Writing Blank Pages: Foreign Fields on ‘The Beauty of Survival’ [Interview]

Updated: Mar 10, 2020

Interview with Foreign Fields

photos by Nick Morawiecki

In the story of Foreign Fields, we’ve come to act III.

It all began with their debut album ‘Anywhere But Where I Am’; softly longing, a slightly unfocused dream painted with acoustic watercolors. And then there was the addictingly broken ‘Take Cover’, a collection of organized insanity; warping, surging in and out, yet comforting the listener in its own stark, mechanical way. Now, nearly four years later, Eric Hillman and Brian Holl are ready to turn the page with their third venture, ‘The Beauty of Survival’, out March 20.

“It follows pretty closely to the traditional story arc of a hero’s journey,” Brian observes. “‘Anywhere But Where I Am’, straight away from the title, was us being 19, 20 [years old in Wisconsin] and thinking, ‘Aw, man, if we can just get out of where we are, if we can just go to where the grass is greener…’ And we physically moved to Nashville and created a home there. Fast forward a few years, trials and tribulations started adding up. All of these pressures and sacrifices that we were making and saying yes to too many things all showed its face, and what came out for the two of us was ‘Take Cover’. This album, we literally returned to Wisconsin. This is our return to our home, and to peace and contentment.”

As the duo continued their sonic tale, the main character was their surroundings, influencing everything from the lyrical content to the production. “For this record, we holed up in a little cabin out in the middle of nowhere in Southwestern Wisconsin,” Eric tells us. “I think one of the things that we really strive for when making an album is that it feels very specific to the place and time – that it isn’t a collection of songs, but rather it’s something specific that we want to say or talk about, and it happens at a specific point in our lives. It’s more a memory book, or a picture book [we] make for [ourselves].”

“It was a really magical two and a half weeks that we spent there,” Brian adds. “We didn’t have wifi, didn’t have cell coverage. So we were literally out there on our own without anything to do but think, and survive, and make a cup of coffee, and just try to enjoy that because there wasn’t that much else to do other than strum our guitars and think about what we were trying to make.”

The band has given us a glimpse into the world that the album emerged from, too. The Foreign Fields social media is scattered with pictures of natural scenery that surrounded the creation process, as well as the cabin itself. When looking through them, it’s easy to feel immersed in the environment, almost as if we can sense traces of the fresh Wisconsin air and the warm isolation of the cabin. The photos are also paired with intriguing lyric fragments, one in particular being “I write blank pages in the book of life”.

Is this record, in essence, like starting over? Or is it just another chapter? “It doesn’t necessarily feel like a beginning, if that makes sense,” Eric muses. “It feels more like a closing. That particular line is from the song ‘The Beauty of Survival’. That whole song is about the idea of finding contentment in just being, finding that there is beauty in simply surviving. As much as this record responds to ‘Take Cover’, it also responds to ‘Anywhere But Where I Am’, because when [you’re] young everyone sort of has these very large dreams and questions about what everything is for. How big can we make things? And how much can we achieve? ‘The Beauty of Survival’ is a response to that in noticing how beautiful an actual blank page in the book of life can be; one that isn’t necessarily your shining achievement or anything, but just a day to exist, and how beautiful that blankness can be.”

In order to come to terms with this blankness, the duo had to leave some baggage behind first. For Eric, it took the shape of a video game score for a game called Ashen, and for Brian, it was a solo album under the name Boy Bjorn. “I think everybody always has a hope and a desire that happens once the whole process is done, and one of mine was just [that I wanted] to get better at producing,” Brian relates. “I just [wanted] to explore it a little bit more on my own, in more of a higher-stakes [situation] – even though it’s almost never high stakes with Eric and I, but just having that other person there and feeling like, well, I don’t want to waste their time if I’m going to try and just experiment here…I wanted to commit myself to something in order to allow that to flourish.”

