One of the great mysteries of music is the multitude of ways in which a statement can be made, it can get straight to the point or come draped in metaphor and imagery, slowly unveiling its truth like a magic eye you’ve spent hours staring into waiting for the moment it suddenly resolves. Sometimes, as with Ginkgo the recently released third album by Field Guides it can achieve both at once.
The musical moniker of Brooklyn-based artist Benedict Kupstas, Field Guides first emerged back in 2014 with the sprawling mystery of Boo, Forever, followed by the acclaimed 2019 record, This Is Just A Place. Benedict’s songwriting has always been music that defies categorisation, just as you think you know what might be waiting around the corner, he throws something completely different in your path. Ginkgo picks up exactly where This Is Just A Place left off, in fact, it calls back to it from the opening line of the opening track, Judee At The Delaware Water Gap (A Prelude) as Benedict sings, “this is just a place, you are just a song, was it a disgrace that I could never play along?” Set to an atmospheric backing of strings and a barely-there guitar line, it’s a perfect introduction to Ginkgo’s world, a musical reference here, “you put on Judee Sill and we sang along”, a nod to the natural world there, “the sound a honey locust makes when its leaves shake in the wind”, and amidst it all a sense of uneasy longing, a feeling that some emotion, some deep thought is about to be processed in front of us.
Throughout the record Benedict encases his thoughts in an array of references, Ginkgo is an album you could spend days exploring and still only feel like you’ve got half the story. Throughout we’re greeted by references to authors, Greek mythology and the Bible, and we’re presented with characters as likely to be plants or animals as they are humans. Yet this is no encyclopedia of Benedict’s inner thoughts, there are moments of real connection, humanity laid out in all its beautiful simplicity, as on Cicadas in the Lemon Trees, when he sings, “it seems I just cannot help but to genuflect at the altar of your allergy to love”, with all the heartbreak of someone who’s tried everything they can and still knows it’s not enough. A theme he revisits elsewhere, as on the beautiful Mazzy Star-like Margaret, where he mixes Biblical references, woozy woodwinds and straight-talking sentiment, “all that I have is yours for the taking”.
Musically, Ginkgo is almost as varied as its lyrical content, full of beautifully intricate details and crashing waves of melody, each repeat listen throwing up some brand new favourite. From the bassy thump of Salmon Skin to the Bill Callahan-like The City Is A Painting or the echoing sadness of the closing number When I Pulled Slivers from Your Feet, where Benedict regretfully sings, “I know you don’t love me when I act in certain ways”, atop an ever-swelling crescendo of increasingly distorted instruments.
Following the album’s release, I recently spoke to Benedict about his varied employment history, the “hodge podge” approach to recording Ginkgo and why he’s, “a shaggy dog walking in the woods, distracted by every odor and eager to tell you about it”.
FTR: For those who don’t know, who is Field Guides?
Field Guides started as a nom de plume for a solo project, at a time when I was focused on other collaborations, primarily performing and touring with an experimental theater show by the playwright Young Jean Lee called We’re Gonna Die. That was back in 2012. Then it evolved into a band, then became an amorphous/amoebic collective with a sort of revolving-door policy—lots of friends coming and going—and now it’s some amalgam of all those things.
FTR: You’ve just released your new album, Ginkgo, what can you tell me about recording the record?
I started conceiving of this record back in 2019, and what was a solid live lineup at the time recorded one song (“Salmon Skin”) before the pandemic and other disruptions threw those plans out the window. I had a bit of an oddly prolific burst in those disorienting, isolated early months of the pandemic, and as a way to maintain contact and collaboration, I asked my friend Shannon Fields (Stars Like Fleas, Leverage Models) if he’d help produce this record in a disjointed and idiosyncratic way that might actually serve the sprawling sonic and emotional world I was trying to build. At the same time, my friend Nico Hedley had recently acquired a recording studio, so we had a few really fruitful sessions, spending long days and nights in our little bubble constructing songs layer by layer on his TASCAM 8-track. Then we invited more than 20 friends to contribute to the arrangements; folks from all over recorded parts remotely. It became a huge family affair. Because of this hodgepodge approach, we needed some alchemy to make it all coalesce, and Eli Crews (mixing engineer) was able to glue it all together like some wizard.
FTR: What did you do differently to previous recordings?
I spent a lot more time, alongside Shannon and Nico, experimenting with and honing the arrangements. And, at the same time, we left a lot more room for all the many players on the record to stretch out and do their thing. I trusted everyone and was consistently surprised with what they brought. Paradoxically, it’s the most I’ve ever labored over a record and the most I’ve ever relinquished control to the collaborators.
FTR: Listening to the record, I was struck by how your lyrics seem to focus on almost minute details, would you say this is an observational record?
Yeah, certainly. All my favorite songwriters—and artists, and humans—are folks who notice beauty or absurdity in the mundane, spot the lizard on the wall, and point it out in a way that illuminates a new corner of the world. That’s how art can be generous, right? I’m a shaggy dog walking in the woods, distracted by every odor and eager to tell you about it.
FTR: As with all your records, Ginkgo seems to dive into the natural world for reference points. What appeals to you about bringing nature into your music?
