Songwriter Christopher Mansfield, better known by his stage name, Fences, remembers playing pool with Ben Haggerty (a.k.a. Macklemore) in a hometown Seattle dive bar. Mansfield also remembers taking the bus often with Josh Tillman (a.k.a. Father John Misty) and ordering a burrito from then-food vendor, Robin Pecknold (the now-lead singer of Fleet Foxes). There are other memories, too: just shooting the breeze with the members of the Head and the Heart and the Lumineers. Indeed, at the turn of the 21st century, Seattle was an especially fertile ground for future chart toppers and Mansfield was at the center of it. Of course, Fences would go on to release prominent songs, including “Arrows” in 2014, which has since garnered nearly 14-million streams on YouTube. This year, Mansfield will release two more records. The first is a re-issue of his contemplative 2019 album, Failure Sculptures, on March 5th and the second is a brand-new, bubblier EP, Wide Eyed Elk Ensemble, out later this spring.
American Songwriter is premiering a new acoustic rendition of the Fences song, “A Mission,” which will be part of the project’s upcoming reissue.
“Everybody was about to blow up,” Mansfield says. “But no one knew it yet. It wasn’t like I felt like I was so lucky, like I’d sought out this famous rapper. It was more like, ‘Oh, that’s just Ben.’ I think there is this bizarre assumption where people think that musicians are only friends with people with similar styles. But it didn’t matter to me his delivery system, I just liked what he was saying.”
Before all this, Mansfield, who had lived as a kid in Washington, left the Pacific Northwest after high school to move to Boston and attend the Berklee College of Music. Growing up in the Northwest, Mansfield lived with his mother outside of the big city. In their home, Mansfield says, she would play the emotive songs of the day, which included popular hits from artists like Madonna, Prince, Tracy Chapman and Sinead O’Connor. The songs had an affect on the artist and helped push him toward a love of music. There was power in the force of communication in the work, the young artist thought. He moved across the country to attend Berklee and reconnect with his father, who was also living in Boston at the time. At the prestigious collegiate program, Mansfield says he learned as much from a roommate as he did from the curriculum.
“My roommate showed me Bonnie Prince Billy, Jason Molina,” Mansfield says. “What you’d call underground folk or ‘freak folk.’ It all lined up with how I actually felt, being a young kid in a city, walking around, drinking, starting to go to parties, dealing with depression, thinking about girls.”
At the time, Mansfield says, he didn’t know what his future would hold; he just knew he liked music and songwriting. He wondered if he was going to be a teacher, if he’d have a career writing commercial jingles. But an important creative shift came when he began to dive into the catalogue of Elliot Smith, kicking off with Smith’s beloved third album, Either/Or.
“I heard a story where Joe Satriani quit school the day Jimi Hendrix died,” Mansfield says. “He took it as some weird omen. That’s how I felt—I was like, ‘This is serious business.’ It just affected me, Elliot’s death. I’d never found an artist that I adored so much but within a matter of less than a year, he had taken his own life. I don’t know, I felt abandoned.”
After Smith died, Mansfield says he felt the need to continue his legacy. That effort shows up today on Failure Sculptures, and especially so on the new acoustic renditions. Mansfield, who also famously worked on songs early on with Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara, says he wanted to re-release the 2019 record because he felt it didn’t get the attention it should or could have, perhaps because of the oncoming COVID-19 pandemic. The record will serve as a set up to the new EP later this year, a kind of one-two punch. The new EP, which is more highly produced than the reissue, boasts some of his most favorite songs he’s written. One of the themes that both records share is the idea of sobriety. Addiction, a continuous burden for Mansfield, remains central to his life.
“It’s a weird, constant juggling act,” he says, “that a lot of people don’t have to deal with at all.”
As an artist, Mansfield is comfortable in many lanes. He can croon with an acoustic or glide on a house beat or singe on a hip-hop track hook. His talent is malleable and it’s one of the reasons he felt so comfortable moving between Emerald City artists like Fleet Foxes and Mackelmore & Ryan Lewis in dive bars years ago. Today, he’s more reserved. Instead of staying in a big city, he’s living remotely near Big Bear, California. When it snows, the phone lines go out and the hot water is in danger of shutting off, but it’s a way of dealing with the current COVID-19 pandemic and a way of recharging creative batteries before more work is at hand. For Mansfield, music is often about connections and he’s ready to soon make more.
“Sitting down and creating something out of thin air that can emotionally move you and potentially a million people—I think that’s a bizarre super power,” Mansfield says. “Whether or not you’re responsible for it, or a conduit, either way it feels remarkable to me.”
Pre-Save Failure Scriptures here.