“Brian and I have been making music together since he was 14 years old, and I was 16 at the time,” Eric elaborates. “It’s like, when you spend that much time working on a musical language with someone else, I think it’s important to separate yourself from that other person to see, ‘Okay, what is actually my personal musical language?’ And not just that musical language that always goes through the filter of that other person. On my part, tackling a very large project like the score that I worked on was something that allowed me to come back to this new record with a lot lighter of a feeling. I feel like we would work on [every Foreign Fields album] typically to the detriment of myself and Brian. I would just put all this weight of like, ‘This has to be everything. It has to encapsulate everything I am as an artist, and it has to be everything that I feel I personally can achieve with a piece of music…'”

In some regard, Foreign Fields has consisted of two distinct songwriters up until this record, yet as opposed to there being tension between the two, there has always been something refreshingly balanced about their output. On all of their records, both members sing lead vocals on the same number of tracks. And with Eric’s classical background, and Brian’s reverb-blasting excess of feeling, the two have established a rare kind of equilibrium.

“If we’re talking about the sound of Foreign Fields, and why it is the way that it is, I think it really comes down to the way that [Brian and I] work together and keep each other in check,” Eric explains. “I have a lot of tendencies to want to lush everything up, and I generally like slow, sad songs. I feel like that can start to drag everything down. Brian is always typically there to balance that out. Wherever that needle sits right in between both my and Brian’s tendencies…It’s interesting to listen to [our solo projects], because you can sort of hear the Foreign Fields sound split into two parts. And when you listen to Foreign Fields, you can hear those tendencies together, back and forth, and I feel like when we’re both in the room there’s always that dichotomy that comes together.”

But ironically, four years of distance from their joint project allowed them to collaborate more closely than ever before. “For [the first two albums], typically we would write the songs separately, bring [them] in, and sit in the studio together and [arrange them],” Eric describes. “This was actually the first time that we sat down with maybe a chord pattern or something, and collaborated on the melody, and the lyrics, and the song structure…I mean, everything. And then we just passed off the production back and forth. It was 100 percent collaboration on this record, and we had never achieved that before.”

With their ideas materializing in a different way and in a different environment, this body of work comes from a purer place; letting sounds be as opposed to manipulating them. “I think this record is a lot less fussy than ‘Take Cover’ was,” Eric continues. “‘Take Cover’ was really detail-oriented. It generally is very claustrophobic and sort of schizophrenic. This time around, there are a lot of first takes. There’s a lot of imperfection baked into the record, and a lot of just capturing the moment.”

One of these moments occurred when the duo decided that a regular snare drum wouldn’t suit the album’s title track. After stringing together several cords, they brought a microphone outside to achieve a more organic-sounding texture. “We basically recorded us chopping wood with an axe,” Eric laughs. “I mean, if you’re picturing, like, very good form, and really chopping…no. We were just taking a hand axe and passing it off to each other for each beat. So we had sort of a visual metronome so we could just record us smacking the axe against a big chunk of wood.” The sound of Brian stoking a fire is “sprinkled” throughout the album’s atmosphere as well.

The first single from the record is titled “Don’t Give Up”, a track that tiptoes in and flows seamlessly. It coats the listener’s brain with a certain ease, with fingers shifting on guitar frets, ringing pianos, and Eric’s voice bending almost carelessly. And there’s a certain innocence to it, with his daughter’s vocals featured in the chorus alongside him. Brian believes that it’s a fitting introduction to the record. “It’s the most effortless, I feel,” he notes. “You will listen to that song right away and understand what we were trying to get across.”

“It’s one of those songs that comes about from the ether, and you don’t really have to work hard for it,” Eric adds. “It just sort of lands in your lap. Those will always feel like strange, special anomalies. Whereas [another song on the album], ‘Terrible Times’, I think I had 23 different versions…There are some songs that take a lot more back and forth. I know ’Rose Colored’ is [a track] that we both are very attached to, but at the same time, we spent a lot of time really diving into the lyrics and thinking over every single phrase and every word.”

And “Rose Colored” has been their most recent release, treading even more delicately than the first. It’s hushed, like a whispered message, a gentle reminder. “I will walk for all these miles // Just to find what I have left within myself,” Eric breathes. As the song progresses, the wisps of guitar strums melt into layers of strings. It’s a soothing depiction of peace found after the storm.

But if they truly have survived the storm, where does Foreign Fields go from here? “We don’t really know,” Brian admits. “We keep talking about that. It feels like we can almost open up a new chapter. And we keep kind of joking about that offhand, like, ‘Okay, so now what?’ We’re not seriously thinking about the next one quite yet, but it will be interesting as to how that evolves and comes out.”

So until then, we’ll be soaking up every word (or note) of the story they’ve given us.

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