Flora and fauna and landscapes have always seemed like the most obvious fodder to me, the best foundational building blocks for metaphor or allegory. I spend a lot of time thinking about the ethics of art-making, the differences between production and (re-)organization. I think there is so much beauty and mystery in the world and I try not to have any hubris about needing to invent anything from scratch. I think it might be more useful or generous to find ways to shine light on existing beauty that we too often neglect. We’ve constructed all these artificial boundaries between us and the world and ecosystems we inhabit. I love art that pulls back that veil a bit.
FTR: Your press release references the anxieties of the Anthropocene, are you optimistic we can still do something to prevent, or at least live with, the effects of climate change?
I’m not too optimistic at this point, especially at a moment when Europe is experiencing record high temperatures and when American politicians are too cowardly and corrupt to do even the bare minimum to begin mitigating looming climate collapse. It’s really distressing to me that accelerationism, a way of thinking which I generally loathe, is seeming more and more reasonable. The narrowing hope is that as the catastrophe becomes more salient and visceral, folks might finally wake up to the urgency of the moment. But that means we’re past prevention and into mitigation. And our political and economic systems—and our general discourse—don’t seem up to that task either. So yeah, I’m pretty discouraged. And I think it’s pretty shameful that with all these existential crises—climate change, racism, gun violence, an assault on reproductive rights, etc.—we’re looking to children to fight and solve problems they didn’t create but which overwhelmingly threaten their lives. I resent having to fight misanthropy so deeply. I don’t ever want to drift into defeatism, and that means holding onto some belief in our species, even when that’s a challenge, but I think we have a responsibility to keep imagining and creating cause for hope.
FTR: You’ve had a lot of interesting jobs, are you a full time musician now? Would you want to be if you’re not?
At the moment my main “job” is helping to run a food sovereignty organization and CSA (community supported agriculture) project that my friend Tianna founded. It’s been such an incredible learning experience and I’m very grateful to be doing work that feels vital and anti-capitalist and inspiringly human- and ecologically-oriented. I also do quite a bit of freelance graphic design work, mostly for musician and artist friends (album art, posters, book covers, etc.). But yeah, for the last few years I’ve managed to cobble together a fulfilling mix of work that all seems to be fed by the same passions and values, which feels great. I don’t think I’d ever want to be doing any one thing at the expense of some mix, but it would be really great if music were a more sustainable endeavor economically. At this point, all in all, it’s usually a money-losing venture. Which is obviously exacerbated by the predatory, exploitative business models of the streaming platforms.
FTR: The record seems to be something of a genre-hopping experience, how would you describe Field Guides’ sound?
Oh boy, I’m terrible at describing the sound. But I’m really glad you’re hearing a diversity of styles. Some of that might come from thinking in more of a collagist way about these songs, given the breadth of collaborators. Some of the players are coming from more of a jazz world, so that seeped in a bit, and I was cognizant of letting in more of my adolescent love of alt-country and folk-rock. I think Ginkgo has some of my most unabashedly earnest songwriting and the most experimental stuff we’ve ever done, so there’s a lot of contrasts and deliberately odd juxtapositions.
FTR: I was interested in the array of influences on this record, what were you listening to when you wrote this record?
These songs were written over several years, so lots of music probably seeped in over that span, but there are several records I’m very aware of having influenced me:
- Aldous Harding – Party and Designer
- Sandro Perri – In Another Life
- Judee Sill – Heart Food
- everything by Arthur Russell
- Nick Cave – Ghosteen
- Harold Budd – The Pearl
- Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
FTR: What about influences outside of music? Do other creative endeavours inspire your songwriting?
I think the most salient influences come primarily from other mediums and from beyond art entirely. More often than not, the first seed of a song sprouts from a book I’m reading. “Margaret” grew out of a book called Figuring by Maria Popova. “Agios Sillas” emerged from A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman. “Cicadas in the Lemon Trees” is largely inspired by Greek mythology. Several of the songs are inspired by trees.
FTR: Your press release references a Donal Barthelme quote, “mixing bits of this and that from various areas of life to make something that did not exist before is an oddly hopeful endeavor”. Are you a hopeful person?
Yeah, I hope so! (Haha.) I think there’s a really important distinction to be made between optimism and hope. I think it’s hard to keep one’s eyes open these days and feel optimistic, as I said before. So much is pointing toward some pretty terrifying outcomes: climate collapse, dehumanizing late-stage capitalism, a global drift toward authoritarianism and fascism, regressive elimination of hard-won rights, etc. But unlike optimism, I think hope comes along with a responsibility to fight to make things better. I think art is inherently a hopeful endeavor, in that it requires a belief that an exchange of ideas and perspectives, an expansion of empathy, is worthwhile.
FTR: Will you be taking Ginkgo on the road? What can people expect from the Field Guides live show?
We just finished a short run of shows over here (in the northeastern US), and those were fun. We reinterpreted these sprawling songs from the new album into more sparse and spacious arrangements. But for our hometown shows we’ll be a big sextet with reeds and keys. Since the album was largely made in such a hodgepodge fashion, it’s really exciting to hear the arrangements come to life all at once in a room. I’m so lucky to play with some of the most talented musicians I know: Taylor Bergren-Chrisman on bass, Dave Scanlon on guitar, Mike Gebhart on keys, Rachel Housle on drums/vocals, and Aaron Rourk on reeds.