Interview recorded April 25, 2012
Gregory Porter's passion commands your attention in its own soft-spoken way. He won't be hurried into making a point. There is careful thought behind every word he speaks. Similarly, his music is that way: at times soothing, but always thought provoking and sincere.
The self-labeled "jazz singer" talks to Darnell Meyers-Johnson about his various influences, which range from Nat King Cole to Donny Hathaway, and about the creative process behind his two crtically acclaimed albums, 2010's WATER and the recently released BE GOOD.
Darnell: Good day. This is Darnell Meyers-Johnson for SoulMusic.com. Portions of this conversation may also appear on my new radio show, Vocal About Jazz, which streams online every Saturday at noon, eastern standard time, on JazzOn2.org. Today I’m speaking with a gentleman who conquered the stage, literally, in the Tony nominated musical It Ain’t Nothing But the Blues in 1999. Today people are calling him "the next great voice in jazz." His 2010 debut album, WATER, earned him a Grammy nomination, and he is back with a new album, simply called BE GOOD. Today I’m speaking with Mr. Gregory Porter. How are you, sir?
Gregory: I’m great, man, I’m glad to be with you.
Darnell: We appreciate the time you’re taking out to speak with us today.
Gregory: Thank you.
Darnell: Your name right now is on everybody’s lips. People have been asking me, "Have you heard about Gregory Porter? Are you going to interview Gregory Porter?" Do you feel this great buzz of energy that seems to be surrounding you right now?
Gregory: I hear in the distance, people uttering my name. It’s this great thing and it seems that it’s positive things coming as a result of the two albums that I’ve put out. Yeah, I’m excited about it.
Darnell: I have asked this of other people because I’m always interested in how an artist gets to a point where the general public begins to take notice of them. Tell me the story of how Gregory Porter was “discovered”?
Gregory: Well, discovered--that word is interesting. It’s a long journey. My mother was a minister and I grew up as her songster. Wherever she would preach, she would have me get up and do a song or two. That was my first training in music and being in front of audiences. And beautiful it was, and a simple thing that my mother said to me, when I was five or six years old was "sing with an understanding." I think that’s the appeal of my music today.
First of all, my writing is coming just from a human place, and really singing with internalizing the understanding of the words that I’m saying. Trying to come from an honest place, emotionally and vocally.
So I was playing college football at San Diego State and I injured my shoulder, and I wasn’t able to play football anymore. But I had extra time, along with my studies, to do theatrical productions, musicals, and some live performances in college. And that’s when things really hit for me, as far as just trying to go out and learn the music and be in front of people. After that time, I involved myself in theater and going to the little local jazz clubs in San Diego. I started to do things that way.
And a good friend of mine, Kamau Kenyatta, who was very involved with both my albums, was producing a record for Hubert Laws and, so I went along just to meet Hubert, and they were working on the song “Smile,” which is one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite artists, Mr. Nat King Cole. Kamau asked Hubert to let me sing “Smile” just so he could hear. And I sang for Hubert, and Hubert said, "Oh I love it; we’re going to put you on the record." And that was my first recording, with Hubert Laws. He was doing a tribute album to Nat King Cole.
Darnell: I was going to ask you about Nat in just a second, but why don’t we just go there, because you’ve had several distinctly different musical influences in your life, and one that I’m aware of is that you were greatly fascinated with Nat King Cole. Can you just speak about what it was about him, in particular, that really held your attention?
Gregory: Well, it’s interesting how sometimes the journeys of your life can start at a very early age. I recorded this silly little song on a Playschool tape recorder. “Once upon a time I had a dream, once upon a time I had a love …” and there’s more to it, but my mother--I played it for her when she came home. She said, "Boy, you sound like Nat King Cole." And I didn’t know who or what that was then. I was like what is Nat King Cole, what is a Nat and a King and a Cole?
And I remember, even though I was forbidden to do it, looking through the records and finding an album, putting it on and these words and this voice, and this honesty that came from the big console stereo at the time. I remember sitting next to that and imagining Nat King Cole as my father.
