Christopher Mansfield, professionally known as Fences, has had one hell of an interesting journey. The Seattle singer-songwriter released his new album, Failure Sculptures, on June 21, 2019, and it’s the culmination of his unique life. Atlas spoke with Mansfield at length about the new music, the concept of celebrity and the future of Fences. (Interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Atlas Artist Group: Can you tell us your origin story as a musician?
Fences: I played guitar at a really young age, I think mostly because of like Kurt Cobain and all that stuff because I was in Washington when I was young. I grew up in such a tiny town and there was like two kids that played guitar and I would go to their house and just watch them play guitar. We all would go and just sit and stare at them. They weren’t even good, it was just like, “wow he has a guitar”. I just thought it was like magic from the second that I saw it. The guitar is like an iconic…almost like a weapon- against my parents and school and whatever. I found it really alluring so I started playing but I played bass instead because someone gave me a bass.
I got into prog rock and I ended up moving to Boston to meet my father. I was very young, probably 14 or 15 and I started getting into jazz fusion. Then I went to Berkeley and I was just a jazz nerd. My roommate showed me Elliott Smith- he played it on vinyl. I think that was the first time I drank too, so I drank a 40 with him and he put on Elliott Smith. Literally the next day, I sold my bass and bought an acoustic guitar and I dropped out of school.
I started playing basement shows around Boston. I started trying to write these little songs and they were terrible but people liked it. And we’d just open up for whatever band that was playing and I’d just play like two songs because I only had two to four songs maximum. I’d get up there and play and everybody was really quiet. It wasn’t even called Fences, it was just like, I was going to play.
I moved to New York, worked at CBGB, met a girl. We were together for like a decade and she had a laptop. We moved to Seattle where I recorded “My Girl the Horse” on the laptop, “Some Tattoos” [and] “Boys Around Here”. I recorded a lot of stuff that was on the first full-length on GarageBand. Eventually I had a name for the “band” which was just me on fuckin’ MySpace right?
I had it up there and I was a dishwasher and then Sara from Tegan and Sara hit me up on MySpace and she was like, “I listen to this page almost every day, you’re like one of my favorite songwriters and I want to make a record with you”. I thought it was a prank.
Then I went up to Victoria and made the self-titled and I became me.
Atlas: Was there ever a moment of inspiration where a switch flipped for you with music?
Fences: It happens every couple of years. I wish it happened more. I sort of just like wait around for it. I think the last thing that really got me was the Phoebe Bridgers record. Before that, it was Bright Eyes. You don’t necessarily get a lot of validation, doing the type of stuff that I do and then when I hear something that has high accolades…or you hear these people that don’t necessarily sound like they should be really, really big- like I think they should be but society’s such garbage that you don’t think they would have the palate for it. When these people kind of break through, it’s sort of validating where I’m like at least there’s stuff that I think is cool that can still kind of get out there. It’s trippy and it happens every few years and I sort of wait for it. It’s like waiting for my “tribe”- when they come out and I’m like, “we’re the same, we come from the same cloth”. It’s beautiful, it’s validating, but it’s very rare.
Atlas: You said your work with Tegan and Sara happened through MySpace. How did the Macklemore and Ryan Lewis collaboration come about?
Fences: That was interesting because I was living in Seattle in a very strange time. I would wait at the same bus stop as Father John Misty, I would smoke cigarettes with Robin Pecknold from Fleet Foxes outside the place where I washed dishes. Everybody in that little two-year pocket sort of went off to do things. Macklemore was clearly the biggest.
I did this thing called Songs for Eating and Drinking where it was hosted by this guy and he would bring all these artists. We’d have this dinner and it was kind of like a roundtable and we would all play a song. So I played a song and somehow Ben saw it and he put it on his Tumblr. One of my friends, Thomas Gray from this little hip hop group called Champagne Champagne, was like “yo Fences (everyone there calls me Fences), you should link up with the homie Macklemore” and I was like, “who the fuck is Macklemore?”
Ben and I would just shoot pool and go get food and stuff and we were just, like friends. He had like a shitty old car and lived in a little apartment and stuff. We did the song “Other Side” and I remember going ‘whoa, 800 views’ and now it’s at like either 47 million or 73 million, just some ungodly number. I would open up for him [and] I played guitar in his band for a couple shows. We were just sort of friends and it grew around the city organically. I remember he sold out The Showbox, which is like 1,200 people, which to him is like small potatoes now but then it was like holy shit. I went up and I sang “Other Side” and the whole crowd sang the whole thing and I was like, “wow, we really tapped into something here”.
And then I moved to New York and probably within a year or two of living in New York, I remember walking into a bodega. Ben had sent me “Thrift Shop” and “Same Love” and stuff and I was like “I think this is going to be big, dude, this is crazy-sounding”. But I walked into a bodega and I heard “Thrift Shop” and I called him and I was like “dude I just heard you on the radio” and he was like “yeah, it’s tight” and then everyone heard him on the radio for the rest of their lives.
