Gregory Porter on music, family and the healing power of love
He was 38 when he cut his debut album and 42 when he lifted the first of his two Grammy Awards. Behind him lay years of struggle to make his voice heard outside of neighbourhood bars and restaurants while making ends meet working as a chef.
Small wonder, then, that the theme of perseverance crops up so regularly in the songs on his sixth album All Rise (the record had been due out this month and has now been pushed back to August). While the 48-year-old might sing with the reassuring ease of his musical hero Nat ‘King’ Cole, Porter knows that it takes strength of spirit to keep battling through.
On the phone from New York, the singer admits that after paying homage to his idol on the 2017 album Nat King Cole and Me, he had been itching to write his own songs again. Not that he didn’t enjoy the diversion, he says.
He warms to a discussion on All Rise’s recurring themes of self-doubt and battling adversity. “Yeah, these are personal feelings that have happened in my life and even that still happen now,” he says. “We all go through these moments of self-doubt and insecurity. I think overcoming that and just the simple poetry of revival is important. But in many of my songs I think if I’m talking about the optimism of love, I’m also talking about overcoming the negativities of things that can happen internally as well. So I’m always thinking of battling and fighting against the slings and arrows that come in the way of love.”
In the song Dad Gone Thing, Porter talks about his father, Rufus, a keen singer who, he has said in previous interviews, was “straight-up absent” from his life. Instead Porter and his seven siblings were raised in Bakersfield, California, by their mother, Ruth, a church minister, who died of cancer when he was 21 years old. Rufus had died a year earlier.
The singer says he wanted to talk about such problems to help others in a similar situation. “I’m also salvaging for myself this relationship,” he says. “I mean listen to the irony in the song. In a way it seems like I’m complaining about him but [I also say] ‘You didn’t teach me a dad gone thing but how to sing’. This is the very thing that’s brought me fame and it’s bought my house and brought me success, so I’m thankful. It’s actually kind of a ‘thank you’ song...
“I think I’ve gained more clarity and understanding of him in his absence more so than I did when he was alive. There are still things that can be worked out and I’m working it out on vinyl.”
While much of Porter’s songbook focuses on romantic concerns, he has not been afraid to occasionally tackle social and political issues. On All Rise, the song Revival talks about his “relatives”, black Americans who came from the South to places such as Bakersfield to work on the farms and brought gospel with them.
The song Mr Holland addresses prejudice Porter experienced in boyhood. “It’s a rewriting of the treatment that I did get when I was a young man in high school, trying to date this girl whose family rejected me. It’s a revealing kind of thing to go back and remember those painful little moments,” he explains.
“The funny thing is that I’ve made it this positive thing. I graciously use the name of one of your countrymen, Jools Holland, they’re just two great names. You know, ‘Hello, Mr Holland, can Rosie Mae come out and play?’It was just poetry right when I started to write the song. I probably started writing it when I was at Jools’s house, he invited me in and treated me sweet and kind and normal and we listened to blues records, so there are references to my visit to see him in the music.
“I’m not in love with his daughter,” he hastens to add with a hearty chuckle, “but I took creative licence. Quite frankly, from teenage years, I’ve changed the names to protect the guilty.” As for his fondness for love songs, the father-of-one believes he is at heart a true romantic.
“I’m optimistic about love; I’m sentimental about love unapologetically. There’s a pensiveness, there’s also a sophisticated, sorrowful thing that I deal with when I’m thinking of love,” he says.
“Love is this extraordinary thing, it warms you but it also frightens you at the same time. I deal with that in a song like Merry Go Round, ‘you can choose a different horse but that doesn’t change the course, I’m still going to love you anyway’. It’s irrepressible. Love is the champion, I want love to win in spite of all of the things that come its way.”
When injury at San Diego State University ended his hopes of becoming an American football player, Porter set out to become a singer with the encouragement of his mother, who entreated him from her death bed to ‘sing, baby, sing.’ It’s been a long path to success, he acknowledges, but he drew sustenance even from small audiences.
“People talk about the contact that they have with fans now on social media and it’s extraordinary, but I think the very small contact that I had with groups of people who listened to my music over the years, it was them saying subtle encouragement, ‘oh you’ve got to keep singing’, or ‘where can I hear you?’ If you have a bit of self-doubt and insecurity within you, somebody coming to you, holding your hand and saying: ‘When can I see you again? When can I hear you again?’ as an artist it’s enough fuel in your tank to keep you going.
“If you’re an artist and a fan comes to you and says they’ll be back next week, it gives you this feeling of encouragement to keep going and I’ve had that throughout my career. People [have been] saying to me since I was 20, ‘I can’t wait until you make a record’. It was a long journey.”
Porter has described music as therapy. He sees it as the one great constant throughout his life. “Absolutely, it has been that, and it’s a way that I can exercise the joys and pains that I’ve had in my life, and it’s the way that I’m meandering through life.
“I think that I’ve had this great opportunity to come to some healing and resolution in my head and heart and maybe the music brings the same thing to other people, so I feel really lucky to have this job and this conviction.”
All Rise is due out on August 28. Gregory Porter had been scheduled to play at the First Direct Arena, Leeds, on May 11. Please check the venue’s website for updates.
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