My father wasn’t involved in my life at the time, and she’d said I did something like somebody, and I listened to this voice. The album cover looked like somebody’s daddy. He’s sitting next to a fire in a sweater.
I was listening to these words “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again.” Just really beautiful life messages. I was taking it in as though it was fatherly advice. And, even today, I listen to the music and it’s style, elegance, and honesty, still a real heavy influence for me, but that was the start of my coming to Nat’s music.
Darnell: It’s kind of ironic. I recently interviewed Freddy Cole, Nat King Cole’s youngest brother. As I’m sure you’re aware, he’s still out there doing his thing and still recording, doing shows. You two have a similar story in that, he was also involved in football, also had an injury that prevented him from pursuing that any further, and that’s when he got more into his music. When you were in the midst of your football playing, did you ever think that you would want to eventually do music, or were you really involved in your athletics at that time?
Gregory: I was involved with the athletics. And at the time, they called me the singing linebacker because I was always singing in the locker room and things like that. I even sang the national anthem before one of the spring games, but yes, my whole life I said no matter what I become, I would be a singing doctor, or a singing dentist, or a singing lawyer. I always knew that music would be a part of my life, but the central part of my career, I wasn’t sure.
Music sometimes can escape you, but something that happened before my mother passed--one of our last conversations, she mentioned …she was talking to me about everything, about children, how to buy a house, everything she could, she was giving to me in the last couple days of her life. She said to me, “Gregory, you do many things well, but one of the best things that you do is sing, and that’s your gift, and use it.” In a way, she was giving me sanction and encouragement and I take that and I live with it and I go with it.
Darnell: I wanted to ask you about your upbringing, because from what I understand it was sort of a geographical dichotomy, in a way. I know that you were born and raised in California, but you also have that southern musical influence. Can you explain a little bit about how those two worlds came together for you?
Gregory: Yeah. Well, Bakersfield at the time, and still true now, just a little distance and time … growing up, many of the ministers of the churches that we would attend or be members of, or visit, were from the south: Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi. They were a part of that southern migration that came to the central part of California for agriculture. So, when in churches from Bakersfield, southern country Gospel blues was the music on Sunday morning. Those old Gospel songs sung by some older men and older women in the congregation, who would just stand up in the middle of testimony service and just give these historical gems. I think of it now, and I was like, wow. I was in a master class of African American music. Sometimes, I poo-pooed it as a child. Sometimes you don’t understand the value of things. These old mothers would get up and [singing] and that’s like, these deep, deep Gospel blues and, interestingly enough, when I go there, musically, that’s the place where I’m going. That’s the place that I’m going to. It’s that feeling that those mothers and those deacons were singing about.
And outdoor services that we used to go to--Ted Johnson was the pastor and he was a country minister, and he would have these outdoor services, and that music was going on all night in the hot thick of night. I hated it at the time--not hated it--but I knew that my other friends were going to the movies or doing whatever kids do. Really, it was my mother just teaching and giving me some benefits that I didn’t even know I was getting.
Darnell: You also talked about being influenced by the 1970s soul, people like Donny Hathaway and Marvin Gaye. How does that sound find its way into your jazzy interpretations?
Gregory: Well, it doesn’t find its way, it’s there. I grew up in it and the radio at the time was playing … I remember Horace Silver, "Song For My Father," and Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye and Cannonball Adderley. I remember hearing those songs on the same station. I can’t remember what station that was, but I remember that music being mixed quite a bit more, and it wasn’t an unusual thing.
The way people take in music, they take something from the past and something from the present. The way we listen to music is not in genres. We listen to music; we take a little bit of Stevie, and then we go back and say, “Okay, I’ll have some new Stevie, and then I’ll have a little early Al Green.” We mix it up like that.
So, if the lyrics of my songs are made of pigments of paint that it’s put upon. So, if these paints of Donny Hathaway and Nat King Cole and Joe Williams and Marvin Gaye are put on me and, musically, as I consider music and I deliver music, from these people who have all had a church background, who are mostly preachers' kids, when I consider the music, it comes out with, of course, the majority of my life experience and some of their vocal understanding comes out, as well.
