Let me take you back to a sparkling summer afternoon. Fresh air, flora bursting forth, rhythms rising in the distance and the scent of sustenance sizzling nearby intoxicate the senses.
It is June 2017. I am wandering around the Eaux Claires Arts & Music Festival in northwestern Wisconsin. Under a shady tree I spot Christopher Porterfield splayed out on a hammock, exuding tranquility. His arms are folded behind his head, scruffy hair poking out of a baseball cap, sunglasses hiding a pair of friendly, inquisitive eyes.
The color palette surrounding us extends from the trees to his chest, as Porterfield dons a bright green basketball jersey with “MILWAUKEE” sewed on the front — the adopted home of this small-town Minnesota boy.
One year prior, Porterfield was far from relaxed. He and his wife were expecting their first child, his band — Field Report — was trying to finish its third studio album, and he wasn’t sure what label would put it out.
But when I find Porterfield on the hammock he is completely at ease. He has a healthy baby girl and a deal with Verve Records, once home to luminaries like Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.
Eaux Claires is the handiwork of hometown hero Justin Vernon — the Grammy-winning musician behind Bon Iver. Back in their college days at UW-Eau Claire, Porterfield was Vernon’s bandmate in DeYarmond Edison. Since the festival began in 2015, it has become a de facto reunion for members of Vernon’s circle.
Porterfield sits up in the hammock and tells me about Eau Claire in the early 2000s. The town hardly resembled the booming economic and cultural outpost it has become in recent years. Like Eau Claire, Porterfield owes a portion of his progress to Vernon’s guidance and Bon Iver’s notoriety.
When Eaux Claires set sail, Field Report was one of the first bands to play the first day of the inaugural festival. Recently, Field Report opened for a very special Bon Iver performance at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, home of Porterfield’s beloved Milwaukee Bucks basketball team.
Since moving to Milwaukee in 2006, Porterfield has etched out a prominent position in the local music industry, yet he remains remarkably humble. He is willing to lend a hand to hungry young artists and help out with a worthy cause. He has assembled an all-star band and is on the verge of releasing his best music to date.
The new Field Report record — Summertime Songs — comes out March 23 on Verve Forecast Records. At 41 minutes, listening to the record is a lot like watching an episode of NBC’s hit drama This Is Us — both tackle heartache, healing and family, unfolding in a way that dares you not to get choked up.
[Listen to writer Joey Grihalva's full conversation with Porterfield below.]
[Photo by Lesley Keller]
Shooting off flare guns
“I grew up with a lot of James Taylor, light ‘70s stuff, and I think that probably stuck its claws in me,” Porterfield tells me over coffee in his studio on a sun-drenched morning earlier this winter.
Porterfield was raised in Rochester, Minnesota, a small town about an hour west of La Crosse. His father briefly tried his hand at farming before taking a job with IBM. His mother owned her own graphic design business. With one younger brother, Porterfield didn’t have the luxury of an older relative exposing him to the hip new sounds.
“There was only one record shop in Rochester and it was hit or miss. Clerks turned me on to Yo La Tengo and I bought some Wilco records there, but I started from that ‘70s singer-songwriter zone and kind of worked my way around it, so I’ve always had this sort of [Baby] Boomer taste.”
As a teenager, one of Porterfield’s friends had an uncle who owned a music shop in Hollywood and occasionally did guitar work for Bob Dylan. As a result, they got to spend a few summers following Dylan around the Midwest. Some of Porterfield’s other heroes include Neil Young, Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell. Naturally, he was drawn to the guitar, but didn’t pick one up until he was 16.
“It took just sitting down in somebody’s living room, them showing me a chord and giving me tacit permission to just do that for a long time, because I didn’t have one in the house. Just strum an E Minor chord for an hour. That started to unlock things.
“We went on a family vacation to Colorado not long after that and I brought one book along. It was Arlen Roth’s Beginning Acoustic Guitar. So before I had a guitar I was studying a book on it. By Christmas I had enough money to get one and then it was just kind of non-stop in the bedroom.”
