When Van Pierszalowski, the rousing voice of acclaimed folk rockers Port O’Brien sings about the sea, he doesn’t do so out of some vague and abstract interest, but because the sea has long been his main source of inspiration and his very lifeblood.
With a background working 20-hour shifts as a fisherman in Alaska’s Kodiak Island, he had plenty of maritime lore to draw upon for the group’s first studio album All We Could Do Was Sing, which ranged from the autumnal reflection of songs like Fisherman’s Son to the stirring radio hit I Woke Up Today.
But recently the songs started to take a darker turn. Always a strictly autobiographical writer, his output was inevitably touched by tragedy when the younger brother of band-mate Cambria Goodwin, the group’s other core member, passed away. Both Pierszalowski and Goodwin had been close to her sibling, living with him in his final days.
Some of the new songs deal with this pain head-on: My Will Is Good is a statement of resilience, while the ambitious High Without The Hope drips with emotional heaviness. With the shock of loss still prominent, the group travelled to San Francisco where they recorded the first songs for new album Threadbare in the home studio of close friend and Papercuts member Jason Quever, who offered a cosy, dimly-lit space where his living room doubles as the recording area. It was, Pierszalowski explains, “a really intimate way to record.”
So did playing music help the healing process? “Yeah it really did, especially for Cambria. It was a really intense time and it really did help [her] to have something to work on, songs to work on and writing, but even more the recording, because that’s when you’re finally able to get the feelings out.” This sense of energy is palpable throughout the sweep of Threadbare; there’s real rawness and naked passion. Drums pound like skipped heartbeats, strings bleed with feeling.
For Pierszalowski, the cathartic power of music “is one of the main reasons we play”. They spent 23 days straight recording in their friend’s studio and reached a point of immersion in their work where “it didn’t even feel like recording anymore, it felt like therapy. Jason played a big role in that too; he and Cambria were very close. It felt like in a way music was holding us together and allowing us to deal with all these things.”
Despite having existed in one form or another since 2005, the group’s commercial breakthrough in this country came when their rollicking I Woke Up Today was used in a Dulux commercial. Pierszalowski recalls the offer as coming out of the blue and being a kind of godsend for a band which is struggling to break even, despite their strong critical reputation and the support of high-profile musicians like Johnny Marr and M. Ward, who famously called them his “favourite new band”.
Pierszalowski admits the commercial has been the band’s main source of income over the past year. Their somewhat parlous finances have meant they need to stay with their parents and couch-surf while on tour to meet the expenses of living as touring musicians. The sheer cost of keeping a band on the road, he agrees, is not something widely appreciated outside of the industry. “I never realised before what it was like – every show you have to pay your agent, the tour manager, your business manager and your lawyer. By the time anything gets to the band, you have to split it five ways and you don’t really have enough money to do anything.”
Keen to return to Australia after appearing in the touring Laneway Festival earlier this year, Pierszalowski can also see a time when he again heads out on his father’s fishing boat. Life at sea is back-breaking labour that can stretch on seemingly forever in the round the clock sunlight of an Alaskan summer. But Pierszalowski cherishes the link to his family it provides, as well as the moments of calm and isolation that always seem to result in a bunch of new songs being written. It’s where the problems of everyday life melt away.
On land, he tells me, “There’s always a lot of thoughts that get in the way, friend drama and work drama that you have to go through – All that doesn’t exist out there.”
Writing on the road proved an impossible task for Pierszalowski, who can only work by waiting for inspiration to strike. “I probably should have set aside time for writing at different points, but I don’t like that. I don’t believe in it. If I felt like I had to write, I would have never written a song.”
Ultimately, the creative process seems as unfathomable as the sea, a force that needs to be respected, if never quite understood. There’s no way to artificially bolster creativity, Pierszalowski reasons, nor any way to predict it: “You just never know when it’s going to hit you.”
Originally appeared in: Faster Louder