Darnell: You once said that your singing is also inspired by instrumentalists, particularly horn players. I haven’t heard a singer say that since Chaka Khan said it years ago in an interview I remember reading. How so is it for you that you’ve been influenced that way?
Gregory: Well, really horn players that play with a great lyricism, in a way, initially. Of course, the greatest that comes to mind is Miles Davis. In no way am I comparing myself or my tone or my timbre to his greatness, but the influence of really just going there, cutting straight to the heart of the matter, without even a lyric, just with a tone. Miles did that, Cannonball Adderley did that, really emotional players, and some of just the musicians that I’ve been around, growing up and coming up in the music industry as I was getting an understanding of jazz.
It’s like, listen to the way this horn player is musically speaking, attacks the chord right at the top of the beat. So it’s an approach that you just transfer from, musically speaking, to your vocal approach, and really visualizing yourself as a horn when you close your eyes and you sing the music.
Imagine yourself just as nimble and as flexible and as improvisational as a horn player. I can see where Chaka would say that, because that’s what her instrument is, the voice as an extension of a horn, a horn as an extension of the voice.
Darnell: Well, you mentioned Cannonball a couple of times already. Back in the ‘60s he did a project with Nancy Wilson. Everybody knows the famous recording of John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. As you look forward in your career, would you be open to a duet kind of situation with you and a particular horn player?
Gregory: Absolutely. I’ve been so fortunate enough to work with Wynton Marsalis on the stage at many concerts, and I have a concert coming up with him and the Lincoln Center jazz Orchestra in Paris, at Olympia in Paris, but yeah, I’m totally open to that. There’s been some conversation of it, so hopefully it will happen in the near future.
Darnell: Okay, something to look forward to. We’ve talked about these influences: Gospel, blues, ‘70s soul, but you clearly define yourself as a jazz singer and you don’t really make apologies for that. That’s how you label yourself. What is it that you love most about jazz music?
Gregory: Freedom. Both vocally and in the content and the lyric. There’s no bars put on the jazz vocalist as far as the content and going there, emotionally. Whether it be some deep question about love, or politics, or protest, the freedom of the jazz lyric, the depth of sorrow and the pain of injustice--those things exist in all musics, but for me in particular, in jazz, it exists so strongly. I think of Abby Lincoln, Nina Simone, Joe Williams, some of the things that they said, and even Nat King Cole, some of the things that they said and sang, were statements to shape life, you know?
Darnell: Actually, I want to go into the content of some of the songs on your new album in just a second. But before I do that, you’ve been getting a lot of good press, a lot of love, particularly from UK audiences. Why do you think they've embraced you in such a big way?
Gregory: You know, it’s interesting. There’s something I’ve been hearing; they say they just haven’t seen me in a while. When I say see me, my particular sound. Maybe connected to a Lou Rawls tradition, it’s connected to Joe Williams and Nat King Cole, I don’t know. There’s a sound emanating from me that they recognize; some people are recognizing it from the past, but it’s really an authentic sound, I think, with a tinge of Gospel, and who can understand “like” or “dislike”? I’m grateful for it.
Darnell: It sounds like you’re saying they hear something in you that is familiar, but something they don’t hear, necessarily, all the time these days. So you’re kind of like a breath of fresh air, but a familiar breath, you know what I mean?
Gregory: Yeah, that’s interesting. A familiar breath, you’re writing a great lyric right now.
Darnell: Okay, don’t forget me on the writing credit. You said your first album WATER was about love and protest and redemption. What is the concept of the new album, BE GOOD?
Gregory: In a way, it’s an extension of my thoughts and musical ideas. When I go to start a recording project, like the process for WATER, there wasn’t a concept of like, okay, I’m going to shape these songs to fit around my water theme. Though the stream of, and the theme of water cropped up in many of the songs, and it was the same with this project--this album is called BE GOOD. Of course it’s the title from one of the songs from the album, but it’s a general overall theme of relationship and family and human emotions coming up constantly.
Brother and sister and mother and father-- those themes coming up wasn’t conscious. It’s just where I am as an artist, an extension of my emotions, and the musical manifestation of what I’m feeling, at the time, from the praise that I have for my mother with "Mother's Song," to "When Did You Learn" to many of the tracks, to "Be Good." There’s a particular song I’m thinking of--I don’t know why it’s escaping me. I just sang it.
