Future State: The Portingales draw from past experiences on “Paint a Little Tree” album
The second album by the Ann Arbor indie-rock duo of Phillip Campbell (vocals, guitars, bass, drums, piano) and V. Rose Cieri (vocals, violin, viola, cello) explores how past experiences, relationships, and life lessons affect how we handle what’s to come.
“I really feel like the theme of this album is ... ‘Your life is what you’re going to make of it. What choices today will you [make] to create the life that you want for yourself while coming to terms with where you’ve been?’” Campbell said. “It’s very much an album at the crossroads of life where you’re sorting things out.”
At that pivotal moment, The Portingales hover between a glistening hope and a haunting melancholy on Paint a Little Tree. Each track elicits a deep search for identity and purpose while tackling longtime challenges and setbacks.
“‘Ebb and Flow’ … that’s the whole theme of the album in that song. It’s about being in this place, and you’re thinking, ‘Do I want to be elsewhere? Am I stuck where I’m at?’” Campbell said. “You just have to go with what life brings you and ride out the waves and try to swim in whatever direction you’re going.”
Throughout Paint a Little Tree, The Portingales offer honest lyrics, wistful instrumentation, and refreshing waves of indie-folk, pop-punk, and shoegaze sensibilities. It’s a 40-minute cathartic immersion within nine contemplative tracks—a must-listen for fans of The Church and The Shins.
The duo’s immersion starts with the spirited opener, “Walk Backwards,” as radiant electric guitar, bass, drums, and cymbals push Campbell forward. He sings, “Cuz your hair was tangled by the wind and the waves / And my brain was dizzy on my dreams / Dreams of happiness and a little house / All our domestic fantasies.”
“On the first album, the past is right there looming like something that’s hurting you. On the second album, the past is still there, but it’s no longer a threat to you,” said Campbell, who formed The Portingales with Cieri in 2019 and whose band moniker stems from a historical term for “Portuguese.”
“You can look back on it, and you’re realizing, ‘I’ve been there, but I don’t want to walk backwards into that again.’ You have the benefit of looking at the past, but at a safe distance.”
The Portingales also keep a safe distance in the pandemic-era video for “Walk Backwards,” which features Campbell playing different instruments in his home. He worked with Ann Arbor director Charlie Steen to record the video in 2021.
“I hired Charlie because he makes music videos, and there’s a very specific art form to it,” Campbell said. “Our music videos are just us jamming, and it’s not like we have a huge budget, but he makes it look like we have a huge budget.”
Regardless of budget, The Portingales infuse a huge sound into the addictive Paint a Little Tree pop-punk anthem, “Bob Ross.” A mighty force of drums, bass, electric guitar, piano, and strings challenge the demise of a past creative partnership.
Campbell and Cieri sing, “Along the way you started fresh / In an empty space I didn’t see /Hang what we started in a gallery /We live on artificial scarcity.”
“I was in this [other] band, and I felt like this bandmate of mine was branching off in a different direction and just leaving me behind creatively. We had this really close-knit partnership … so that’s where all the metaphors of ‘Well, you can paint a picture as we did together and then throw it out,’” said Cieri, who wrote the track.
“The phrase, ‘Do it if you wanna,’ is like me daring this person, ‘OK, you can do that if you wanna.’ You can also look at that song from the flipside, and ‘Do it if you wanna’ can be like encouragement.”
Campbell sings, “I dreamed that everything I wanted came true for a day / I woke up in a clammy sweat—it had all flown away / Would you be my friend, would you take me by the hand? / Rest my head upon your lap till I can understand?”
“The biggest influence in our music is [stuff] that we go through or have gone through,” said Campbell, whose inspirations range from Tool to traditional Irish music with Cieri. “It’s like the Taylor Swift syndrome, so we do use that as a port of safety in the storms of life.”
The Portingales weather additional storms on “Sleep, Little Bird,” a cathartic song for tackling and processing internal struggles.
Cieri sings, “My arms will encircle you when you are lonely / In silence and song, we’ll hold each other closely / And if your nest falls, I’ll rebuild it / Again and again and again and again.”
“Emily Dickinson’s poem, ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,’ was my initial concept for this song. I’m singing a lullaby to the thing with feathers that represents hope,” she said. “That song is about trying to maintain hope while dealing with trauma and mental health struggles in my late 20s and pushing through all of that.”
To bring Paint a Little Tree to life, Campbell and Cieri pushed through pandemic-induced delays to record the album’s nine tracks at Ann Arbor’s Big Sky Recording over 14 months. They teamed up with engineers Geoff Michael and Marty Gray and collaborators Oliver Barron (trumpet) and Lucy Campbell (backup vocals) to shape their emotive, whimsical sound.
“It was maybe 30 percent done when the pandemic started, and we had about half of the album’s rough tracks cut. There was some stuff that I did remote … but I needed to see the wavelengths on the screen,” Campbell said.
“Geoff and I have worked together long enough that I can tell him, ‘You know what I want it to sound like,’ and he’ll do it.”
While Paint a Little Tree came out in April 2021, the future-minded Portingales have dropped several reflective singles since then, including “My Bloody Feet,” “You Took a Picture with Your Eyes,” “Put My Heart to Sleep,” and “Out My Window.”
“I’ve got another two or three songs that are being mixed right now. If we have four, five, or six singles, then maybe we’ll put out a short album or an EP,” Campbell said.
“The only thing that’s stopping me is that these singles are all crazy different in style. You’ve got ‘Out My Window,’ then there’s a piano song, a folk song … every single one is different.”
Lori Stratton is a library technician, writer for Pulp, and writer and editor of strattonsetlist.com.