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Interviews

Gregory Porter: Sound & Vision

By Published: August 6, 2012
AAJ: You really reveal, even if it's just through the imagery, a lot of yourself through many of these songs. "Mother's Song," for example—how do you go through that process of mining your own feelings about your own mother so deeply? How easy or difficult is that? Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?



GP: Yeah. I am a spiritual person. And I think this music is spiritual, when it's done right. All of the masters that I loved to listen to—from Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
to John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
to Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
to Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
1924 - 1990
vocalist
to Nat King Cole to Carmen McRae
Carmen McRae
Carmen McRae
1920 - 1994
vocalist
to Joe Williams
Joe Williams
Joe Williams
1918 - 1999
vocalist
, and we could go on and on—when they're in it, when they're really in it, doing it and swinging hard. It sounds like—I think of Dinah Washington
Dinah Washington
Dinah Washington
1924 - 1963
vocalist
—and it sounds like an outdoor tent service. It sounds very spiritual. It didn't necessarily need to have a denomination. It doesn't necessarily have to be church. But it's definitely a spiritual and moving thing.

In terms of revealing things about myself, yes: "Real Good Hands" both suggests and provokes that question. When I do that song at gigs, people are constantly saying, "That's a true story! Who's the girl?" It's not a tricky device. That's just how it is for me—for me, I write best from personal experience or involvement. But it doesn't have to be: a songwriter should be a very empathetic person and should understand other situations that they're not in. That happens as well, but for me, I write best from personal situations.

Another thing I've realized in putting myself out there is that the more personal your story, the more universal it is—the more people connect. People know what it is because they feel like they're going through it with you or they've been there themselves. I think the more specific, in a way, the more universal it can be, because the listener understands that they feel these same things.

I learned this—this thing about the more personal something is, the more universal—I learned this in writing a musical called Nat King Cole & Me about how I came to Nat King Cole's music, in the absence of my father. It's not about Nat King Cole; it's about that relationship, about how I traversed life, and growing up into a young man without my father. I performed it at the Denver Center for two months, 800 people a night. After the shows, people would sometimes come up to me and give me their personal stories about their father. It seems like everybody has an issue with their father, whether he was in the house and absent or out of the house and completely absent. Those were some extraordinary conversations, and I realized, "Wow, this is about me, but this is not about me." One of the songs in the play asks the question "Was my father there when I was born?" I asked this question of my mother and never got an answer. So I asked the question, and I sang the song, but after the show people would tell me how much that song touched them: "I've asked that same question, too." Just when you think you're the only one going through something or thinking about something, you're not. You're really not.

Nat's voice came in, and I had to pick myself up, dust myself off, and get started all over again. [Sings] "Smile, though your heart is breaking..." It comforts you in a way; that's an unintended consequence of music sometimes. Nat didn't have any idea that in 1977, '78, some kid would be sitting next to a console stereo considering the lyrics of the songs he was singing, considering his voice and his persona and his album photos as some fatherly image. He couldn't imagine that, but that was the reality for me.

AAJ: He's justly famous for his vocals, but do you have any favorites from his instrumental piano trio?

GP: I am more partial to the vocals, but there's a lot of great stuff: the After Midnight (1957, Capitol) recording is amazing.

AAJ: When you're all alone, and you know nobody can hear you, and it's been a bad day, what songs do you sing to cheer yourself up?

GP: This is going to sound strange, but, like, the blues—things that are developed organically. The blues, before they were recorded, they were used; they were like emotional medicine for people. And, though you're singing about some sorrowful things, there can be an emotional cleansing from singing about something that's very sad. When I'm sad, I'm not necessarily walking around singing [sings] "Oh, what a beautiful morning!" In a way, that's inauthentic. Sometimes I will sing exactly what I'm feeling. I really do. I've come to the point where I do harvest my emotions because I know that something clever or interesting could come out of it.

Gospel, songs that my mother sang, and for me, just vocalizing like my mother and my grandmother used to do, really puts me at ease. They would just take a gospel blues chord and hum over that, and they could do that all day long. But if I do it for 15, 20 minutes, it really does take me to a place.


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