yard of the Milwaukee home he worries about losing if this calling somehow bottoms out, Porterfield enumerates the band's great fortunes thus far. The Counting Crows and Emmylou Harris each invited Field Report to open shows for them. The band's music is playing at Starbucks and garnering media accolades.
He couldn't have pictured any of this fortune even six months ago, despite the natural feeling the proceedings have had. The good fortunes have bolstered Porterfield's confidence, but there was no tipping point -- making a true run at music was inevitable all along. "I've gotta do this. I won't be able to live with myself if I don't do this," he says. "I never expected any of this stuff, but as it continues to happen and as the band continues to grow, I still have moments of 'Wow, this is incredible,' but it's not surprising me."
Is it a sense of hard work having paid off? "I have put in work, I have stayed hungry and I've stayed patient, but I don't think I've deserved anything," he says. "I think maybe some work has paid off and maybe some things are just out of my hands or anybody's hands."
It doesn't hurt that at the center is a trunk full of sincere songs, gentle without any lazy lullaby ambience. The work is carefully layered, like you could peel and peel and keep finding the song inside. In the studio, each member of Field Report opted to play a non-primary instrument. "Everybody plays something else better" than what they're playing on the album, Porterfield says. "That sort of removes reflex and muscle-memory from the equation and makes everybody just listen a little harder, think a little longer, and really sort of submit to the songs a bit more than some hot shot just riffing."
Was that a choice, or did some sort of game of musical hot potato result in this arrangement? "I think it shows an unwillingness to phone it in. It shows sort of a restlessness for keeping things honest, and if something isn't feeling honest or interesting or engaging for you, the person performing it, then it's gonna fall flat for people listening to it."
Porterfield calls the band "a continuing revelation" in their live work. "Songs are always changing, new ones are always happening. On any given night it can be a different set," he says. "I think musically what it shows us -- and it bleeds over into everything else, too -- is that we have not yet and will not ever arrive at a place in which we know we've done it, we've reached a goal."