[SINGER-SONGWRITER] If he weren’t a musician, Christopher Mansfield would be an actor. Usually, that’s a troubling thing for a songwriter to admit, especially one who writes the hushed confessionals that Mansfield does. It casts doubt on his authenticity: Is this moment of ache that he’s conveying actually his, or is he playing a part? But for him, acting and music are essentially the same.
“You’re on a stage and basically telling these little stories. A show from start to finish is like a short movie,” says the 27-year-old Seattleite, who records under the name Fences. “I was talking to another musician who said your job is to be fucking ridiculous. It’s a ridiculous job. You’re almost like a clown. You’re supposed to piss people off and make them think.” And as Mansfield will fully cop to, completing that task doesn’t mean talking about himself all the time. “Sometimes these songs are me taking on the emotion of a character I’ve written. It’s not always an issue in my life. If I always sing about me, I mean, sometimes my life isn’t interesting.”
Of course, someone can’t explore pain in the deeply affecting way Mansfield does on his newly released self-titled debut—produced by Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara—without having experienced some of it personally. He has battled self-destructive tendencies, including a stint in rehab he is reluctant to discuss. (“It’s like, ‘Hey, remember when you were destroying your life and had to be put in a center and treated like a child?’ I don’t like to revisit it.”) He didn’t know his father until he was sent to live with him in Boston at age 13. Around that time, music became an outlet for his teenage confusion—and a means of staving off boredom.
“Being a kid is pretty miserable for the most part. It was a way to fill my youth,” he says. “Next thing you know, I still haven’t stopped.”
Covered in tattoos, Mansfield looks more like a member of Rancid than a folky troubadour. But when he started playing guitar, his main interest was neither acoustic ballads nor punk—his biggest hero was bass wizard Jaco Pastorius. “A big turning point was when I found someone who I believed to have a great deal of angst and a chaotic message about life and youth and stuff, but it was done with virtuosity on instrument,” he says. “I was turned on to the whole idea that you can have a metaphorical middle finger but also be really trained.” Out of high school, Mansfield enrolled at the Berklee College of Music. Ironically, it was there that he was introduced to the simpler pleasures of artists like Bonnie Prince Billy and Sigur Rós. But Mansfield insists the gently melancholic sound of his record is an amalgam of everything he’s listened to—even grindcore.
“As you change your ideals and learn who you are, if you’re playing music the whole time the music changes with you,” he says. “I can say I have a good idea of who I am after 27 years.”
SEE IT: Fences plays Mississippi Studios on Tuesday, Nov. 30, with Ezza Rose and Light for Fire. 9 pm. $10. 21+.