Road Atlas: Cheval Sombre
Interview with Christopher Porpora, Cheval Sombre.
“Once we admit our humanity, the experience of this life becomes tinged with authenticity. And the flicker of what is authentic illuminates – always.”
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
Last year marked the release of Cheval Sombre’s near-mythical live performance at London’s St Pancras Old Church. The special cassette-only release — released by the ever-dependable Sonic Cathedral imprint — captures an artist at the height of his powers, unleashing some of the most affecting and transcendent psych folk creations into the earth’s stratosphere. Cheval Sombre (AKA Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Christopher Porpora) is joined by long-term collaborator Sonic Boom (Peter Kember/Spacemen 3) whose fusion of drone-infused psych haze and illuminating soundscapes form the ideal backdrop to Porpora’s fragile vocals and warm acoustic guitar. A deep musical telepathy is forever inherent between these two special souls.
This particular London concert — recorded live on November 22nd, 2012 — showcases the immense power of Cheval Sombre’s songbook, particularly Porpora’s current studio album, ‘Mad Love’, released by Sonic Cathedral in 2012. The set begins with the album’s opening two songs, the gospel-laden ‘Someplace Else’ and the utterly beautiful love song ‘She Went Walking In The Rain’. Porpora explains how “overwhelming” and “very intense” the moment feels, clearly a reflection of how the audience feels towards the gifted musician and songwriter. An out-pour of emotion — in the same way I feel upon every re-visit of ‘Mad Love’ — permeates throughout the sacred space, where the audience and musician become one. A mesmerising cover version of ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ serves the perfect send off to an awe-inspiring and intensely beautiful night of music. As Porpora says “thank you for coming” towards the close, the enraptured audience are eternally grateful to the special soul that is Cheval Sombre.
‘It’s Not Time’, the first new material to be released since 2012’s ‘Mad Love’ will be put out on very limited vinyl-only release by Melbourne-based label Slightly Delic Productions this February. On the flip is one of the earliest versions of ‘It’s A Shame’, recorded back in 2006 and provides a rare look into the demos that would shape Cheval Sombre’s debut album.
Interview with Christopher Porpora, Cheval Sombre.
Since the last time we spoke, you have been touring extensively around the U.S and Europe in support of the deeply affecting and ceaselessly beautiful latest opus of yours, ‘Mad Love’. Performing live as both a quartet and your own solo shows must be very special for you to be part of. What are your feelings on both these worlds, and indeed the unspoken connection that transmits itself into the air during these nights of song?
CP: Each performance is its own, utterly unique experience, with others or solo, and an extraordinary opportunity, every time. Stepping into a place where people have gathered to listen and to lose themselves for a while is a moment of great potential. There is a chance that we all in the room might be ushered into a state of grace – there is that chance – and I am willing to do whatever I can, to do my part, so that we might. Since the release of ‘Mad Love’ there have been quite a few cities which have been overwhelming to play in terms of connection. Some transcendental nights. I find the beauty of these moments difficult to articulate. Sonic Cathedral released a recording of the London show – I can’t bear to listen to it, so touching it was.
As a songwriter of such spellbinding songs, how do you feel the sonic creations of ‘Mad Love’ and the debut record have evolved and developed through their various live incarnations over these past number of months? As a listener, it never ceases to amaze me just how your songs forever take on new meaning and significance, depending on the particular space and time. For example, ‘Walking In The Desert’ is the pinnacle of the record for me, right now. The brooding feel that flows throughout. The bassline conjures up the sound of the Velvet Underground and Spector rolled into one. The lyric “I’m just so tired of looking for you” and your achingly beautiful vocal delivery is such a profound moment. Not to mention the mesmerising strings.
What I mean to say, is that a record special as this one inhabits a human space that is in constant motion with the world outside and as a result, the songs change like the passing seasons that come and go; in turn becoming a deep part of you; an extension of oneself, so to speak.
CP: Thank you for saying what you did there. One hopes – or I should say, I hope – to write songs which withstand the weather well. I’d like to put songs out there which make sense in all seasons – songs which retain their beauty and truth regardless of place, time, fashion. I want go-to songs – songs which work, every time. It is a question worth asking. What makes a song timeless? Keep asking that question and things start happening – things begin taking shape. Certain sounds, certain ideas will always be relevant. Once we admit our humanity, the experience of this life becomes tinged with authenticity. And the flicker of what is authentic illuminates – always. If a record ends up inhabiting one listener deeply, I believe it has done miraculous work. And we all have them, don’t we? Songs which speak to us throughout our own constantly evolving lives? Songs which, somehow, become soundtracks to our lives? You mentioned The Velvet Underground. ‘Run Run Run’ — especially the guitar run (I can’t think of a better word) in the middle of the song — has always spoken to me about the rough exoticism of this life. And it has worked, every time I’ve heard it. What a gift. It must have been astounding when it first came out, in the context of the 1960’s. It was astounding when I first heard it in the 1990’s. It is still so, now.
