Q&A: Field Report’s Chris Porterfield Discusses The Substance Abuse, Spirituality, And Similes Behind Sophomore LP Marigolden
Field Report will release the follow-up to 2012’s excellent self-titled debut this fall on Partisan Records. It’s called Marigolden, and it finds Chris Porterfield’s folk-rock band further plumbing the depths of despair and longing that inspired the last album while also exploring brighter territory. The album revolves around every human’s need to keep pressing forward, adapting, and growing lest we coast into decay — and musically, that’s exactly what Field Report have accomplished. Marigolden is immediately identifiable as the group that made mournful epics like “Fergus Falls” and “I Am Not Waiting Anymore,” yet these new songs — tales of struggling to maintain personal connection, coming to terms with alcoholism, and desperately seeking peace of mind — are imbued with deepened confidence and vibrant life. The band subtly incorporates new sounds into their expertly honed folk-rock catharsis, lacing the music with synths and electronic flutters without overreaching for some ill-advised metamorphosis. And even at their most bewildered, these songs reverberate with hope — “trafficking in wonder,” as one of Porterfield’s lyrics puts it.
In other words, Marigolden is the sort of step forward every band hopes to achieve on their second record. Porterfield called from Wisconsin earlier this month to discuss the ideas and experiences behind his band’s latest.
STEREOGUM: I imagine the circumstances while making this record were probably extremely different from the making of the first record.
CHRIS PORTERFIELD: Yeah, completely. I think there’s intentionality in this one that was absent from the first one. But the first one was just kind of, we didn’t really know what we were doing, we didn’t know if we were even a band, what we were, we just had kind of a pile of songs and we just put them all together and that was it. And that kept us busy touring on that record for a couple of years, but this one, we had an opportunity to have a little more perspective on the whole thing going in.
STEREOGUM: The album is called Marigolden and that’s the title of one of the songs, and that word also makes its way into “Home” as well. Is that a word you invented?
PORTERFIELD: Yeah, I don’t believe that word existed until this record. So marigold is a flower. It’s supposed to be this hardy sort of survival-in-any-clime sort of plant, and it kind of stinks, and it’s kind of ugly. It’s not that pretty. But here in the Midwest, moms and grandmas and whatever, they’ll plant marigolds in flowerbeds, and they’re supposed to be this hardy thing that can survive Midwestern winters or whatever, but they don’t. They still die off every year, and you have to dig them up, and you have to replant them if you want them. And so that theme is sort of throughout the record: You’ve never really gotten to a place where you’re on the other side of something. You’re always kind of in it. And you’re always dying, and you always gotta dig it up. And if you want to keep going you gotta replant it, you gotta start new again. And so yeah, Marigolden is sort of the adjective form of the noun of this thing that is supposed to be able to survive anything but it doesn’t still. And so it suits this active sort of digging up the death and replanting, and all for the sake of a perceived perennial thing. Does that make any sense?
STEREOGUM: I think so, yeah. I mean, kind of just the need to tend to yourself?
PORTERFIELD: Yeah, totally. And you never get to a point where you’re off the hook with that. And I think that is sort of the overarching theme of this record, that you never get out on the other side. You’re always in it.
STEREOGUM: Obviously this is something that happens when you tour a lot, but part of the way that theme is expressed on the album is the struggle to maintain personal connections. Has that been a function of the touring life for you?
PORTERFIELD: Yeah, I think so. When you’re out of a routine, everything goes out the window. When you’re on the road, it’s a total personal recalibration as opposed to coming home. And then these things, you know, it’s these waves. And in order to be alive in either of them, it changes you. And you have to sort of be a different version of yourself to survive in those completely disparate environments. And so yeah, totally, I think it’s reaching for personal connections and trying to be authentic with yourself and the people you love in these different situations.
STEREOGUM: I know you’ve got that lyric on “Home” where it says “Waking up every day just a little bit changed.” What you’re saying here makes me think about that line.
PORTERFIELD: Yeah, right. And then the second of half of that is “while it breaks over us like waves.” And it’s not to say that we achieved any particular level of fame or success. It’s not even that. It’s just a rhythm of it. It’s just a totally different rhythm.
STEREOGUM: “Home” is going to be the first single. It stood out to me in that it’s definitely recognizable as Field Report, but it’s a little bit brighter. When I think about the first record, I think about “I Am Not Waiting Anymore,” and there’s this ballad-y quality to a lot of it. That’s still present on this record, but did you choose “Home” because it very clearly represents the evolution?
PORTERFIELD: Yeah, I think so. I think that song represents that there aren’t any rules for us. You know, it doesn’t all have to be sort of sad, downtempo, whatever. At the end of the day, it’s just about the words and how we choose to frame those, and the way that that one came about — actually, we wrote that for a commercial. A good chunk of that song is written for a commercial, and the client passed on it because it was too sad, and then we were in the studio deciding which songs we wanted to record and people kept coming back to that one like, “Oh, there’s something here.” So we did it and gave it the Wilburys treatment and it was just super fun, and it just feels really good to play that and to have that on the record. And I think it’s one of those tunes that people can get right away, but I think lyrically there’s enough in there to live in it for a while. And some lines will still sneak up on you and reveal themselves later on. But you know, I don’t want to have this band be a consciously unwelcoming thing, like we can’t have fun or we can’t do something uptempo. And so yeah, I think leading off with that as a single, (a) I think it’s probably got the biggest umbrella for people to just find their own space underneath, and then that can be transferred to the whole record for them. But (b) yeah, I think there was a part of me that wanted to say, you know, not all the tunes have to be so overtly bummed out. We can have a little fun or even have a little private smile with ourselves about the fact that this is sort of like a Petty song.
