Chosen One: Cheval Sombre
Interview with Christopher Porpora, Cheval Sombre.
“But ‘Mad Love’ came to me. It stepped toward me. It was outside of me and then it took hold, it took shape, and began to infuse all things for me. I began to understand, or have a sense, slowly what was happening.”
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
‘Mad Love’ is the second studio album from the awe-inspiring New York-based singer songwriter, Christopher Porpora. Since its release last November on Sonic Cathedral, ‘Mad Love’ has become a close friend. The album’s ten songs have become a part of me. The deeply affecting music of Cheval Sombre seeps into your heart’s core, and remains there forevermore. The song’s lyrics are honest and bare, raw and powerful like words from an old friend. I feel extremely fortunate to have crossed paths with Porpora and his Cheval Sombre guise. ‘Mad Love’ is a defining record in human emotion, mood and sound. Cheval Sombre fits somewhere between Nick Drake, Elliott Smith and Spacemen 3, but in truth belongs in its own separate, magical realm. An incredible emotional depth exudes from the surface of ‘Mad Love’. The songs are burning with an inner flame of longing, each one is your heart’s compass. Upon endless revisits to ‘Mad Love’, I continue to find new meanings and truths from the introspective folk and psychedelic haze of Porpora and co. The result is an uplifting journey that enriches all that surrounds you, and through the darkness, an everlasting light of hope reigns through.
A wonderful cast of musicians joined Porpora for the recording sessions of ‘Mad Love’, several of whom also collaborated closely on 2009’s debut. There is a beautiful – almost telepathic – connection formed between these souls that in turn, creates something truly special. The special guests include Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser of MGMT (in whose Brooklyn studio it was recorded), Spacemen 3 luminary Sonic Boom AKA Pete Kember (who co-produced, mixed and mastered), Dean Wareham (Galaxie 500, Luna) and Britta Phillips (Luna, Belltower), and alchemist Nick Kramer. The first recording session consisted of just Porpora and Kramer, where most of the album was recorded that first day. Porpora was re-united with Kramer, who recorded and engineered the first album, and soon the songs were given its wings that graced the human space. The album features seven original compositions, and cover versions of the traditional folk lament ‘Once I Had A Sweetheart’ (as interpreted by Joan Baez), Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘The Nearness Of You’, and ‘Red Moon’ by The Walkmen. These cover versions fit perfectly amongst Porpora’s compositions that effortlessly flow together, forming one organic whole. The theme of longing serves the bloodflow and pulse to ‘Mad Love’, where Porpora’s achingly beautiful voice sings “of a thousand dreams”.
“I wasn’t made for this world no
I belong to someplace else”
Album opener ‘Someplace Else’ is laden with a life-affirming gospel feel. The instrumentation of synth, casio and telecaster provides a divine sonic backdrop to Porpora’s delicate baritone, as he sings “I wasn’t made for this world no/I belong to someplace else” on the song’s opening lines. The organ sounds echo the Delta Blues of the past where a river of pain flows from the darkest part of the soul. The chorus refrain of “take me” is a truly transcendent moment that stops you in your tracks. A joyous uplifting feel radiates from these very words, as they are repeated over a warm drone of synth and gorgeous guitar tones. Toward the song’s close, Porpora sings “I’m looking forward to returning/Where the rivers are all flowing” that distills light of hope.
‘She Went Walking In The Rain’ is stunningly beautiful. Think of the heart-wrenching ballads of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake. A tower of song is born here. How can you describe beauty such as this? The delicate guitars drift slowly beneath Porpora’s fragile vocals: “Yesterday is just another day” is a lyric that resonates deeply in your consciousness. The lyrics are words of longing, words from the heart of a lonely hunter. The ground beneath my feet trembles as I witness the beautiful melancholy and startling power that ‘She Went Walking In The Rain’ possesses. The moment Porpora sings “The wind is blowing/Could be blowing all our troubles away” is one of the many defining moments on ‘Mad Love’ that endlessly stirs your heart.
‘Once I Had A Sweetheart’ is a gorgeous interpretation of the traditional folk lament. The sonic wizardry of Sonic Boom forms the foundation to Porpora’s lament. The words and music shares a meditative quality where sorrow is etched across the sonic canvas. ‘Walking In The Desert’ contains a mesmerizing bassline reminiscent of Spector’s wall of sound. An intricate array of instrumentation is wonderfully used here. I visualize the vast desert plains, where each violin note serves as the glimmer of hope of “searching for you”. ‘Nearness Of You’ contain drones of swirling guitar noise, interwoven between the sparse folk of acoustic guitar and shimmering organ. Porpora makes this song his own, just like the other two covers on ‘Mad Love’, and reminiscent of Cat Power’s ‘Covers Record’ where Marshall similarly transported songs such as ‘Sea Of Love’, ‘Satisfaction’ to someplace else.
