Becoming Cheval Sombre: The Hudson Valley Musician on Collaboration, Composition, and Cowboys
Artist Christopher Porpora opens up for a rare interview to discuss his new album with Dean Wareham and his growth as a music-maker in the Valley.
Cheval Sombre and Dean Wareham
Photos by Luz Gallardo
Cheval Sombre is a dark horse.
Christopher Porpora, whose stage name literally translates to ‘dark horse’ in French, has always been something of an under-the-radar enigma. As a youth growing up in the Hudson Valley, he forged a path into the local music scene, first as a self-taught artist and later as a radio DJ, rock musician, and poet. After debuting in 2009 with a self-titled LP, Porpora released a slew of limited edition singles and albums, including Mad Love in 2012 and Madder Love in 2014.
This year, he embarks on his most intriguing, mesmerizing project yet. His new album, Dean Wareham vs. Cheval Sombre, is a collaborative effort between Porpora and Dean Wareham, the singer and guitarist behind bands Galaxie 500 and Luna. Operating as a fusion of dream-pop and western, the soundtrack simultaneously evokes feelings of wanderlust and longings for home with mellow, highly listenable lyrics and melodies that resonate with audiences of all ages and inclinations.
As Wareham and Cheval Sombre team up for shows at New York City’s Le Poisson Rouge on December 7 and San Francisco’s The Chapel on January 26, we caught up with Porpora to discuss becoming a musician in the Hudson Valley and defining his own sound.
Congrats on the new release! How did the collaboration with Dean Wareham come to be?
Cheval Sombre: Thank you. The cowboy album — as it’s often been called — has been making its way for years. A while back, during a particularly difficult period…Dean sent along a postcard to cheer me up — of a chevalier. He followed that up with a video of “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me,” and soon one of us was suggesting to the other that we do some western-sounding songs.
Working with Dean is breezy — wonderful. He’s a kindred spirit. We’ve known each other for years and he played on “I Found It Not So” and some of the earliest records I did. I had always admired Galaxie 500, so I had a sense of where he might come from musically. And he delivered — magically then, just as he does today.
When did you start making music? When did you realize it was something you wanted to pursue?
CS: I started pretty young. My father had a classical guitar in the house I’d unlock in the evenings. I had no training, so it was a lot of feeling around in the dark. I listened to my father’s collection extensively, as well as much of what was on 91.3, WVKR Poughkeepsie. Looking back, it was a wide palette with which to work — Mamas and the Papas, Segovia, Allegory and Self, Vivaldi…early acid-house and noise records — all kinds of things.
In high school, I got invited to try out for a band, which surprised me. We became The Holy Trinity and played regularly at The Rhinecliff Hotel, when it was lawless and wild. Things got inevitably chaotic and, after the band came undone, I found myself performing here and there, alone, doing some old blues and Appalachian things I found in a book. Cheval Sombre came a bit later, after a dear friend — Matt Wells — showed me how to record at home. Then the songs came.
How has your sound changed since you began?
CS: Goodness — well, it’s gone from deafeningly loud to devastatingly quiet.
Which types of music influences you?
CS: Influence is vast, dangerous. I find it difficult to be out there where any old music is playing. Long ago, I dispensed with types — just let it go. Anything sincere has the capacity to take me away. I regard an artist as someone with the ability to take us elsewhere to some other genuine place; the Hudson Valley is full of [artists].
The new album closes with “Grand Canyon,” which is a cover of Stephin Merritt’s work with the magnificent Magnetic Fields, who I hear has been sighted in the Hudson Valley. And then there are Darshan Jesrani’s records — each and every one of them — dance music of the very highest degree — a brilliant flower grown in Hudson Valley soil. You’ve seen those Hazy Rhythm Wonder Band signs seemingly appearing everywhere? There’s a hint.
What type of person listens to Cheval Sombre?
CS: Hopefully anyone. Anyone looking for a little sanctuary.
Describe your connection to the Hudson Valley. What’s the Valley’s connection to your music?
CS: Speaking of sanctuaries, the Hudson Valley is one. I grew up here. Just after I had my driver’s license, a DJ from WVKR actually invited me over to the studio at Vassar and offered me a radio slot on Wednesdays, I think, from noon to two. I had to skip school once a week — gratefully — to do it. I’ll always be indebted to Vassar for that.
The Hudson Valley is a treasure and I feel that it will always be so. And yes, I choose to be here still.
You’ve published poetry and been in a rock band. How do those experiences play into your work as an independent artist?
CS: Poems and music, music and poems — [the] origins are the same. To bring out a poem undressed in du jour’s fashion is always a risky kind of thing. To write a song unswayed by audience or critical expectations, folks will admit is a kind of suicide. But you rightly use the word independent — what is independence? To whom does independence cater? As Bowie sang, “It ain’t easy.” But is it worthwhile to carry out one’s own, natural vision? It is.
Speaking of independence, it seems like you collaborate quite a bit. What is it like to work alongside other artists?
CS: Working alone certainly has its advantages, but someone told me once that moderation might be good, too. Communication brings revelation. The cowboy album is, well, when Dean tapped me on the shoulder, an entirely gorgeous, whole world revealed in itself.
I did a record called Give Me Something with Alastair Galbraith, whose part nearly knocked me over into tears when I first heard it.
I wish Pete Kember lived nearby — I’ve always told him that. I sent my first recordings to him with a sense of faith and trust in another musician I am still unable to articulate.
What’s on the horizon for you both short and long-term?
CS: We’ve got a few shows coming up for the cowboy album, so I’m rehearsing. Also, Sonic Boom and I are working on the third Cheval Sombre album, after some sessions earlier this year in Portugal. The decade anniversary of my first LP is coming in 2019 and, if things can work out, I’d like to do something special to remember it.