STEREOGUM: That said, there’s a little bit of bummed-out material too. Specifically on “Cups And Cups” and “Ambrosia” you address drinking a lot, and I know you quit drinking sometime between albums. What spurred you to give it up?
PORTERFIELD: It was just getting in the way. It was getting in the way of everything. It was getting in the way with my relationships with friends and family and my wife. It was making me a difficult person to work with. My relationship with alcohol — I don’t classify it in any one way or whatever. I know there’s a number of ways to think about it. But at the end of the day my relationship was unhealthy. And I had to change how that was working. And I hesitate to say that I stopped drinking in October or whatever it is — I don’t want to quantify it like that — but today I’m not drinking, and my life is better for it. But yeah, some of those tunes happened right in the midst of that. And in fact I think that “Ambrosia” song came out probably just about a week before I made that choice to have a shift in my relationship with alcohol. Yeah, so that was probably the last song I wrote when I was drinking. But it’s crazy too, because we were on down time at that point really. We weren’t touring anymore. Things had wound down on the first record, and it’s wild. I remember we were at a show in — I think it was on an Aimee Mann tour; we supported Aimee Mann a couple years ago — and we were in New Mexico at this theater, and we had just played and were feeling pretty good, and somebody comes up at the end of the show and asks me, “So, are you the addict, or is it somebody close to you?” And I had never been that honest with myself as far as the breadcrumbs I was leaving in songs or even to have the awareness of what I was doing with my own life. But that always stuck with me. And you know, I continued to live like I was after that, but that was kind of a stunner. And then, yeah, some of these new songs too, I’ve been playing them solo and people will come up to me — there’s a couple telltale lines, there’s a couple sneaky little AA references. I don’t use that program. I’ve tried it, but people come up to me afterward and say, “So how long have you been?” you know. And so it’s cool to be able to provide a little solidarity with that, even though we all approach our sobriety in different ways. It’s cool that people who have gone through some of the things that I’ve gone through pick up on that instantly and get it right away.
STEREOGUM: I mean, that’s aways the hope is that whatever is resonating with you is gonna connect with somebody else through your songs, right?
PORTERFIELD: Totally. That’s the goal, man. That’s the goal. It’s to make something that you can live in for a while and it can be a meaningful thing for you, but the fact that there’s enough room for somebody else to come in — and that’s the whole point of all this is to make something that somebody else can use to take a closer look at themselves or their situation or whatever. And yeah, resonance is the perfect word for it. So that’s what it is. If you can get something buzzing a little bit, it just feels so good, and if you can help somebody else resonate, ring out their own shit, that’s the whole point. That’s the whole point.
STEREOGUM: I noticed in “Ambrosia” too you have that line about “praying in wordless groans,” which I assume is a reference to Romans, and there’s a line about whispering the Lord’s Prayer elsewhere on the album. Is biblical material a fertile inspiration ground for you?
PORTERFIELD: Yeah, I think. Well, I grew up in the church, and I left it for a while, and then I was back in it for a bit, and I’m not really in it right now. But yeah, that stuff, definitely. And to me that stuff, church stuff and biblical stuff, it’s ubiquitous in my world, and sometimes I just assume that is for everybody. And re-appropriating some of that stuff or flipping that a little bit, tailoring it to something that might be a slightly different context — yeah, that rings me out, that sort of gets me ringing. And truth be told, that has been part of this attempt at sobriety too, incorporating the spiritual in the best way that you can or any way that you understand it or that sort of makes sense. And as far as faith goes, I’m of the mind that you can’t really know anything ever, you just have to submit to the mystery of it all and try to find peace with that. But yeah, that’s kind of where some of that stuff comes from. Ultimately, I think both of those lines that you mentioned are about sort of just submission to mystery and sort of having peace with the unknowing. But still searching for truth, but knowing that you’re probably never gonna find it.
STEREOGUM: There’s a couple other lines that really stuck out to me, just in terms of the imagery that you used, like in the last song, “Enchantment,” you sing “I miss you more than tongues miss pulled teeth.” Where did that image come from?
PORTERFIELD: I don’t know! I don’t know! I don’t have any teeth pulled. It was just sort of the — I guess when you get a tooth pulled, your tongue’s always trying to make sense of it and trying to re-acclimate to the little bone cage it lives in, and there’s certainly a bar missing, and there’s a bit of a hole, and you just keep kind of probing it, probing it, probing it. It just seems like that’s just a human thing, like, “Oh yeah, I get that,” even if you don’t — I guess we’ve all lost our teeth, right, as kids? So you remember what that feels like and sort of the curiosity of it, the poking of it, the habitual returning to it. But to what end, I don’t know. It’s just you trying to make sense of your new reality and that it’s without a tooth and a hole in your head — and sort of the fleshy, bloody mess of it. And it’s just a fact of life, and everybody experiences it, but that doesn’t diminish the curiosity of it or this instinct to just keep poking at it. So I guess there’s that, yeah. That’s what that’s about. You can’t help but just keep poking at this thing. And there’s sort of a morbid curiosity, but it’s mostly just an instinct.
STEREOGUM: I really like the line about “seasons sneaking up like haircuts,” too, so I guess your simile game is on point.
PORTERFIELD: [laughs] Thank you for that.
Marigolden is out 10/7 on Partisan.