In the Northern Midwest, it seems like you can’t throw a weathered acoustic guitar without hitting at least one person who’s somehow associated with Justin Vernon. Such is the case with Chris Porterfield, who played with Vernon and members of Megafaun in DeYarmond Edison, the band known as the precursor to Vernon’s Bon Iver. Porterfield joined DeYarmond Edison in Eau Claire back in 2003, but he quit the band when the rest of the players decided to move to Raleigh, NC, for a change of scene. Instead, he moved to Milwaukee, WI, assuming his “musical life was finished.” But this year, he’s proving himself wrong as he prepares for the release of his debut LP as Field Report, coming out September 11 on Partisan.
The singer-songwriter has worked in Marquette University’s office of Student Affairs in Milwaukee for the last five years, but as school lets out this summer, Porterfield will head off on tour with the “pants-shittingly cool” Emmylou Harris. We recently talked with Porterfield as he readied himself for his last day at school and his first day as a touring musician. “I’m quitting my job in a few weeks, and I’m terrified, but here we go,” he said. “Buckle up!”
You went to college at the University Of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Is that how you met the other members of DeYarmond Edison?
I was playing in a different band at the time, and then those guys had already been together playing music for several years. And then I joined them and played pedal steel guitar for a few years. Eau Claire was sort of…the scene was really close-knit, and there ended up being a lot of collaborating and sharing of players and different projects and stuff, and that’s how I got to know the guys in DeYarmond Edison.
Who did the bulk of the songwriting in the band? Did you get a hand in that?
It was mostly just sort of a flushing out of the ideas. Justin Vernon was the primary songwriter in that band. Occasionally we worked on lyrics together, but primarily he would bring song ideas to the table, and then everybody else would flush them out.
Why did you decide not to go with the band when it relocated to North Carolina?
I was just about ready to graduate, and I was dating a girl that I eventually married, and actually she was a Milwaukee girl, and that’s how I ended up here. So I had stuff going on that I wasn’t ready to uproot, and they were looking for a change of scenery. So they ended up down there, and I ended up over here.
It must’ve been tough making that call to watch your band leave.
The actual decision of it wasn’t difficult. Like I never really considered for a second going down there. Bands, especially at that age like in college, band relationships really are like dating a bunch of people at the same time. So there’s a lot of emotions and all that stuff tied up, and there was definitely some weird feelings for a while as that particular chapter sort of got wrapped up.
When did you leave Eau Claire?
I finally limped out of that town in 2006.
I can tell you really miss it.
[Laughs] I love it, and I love getting back a few times a year, but that particular place is easy to get stuck in. So I knew it was time to get out of there.
What’s the music scene like in Milwaukee compared to what you left?
It’s a little bit different in that it’s not as immediately close-knit. And I think that might be a function of age too. In Eau Claire, a lot of the people we were around were younger college-age people, and the scene in Milwaukee seems like it’s a little bit older. It’s not quite the same hanging out with your best friends every night and staying up late making music into the wee hours. It’s a little bit more deliberate here.
How did you meet the other members of Field Report?
Pretty much everybody that is in Field Report has their own project, and I met them just through shows and stuff and just trying out to see if they were into what I was up to.
Now in this band, unlike DeYarmond Edison, I’m assuming you are the primary songwriter.
I generally bring sort of finished songs to the table, and then from there we break them apart, try to figure out what they need. And that’s one of my favorite things about this project is that all the guys that I’m playing with are interested in that sort of deconstructive process. Nothing is ever finished. There’s never a definitive version. On any given night, something can be pretty different than how we’ve played it before, and I guess a big part of what makes me pretty happy with this project is that willingness to go down that road. And also it’s cool too because everybody in this band except for me is playing instruments other than their primary instrument. So sort of getting everybody off of their A game and making them struggle with their instruments as well as the songs I think is really interesting to me and helps keep the sound evolving.
How did you end up recording at Vernon’s April Base studio in Wisconsin?
Well, we wanted to go someplace that had a good live room. And I had run into Justin when he was in Milwaukee with Bon Iver in the fall and was talking to him, and he had said that he heard through the grapevine that I kinda finally found the right people to play with. He invited us to use his space if we were interested, so we took him up on that. He wasn’t around. He was on tour. We were just using his space. We brought in an engineer named Beau Sorenson—he’s engineered the last several Death Cab records. He did an incredible job of capturing things live, and that was really important to me to do as much live as we could. So we pretty much tracked at least 15 songs in six days. We really wanted to try and capture an honest performance over anything else. Just the sound of us sort of in a room. And I think we did that to pretty good effect. There’s a lot of space in the record, and that was definitely intentional.
Did you ever think that after all the time that’s passed between DeYarmond Edison and now that you’d be putting out your own music?
No, I thought that once I had left Eau Claire and once I had left DeYarmond Edison, I assumed that my musical life was finished. I was ready to get married and start a career, and I started working at the university, and I was pretty well convinced that I was gonna be a grownup. But then I just started writing on my own without any intention of ever playing it for anybody. But then I started missing the performative aspects of it and started going to open mics and meeting other people and using that to birth songs and kill songs, and then I finally started getting a little better at it. It just felt good. And I would set up all kinds of arbitrary deadlines for myself like, “OK, by 27 this needs to be out of my system. I need to be in graduate school.” Then, “OK, not this year but next year. By 28 I’m done, I’m out.” And then, “30, by God, absolutely no reason to keep dicking around with this.” But you know, I just couldn’t stop. I guess technically I was able to slide this recording process in under the banner of 30. But now I’m 31 and still going.