‘Couldn’t Do’ is a psych blues opus that has shades of Spacemen 3 and Nick Drake. At nine minutes in length, the refrain of “Well I couldn’t do without you” comes like crashing waves on the shore. The psychedelic astral projection shares the spirit of classic Royal Trux and J Spaceman. The core of the song is the blues. The tempo increases on ‘I Fell In Love’, a divine country folk gem. The violin melts into the mix, that could be Porpora backed by The Dirty Three. The refrain of “dream/dream/dream” brings the endearing song to a fitting close. ‘February Blues’ is sublime. The swirling piano notes and distortion of electric guitar rings defiantly beneath Porpora’s vocals. ‘Red Moon’ is a sparse folk lament. The rise of “I miss you” forms the song’s climax, where the heart is laid bare.
“The riptide is pulling me under
I’m drifting, drifting away
Tomorrow the sun will be brighter
The water will rise and wash us away”
‘Let Me Follow You Down’ shares the kindred spirit of Elliott Smith. The song has a multitude of layered sounds from violin, guitar, woodwind, and atmospheric soundscapes. I love the phrasing of the lyrics; as Porpora sings “There ain’t no one else” I feel the weight of a beating heart before me. Such affecting music is nothing short of life-affirming. The songs on ‘Mad Love’ never ceases to amaze me. I’d like to share a lyric to a Nick Drake song, entitled ‘Fruit Tree’ that, for me, is the essence of ‘Mad Love’ and the eternal gift it brings:
“Safe in the womb
Of an everlasting night
You find the darkness can
Give the brightest light.”
—Nick Drake, ‘Fruit Tree’
‘Mad Love’ by Cheval Sombre is out now on Sonic Cathedral.
Interview with Christopher Porpora, Cheval Sombre.
Congratulations first of all on the incredible record ‘Mad Love’. It is such a defining record in human emotion, mood and sound.
Thank you very much for taking the time to listen to it, and for saying so. That is just the kind of record I’d always hoped I might leave behind.
Please tell me about the inspiration behind ‘Mad Love’. There is a beautiful back story to this album; centering around a series of letters written by Emma Hauck, a patient at a mental institution in Heidelberg. Please discuss how you came across this touching story and the research you must have undertook in order to make ‘Mad Love’?
Now there’s a question – on several levels. First of all I should say that the inspiration for the album came from – and I’ve said this before – an ineffable place. I know that can sound like a difficult answer, but it’s true. Your characterization of the record as “human” is perceptive. Thank you for that. I can say that the very precise emotion of longing played a massive role in the composition of these songs. And you know what I mean, about longing – everyone does. It’s difficult, painful, awful sometimes. But music can make room for it – longing. It reveals the grace and the majesty of it as well, music does. In terms of research I should say that I walk down the street like anyone else, and I try to keep my eyes open while I go. I listen, too, to everything and anything, waiting for a beautiful sound. The story about Emma Hauck is one on which I really have no authority. It would be better to ask Sharon Lock, who did the breathtaking artwork for the sleeve, though I’m guessing she’d say she was no authority, either. What I can tell you is that there was a great convergence of things for all of us who worked on the album, as the record developed, and some sublime coincidences too, and I think that we all were sharing a deep sense of understanding about many things, especially about longing.
Please discuss the wonderful musicians on ‘Mad Love’ and the sessions that took place for recording these life-affirming songs?
Yes – all of the musicians who played are indeed wonderful musicians. Thoroughly so. Each and every one. I wonder how I might go about it, answering this one. There were more than a few. Perhaps a rough chronology of how it unfolded could do.
