Raucous Sea-faring Anthems and Constant Collaboration

Since Port O’Brien formed as a duo in 2005, further members have gradually been collected along the way, and this journey and variety is reflected in their latest release, All We Could Do Was Sing. We caught up with lead singer, Van, enjoying his first summer away from commercial fishing in Alaska to chat about life in the burgeoning band.


Beginning as a folk duo with small coffee-shop gigs, Van and Cambria would often complete performances “by just using people who would sit in and who knew our songs. Eventually, as time went on and we started playing bigger places we found it was necessary that we added an official rhythm section to our band,” and so Port O’Brien gradually transformed into a professional outfit.

As the tracks were collaborations from the separate musings of Van Pierszalowski, Cambria Goodwin and Caleb Nichols, All We Could Do Was Sing fluctuates between guitar-centric indie, pared-down acoustic, and upbeat folk. While Pierszalowski endured gruelling 20-hour days at sea, Goodwin was musing over compositions at the Larsen Bay village bakery and Nichols was equally distracted at the local cannery. This motley crew of inspirations will “commonly be pieced together, combined with each other’s work to make something completely different.”

Van’s segregated existence, with annual four-month stretches of isolation has “framed my entire life” and provided a rich basis for soul-searching and musical inspiration. “My time on the boat has created key aspects of writing the songs. It strips your mind so you can really focus on the basic core feelings and emotions”. Van’s single-minded focus on his fishing strategy, the loneliness of the sea and sheer exhaustion combine to create “a more natural and honest way of thinking and writing.”

The lead track, I Woke Up Today, deftly incorporates the eclectic voices and inspirations of the band’s component parts into a joyous proclamation of “in the morning all I could do was sing” and could easily be a sea-faring anthem. Further along, Pigeonhold combines a toe-tapping regularity with light-hearted teenage angst like, “There’s a feeling in my gut/ Telling me to shut up”. Meanwhile the vocals of Will You Be There are echoing and electronic, interspersing elaborate guitar riffs and rolling drums — almost a happy Arcade Fire.

Having crammed their previous European tour into 12 days, Van is eagerly anticipating a month-long visit in October and encourages people to “come along and party with us. When we’re playing live we have a huge box of pots that we pass around the audience to play,” thereby continuing their collaborative opportunities in a very impromptu and organic way.

The inspirations of All We Could Do Was Sing keep Port O’Brien’s sound eclectic and diverse, and the album is out now on City Slang. www.portobrien.com.

Ruby Beesley