But all of my personal stories are from people that I’ve had contact with, and that’s really the theme: family, human emotion.
Darnell: Talk to me about connecting with Brian Bacchus. He produced the album. A lot of people perhaps know him best for the A& R work he did on Nora Jones’ first album. How did you two guys get together?
Gregory: Brian’s well known in the industry, and has been involved in great projects in many different genres, in dance music and in R&B and in jazz, and he’s worked with many of the greats. Brian’s influence on the album is just that of this wise, knowledgeable person about the music. The largest thing that Brian did was listen to my ideas before the recording and just encouraged what was there. He was like, “Yes, that one, yes.”
We had a list of maybe 30 songs and Brian was like, “These tunes, these are the ones that strike to the heart,” and he was like, “Do them the way that you do them. That’s the way, the way that you’re doing them, and the way that you hear them is the way that we’re going to lay it down on record.” Really encouraging my organic voice, which is what happened on the first album as well, but he was encouraging of that. “Let me hear you, your inner voice.”
And he made sure that we captured the music properly, and I had the right temperature and everything that I needed in the studio--just a master of the music and comfort; he’s like, “I’ve been there before, so whatever you need, we’re going to get it.” He was a great producer.
Darnell: Although you write most of your songs, I want to ask you first about one that you did not write on the new album. It was kind of a pleasant surprise for me to hear it on there, because it’s a song I don’t normally hear, and it’s from one of my favorite movies. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about why you chose to include “Imitation of Life” on the new project.
Gregory: That hit me on a couple of different angles. First of all, the vocal delivery. This is the theme song from the "Imitation of Life" from the ‘50s. There’s an earlier version I think from the late ‘30s. But this is the theme song from the one in the ‘50s with Lana Turner, the big star in it.
The mother’s story in the movie was so touching to me, and it caused that theme song to really stick in my head. It’s a beautiful lyric, and the singer of the theme song for the movie is a gentleman called Earl Grant, who was an organ player and a singer, as well. He patterned his style after Nat King Cole, so it was just this interesting little family of things that was connecting: Nat King Cole, Earl Grant, and this amazing mother-daughter story from the movie just really moved me to sing this song.
Darnell: There’s a couple of different styles on the new album. There’s sort of a bebop quality to the song “Bling Bling.” I just wondered if you could tell me a little about what that song means lyrically, though.
Gregory: Yeah, it’s really an artistic impatience that’s in many artists, and the built-up desire to sing. It took me some time to record. It wasn’t like I wasn’t trying to, but it takes a substantial amount of money to, not only properly produce a record, but to get it to people’s ears. In this day and age, that’s just the way it is. You can produce an album cheaply, asking your friends to do it and going to a cheap studio. You can get something that has a great sound, but you need some money and some push behind you to get it out there to the world. And that was just my desire to sing, my ability to sing, my ability to connect to people, but no way to get that music to them.
"I am so rich in love and so poor in everything that makes love matter." The love, in a way, that I’m speaking of, is the song, my song. So that’s what I was trying to talk about there. I really want to give this music to the world, and sing it and have a relationship with the audience, but I have to get to you. There’s a whole lot of people getting out there before me. [Laughs] Where’s my chance?
Darnell: There’s a lot of profound messages on this album, lyrically speaking, and done in ways that are clever, sometimes in a way that’s really quite simple, that if you don’t think about it, you could possibly lose what the intent was. One of those songs is probably the title track, “Be Good,” which is about a failed relationship, but it’s just so cleverly written. I didn’t really have a question there. I just wanted to comment on that particular song. I really just felt kind of involved in each of these scenarios.
Gregory: That’s great. That’s kind of my approach, and I’m glad it’s getting through. Thank you.
Darnell: One of the scenarios that I want to ask about is one of your more soulful selections on the album. It’s a song called “Real Good Hands.” It talks about that awkward conversation that people, gentlemen in particular, may find themselves in when they’re in a relationship and they want to take it to the next level, but they want to do it in a proper way and have that discussion with the young lady’s parents. Was that a situation that you wrote about from your personal experience? I thought it was such a well-written song.