Nick Kramer, who recorded and engineered the first album, got in touch. Yes – it was Nick and Pete, wondering if I had any songs to record. I did. Pete couldn’t be at the very first sessions as he was in Rugby, but Nick sent an address in Brooklyn and I grabbed my guitar and set out. Turns out the studio was just a few blocks away from where my brother lives. Nick opened the door and I probably squeezed the life out of him, after not seeing him in ages. Was a reunion, for sure. Nick went about expertly planning the mics, getting a guitar and vocal level. I recorded most of the album that day, there, with Nick. The songs just flowed, like the cider and ouzo. The two of us work easily. Maybe I met Andrew that night – it was during the first sessions – it was his house. Loved him immediately – sweet, kind, and generous. But for the first couple sessions it was just Nick and me recording, and that was a wonderful time, a perfect beginning. Just as on the first album, we did many, many songs at the first go. Then Pete must’ve flown in, to see what kind of mess we made. Always great when Pete arrives – another toast, and then quick, down to work. He really was in tip-top shape when he showed. Listened to everything, and gets the organ. He just played like a virtuoso, up and down, all around, perfect notes, sublime stuff, on all the tracks – each and every one. Those sessions became the foundation of ‘Mad Love’ – voice, guitar, and organ. It was an abundant, full thing, very early on. It had a quality of being finished, even in those early stages. Dean reminded me of this, before he came with his excellent parts. Humble soul, he is. And then Britta Phillips on bass, on ‘Walking in the Desert’ – just speechless. Pete’s production is not to be underestimated. He has hunches of what he wants to hear and lets folks know in this somehow open yet very precise way, and for the most part, they deliver. Gillian Rivers brought magic to these recordings. What a talented player. She understood what we were looking for and brought more. She arrived to play on one or two things, but then hung out, and I am grateful. I mean, Nick played on this record, too. And Andrew and Ben, and Nick’s friend James, and then Megan did some beautiful cello, and James and Matt – and all of them, you know, every single person, just brought much beauty and wonder to it all. And all of this after we had already achieved something so miraculous in the initial sessions. It was just beauty being heaped upon beauty. Goodness, you’re making me realize I could write a book about it. I mean, I’d like to have an opportunity to discuss each individual’s contribution to the record, in careful, considerate detail. But – let me give you thanks for characterizing the songs as “life affirming.” I agree with you about that, wholeheartedly, and very much appreciate your hearing it. A lady wrote an unkind review of the record, discussing what she experienced as misery and hopelessness. I felt as though she hadn’t really listened.
I would love to know more about the inclusion of the three cover songs on ‘Mad Love’? The songs (traditional folk lament ‘Once I Had A Sweetheart’, Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘The Nearness Of You’ and The Walkmen’s ‘Red Moon’) fit so beautifully among your penned songs. What meaning do these (varied) songs have for this record? I think they capture the mood perfectly, evoking heart and soul, just like the entire album as a whole.
Thank you for saying so – about the mood, being whole. For me, the covers don’t distract from the overall experience of the record. In some cases, covers can cease being covers. How can I say this? Once a song has been utterly ingested, it rather becomes a vehicle for expressing something individual, something unique, something already there, already present. The song then is not an interpretation of another song, nor is it a reinterpretation – it has another quality. But I do believe of course in giving credit to the original source, to the authors of these astonishing things. All three were songs I was singing regularly when we made the album. It was part of where I was, in every way, at the time. I’ve often been attracted to old things which have survived somehow. I’ve always picked up some traditional songs along my way. My brother put ‘Red Moon’ on a mix he gave me for Christmas a few years back. How to say? The song just stopped me, on a corner, when it came on. I took a breath. It articulated precisely what was unfolding. An interesting story about it is that my version wouldn’t have made it onto the record if it wasn’t for Pete Kember. I’m grateful he pushed me on that one, looking back – glad he pushed me through. The tracklist was done, and I was in Italy doing a couple shows when he sent word, and when his thoughts finally reached me, well, I just couldn’t resist. I looked down at the Mediterranean through this alleyway and knew then that the record was complete.
My favourite song (at the moment) is ‘She Went Walking In The Rain’. Can you shed some light on writing this song and how it evolved and bloomed into its final entity?
It did blossom beautifully – and unexpectedly. The lotus comes to mind. I got to the studio early one day – an awful, rainy day in Brooklyn. Pete was up and working – he was living there at the time. He had a keyboard up against a window upstairs overlooking the street, playing a melody and watching the rain come down. It was this sweet, melancholy piece – I just sat on the couch, closed my eyes and listened. When he finished playing he asked if I might find something in it – there was an acoustic guitar there too. So we just worked it out there, before the afternoon recording session, and we knew we had something. We recorded an instrumental, and I took it home for some long walks and eventually got the words and vocal melody. That was the one song which was written during the sessions for ‘Mad Love.’ The first song we ever wrote together.
The opener ‘Someplace Else’ is truly transcendent, laden with a powerful gospel feel. The moment on the chorus of the lyrics “So take me” is one of those rare moments in music that stops you in your tracks. I feel this song acts as the album’s prologue. Can you discuss the importance of this song in relation to the record and the instrumentation (gorgeous electric guitar tones and organ) used here?
