Gregory Porter – Afro Perennial Waterfall
By A. Scott Galloway
In a 2006 interview with Ken Sharp for Record Collector magazine, Bill Withers was asked whether he views himself more as a songwriter or an artiste. He responded, “I never was able to separate the two since I never did it any other way. It’s like asking somebody who’s ambidextrous, ‘Are you right-handed or left-handed?’” As 2012 comes to a close, we can add Gregory Porter to the list of the profoundly musically ambidextrous.
This has been nothing short of an incredible year for singer/songwriter Gregory Porter, an artist whose work finds him straddling stylistic genres like an emperor as he represents the future perpetuation of the deep culture of African American song craft and music at its highest level. He is a most welcome newcomer in a time when we consider the loss of the great Eugene McDaniels passing away this year or Bill Withers perfectly content with not having written or recorded anything new in decades. I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing him when he came to Los Angeles to play a show so packed out at The Mint club that they had to remove most of the tables and chairs to accommodate what was – for them – a totally unexpected standing room only overflow of fans. This was following a similarly sold out show at Yoshi’s in Northern California and a much buzzed about set at The Monterey Jazz Festival. No less than Dee Dee Bridgewater insisted that he was outstanding.
I spoke with brother Porter, who is swiftly becoming less of a mystery, about his slow and steady climb to excellence and renown, plus highlights from the golden canon of songs he has gifted us with from his two Motéma Music CDs: Water (2010) and this year’s Grammy-nominated Be Good (2012) which was released on Valentine’s Day.
A. Scott Galloway: It is such a pleasure to finally speak with you today. Our readers and I are eager to learn about you and where you came from – seemingly out of nowhere.
Gregory Porter: The story of where I was raised gets a little complicated. So I simplify it by saying I was born in Sacramento, was here for 6 months, moved to Los Angeles, then when I was in 6th grade we moved to Bakersfield where I stayed until I finished high school at 18. My summers, weekends and random vacations were spent in Los Angeles.
ASG: Was the Black Arts scene in Leimert Park or South Central Los Angeles at all part of your development?
GP: I can’t specifically claim the Black Arts scene, but what was significant to me about Los Angeles in my upcoming was the church music experience I had. We went to larger churches like Mt. Calvary and we visited a bunch of others. The music made a distinct and powerful imprint. Most of my conscious upbringing came about in Bakersfield CA.
ASG: What was it like for a brother to grow up in Bakersfield?
GP: (chuckles) I realize more and more that you eke out your own existence no matter where you are. Bakersfield, to my understanding, was a transplantation of the south…Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas. In my circles, my mother had a small storefront church and we would visit a bunch of other storefront churches. There was a lot of southern influence in the traditions, the food and the music. The musical steeping I had was “country gospel blues” every Sunday. That was the truly significant part of my musical life – always trying to sing with an understanding, passion and focus on the emotional thing you’re getting across.
Bakersfield being a southern transplantation also had some racial issues as well. The city was separated by the railroad tracks. By chance and fortune, we had a nicer house but it caused us difficulty because it was an all White neighborhood. So we did have some racial tensions to exhibit themselves. We had a cross burned on our front yard. They would break our windows…urinate into beer bottles then throw them through our windows. You wouldn’t think this would happen there but it did.
ASG: Was this the `60s?
GP: No, this was the early to mid-`80s.
GP: Yeah, I know it sounds crazy. My brother was shot coming home from his job late one night. They found the guys…it was a pretty notorious neighborhood for racial history. They were just looking to shoot some black dude that night. They didn’t kill him but they put him in the hospital. I don’t remember there being a ton of media coverage about it but it was quite striking. I was 9 or 10 when that happened…and more things to come back to back. They tried to cut down a 30 foot tree with a chain saw in our front yard. They were trying to have the tree fall down on the house. They actually cut halfway through the tree but we scared them away before it fell. And they were constantly breaking our windows. It was an intense attack on our family but there were some neighbors who harvested their gardens for us and brought us over fresh lettuce, cabbage and fruits. I remember that just as much as I do the cross burning.
ASG: You are blowing my mind. I can already see where a song like “1960 What” is coming from for you personally.
GP: Yeah, “when was it, where was it?” We like to think that time is so black and white but there was trouble in the `70s and `80s, too. In a way there’s ancestral memory that comes into play, too. The pain of my mother unquestionably shadows the children as well when she gives us warnings before we walk out the door. I’m sure my buddies and my wife’s brothers didn’t get those kinds of warnings. (Gregory’s wife is Russian)
ASG: How early on did you begin processing your surroundings and turning those observations into some creative expression?
