Christopher Mansfield is Fences. Don’t let the brevity of that sentence deceive you; it contains universes.
Fences is not merely the recording alias of the Seattle songwriter. It is the distillation of Mansfield’s entire aesthetic. “I’ve tried to take everything in the world that I love, and turn it into this thing that’s Fences,” says the straightforward 27-year-old. Fences starts with Mansfield’s life experience to date, and ends… well, when he says so. Hopefully not for a long time. Because right now, Fences is just coming into its own, with the release of a stunning debut album, entitled, naturally, Fences.
Fences is the culmination of Mansfield’s songwriting to date, stretching back to the project’s inception in the Boston area circa 2004, and continuing right up to songs written shortly before recording. “Hands,” carried by hypnotic finger picking and a gauzy vocal performance, is among the oldest selections in Mansfield’s catalog, while “From Russia With…” and “Sadie”—a standout that stakes out the treacherous terrain between emo and Americana with quiet confidence—are newly minted. Longtime fans will find polished renditions of concert favorites “The Same Tattoos” and the musical dialogue “My Girl The Horse,” the latter’s haunting refrain “neither one of us will make it down this hill alive” lingering long after the fade. Mansfield jokes that he traffics in “wussy pop music,” and his full-band live performances are more upbeat than novices might anticipate, but as Fences attests, beneath his sing-along hooks and charismatic performances are songs with a steel core.
The ten-song set was co-produced by Sara Quin of Tegan & Sara, who Mansfield credits not only with helping him sculpt the most fully realized expression of his music to date, but also giving him impetus to forge ahead before they’d ever collaborated artistically. “I was just working as a breakfast cook, spending my money at the bar, and playing songs with my friends in my kitchen. It was no big deal. And then when she contacted me, I remember thinking, Whoa! My life might be a little different from now on.” Not to exaggerate the impact of her interest—this isn’t The Blind Side, folks—but encouragement from an established recording artist went a long way towards making Mansfield take his music more seriously.
“Everything that Chris writes, melodically and lyrically, has that rare balance of patience and urgency that I love in honest, haunting pop songs,” says Quin. And she did her homework before arriving at that laudatory conclusion. Prior to recording Fences, Quin requested that Mansfield send her everything he’d written to date. From those forty selections, they winnowed the choices down. “Both of us wanted to capture the most potent Fences, the thing that sums it up as a whole, song-wise—especially since this was a debut.”
Fences summarizes Mansfield’s music in succinct, compelling fashion—no simple feat, considering that his sound doesn’t fit neatly in any single box. He speaks with audible affection of ’80s innovators like the Cure, Kate Bush, and Morrissey, icons who created a consummate, all-encompassing aesthetic, just as he aspires to do with Fences. A close listen to the rhythm tracks on several cuts also underscores Mansfield’s love of down-tempo classic country. An anthology of Johnny Cash’s Sun Records sides was one of his constant soundtracks while working as a dishwasher. “The tempo of that material just has a unrelenting drive,” he reflects. “It carries the lyrics from start to finish before you even realize what has been said.”
Further enriching his sound, Mansfield also has a powerful affinity for jazz, citing John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Wayne Shorter among his favorites. “Sometimes that music is just so chaotic, which is what growing up feels like,” he observes. “I always wondered why more confused teenagers didn’t listen to jazz. The girl you’re in love with doesn’t love you back? Go home and put on Charlie Parker playing ‘Embraceable You.’” Later he studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Sometimes Mansfield’s jazz background is reflected in something as simple as augmenting a minor chord with a major seventh, but Berklee also sold him on the value of commitment and discipline. Hence Mansfield’s laser-like focus on achieving his goals. “I appreciate the workmanship, the dedication required to get the art to where it should be.”
Like the aforementioned Morrissey, Mansfield’s involvement in Fences extends well beyond the music, to the accompanying record sleeves, promotional photos, and videos. The cover of his self-released 2008 Ultimate Puke EP may have seemed better suited to a sludge or speed metal band, with it’s well-executed cartoon of a grizzly bear regurgitating a half-digested Fences logo, but Mansfield commissioned that imagery for specific reasons: “That EP was a mix of all these demos and shit on my computer,” literally purged from his hard drive. Plus he wanted a sleeve that eschewed the obvious visual vocabulary a comparable artist might’ve chosen. “You wouldn’t expect that kind of art to accompany this sort of music, you’d expect maybe a cute little bird on the cover.”
On the other hand, for the more thoughtful Fences, he chose a personal talisman, a found photograph (of a young girl covered in Christmas tinsel) he’d long used as a bookmark. “I wanted this album to look slightly mature and beautiful, but you still can’t categorize exactly what that might be. If you just saw that art, you wouldn’t really know what the music sounds like.” But you would definitely be intrigued, and your curiosity would be rewarded. Or watch the video for “Girls With Accents.” Despite a lyric that has been misconstrued out of context, Mansfield navigates a confusing landscape—labyrinthine houseplants, kitchen chairs stacked to the rafters, and the layered look taken to ridiculous extremes—while feeding his dog, putting away the dishes. In the clip’s maelstrom of seeming insanity, he stays centered… just as his music feels rooted on terra firma no matter how unpleasant or odd the circumstances that inspired it, or how noisy the buzz surrounding it continues to grow.
Chris Mansfield is Fences. And Fences is just the first taste of great things to come.