Feature: Chris Porterfield Is Surviving, and That’s Enough

Chris Porterfield sings with a kind of howl. On his songs, recorded with the folk-rock band Field Report, his words come out with a ferociousness that charges the poetry with immediacy.

His speaking voice betrays that wildness––that’s the first thing I notice when I get him on the phone from Wisconsin late in November. Porterfield is thoughtful and measured when he talks, but still, I can make out a certain reedy warmth that blankets his work.

He’s not singing much these days; at home in Milwaukee with his wife and daughter, Porterfield is experiencing a season of creative drought. For the first time since he adopted Field Report as a full time job in 2012, he’s not writing either. Strange times for the songwriter who once declared, on Field Report’s self-titled debut, “I am not waiting anymore.”

The songwriting break is self-imposed to some degree because of the pandemic––but as he explains it more, it’s clear something is happening under the surface, even though it’s not translated into song yet; “It’s a kind of survival,” he says about living through this moment.

“It sounds bleaker than I intend it to, but it’s really just kind of getting through. Right now, it’s such a baseline, sort of electric hum that is just caring and watching for a four year old. That’s just taking up everything I’ve got.”

Normally, the band would be out touring with new material—a process Porterfield describes as essential to his understanding of the music. Field Report’s fourth studio album, Brake Light Red Tide, was released in April.

Field Report’s fourth studio album, Brake Light Red Tide

“My relationship with the work takes on a totally different life when it’s performed. I feel like it doesn’t live up to its intended purpose until I take it as far as I can in a room, and then somebody meets it halfway.”

Before the pandemic, Porterfield kept an office in the studio where he could retreat and, as he describes it “get into the headspace of sitting and waiting for the universe to come talk to me.” He was busy with out of town gigs but remained devoted to Milwaukee, so much so that Mayor Tom Barrett declared October 22, 2014, as “Field Report Day.”

Daniel Holter, who produced  Field Report’s last two records and owns the studio Wire and Vice, mentions Porterfield’s dedication to the city when I catch up with him over Zoom from Seattle; he and his wife relocated from Milwaukee this summer. It’s all the more impressive, according to Holter, because Milwaukee isn’t Porterfield’s native home––he’s originally from Minnesota. 

“He’s got a lot of relationships that would surprise you,” Holter says. “He’s very engaged civically. The impact of his heart and his brain and his creative output are going to be felt even if the people in the community don’t realize it came from Chris.”

The idea of home, inherited or adopted, is essential in Porterfield’s songwriting. His characters are, to quote the title track from 2014’s Marigolden, “always finding old lives to run away from.” Look up Field Report on Spotify and you’ll find the most popular song is called “Home”––it’s optimistic, almost radio-ready in its peppiness, but listen closely and you’ll hear Porterfield invert that hope and declare “The body remembers what the mind forgets, it archives every heartbreak and cigarette.” It’s the statement of a poet turned realist, one revealing another mainstay of Field Report’s narratives: the feeling of being stuck; of repeating the past in an endless loop.

These ideas are central to Brake Light Red Tide, released on Fellesskap Records. The label is the brainchild of Holter and Porterfield; the name, Porterfield tells me, is Norwegian for community, “something slightly different than family, but close to it.”

Community is something Porterfield built in Milwaukee––the current Field Report line-up consists of Devin Drobka, Barry Clark, Caley Conway and Thomas Wincek, all sought-after musicians involved in other projects. As Holter explains it, Porterfield’s artistic strategy has always been to surround himself with talented people, with a focus on “growing (his) own planet to a size that the gravity keeps increasing,” pulling like-minded artists into his orbit. Clark, who plays bass in Field Report, says that even though the songs begin with Porterfield’s writing, the process of making the records is a democratic one.

“Any experience that I’ve had with (Chris)––whether it’s recording music, writing music, performing music––it’s never been like ‘here’s how it should go’,” Clark says. “ It’s very, very open. A lot of people get input.”

But Porterfield is having trouble self-identifying as a musician during the pandemic, he says. Ask him, or Holter or Clark, and it’s almost as if Brake Light Red Tide never happened––no fanfare or touring, just released into the void. Resentment creeps in occasionally, but Porterfield’s mostly made peace with it––nowadays he’s tending to a new home (he and his wife recently moved), and spends most of his time facilitating his daughter’s virtual learning.

When I ask what he’s listening to in quarantine, he mentions Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul”––Porterfield plays the 16-minute epic while using the rowing machine in his basement. And to keep some Field Report momentum, he’s livestreaming solo concerts.

Field Report’s Marigolden

I caught one such livestream in October, on which Porterfield played the second Field Report album Marigolden in its entirety. He describes having difficulty running the equipment himself, and likened fielding the YouTube comments to dealing with a “very well intentioned assault.”

“Honestly, it’s hard. And eventually I get there, but it takes me a while. You know, that’s the only way to do it right now. And I don’t want to be precious about the stuff either. Because it’s ultimately not just about me.”

And while the new record might not have received a proper release, its entry into the pandemic-world seems prescient; it’s a startling batch of songs, with characters isolated, mournful, and confused, dealing with crumbling relationships, waywardness and the awful gnaw of stagnation. Porterfield says listening to Brake Light Red Tide recently gave him a new perspective on the compositions.

The song he returns to most is “Whulge,” a nearly four-minute instrumental that repeats its pulsing sounds until folding in on itself and fading into the final track. That last song is “Begin to Begin,” and is, because of its calm melodic cradle and insistence on honesty, my pick for the album’s best. The verses describe a bleak depressive spell, which sees Porterfield land at a bar late one night before texting his therapist for help. When I ask him about the inspiration, he pauses.

“That’s all true. That one wasn’t sitting down and intending to write a Field Report song. That’s something that just tumbled out one Sunday afternoon.”

It’s especially poignant in relation to his earlier records, which frequently deal with addiction and the redemption of sobriety. 

“You know, nothing is tidy. Nothing is ever really over. Sometimes as far as alcohol goes specifically, I’ll be on a good long sober stretch. Could be years even. And like anybody who really does struggle with something would know, you start to justify things to yourself. And one thing inevitably leads to another and something gets messed up. And then you got to recalibrate and try again.”

As for what’s next, Porterfield isn’t sure. With his songwriting on hiatus, Porterfield’s bandmates are producing their own material, including Clark, who released the album Coaxing a Ghost Into the Room in November––the seven tracks of instrumental music were mixed by Holter. 

But for Porterfield, it’s a time of artistic hibernation; at least for now. And Holter says whenever there’s something written, he’ll be ready to help record.

“Field Report is Chris,” Holter says. “It really needs to be driven by what Chris feels. And I’m fully confident he’ll say something when he has something to say.”

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Matthew Nerber

Matthew Nerber is a performer and theater artist in Chicago, and a former literary contributor with the Generation, the University at Buffalo’s longest running alternative newspaper. When not seeing or making theater, Matthew can be found at the Music Box or expanding his classic rock vinyl collection. He is a 2019 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.