GP: Music was always a big part of our lives. But you also feel like it’s not legitimate, just something you’re playing around with until you have a vehicle to do it in. I would write little songs with my brothers and sisters. Until you get a show or something to express it, it doesn’t feel like anything. The first opportunity I had to do it properly was the first professional theatre that I did in San Diego which led to “Nothin’ But The Blues.”
ASG: Your CDs end up in the jazz bin but your music is so much broader than that. Was there a jazz connection for you like in the Leimert Park jazz scene in Los Angeles?
GP: I found out about that when I was in college on a football scholarship from San Diego State. I used to go up (to L.A.) to the sessions that they had at The World Stage. I did make it my business to go there maybe 3 or 4 times. I was quite shy…just checking out the scene. One time I got up and sang and kind of shook up the house. They said, “Do another one!” I did one more and they said, “Do one more!” I said, “Let me get out of here!”
ASG: Do you remember what you sang?
GP: At that time probably “Work Song,” “My Funny Valentine” and a blues.
ASG: So at that time you were already pursuing b
eing a performing singing artist?
GP: Yeah. I was slowly emerging…a long running process for jazz. You want to get all of the standards under your belt – how to do it and when to do it. There’s a lot to know in order to get on stage as a jazz singer. When I had an injury playing football, it gave me more time to pursue music.
ASG: San Diego is another place you don’t hear too much about people coming out of there making music. Where did you incubate your musical thing there?
GP: Fortunately I hung out with the right people. Kamau Kenyatta who produced my first record (Water) was a friend and mentor. He was teaching there and once we became friends, a whole but of things about music opened up for me. I had somebody to work on songs with. We would get together for lunch and work on a tune for an hour before we ate. “Let’s just play through ‘Song For My Father’ for half an hour…just for fun.” That friendship was very good for me. Also going to the jam session with musicians who lived and worked around the area was good. There was a place downtown called Mon Tiki and another called Dizzy’s. The guy that was running these jams and creating that wonderful energy for young musicians was a horn player named Gilbert Costellanos. He was very instrumental in encouraging me. In his own interesting way, he’d tell me, “Man, you’re doing some interesting stuff. You need to be heard.”
ASG: What did he find interesting? Was he intrigued by what you were already writing or your vocal approach?
GP: When I was singing, some of the things I would bring to the table. Sometimes I would get up and do something a cappella. Generally when I was doing that, it might have a gospel tinge. I think I was already bringing a fresh sound at least to that local jazz scene.
ASG: What were some of the first things that inspired you to put pen to paper?
GP: The first substantial piece of songwriting that I’d done was for a jazz musical I did called “Nat ‘King’ Cole and Me.” Half the songs were mine and the other half were Nat’s. The concept was Nat doing songs and having no idea how they would affect a 5 year-old boy who would imagine that Nat ‘King’ Cole was his father. It was about the absence of my father…how I came to Nat’s music…and songs about the hard work my mother was doing raising us by herself. I was really searching the corners of my brain to find these emotional thoughts and ideas to bring forth musically. That gave me a firm feeling that I could write.
ASG: I imagine your mother was very encouraging of your creativity.
GP: Absolutely. Before she passed away she would say to me that music was one of the best things I did. It hasn’t been easy. Sometimes it’s difficult to know where to go and how to do it. How to get the money to record? How to organize the band? Where do you get promotion money from? So it took longer than I would have liked it to but the life learning that happened while I was trying to figure it all out probably feeds and seasons what I write now. It probably all happened at the right time. Sometimes in interviews I’m asked, “Where have you been? Where were you when you were 25?” I was doing something. I was writing and working, just in a different venue – the theatre. My position was wherever I can find the outlet to express myself I’ll do it. I wanted to get into the recording studio but it didn’t happen when I wanted it to. It happened when it was supposed to happen.
ASG: How old are you now?
ASG: When I think about you and your arrival to the world, there are a few parallels that I’m sure others have mentioned to you, especially Bill Withers and Al Jarreau who were fully grown men when they finally made music career breakthroughs. But the person I reflect upon most when I listen to your songs is Eugene McDaniels. Are you familiar with him?
GP: Oh, man… You know, that’s somebody that I don’t mention often but man his stuff…that recording that he did with Bobby Hutcherson is cold-blooded, man!
