Port O’Brien is America’s answer to the New Zealand folk rock movement.
Contrary to popular belief, the Oakland-based band are named for a real place; it’s a small cannery on Alaska’s Kodiak Island, now deserted, where lead singer Van Pierszalowski’s parents met in 1969. “About 10 or 15 years ago it was abandoned, bought by a corporation, closed, and boarded up,” Pierszalowski explained. “It’s still there, but now it’s rotting away-being eaten by the Earth.” But the spirit of the once-bustling cannery lives vicariously through the art folk music makers that share its name; Port O’Brien the band continue to thrive, as the fivesome are now preparing to take their new tunes on tour.
Pierszalowski (lead vocals and guitars) and Cambria Goodwin (vocals, banjo, keys, and mandolin), whose musical efforts came together in 2005, are the core members-and romantic relationship-behind Port O’Brien. It wasn’t long after their initial union that the pair added a rhythm section and became the collaborative effort they are today, complete with percussion and harp.
It’s rare to find these two in California during the summer. Based on their authentic Alaskan namesake and the majority of their lyrics, it comes as no surprise that the group spends summers in America’s Last Frontier, not far off Kodiak Island-just like Pierszalowski’s parents had done many years ago. This summer, however, the band find themselves heading out of their collective comfort zone to tout their wares. “We’re happy to be on the road, and play all these cities for all these people,” Pierszalowski said.
But after having spent summers on his father’s commercial salmon fishing boat since he was just a kid, Pierszalowski (not surprisingly) now finds it challenging to be on land during the long, hot summer months. “It’s really hard not being there,” he laughed. “We’re slowly accepting being Californians for the summer. When you first get back [on land] you say, ‘Man I am never, never doing that again!’ But as months pass by, you remember special things: isolation and solace from doing nothing but really hard work.”
Without knowing much of literature and music, the idea of isolation and solace doesn’t seem to indicate any profound sense of inspiration. But Pierszalowski’s work begs to differ, recalling some of America’s most famous and brilliant authors who, at one time or other, were sailors. Notable writers such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg (Howl), and, of course, Herman Melville were all Merchant Marines at one point prior to writing. And Pierszalowski has his own thoughts about what is so inherently inspiring about being at sea.
“Out there in Alaska, feelings and emotions are buried by the reality of everyday living-in cities, paying bills, getting parking tickets. When surrounded with ocean and nothing but wilderness and bears, it all gets taken away. [The sea] is really a place where you can get all your buried emotions and frustrations out on the table.”
The band’s recent release, All We Could Do Was Sing, aims to dig even deeper into this realm. “We never considered [2007’s] The Wind and the Swell our debut album,” Pierszalowski asserted. “It was recorded with one mike in bedrooms and bathrooms in Oakland. It’s really patchwork.” Patchwork or not, the band’s folksie bluegrass-meets-blues-rock first effort was impressive enough to receive a notable amount of media attention, laying the groundwork necessary to make the collective want to invest in their new tunes, hop on tour with rock heroes Modest Mouse, and, earlier this year, famed indie sensations the Black Heart Procession.
All We Could Do Was Sing is an epic epoch for Pierszalowski and Goodwin, telling the stories of the many frustrations the duo faced during their seafaring adventures. Goodwin, who spent her summers as the head baker for a cannery in the nearby Larson Bay, worked anywhere from 18 to 22 hours per day on land, while Pierszalowski bided his time on the fishing boat without a chance to port for weeks. “The new album was done in a studio during eight days with an album and track listing in mind,” he explained. “This time we had a general story to tell. [We] consider this our debut album.” The story is one of disappointment, but the album also touches quite authentically on ideas of destiny and the desire to settle despite feelings of restlessness and the juxtaposition of being isolated and yet fully emerged in life.
Port O’Brien’s now off and running California tour will include one stop in Santa Barbara, at the delightfully quaint Muddy Waters Cafe, on Wednesday, July 9. Show goers can expect to witness what the term “jam band” really means by way of some seriously rocking songs (“Tree Bones,” “Close the Lid”), sincere harmonies (“Five and Dime”), and consistent, almost frolicking rhythms (“I Woke Up Today”). Without a doubt, it’s one adventure that should not be missed.