The Music to Mend Fences

* Originally published at bestnewbands.com, April 23, 2011 – read the full text here

Yesterday, I was able to talk on the phone with Christopher Mansfield, aka Fences. The Seattle-based singer-songwriter has put out some of my favorite records in the last two years: The Ultimate Puke EPand the Sara Quin (of Tegan & Sara)-produced Fences. Hot off the airplay of “Girls With Accents,” the rest of the world is beginning to take notice. Chris is currently on the road, and he called me from a rest stop in California before heading back out on the road for another five-hour drive.

Kristina Villarini: You worked with Sara Quin on your self-titled debut album, and she took a very dedicated approach to this with you (asking for everything Chris ever wrote). As an artist, how difficult is it to find like-minded people to create with?

Christopher Mansfield: That really depends on the artist. I think it’s easy for people to work with me, and listen to me, because I’m singing about things that people can relate to and identify with. I’m one of those over-emotional musicians in their mid-to late twenties talking about life, so I think it’s pretty easy. It’s melancholy and poppy, so I wouldn’t have to find a specific musician. Sara was a perfect fit, she heard it and she just got it.

KV: You’d said before that you were playing music for your friends, working as a cook, and that was your life. Why didn’t you see the potential in pursuing music full-time?

CM: It’s such a mysterious thing. There is no right way to do it. If you want to be a lawyer, you go to law school, but to be a successful indie-pop rocker your options are very different. You can either have a cool friend who knows someone and gets you signed to Sub Pop or you can play shows for ten years and get someone on-board. But if you’re just a guy who writes songs and have a day job, it seems impossible. The truth is, the reason why I didn’t do it, was because I didn’t have a f*cking clue. It can be fear or indecision, and a reflection of a bunch of things, but once you’re the other end, you see that it’s not as complex as you think. Now I’m here, and I see how systematic it is. You put something into creating a good record, you play CMJ, you get a booking agent, etc.

KV: You have a noted love for jazz. How has that helped in creating your own music?

CM: I wouldn’t say that you can hear jazz in the music… But, when making a song, I know what scale to choose, how a melody hooks you, and I know how to make things sound the way they should. Musically, I think it makes things even more interesting. A lot of it is muscle memory. If you listen to a lot of it, I feel like it makes your brain better. When I am playing music, I can hear a melody in my head, and I think that comes from listening to quality music. That’s the most important thing that you can do as an artist: listen.

KV: What genres of music interest you and who are the artists, new or old, that continue to interest you?

CM: It’s hard to put into words, but I think everyone feels it. That weird dramatic rush, when you get the chills on your arms. I’ve been listening to Fever Ray (Swedish electronica artist Karin Dreijer Andersson). There’s a guy named Villagers from Ireland, and you know, some guys are just so good. But anything that’s sad, rich and dramatic. I’m fascinated by the artists when I can put myself in their shoes and see how much work they’ve put in. They create art.

KV: One of the things I enjoy very much about your music, is that there seems–in a very real way–to be a resolution. Even if it’s incredibly difficult to swallow, like in “My Girl the Horse.” [“Neither one of us will make it down this hill alive.”]

CM: When I’m writing, I guess I intentionally do stuff like that. It’s a privilege to think that maybe I’ll say this and it’ll resonate. That’s definitely a new experience and it changes things. I like the song to be metaphorically “wrapped up” and for there to be a statement, whether it’s a good one or a bad one. It’s really nice to create something simple that people get.

KV: You were writing and creating music for many years before Fences. What part of yourself did you have to tap into to create this version of your craft?

CM: I was thinking about that while we were driving today! I tend to dwell on things, and I wondered, “oh no, am I trapped in this moniker of lyrical delivery forever?” It seems fairly narrow to me. I could just stop and be the happiest guy ever, or play jazz again, or buy a house and quit music all together. So I always wonder if there’s always going to be some kind of release. Am I going to continue writing these songs and be stuck in this place, and maybe one day lose validity? But, maybe it will continue to mean a lot to someone else still. I do think about it though. I’m 27, so I ask myself all the time: am I going to write these simple love songs forever?

KV: How has creating music full-time changed the way that you listen to music? Do you think there is a sense of community in music?

CM: It changes it quite a bit. It’s weird to go to shows sometimes; you feel like you know what the guy is thinking up there. You’re wondering if the promoter is a dick and how long they’ve been on tour. Sara was actually talking to me about that, about being able to identify certain musical tones that should have a bit of mystery to you. That’s why I listen to music that I don’t make.

When I was staying with Sara, she was listening to dancy pop music, and that’s awesome. You want to listen to things you’re not connected to. As far as community goes, it’s not like a bunch of poets in a room… Once you’re in it, you start to see some dark sides of the community; two bands are up for the same gig or two promoters can’t stand each other. That’s the bad part.

KV: When you create something so personal, and you release it into the world… It can be incredibly daunting to receive criticism on it. How have you dealt with the feedback, positive and negative?

CM: It’s something you get better at. At first, I took everything to heart. I’d read something and I’d be crushed for days. The singer from STARS, Torquil Campbell, said “music is the only art-form that you can put in too much paprika and still say f*ck you.” Sometimes you have to remind yourself of that. This is just what I naturally do. I don’t go to play sports, so this is my reality and if they like it, that’s fine, and if I don’t, that’s fine.

KV: What artists would you like to collaborate with on your next release?

CM: I like collaboration on two levels: I just get to go in, be creative and not have to deal with the logistics. On a production level, I would always want to collaborate on making records, because having the opinion of someone who you really trust is vital. It’s just really strong for the sound. It doesn’t mean it has to be like someone on the level of Sara (Quin), but having someone who’s going to tell you the truth is important.

KV: What kind of effect does a powerful pop song have on you?

CM: It’s usually really inspiring to me, and it just makes me want to go do it. When my friends and I were young, we watched skateboarding videos and we’d want to go skate. That’s why you start playing music. You hear other people playing music.

KV: How important are lyrics to you, and what are the “right conditions” to create a song?

CM: The conditions are out of your control, because inspiration comes randomly. I have early recordings where my dog is barking or my phone is ringing in the background, and that’s okay, because that’s just when it happened. You record them fresh and you go back and structure your ideas, but I like the chaotic nature of it. No matter what, you have to see it through to the end, or else.

KV: What kind of opportunities does being a musician provide you that you haven’t had before?

CM: I think that I noticed that the connection with people is really bizarre now. You could be a guy with so much to say who works at the bakery, but no one really wants to hear what you’re saying because you’re the baker. In this situation, sometimes there are people that you don’t know, but they think that they know you because they know the record you made. It’s humanizing. It’s bizarre that they feel a closeness to you because of your record, but you feel the same! It’s because of them that you’re able to do this, so you’re connected to them too. If there is no audience, there is no show.

KV: What kind of evolution you looking forward to making for your next release?

CM: I’m always going to apply the simplistic approach with Fences. I can see myself experimenting within the confines of the pop form, but with different sounds and instruments. Just trying to expand the foundation, without creating a whole new work.

KV: When can fans expect from you in 2011?

CM: We’re going to be doing a lot of touring, including a month on the road with Against Me!, then we’re doing SXSW and Lollapalooza. 2011 is going to be a year to see this record through and share it with more people. As far as a new album, Fences has just begun, in my mind. We experiment a lot in our interpretation of the live record, and we improvise a ton with ending outro’s and intro’s. As long as we’re doing that, it will always feels spontaneous for me and that’s what you want. You want it to feel as little like autopilot as possible.