Chris Porterfield talks fatherhood, sobriety, relationships and teeth
“She said, ‘Why don't you try summertime songs? Gold and warm, soft like the setting sun,'” sings Chris Porterfield on “Summertime,” the near-title track from Field Report's new record, Summertime Songs.
Porterfield, the Milwaukee band's singer-guitarist, is known less for writing feel-good anthems fit for a day at the beach and more for penning poetic, intricately woven folk-rock tunes delivered in quavery tones. And so, on “Summertime,” Porterfield responds to the question by singing, “I don't know,” then describes sleepless nights dreaming about his forthcoming child.
“It's being in a conversation where you have to be defensive about your art or your worldview,” Porterfield said recently by phone, “coupled with the fact that I became a dad on this record, so being nervous about all that, and wondering how that could possibly work with just me as a selfish human being.”
Later in the song, Porterfield's worries manifest in a troubling vision. “In the neighbors' window across the street/You can see the TV through the fitted red sheet/And the other night I heard them screaming,” he sings over a driving beat with Edge-y guitars and synth-pop hooks.
“The neighbors are screaming at each other, and I'm thinking, ‘Is that the domestic thing that we're headed for?'” Porterfield said. “But then also, I'm trying to find peace with it by being stupid about it. Like, ‘Oh, you want summertime? OK, here's a poor-man's U2/Springsteen/LCD Soundsystem. You want upbeat and fun? Here's some arena rock.' But then it turns out that feels really great. There's a bunch of contradictions and questions on questions in that song.”
Field Report's 2015 album, Marigolden, touched on Porterfield's relationship to alcohol, and Summertime Songs is the first record Porterfield wrote while sober, which gave him a broader, outward-focused perspective. “When I was drinking, everything became about my own self and environment, not really being aware of other people's worlds so much. It becomes a very self-centered thing,” he said. “From a narration standpoint, I'm more able to climb into other people's headspaces and situations rather than just my own.”
While making the album, some of Porterfield's close friends and family members were going through various stages of breakups or divorce, and the messiness of those relationships made its way into songs like “Tightrope,” which is written from the point of view of a woman who's been waiting around for a guy to figure things out. (Spoiler alert: He doesn't.) “There's a couple ways this works and a thousand ways it can't/You know I know all about that bag you got packed,” Porterfield sings.
“It's definitely a relationship record, and it's not a young love record,” Porterfield said. “And the record was made in the 2016 election campaign season, too. So there's a lot of these micro-level breakups happening, but then a lot of that stuff was feeling pretty similar to how we were feeling as a country, too — questioning old relationships and alliances. … It's a huge tension, and that was all playing into the narrative on this record. It's one-to-one relationships, but it's America, too. Like, are we breaking up? Is this it?”
Ever since Porterfield, a onetime bandmate of Bon Iver's Justin Vernon in DeYarmond Edison, cast off his Conrad Plymouth moniker on Field Report's self-titled 2012 debut, the songwriter has consistently referenced a certain physical detail in his lyrics: teeth.
“I definitely have a weird romantic relationship between teeth and what they are,” Porterfield said. “Teeth are crazy! They're a part of your skeleton that's exposed! It's your bones! You show people your skeleton, and you use your skeleton to stay alive, to eat and chew.”
On Summertime Songs track “Every time,” Porterfield gets uncomfortably intimate with teeth in a way that may even require its own trigger warning. “Last night I had a dream there was tartar on your teeth/And you had me gently, with a knife, loosening it free/And then spread it all around like sunscreen at the beach,” he sings.
“It's super nasty, and it's amazing to see people deep in that song, in a show, but they don't know it's coming. We were in Chicago last night, and I saw three women in front of the stage make these gross faces. It was amazing,” he said, laughing. “People are like, ‘Oh, my god! What are you talking about?' But that's speaking to the intimacy those two people shared. You have to both be in that together to be in that situation. It's just your thing you do for some reason.”