Please take me back to the momentous live show of London’s St Pancras Old Church with Sonic Boom please, Chris? The cassette of this special concert is a gleaming treasure to my cherished record collection. Can you recount for me the ‘in-between’ moments that happened during this day and indeed, the concert itself and aftermath? The intimacy of this sacred space suits your music so well.
CP: I hadn’t experienced anything like that night – remotely – and I don’t imagine I ever will again. I don’t recall much about it, except for being moved to tears throughout, and Pete gently telling me to get back out there while they were clapping for the encore. I did ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ and then suddenly, it was all over. I felt like falling down then, on those last notes. The chair felt rickety – barely in one piece. I couldn’t believe I made it through, and I pretty much collapsed back there, in the vicar’s quarters. The audience was lovely – generous and kind. I remember on the way down from Rugby with another dear friend we listened to The Clash – the first album – on repeat. It brought back good, warm memories. Just before the gig, on a walk through Camden, I discovered a box of Ship Matches, which I felt drawn to, for their luxury. My English friends laughed at me, lovingly. I like a box of sturdy wooden matches. Later that night, Nat Cramp, Sharon Lock and I raised glasses and I faded into the beauty of Kentish Town for a few days. Music was in the air – porter, shadows, streetlights, Hampstead Heath, rolling…
Forgive me for asking but would you like to share some words on the special soul of Lou Reed that unfortunately is no longer with us. I can only imagine how much of an inspiration this man was on your own life and work?
CP: His work was always a great comfort. I can hear his voice now, singing, “And you know it was alright” – and his voice was one of those which made me believe that indeed, everything was alright. That is one of the most important messages to get across to all of us worried souls. I took a breath when I first heard that. Thank you, Lou, for that. Thinking of him now, ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ or ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ come to mind, and I realize what a Romantic he always was to me. I wonder out loud now if anyone has ever written anything as tender as ‘Candy Says’…?
I was interested to read that during your summer Italian tour, you played La Belle Estate (solo) in a prison in Avellino. This must have been incredible. What was this experience like for you? I can imagine shows such as this, and exploring new places with your music provides endless inspiration for you?
CP: Yes. It was a Bourbon prison, in Avellino. They had constructed this wooden stage, outside, by a lush garden filled with herbs and flowers of all kinds. During soundcheck, clouds rushed in, and the afternoon got suddenly dark. The folks at the prison persuaded me to step down and sit beneath an umbrella at a table nearby and we drank beer as more Italians arrived, worried, hands on hips, looking up at the dark clouds and at the stage with all the electrical gear plugged in. Worry. We were all waiting for rain. I felt awful that they were going to have to dismantle that wonderfully crafted stage as the first drops began to come down. I have to say – they waited until the very last-minute – covering everything on the stage with garbage bags, in hopes of a passing shower.
But it began to downpour. I offered help but they insisted no, collapsed the whole set, and relocated to another stage in a small theatre inside the prison in the space of two or three beers. They kept telling me to relax and there I was under the umbrella in the pouring rain making notes, inhaling that hot, storm-drenched air, intoxicating in a thoroughly and singularly wonderful Italian way. It was all a potent combination – much chaos going on – a few Italians yelling at each other for the best possible solution for an outdoor concert in a sudden downpour, the heat of the street rising up from the sweltering pavement like a ghost in the unexpected rain, the scent of flowers, jasmine, herbs, perfume, coffee, kindness, thoughtful, gorgeous, beautiful people – love in the air – it’s true – everyone seemed to be in love there, even if they were shouting at one another, or embracing.
To your question – it was incredible. The show itself was wonderful, now indoors with an exquisite sound, and a giving, loving audience. And after – a careening party ensued, with bottles of wine produced there in Avellino poured out for new friends and old – some old friends from New York and Italy managed to come – and a trillion and one toasts to good health and living life. And then an early morning dinner of homemade vegetable pasta and more wine with Bianca, Luca, Claudia and Alessandro. The entire experience that night was transformative – very much like a garden born out of a prison.
How are the new songs of yours coming together, Chris? Any new covers in mind? I am very excited about the prospect of a follow-up to ‘Mad Love’ – your crowning jewel – and wish you all the very best with the writing and recording of the new material.
CP: Thank you, Mark. There’s a new one called ‘It’s Not Time’ being released soon on Slightly Delic, out of Melbourne. Only vinyl. Really looking forward to that one coming in the mail. There’s a delicate surprise on the B-side – an original demo from some of the first ever recorded. Much of the third album is written – just not certain how it’ll be recorded or when. Got the title, too. And covers? Yes – a few. Dean and I have something cooking. Something else. We’ll see what unfolds.
‘It’s Not Time’ / ‘It’s A Shame’ (original demo) 7″ will be available on lime green & black splatter vinyl (150 copies) and regular black vinyl (100 copies) from late February on Slightly Delic.
‘Cheval Sombre with Sonic Boom live at St. Pancras Church, London’ is available now on Sonic Cathedral.