At first glimpse Chris Mansfield, the heavily tatted face of Fences, looks like he would fit right in with his current tourmates in the spirited punk group Against Me!. But the connection between Mansfield and Against Me! might disappear after one listen of any track on Fences self-titled debut; an album filled with emotional, pop-friendly songs heavy on acoustic instrumentation.
So how do Against Me! fans react when Mansfield takes to the stage and pours his heart out?
“The crowds have been surprisingly receptive,” Mansfield said during a tour stop in Arizona.
“I really had no idea what to expect since with a band like Against Me! the audience is anyone and everyone. You’ll see a 50-year-old man and then a 14-year-old girl, and you’ll see a punk and some high school football star. The crowd for Against Me! is a good mix of everybody and I feel like that’s what our audiences are like too,” he said. “You’ll have your young girls who like it and businessmen who like our music too. It’s almost like one big crowd here to see the entire show. Of course the fans don’t stage dive for us or go completely berserk but the crowds have been really warm and receptive.”
The 10 songs on Fences debut ooze pain and emotion. The emotional fragility of Mansfield’s songs is something that has earned him favorable comparisons to another famed emotional Northwest singer-songwriter — Elliott Smith.
“As soon as I write something down and record it, that is a statement that has left me,” said Mansfield. “It’s a bit like it doesn’t exist anymore on a personal level. When I am singing a lyric I’m more just saying it for everyone else to listen to and respond to it. When you go see a show and a guy sings words about breaking up with a girl I feel like in general as an audience member you don’t say like ‘Well, what was that like for him?’ It becomes something that is more like public domain.”
The story of Fences has been well documented in Seattle. Mansfield went from a Berklee College of Music student in Boston to a fry cook at Seattle’s famed 5 Point Cafe all the while recording heartfelt songs about all the emotional turmoil in his life. One day Sara Quin, of Tegan and Sara fame, heard Mansfield’s music and called him up with an offer to help produce his album and his life was forever changed.
“I never really, really thought that I would be playing music for a living and it’s great that it happened,” Mansfield said.
After a quick honeymoon period as a touring musician making his wages playing stages across the country, Mansfield said his eyes were opened a bit to the reality of life on the road.
“Sure I’m on tour, but I’m also in a van not able to stop and pee because we have to be somewhere at 4 p.m. and unload all of our gear and soundcheck. And then after a half an hour of playing I have to go to the merch table and sell the product and then box it up and put it back in the van and go to the next place. The way that it is all laid out isn’t really centered around art and pure expression and all that bullshit. The way it’s laid out is like a touring company.”
While Mansfield acknowledges life on the road can be tough he said the good outweighs the bad.
“That’s just the reality of it. It’s not a bad thing. It’s definitely amazing but if you break it down you see that you’re just touring the country with a product and you’re giving live demonstrations of your product. The cool thing is that all of that stuff kind of goes away when you get to see the fans after the show and meet the kids who thank you for the music. There are a lot of things like that bring you back to the pure side of the music,” said Mansfield.
One of the things that has kept Mansfield grounded and helped balance out the realities of the sometimes not-so-glamorous life of a touring musician has been seeing the impact his music can have on others. He specifically recalled a show in New Mexico where he noticed a teen in the front row singing every word to his songs.
“That’s honestly been the coolest experience of my life to see that happening. It’s such a cool thing and I am so grateful for it,” he said. “It’s been an amazing aspect of my life and seeing a kid sing the words to one of my songs is very humbling. Especially since you’ve never been to that city and you don’t know the kid singing along.”
He is currently writing new songs and said he has enough material for another album, but there are no plans for a sophomore record just yet.
“When I was first writing there was a time when I was learning how to write. There are a couple of songs on that record where I can hear myself learning to write. It’s interesting and it’s great to have that documented but now I know who I am as a musician and a songwriter,” said Mansfield.
Now that he has his first album under his belt he also has a bit more confidence and is approaching his songwriting a bit differently than in the past.
“I don’t second guess myself as much as I used to … I think a lot of people after making a first album get in a trap of thinking what others might think when they hear it and I’m not doing that. I feel comfortable with my music and songwriting so I don’t second guess anything. For me, I think my best music is made when I just say ‘fuck it’ and don’t care about what people are going to say. Like, is that hook too poppy? Is the song too short? Are my lyrics too literal? I just do what I want and it feels really great to be free that way.”
He said he believes his new approach of throwing caution to the wind and going with his gut will not only result in better music but also allow him to stay true to himself while creating music.
“There’s millions of people in the world and there are hundreds of thousands of bands out there so really it just seems like it doesn’t matter. You can’t fucking please everybody. There have been people who like my music, so that has been a positive reinforcement that has given me some confidence,” said Mansfield.
“But really just being in the music world a little bit and meeting other bands, going on tour, having a publicist and seeing how radio works … You really kind of see how fucking ridiculous it is and how much it doesn’t matter. You just have to make music that you like and if ten people like it or if 10 million people like it, it doesn’t really matter. You just have to do what you love.”
Fences performs at Neumos Feb. 4 with Against Me! and Cheap Girls (8 p.m., $15).by