Gregory Porter in the Country
Posted 8/16/2013

Thereís a song on the next record called ďWhen Love Was King,Ē and I get to one portion of the song where, [Porter begins to sing] ďHe lifted up the underneath/ And all his wealth he did bequeath/ To those who toiled without a gain/ So they would remember his reign/ So seek some place to call your own/ Right beside this mighty, shining throne/ When love was king/ When love was king.Ē So Ö

[Editorís Note: At this point, the conversation is halted by applause, whoops and whistles.]

PORTER: My point was, I didnít do that for a hand clap, what I want to say is, I think thatís who I am. ďHe lifted up the underneath.Ē Those people who have been pushed down. ďHe lifted up the underneath/ And all his wealth he did bequeath.Ē Yeah, he didnít give up all of his money, but he gave them some. He gave some money to the [Litchfield Jazz] Camp. Ha, ha, ha. [audience laughs]

ALKYER: All the money to the camp.

PORTER: All the money to the camp, OK. He gave all the money to the camp. Save the babies. So, thatís the kind of thing I want to say. You know, helping somebody and making somebody feel better. Building people out. Thatís how I figured out, ďOK, thatís who you are, Gregory Porter.Ē

SMULYAN: Do you write at the piano?

PORTER: No, I write with my voice. I was just talking to [Bill Saxton], a saxophone player for Randy Weston. Heís been playing saxophone for 50 years, incredibly. Heís like, ďGregory, I write with my voice.Ē He said, ďI donít touch my horn when Iím writing.Ē So, thatís why my melodies develop [first]. Then, bass line, rhythm, chords come later. I get together with my piano player, Chip Crawford, and we work it out.

SMULYAN: So, words come first.

PORTER: Yeah, words and melody.

SMULYAN: Then you work out the changes and the bass line and the rhythm and all that.

PORTER: Yeah, yeah. Usually the rhythm comes to me, and itís like, ďAhhh!Ē Because once something gets good to you, you get excited.

SMULYAN: Does the song present itself all at once, or do you have to work at it?

PORTER: A chunk of it will come to me all at once.

SMULYAN: Itís interesting how music comes to you. Some people say they sit at the piano and it takes a long time to write one song. But other folks, it just comes out.

PORTER: I used to think that melody and lyrics just come to everybody. Itís not like that.

SMULYAN: Not to me. [audience laughs]

PORTER: Whether theyíre good or not, they keep coming to me. So, I used to assume that everybody was that way.

ALKYER: Gregory, thereís a very theatrical, narrative approach to your songwriting. You can feel it. I can see your songs onstage. You come by that honestly because you worked in musical theater. Do you feel that made a real impact on the way you write songs?

PORTER: No. [laughter]

ALKYER: OK, Iím out.

PORTER: Yeah, get out of here! Who let this guy onstage! [laughs] I would say thatís more of an approach from my mother. And from my upbringing in church.

The type of preaching that was happening, the sermon took place pretty much on a Shakespearean stage. Thatís how the black gospel church developed.

They lay the foundation. They tell the story. And they give you the end. And itís like happily ever after, or they burn forever after in hell. You know? But Shakespeare is definitely in the black church. So, the theatrical elements of telling a story are there.

I realize the theme of water that keeps coming up in my music was my motherís sermons. She spoke of the redemptive qualities of water all the time in her sermons. Iím like, ďWhereís this water theme that keeps coming up in my music?Ē Even when Iíve got a broken heart, Iím like, oh, water, wash me. Do something to me. Let me drift away. Cleanse me. Renew me. Green me. Drown me. It was those sermons.

ALKYER: Now, the other thing about you is just singing a song over and over again, having those regular gigs at [St. Nickís] Pub. Thatís something for everyone out here. A lot of kids donít have that kind of opportunity or donít think about, ďOh, Iíve got to get a regular gig. Iíve got to do this song a hundred times before itís ready to go on record.Ē

PORTER: Yeah, St. Nickís Pub. Whatever your experience is, it doesnít have to be an established music room. It could be you and your buddies getting together and playing some music. If weíre talking to the young musicians, it doesnít have to be an established performance. This is just how I feel. It could be just getting together and running the music. That can bring a particular feeling that you want to have on stage.

SMULYAN: Yeah, you have to work it out.

AUDIENCE MEMBER QUESTION: ďBe Good (Lionís Song)Ē [from the 2012 CD Be Good (Motéma)], it reminds me so much of Bill Leeís stuff.

SMULYAN: Bill Lee? Thatís my idol.

PORTER: Thatís interesting. Iíll take that.

For me, itís a grown manís lullaby. I was really trying to soothe myself. That broken heart? She cut me again. [laughter] Then, how do you define somebody in a relationship when sheís put you in this box, in this cage, and they wonít let you out?

[Porter sings] ďShe said lions are for cages/ Just to look at and delight.Ē She loved being around me. ďYou dare not let íem walk around/ íCause they might just bite.Ē She didnít want to let me out. Sheís like, ďOh, God, if I love him, itíll be all over with.Ē Maybe. I donít know.

AUDIENCE MEMBER QUESTION: Iím wondering if you have a ritual for your gorgeous voice. Do you take care of your voice, or is it just a gift from God?

PORTER: Ah, yeah, butter, cheese, wine Ö no! [laughter] I know the limits of my voice. I just canít be in the cold too much and, you know, donít scream too much before the show. I try to enjoy myself. I warm up with songs. I warm up with, ďIíve been searching all the corners of my room. ÖĒ I warm up with a song that will do all of those things.

ALKYER: What kind of vocal training did you have?

PORTER: I donít want to give everything to the church, but it was very spotty. A little bit here at this year of my life. And then, in junior high, there was a little something. Then there are all the musicians that I deal with. Iím with Chip Crawford now. We worked a lot together. Then there was Kamau Kenyatta. Then, there was Daniel Jackson. These were all my friends. And over lunch, the conversation would be, ďOh, letís run over ĎíRound Midnightí again in this key and see how that feels, see what the bridge feels like now.Ē So, yeah, in a way, living it. And I donít want to make it seem like, [in a gravelly voice] ďYeah, my life is jazz, baby. I live jazz.Ē Thatís not what Iím saying Ö but thatís what Iím saying. [laughter]

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Gregory Porter (Photo: Dale Rothenberg)

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