Gregory Porter in the Country
There’s a song on the next record called “When Love Was King,” and I get to one portion of the song where, [Porter begins to sing] “He 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.” So …
[Editor’s Note: At this point, the conversation is halted by applause, whoops and whistles.]
PORTER: My point was, I didn’t do that for a hand clap, what I want to say is, I think that’s who I am. “He lifted up the underneath.” Those people who have been pushed down. “He lifted up the underneath/ And all his wealth he did bequeath.” Yeah, he didn’t 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, that’s the kind of thing I want to say. You know, helping somebody and making somebody feel better. Building people out. That’s how I figured out, “OK, that’s who you are, Gregory Porter.”
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. He’s been playing saxophone for 50 years, incredibly. He’s like, “Gregory, I write with my voice.” He said, “I don’t touch my horn when I’m writing.” So, that’s 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 it’s like, “Ahhh!” 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: It’s 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. It’s not like that.
SMULYAN: Not to me. [audience laughs]
PORTER: Whether they’re good or not, they keep coming to me. So, I used to assume that everybody was that way.
ALKYER: Gregory, there’s 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, I’m out.
PORTER: Yeah, get out of here! Who let this guy onstage! [laughs] I would say that’s 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. That’s how the black gospel church developed.
They lay the foundation. They tell the story. And they give you the end. And it’s 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 mother’s sermons. She spoke of the redemptive qualities of water all the time in her sermons. I’m like, “Where’s this water theme that keeps coming up in my music?” Even when I’ve got a broken heart, I’m 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. Nick’s] Pub. That’s something for everyone out here. A lot of kids don’t have that kind of opportunity or don’t think about, “Oh, I’ve got to get a regular gig. I’ve got to do this song a hundred times before it’s ready to go on record.”
PORTER: Yeah, St. Nick’s Pub. Whatever your experience is, it doesn’t have to be an established music room. It could be you and your buddies getting together and playing some music. If we’re talking to the young musicians, it doesn’t 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: “Be Good (Lion’s Song)” [from the 2012 CD Be Good (Motéma)], it reminds me so much of Bill Lee’s stuff.
SMULYAN: Bill Lee? That’s my idol.
PORTER: That’s interesting. I’ll take that.
For me, it’s a grown man’s 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 she’s put you in this box, in this cage, and they won’t let you out?
[Porter sings] “She said lions are for cages/ Just to look at and delight.” She loved being around me. “You dare not let ’em walk around/ ’Cause they might just bite.” She didn’t want to let me out. She’s like, “Oh, God, if I love him, it’ll be all over with.” Maybe. I don’t know.
AUDIENCE MEMBER QUESTION: I’m 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 … no! [laughter] I know the limits of my voice. I just can’t be in the cold too much and, you know, don’t scream too much before the show. I try to enjoy myself. I warm up with songs. I warm up with, “I’ve been searching all the corners of my room. …” I warm up with a song that will do all of those things.
ALKYER: What kind of vocal training did you have?
PORTER: I don’t 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. I’m 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, “Oh, let’s run over ‘’Round Midnight’ again in this key and see how that feels, see what the bridge feels like now.” So, yeah, in a way, living it. And I don’t want to make it seem like, [in a gravelly voice] “Yeah, my life is jazz, baby. I live jazz.” That’s not what I’m saying … but that’s what I’m saying. [laughter]
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