Soon after, Porterfield joined a high school band. His bandmates went away to college at UW-Stout after graduation. Porterfield didn’t see anything worth pursuing at Stout, so he spent the year waiting tables, hanging out, reading books and playing guitar.
Once an aspiring political cartoonist, Porterfield eventually studied English and journalism at UW-Eau Claire. Inspired by larger-than-life writers like Jim Harrison, Porterfield held a romantic ideal of life as a journalist. He didn’t put much work into the craft during college, focusing most of his energy on music.
When the members of DeYarmond Edison decided to move to North Carolina, Porterfield couldn’t bring himself to pack up and go. He had some school left and was planning on getting engaged. He sold most of his gear, figuring he would grow up, settle down and give it up.
“I wasn’t convinced I had much to offer the world as a musician. I was always sort of an impassioned dabbler. It was just a lot of fun and a camaraderie thing.”
A keen-eyed observer
Porterfield was a grimey kid the first time he visited Milwaukee. He and some friends were going to see Neil Young at Summerfest. No one in his group was familiar with the city. They ended up at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, sticking out like sore thumbs amid a suit and tie crowd, before learning the location of the Marcus Amphitheater.
Years later, when Porterfield settled in Milwaukee — his wife is originally from the area and moved back after college for a job — he faced a similarly daunting scenario. His car broke down and he became reliant on the bus system. As it turns out, he was able to learn the city better that way.
Linneman’s Riverwest Inn provided Porterfield his first small club experience in Milwaukee. One of his favorite pedal steel guitar players — Eric Heywood — was playing with Jeffrey Foucault. It was a Thursday night and the crowd was sparse, but the band delivered.
“So my first conception of Milwaukee is, ‘Oh wow. This is a place where high-level, talented people do work, and there’s so much stuff going on that people don’t even freak out about it. Like this world-class, hero player of mine is just supporting this dude in an empty bar. This is amazing!’”
Porterfield found a sanctuary at Linneman’s. He was impressed by the care that owners Jim Linneman and Marty Hacker put into the place. Porterfield also appreciated that Linneman treated each artist that walked through the door with dignity. He began attending their open mic just about every week.
“A song started happening out of that void of camaraderie that I used to have. I was coming to terms with a new place, a new life, and the absence of old support systems.
“Those early songs were lousy and I was no good, but being able to do that at Linneman’s, starting to plug into a new community of people to get energy from and provide energy to and build relationships with, that was fundamental.”
During those early years, Porterfield performed under the moniker Conrad Plymouth, a holdover from the DeYarmond Edison days. One night at a bar in Eau Claire the band gave themselves “countrified ‘70s names.” Vernon’s was Jesse Valentine and Porterfield got Conrad Plymouth.
The mid 2000s was a turbulent time for the news industry. Most media outlets were downsizing. With scant bylines, Porterfield had little chance of joining a newsroom, settling instead for a humdrum office job.
Despite not working as a professional journalist, Porterfield employs those skills in his songwriting. Field Report may be an anagram of his surname, but it also speaks to his innate ability to observe and digest emotion and information.
Porterfield uploaded his first EP (as Conrad Plymouth) to Bandcamp in 2010. It made the rounds online and eventually got the attention of a rep at Partisan Records, an indie label out of Brooklyn, New York.
Fittingly, the first Field Report album was recorded at Justin Vernon’s April Base Studio outside of Eau Claire. A copy of the record ended up in the hands of Counting Crows singer Adam Duritz, who allegedly missed a flight so he could finish listening to it on a drive to the airport.
With his first studio album under his belt, Porterfield found himself on the road with one of his idols. During this time Field Report opened for the Counting Crows, Emmylou Harris and Aimee Mann. The project was picking up steam, but the rock and roll lifestyle was wearing down on Porterfield. He was getting drunk every night.
“I used to think being drunk was this romantic sort of suffering artist thing and how I would tap into something deeper than the mundane. Turns out, maybe that was true, but it’s like the same vein all the time.”
Paraffin and gasoline
“Looking for the win-win, in all this wishful drinking,” Porterfield sings in the opening to “Ambrosia,” a track off Field Report’s celebrated second album, Marigolden.