Gregory: Yeah, it was. I tell you what happened; it’s kind of in a backwards way. What happened was, the conversation that I had, the real life conversation that I had is what happens when you don’t have that conversation fast enough. You’ll get a call from the father, shaking you up a little bit. “What are your intentions?” So that’s the conversation that I really had. So I was just about to have that other conversation. He got to me first with “What are your intentions?”
So I came along, and it rattled me for like three days, and in those three days I wrote the song. I was playing around with the melody, and the melody suggests the way the song should be written. It suggested that it should have this soul feel. [Singing] “Mama don’t you worry about your daughter because she’s in real good hands.” It suggested that there would be this [humming melody], that ‘70s soul feel.
Sometimes songs write themselves. That’s really what was happening because I wanted to just ensure Mama and Daddy that everything was going to be okay. I’m a good man; I’m not up to no tricks. I like to take my time.
Darnell: I’m enjoying this conversation, and just being in the presence of your passion. Tell me what’s next for you. What do you want to do next?
Gregory: I’m continuing to write and to glean from the tradition of music that’s out there. Yes, I am a jazz singer, but the music is broader than that. It’s more interesting than just a genre, though the jazz is sufficiently interesting and sufficiently broad, the world of music is out there.
I’ll continue to do just as completely as the genre is defined, a jazz album, but I’ll continue to step out of this so-called genre, as well, just to continue to write and experience life and write from those experiences, and maybe bring out some of the songs that have already been written that are out there that need to be reconsidered and rethought.
Darnell: Or reinterpreted.
Gregory: Yeah. And so this, like my mother said, this is the best thing I do. I’m a good cook, but this is the best thing I do, so I'm going to continue with this
Darnell: What’s your specialty when you’re cooking?
Gregory: I love Mediterranean. So anything with fish and vegetables. Whatever. I’m great with Indian food, as well.
Darnell: Well, if you said Italian and mentioned lasagna, I would have been on my way over there.
Gregory: I make a mean vegetarian lasagna, both with meat, as well, but on my vegetarian, I always get great compliments.
Darnell: Lastly, before we go, how about your stage work. Do you see yourself getting involved in any musicals in the near future?
Gregory: Yeah, I just had an offer a couple of months ago, actually, to do a musical, but I’m fully invested in just doing my musical journey at the moment.
When I can, I’m still writing another piece that has to do with a family story, another musical piece, and it may find its way to the stage, maybe five, seven years from now. I don’t know. But I’m continuing to work on that, and I’m not done with theater; it’s just I’m on my journey with this musical career at the moment.
Darnell: Sounds good. Just want to remind everybody that the new album BE GOOD is available right now, as well as the first album, WATER. I know you’re always out there doing dates; is there a place where people can get a look at your calendar online, and find out where you’re going to be?
Gregory: Yes, on my website, it’s generally up to date and you can see things a couple of months in advance of what I’m doing currently. GregoryPorter.com.
Darnell: And you’re also on Facebook, right?
Gregory: Yes, just Google my name and my Facebook comes up. Join me there.
Darnell: Alright, Gregory Porter, it’s been a pleasure. Best of luck with everything that you’ve got going on, and anytime you want to come through and let us know what’s going on with you, when the next project comes out, or a duet project, or your stage show, whatever it is you’re doing, our doors are open. We’d love to hear from you.
Gregory: Thank you so much.
Darnell: Alright, man. Be blessed.
Gregory: Appreciate it.
Darnell: Take care.
About the Writer
Darnell Meyers-Johnson is a New Jersey based music journalist and creator of The Meyers Music Report (www.TheMeyersMusicReport.Tumblr.com). Previously, he served as Entertainment Editor for the now defunct publication Nubian News and as Editorial Coordinator for SoulMusic.com. When not conducting interviews or writing liner notes, Darnell hosts a weekly radio show, Vocal About Jazz, which streams online every Saturday from 12-2pm, EST on JazzOn2.org and iTunes.