I ended up having to, not really ask for a return favor, but I was like, “yo man…the people at Elektra and Atlantic want to see if I can get you on a tune” because that would get me signed. It was a very music business, political move. Him and I agreed that it was a little bit corny to follow instructions and do that because we’re just buddies. He did me a favor- he was like “it’s weird that I got this famous and I could change my friend’s life with a simple yes”, so he did.
It really just started with two dudes that nobody fucking knew about hanging out and then he got huge and kind of brought me along, and that helped me out for a minute.
He’s totally normal and it’s weird…kind of knowing famous people before they’re famous. Because it’s like, what is fame really? It’s not real, it’s literally not real. It’s strange the way human beings react with famous people because you know there’s people that used to fuckin’, like play video games with Tom Cruise when he was a kid. It’s real only to people that know…through the media and shit because the people are never human. It’s kind of a mindfuck.
Atlas: Is there anyone you’d want to collaborate with in the future?
Fences: I think I would sound really good with Lana Del Rey. I think we could do like a really cool romantic thing, a really beautiful song. That probably would have hit a little bit better a few years ago, but sonically, I think it would be appropriate. I’d like to do stuff with Phoebe but she’s doing stuff with Conor and I think me and Conor are too close so that wouldn’t go over well in the music community. Maybe St. Vincent? I just like stuff that’s kind of weird, you know? I would actually like to work with maybe even a SoundCloud rapper, even though I hate that stuff. It would just be like morbid curiosity.
I like Lil Peep. He samples the Smashing Pumpkins and slows it down and stuff like that. I think that’s pretty cool because you forget the age that they are- they look back at the Smashing Pumpkins like I look back on The Smiths.
It feels kind of dumbed-down as far as art is concerned, but that’s his truth. It’s probably a true story and that’s probably the music that he thinks is cool so you can’t really fault those dudes for that type of stuff. As banal as the subject matter seems, I think the new generation of people is centered around iPhones and clothing and drug use and women and men or whatever. That’s their world, so they’re not lying. They’re in my good graces in that respect. I dig the ambiance of it, it’s really moody in this cool kind of way. It’s just hard for me to latch onto it ultimately because I like listening to Bob Dylan and stuff like that. I’m a little bit more of a purist but I think that’s because I was in music college when all those kids were like five years old. It’s just a different feel.
It’s like the new punk rock. It’s like fuck authority, fuck being good and lyrical prowess, let’s just go wild and be in the moment. It’s like this new weird rebellion. Maybe I just feel left out. You don’t have to get it as long as you get it.
Atlas: Failure Sculptures was released this week. How did this new record come together for you?
Fences: The songwriting process was the same as any other record. I just kind of write the same every record. I only know one way to do it- I do it really, really fast. Most of my songs take at maximum 30 minutes. Sometimes they take as long as the song is, they just spit right out. My buddy is native Lakota and we’ve had long conversations about opening yourself up to the spirit world and just letting your art flow through you and if you’re not guarded, it will come out in the open.
I sort of have that weird approach, like I never get a pen and paper out and think of chord changes and all this stuff. I sort of go ‘boom’, like a lightning bolt strikes me and a song happens. It’s kind of a cold comfort and a double-edged sword because that’s nice that they’re there and they come out so easy, but it’s also annoying that I can’t recreate it on a dime, like on a whim. I have to wait. I am the bitch of the song. I don’t make the song, the song makes me- which is fine.
The recording process was quite different than the other ones, just based on intention, which sounds maybe not super relevant to the recording process. It was in the sense that I met a guy in Nashville and we just became fast friends. We did just one song. We did “War Kid” in the studio and I was just so moved by how it sounded and I told him, “this is the sound I’ve been chasing my entire Fences career.” I was like, “can we just record a record?” I was like, “I don’t have any money, I’m not on a label, but I don’t even care about that”. We weren’t even trying to put it out. We just found this thing, just something about the way he produces and his ideas just sounded perfect to me. It was kind of this weird God-moment.
We would go into the studio after it was closed so we didn’t have to rent the space. We would go in at like 10 PM and sometimes leave at dawn. We ultimately finished it and I just kind of had it for awhile and lost my mind and I went and camped in the desert of Arizona, went to Big Sur for awhile. I had no plan for it, so that’s why it has sort of a crazy sound. It was just me being really self-indulgent. It’s hard to make art and not consider the person who’s paying for it. It’s hard to make art and not consider the countless other human beings who are going to process it and what they’ll think about it. This time, I didn’t think of any of that so that’s why it’s a special record for me. I just did it because I wanted to. I know I made this for no one, and now you all have to hear it.
Failure Sculptures is out now! The record is a beautiful trip through the mind and life of Mansfield, worth repeated listening. Stream the album here.
Story by Olivia Khiel
Photos courtesy of Fences and Earshot Media