A couple weeks after writing “Ambrosia,” it dawned on Porterfield that the song was his subconscious waving a red flag. He was spending too much of his time and energy being drunk and hungover. In order to maintain the other relationships in his life, Porterfield decided to end his with alcohol. By the time Marigolden was released in 2014, he was adjusting to a different headspace.
“You don’t realize how much of your environment is just this boozy terrarium you create until you get out of it for a while. It’s done a number for my confidence and my focus. Also, I think it’s made me more empathetic. You’re less likely to just sort of stare down and inward when you’re not hungover all the time.
“I try not to preach on it, but I also want people to know that it’s not necessary to life, specifically life in Milwaukee. It’s a crutch and I think it honestly keeps a lid on a lot of creativity in this city."
Porterfield’s sobriety and a new band lineup — including Volcano Choir member Thomas Wincek — helped make the Marigolden album cycle a success. Prior to the band’s release show at the Pabst Theater, Mayor Tom Barrett surprised Porterfield and company at the studios of 88Nine Radio Milwaukee to proclaim October 22, 2014, Field Report Day.
In early 2015, incensed by the defunding of arts education, Milwaukee musician Josh Evert launched a benefit festival — Arte Para Todos — to address this mounting crisis. Porterfield was pleased to help out, headlining a show at Linneman’s.
“When I grew up there was art in schools and my life was deeply enriched and probably forever altered because of it. For there to not be a priority to fund that is a tragedy and an emergency.
The next year, Porterfield and bandmate Barry Paul Clark did an in-school performance and talk-back with students at Escuela Vieau School.
“The style that I work in is probably not the first thing these kids are gonna be drawn to, but art is all about meeting each other halfway. You have to be open and have enough inviting energy for somebody else to not feel intimidated to meet you halfway.”
Porterfield and Clark regaled the attentive audience of middle schoolers with stories from the road, displayed the different effects their pedals make, and Porterfield explained how one of his biggest singles — “Home (Leave the Lights On)” — was originally written for a commercial.
“In a way, making art is kind of like when you’re in the woods by yourself and you drop breadcrumbs to show where you were at that point,” Porterfield told the students.
Recently, Porterfield made a similar appearance at Freespace, a monthly showcase and interview series ran by local rapper WebsterX and English teacher Vincent Gaa. When asked about working with local radio stations, Porterfield praised the efforts of 88Nine Radio Milwaukee and 91.7 WMSE for breaking down genre barriers and fostering a healthy music scene.
“Let’s say you have a six-pack of beer and you take the cardboard divider out. Everything is still in place and works, it’s just that thing that separates us is gone. Music is music is music. You don’t have to like everything, but you don’t have to not like something because it’s different than what you’re used to.”
In response to a question about Milwaukee’s creative growth since he moved to town, Porterfield said that he can feel a lot more energy today.
“There’s more people doing good work and working with other people who are doing good work. That has a multiplying effect. You can kind of feel things cascading. Somebody makes a great song and the waves start to lift the artists behind them. Then it starts to push over and pretty soon stuff is cresting out over the walls of Milwaukee, into the rest of the world.”
As an artist who has made waves outside of Wisconsin, Porterfield feels a certain obligation to uplift his adopted home. He tries to be available to musicians that share his restlessness and hunger to improve.
“I’m not a famous person. But there are a small group of folks interested in what I have to say and I try to be responsible with that. Because people have helped me. People believed in me when I wasn’t any good and that goes a long way.”
Porterfield has also learned that, in regards to society at large, a rising tide doesn’t necessarily lift all boats. Some are anchored by the weight of history.
In the midst of the U.S. national anthem protests led by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Porterfield was asked to sing the anthem on opening night of the Milwaukee Bucks 2016/2017 season. Aware of the fact that the NBA strictly forbids acts of protest, Porterfield was compelled to express solidarity with those kneeling in opposition to police brutality and racial inequality.
Before taking action, Porterfield discussed the issue with current Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor candidate Mandela Barnes and Black history professor Simon Balto of Ball State University. Then he connected with local designer Terrell Harris, who made the “Milwaukee State of Mind” in African colors sweatshirt Porterfield wore while singing the anthem. Most notably, he placed stickers on his guitar that read “BLACK LIVES MATTER.”