ASG: Your albums have the same kind of breadth and depth that his had along with his ability to go from “Compared to What” to “Feel Like Making Love” –
GP: …and “100 Pounds of Clay.”
ASG: Exactly! What makes the comparison so poignant is that we lost him last year which was right around the time that you began to emerge. I sense some powerful synergy there.
GP: I hope to have an amazing career like that where I can touch the hems of the garments of greats such as that.
ASG: I’d like you to touch on the broad stretch of themes you get into on your latest album, Be Good. “Bling Bling” sounds to me like a message you have specifically targeted toward young artists of today.
GP: That song is saying several things. Personally what I’m saying is I’ve always had a special gift, unspoken treasure, my songs or even just a song. That’s my bling-bling and that’s’ what’s most important to me – not diamond rings and golden things. My song is my bling. When I say “I’ve been dismissed by those who like cream on top of cream,” it’s like a song that’s not saying nothing but with a great video that goes to #1…only a lot of nutrition gets dismissed. That’s me crying out for balance. No disrespect to any other kind of music because there is a time and place for all of it. But if you get too much of one thing then there will be an emotional lacking in the body “vibrationally.” Sometimes a song with a melody and a message gets dismissed because it doesn’t have that hard beat or bass line.
ASG: Maybe we need to get a video shot for that one to get them to listen! (laughter) I was really struck by “On My Way To Harlem.” I wanted to know two things about that one: 1. It felt like you were on a sojourn to move there and live because what you do as an artist fits so perfectly in what Harlem represents to us from a historical standpoint, and 2. The creative process for composing that song.
GP: You know, when I was a kid in California and had not set foot in Harlem, I felt like I had some ownership of it. I already knew about the music, the culture and the overriding political thought – not just to Black People or people in the United States but what Harlem gave to the world. I felt like I had some proud ownership of it. So in finally coming to Harlem and working some of the clubs there, I found the jazz clubs to be more receptive to me than any other place in New York. That’s the first place I got gigs – 149th & St. Nicholas at St. Nick’s Pub. Through different conversations I gleaned that people felt like the neighborhood was changing in a way that would change the identity of what Harlem is…mom and pop restaurants disappearing for Applebees’ and larger chain establishments – which are great to have, too, but there should be a balance. It’s not about telling people of any race or socio-economic group not to move to Harlem. It’s when you come to Harlem, keep it enriched…cultivate the soil…support the churches and the jazz clubs. That’s the sentiment behind the song. It’s a protest in a way that “Ellington don’t live around here no more” – that means the current day Ellington or Langston Hughes. They don’t live around here because they can’t afford to live around here. That’s the energy behind the song.
ASG: On the love song tip, I was very impressed with “Real Good Hands” where you sing as a man asking your woman’s parents for her hand in marriage. We’re not hearing a song like that on most “black” radio stations
…especially one’s targeted to young demographics.
GP: That one was autobiographical, brother. My girlfriend’s father called me before I got a chance to call him and say those things that I wanted to say. He called me with the, “what are your intentions with my daughter” thing. He rattled me. So I thought about it for about three days then came with this song as a response to his very strong alpha male conversation about me and his daughter.
ASG: Earlier you mentioned a wife or a girlfriend and their brothers not having the same kind of concerns when they walked out their homes as you did when you stepped out of your mom’s house. Does that mean your woman is not “of color?”
GP: She’s Russian.
ASG: So your Russian girlfriend’s father was very pointed with you about your intentions. Does he accept you?
GP: Absolutely. He was just doing what every father is supposed to do. “What’s going on? How long are you guys gonna date?” He did exactly what I probably will do. The funny thing is that he just got to me before I got to him. I was three days away from telling him that things were moving along nicely and I was thinking about taking a step further.
ASG: I will close with your thoughts on returning to L.A. and the general area where you got started for this sold out show at The Mint?
GP: I’m excited about it. I have a lot of friends plus some old and new fans that wanted to be a part of the engagement. I’ve never been to The Mint. It’s a small venue. But I’m looking forward to doing it and I’m more excited about how people are receiving my writing. The U.K. and France have embraced me with open arms but the heart is substantially warmer when it’s from home. When I was in Atlanta, D.C. and Oakland, it’s been sold out with people that have a deep appreciation for the words that are coming from my experience. I love that.
A. Scott Galloway
The Urban Music Scene
September 23, 2012