Again, thank you for noticing what you do. When it came down to doing the tracklist, after many, many listens, ‘Someplace Else’ said “Let me be first.” And so it was. I like that you see it as the prologue. I hadn’t considered it as such a precisely dramatic device. It was much simpler than that. It just announced itself as the way to begin, and I believe it does so, and well. But your comment is intriguing – and now that you mention it, I would have to say that in many ways, you have something there. You may have, as they say, nailed it. You mention “Take me,” and the repetition of such a notion, of such a sound, of such words – indeed, something happens in a chant which – which again, words fail to fully say. But to your thought about ‘Someplace Else’ as a prologue – the very first verse of the song sets a very clear tone with which to proceed, for the whole record. Goodness – wish we had more time to talk. Let me get to what you said about those “gorgeous” tones of guitar and organ. You must be hearing Dean on Telecaster, Pete on Casio, and Andrew on synth. Let’s just let those sweet sounds speak for these gents. Statesmen of the trade, those three. Alchemists too, in their ways. Thank you for hearing the transcendent quality of the song – since its earliest stages, it has always moved me. Still does.
You have said “It was a miracle of music unfolding-an extraordinary, organic evolution” in relation to recording ‘Mad Love’. I would love to gain an insight into the personal experience of this miracle you were part of and how you witnessed this evolution of sound come into fruition?
That may very well be the most difficult question anyone has put to me about ‘Mad Love.’ There you go again, knocking on the door of the unsayable. But bravo to you for proceeding in such a way – it takes courage and guts to do so. How can I answer this…
I gave up control, entirely. I did not strive to write these songs, I had no concept in mind, I was just, living. The truth is that things were very hard – they were – but I don’t see that as unique. I know that things are hard for everyone. And so I feel for everyone, too, all the time. But ‘Mad Love’ came to me. It stepped toward me. It was outside of me and then it took hold, it took shape, and began to infuse all things for me. I began to understand, or have a sense, slowly what was happening. Beautiful, wonderful, extraordinary people stepped into the picture, and they played awe-inspiring things. Some just sat on the couch smoking cigarettes and whispering while we played. Nat Cramp from Sonic Cathedral and Sharon Lock began working together in London, and the fruition of their work together just moved me deeply. Suddenly there were all of these kindred spirits who somehow were united for this period of time. There’s much mystery in it for me. I don’t understand it all. I don’t need to know though. I’ve let go of that – of needing to know. Sometimes I wonder if it happened at all. But it must’ve – we are talking about it now. Something happened.
The album for me reminds me of the likes of Spacemen 3, Nick Drake and particularly ‘Hospice’ by The Antlers. I think this album shares similar magic and an unerring emotional depth that is truly captivating for the listener. Are there certain records for you that are reference points for you that provides inspiration for you and the sound of Cheval Sombre?
Well thank you – that’s some excellent company. I haven’t heard The Antlers, but now that you mention them I’ll look them up. I discovered Spacemen 3 when I was pretty young, just going through school, and their music saved me more than a few times. I heard them on the college radio station near to where I grew up. Their Rugby demos really knocked me out. What atmosphere – very instantly potent, densely beautiful stuff. I think ‘Amen’ was what I first heard. Just glorious. And with each album I would say that there are gems – very serious treasures on each and every one. I think that Spacemen 3 handled the quality of grace expertly on their recordings.‘Recurring’ has always been sublime – just never goes out of style for me. I didn’t discover Nick Drake until much later. But it was like looking at a Van Gogh painting for me when I first heard him. I instantly felt connected, and felt that I understood very much from where he was coming. ‘From the Morning’, ‘Northern Sky’,’Time of No Reply’ very quickly made impressions. I wondered how it was I had not heard his music until then – what a shame, I remember thinking. Folks have been making comparisons since ‘Mad Love’ came out, so I pulled a compilation of his stuff out recently, and I found ‘Time Has Told Me’ to be just – majestic. Sonically and lyrically, just masterful. What philosophy, humility, grandeur. And ‘Black Eyed Dog’ too recently became a great companion in all kinds of moments, especially while driving. I didn’t have the privilege of hearing Leonard Cohen either until much later, and I am very, very grateful to him for not giving up. I like how you speak of “magic and an unnerring emotional depth” – in many ways, I listen for this too. So many things come to mind. I’m listening now to Sandy Bull’s ‘E Pluribus Unum’, in which I hear all kinds of magic. Earlier, I had some Ballake Sissoko going, and indeed, there you can find that rare quality of gentle tenderness in which I so firmly believe. There is so much exceptional music to be heard, to discover. If there is some kind of reference point for inspiration, I would simply describe it as remaining open.
Will you be touring Europe this year? I sincerely hope so. I would be very happy to organise a concert for you here in my hometown, in Cork, Ireland. I have the venue in mind and it would be an honour to have you perform your amazing music here in Ireland.
I may be. That’s really very kind and generous of you. I’ve heard lovely things about Cork. Let’s do figure something out.
‘Mad Love’ by Cheval Sombre is out now on Sonic Cathedral.
A limited edition split 7″ featuring the Cheval Sombre cover of The Beatles ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ is out now on Mind Expansion Records.