If Fences' Chris Mansfield doesn't have a record deal by the time you recycle this newspaper—or refresh this page or whatever—then something is seriously wrong with the music business (I know, news flash). The 26-year-old singer-songwriter has pretty much everything going for him: classical training, crucial industry connections, and most importantly, a finished first album just begging for the right label to release it. He has just enough going against him, as well: a slightly troubled but more or less taken-care-of past, wall-to-wall tattoos, a brooding demeanor—he could be the kind of damaged, bad-for-you heartthrob that the Northwest hasn't convincingly produced since Elliott Smith (or at the very least Art Alexakis).
Mansfield grew up with his mother, moving from Florida to California to Washington by the time he was 13, at which point he moved to Massachusetts to live with his dad, whom he hadn't really known until then. At age 16, he began teaching himself songs on the guitar, and soon he was studying jazz more seriously.
"I was learning how to play [jazz] because it's so annoyingly hard," says Mansfield, over a beer and a shot at a Capitol Hill bar during a dark and rainy weekday happy hour. "You have to learn all the theory, your hands have to be super fast. With the kind of music I do now, you could barely know how to play guitar and still write an awesome song, but with that kind of music—I was just focusing at getting really proficient.
"I was dedicated to practicing, and I would take crazy lessons from people for a lot of money," he continues. "My dad and my stepmom had really good jobs, they had money, so if I had some sort of crazy daydream, they funded anything I wanted. I had a lot of good opportunities to study with good people, I had the best musical equipment, and I had all the time in the world to get good."
Mansfield got good enough to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music, where a dorm-room epiphany—hearing his roommate play folk music—moved him to drop out of school, ditch his jazz chops, and start writing folk songs of his own while couch-surfing around Boston. "It was the most intense period of my life," he says. "I was writing songs and meeting women and drinking and partying and being a real socialite and becoming, like, a man, I guess. It was all really overwhelming."
Mansfield moved to Brooklyn and continued writing songs. He played a few short opening sets at friends' shows and went on a brief, miserable coffee-shop tour around the East Coast. A couple years ago, he moved out to Seattle and settled into a period of manic songwriting.
"When I first moved here, I just felt so creative," he says. "I was banging songs out. I have probably 50 to 100 songs that no one's heard yet. I'll play some of them live, but I probably have a couple more records already lined up and ready to go. I just still feel so fucking full of music right now."
But it was also a period of depressive drinking, which Mansfield talks about with an evasiveness that suggests he either wants to forget those benders or else really has trouble remembering them. "I guess I was doing whatever you could think of, just normal drunk bullshit, the shit that we all do when we're wasted," he says. "I haven't fallen off a stage or punched Eddie Vedder in the face or done anything wild like that."
Still, Mansfield suspects that he may have developed a reputation for those times. "In Seattle it's really easy to make a name for yourself, either as someone who's amazing at music or as someone who's maybe like an asshole. If you're putting yourself out there as a musician or an artist, things stick with you," he says. "I think for a good grip of time I sort of had a reputation, and that was obviously from drinking, because when I'm sober I would barely speak, let alone offend someone."
In March 2009, Mansfield spent a couple weeks in Victoria, BC, recording an album's worth of songs with Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara (she's a fan; Mansfield can't say enough nice things about her).
In April, Mansfield spent 28 days at the Lakeside-Milam rehab facility in Kirkland for his "excessive consumption of alcohol." His stay was paid for by MusiCares, a foundation established by the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (the Grammys) to help artists cover health-care costs. In a MySpace blog entry posted at the time, Mansfield wrote:
I learned a lot of things in there, mostly about a thing called gratitude. If you lose that, you're dead meat. I also came to terms with the fact I cannot drink like other people. I know I put a lot about it in the music of Fences and have an image of being that kind of person. The "drunk tortured artist." It is total bullshit! In reality, I was blowing any chances I may have of ever touring or recording a real record or meeting any goals short or long.
He's drinking again now, but feels like he has it well under control. "I'm really laid-back now, I don't leave my house that much, and I'm doing more positive things," he says. "I figure it's not as much my drinking as how you do it, like if I'm out wasted all the time. Like my dad says, moderation."
Since recording and going to rehab, Mansfield has played shows at Sasquatch! and the Capitol Hill Block Party, and hooked up with Dave Meinert's Fuzed Music, which represents such successful acts as Blue Scholars and the Presidents of the United States of America. Still, he has yet to find a home for Fences' debut album. He theorizes that local labels may be at a saturation point for folky acoustic stuff, but he still finds it puzzling. "I think if this record can't get signed, I don't know what the fuck can."
To his credit, it really is an impressive debut. Mansfield may be writing simpler songs than in his jazz days, but the years of study show in his spare, elegant arrangements and his easy way with a catchy chord progression or melody (like the central piano motif of "The Same Tattoos"). Mansfield's singing voice is hushed but tuneful, a kind of theatrically downcast mumble. "Girls with Accents" is maybe Fences' most immediately infectious song, a ballad of failed campus romance that culminates in a rousing, fully in-character chorus of "I'm fucking up everything." Mansfield really sells the line, and what's more, he sounds like the kind of fuckup you'd want to take care of rather than the kind you'd want to kick off your couch—a distinction crucial to the appeal of no-good musicians for time immemorial.
Fences' songs are laced with references to drinking too much and fucking things up. "Boys Around Here" revolves around the bitter, almost Dangerfield-esque mantra "the boys around here don't respect a thing at all," a line I initially took to be from Mansfield's perspective about the people he met upon moving to NYC or Seattle, possibly about being wronged by a friend, but it's in fact from a girl's perspective and about his own bad behavior and rough crowd. "It's just totally literal toward how I was living—everyone's wasted, none of my friends give a fuck about anything—just like that lack of respect toward shit."
"That's where I take out the trash," says Mansfield of Fences. "I want to keep a clean house and be a happy guy in my house, and the garbage, the bad feelings, is the music. That's where I put it."
This could all be a carefully constructed persona—"the 'drunk tortured artist'... total bullshit!"—but if it is, it's one that's taken years of committed inking and drinking to pull off. It's a salable package, backed up with seriously solid songs, and it's one that any enterprising label would be stupid not to jump at.