“I think I’ve always been a better listener than conversation leader,” Porterfield says of the experience.
He did not inform the Bucks organization ahead of time, but the anthem went off without a hitch and garnered heartfelt appreciation from star player Jabari Parker.
“The time was right to get it through my white skull, heart and mind. The movement made me realize that I’ve been walking through this life with a degree of insurance. It seemed irresponsible and maybe even negligent to not use that small, unique position to amplify the message.”
When he was approached by Alverno Presents director David Ravel about doing a show, Porterfield once again enlisted outside opinions. A friend introduced him to Charles K. Harris, a Milwaukee composer who sold millions of copies of sheet music in the early 1900s and wrote a book called How to Write a Popular Song, which Porterfield used as the basis for his production.
“My favorite part about that show was just getting all these people on stage together, to not necessarily celebrate anything other than making music with each other. We all read the book, then almost reacted against it."
Around the same time that Marigolden was released in 2014, Porterfield took part in the ensemble production “Unlooped vs. Marvin Gaye.” Curated by Tarik Moody of 88Nine Radio Milwaukee, Porterfield was paired up with drummer Devin Drobka and bassist Barry Paul Clark.
Both Drobka and Clark are Wauwatosa natives. Drobka is a drummer for hire who gigs all over the world. He joined Field Report last summer. Clark also performs with Tontine Ensemble, Lady Cannon and is behind the experimental electronic project adoptahighway.
The trio kept in touch after the “Unlooped” performance and formed Argopelter — a project rooted in improvisation that performs almost exclusively at a small bar in the Bay View neighborhood.
“Argopelter has been a revelation akin to the first time I got to hold an acoustic guitar and strum an E Minor chord for an hour. It’s expanded my ears as far as listening to other musicians and given me confidence as an improviser.
“It’s really impacted the way that Field Report performs live. With the new record we now have this foundational document we can go back and refer to, but it’s allowed for expository, extemporaneous moments that you can only get to through logging a lot of hours of trust building.”
Unlike the first two Field Report albums, Porterfield let the music drive his lyrics on Summertime Songs. Recorded at Wire & Vice in Milwaukee, Porterfield describes the record as a more outward looking endeavor, with a “slightly firmer footing in the outside.” Many of the songs aren’t written from his point-of-view, like the heart-wrenching “Every Time.”
“That was from the perspective of two people that fell away. I spent a bunch of time in what I imagine was that headspace, then tried to piece it together based on some little details.
“It’s like when you go into a dark room and then slowly your eyes adjust. You can make out a few things, but you never really see the whole picture. That way it leaves room for somebody else to find it and live in it for a moment.”
Another standout track from the new album is the titular “Summertime.” The song reckons with sobriety and the anxiety Porterfield felt about the last election and becoming a parent.
For recent performances of “Summertime,” Porterfield has invited Milwaukee music veteran Mark Waldoch to accompany him on vocals. They closed their Bradley Center set with this marvelous rendition, which brought thousands to their feet in applause.
“As an artist, I think it’s our job to be conducting material for energy. Everybody is just trying to make different tools or apporadi to bottle that lightning, or at least put yourself in a position where you might get hit by lightning.”
Field Report will hit the road following the release of Summertime Songs, starting March 27 at Schubas in Chicago.
“I hope we can continue to find our audience and build a relationship with them, build trust with them, so they will want to keep coming back."
The Summertime Songs tour will take Field Report from coast-to-coast, with a few Canadian and festival dates in between. Porterfield has some anxiety about being on the road while his daughter is at home, so he made sure the schedule doesn't have them out for more than a few weeks at a time.
“I think the secret to our story, and to anyone’s story, is just to not stop. I have not arrived anywhere. It’s just that work opens doors for more work. ‘Making it’ isn’t an endpoint, it’s an active thing. You have to continue to make it everyday. You have to lay those tracks so that this thing can not [necessarily] ride smoothly or forever, but at least move forward today.”
Field Report will play two hometown shows at the Colectivo Back Room on April 20 and 22.