Why the time is now for Gregory Porter to spread the Christmas spirit
By Brad Barker2023/11/03
Gregory Porter has just released his first-ever holiday album.
A tribute to Porter’s favourite time of the year, Christmas Wish features interpretations of carols, jazz-age standards and soulful ’60s deep cuts, including “Silent Night,” “Little Drummer Boy,” Marvin Gaye’s “Purple Snowflakes,” Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas” and Frank Loesser’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?,” which features a guest appearance by recent Grammy winner Samara Joy. It also includes three of Porter’s own original holiday songs: “Christmas Wish,” “Heart for Christmas,” and “Everything’s Not Lost.”
Porter joined us to talk about the album and what the Christmas spirit means to him.
Your voice seems perfectly suited for a Christmas recording. I’m sure you’ve been asked to do one over the years. What made you decide to do one right now?
You know, one of my favourite songs on the record is “Everything’s Not Lost.” In these last couple of years, we’ve had some difficulty — personal, national, world troubles. Personally, I was looking forward to Christmas as a balm, as a reset, a renewal. Christmas has always been super important for me, but it became more so these last few years. The time is now. You’re always looking for the right time. I’m touring a lot during the middle of the year, the time that you would have to make a Christmas record, but I was like, “Nope, this is when we’re going to do it.” The time was right.
I was wondering about your relationship with the holiday. What was it like at the Porter home when you were growing up?
Oh, enormous, enormous memories. Not to put a damper on anyone’s time, but I lost my brother, and I think some of the sweetest memories we had were during the holidays — whether we had matching bikes, or my mother would buy us matching clothes… “My remote control car is faster than your remote control car.” All of this foolishness. Such big, huge memories. Food memories: the smell of sweet potato pie, the smell of the turkey. All of this brings us back together, and it brings us to the sweetest times that we had as a family. It’s like that for many people, myself included. I try to put that in the music. I try to put the humility of the time, and the balance of the time — because there is some holiday blues. I think the record is balanced, in both the joy of Christmas and the solemnity of Christmas.
I want to talk about your original songs in a moment. But first, when you’re selecting the material for a Christmas recording, it must be difficult because the tunes are so iconic and they’ve been done so many times. When you sit down and look at what’s available to you, give me a sense of that selection process.
What was feeling good to me. What would immediately stick out in my head. The things that I’ve been singing to myself. Sometimes I sing Christmas songs in the middle of summer. What are those songs? It’s funny, I often test my mic in soundcheck with “A Cradle in Bethlehem.” So, that one had to go on the record. But [it was about] messaging, messaging, messaging. I said it before, the humility. I think of “Little Drummer Boy,” this line, it chokes me up every time I sing it, because I feel like it’s me, in a way: “I am a poor boy, too.” I grew up in a whole bunch of different ways. There was a whole bunch of love, but with eight kids, there wasn’t a whole bunch of money. So, [it was] this idea of wondering if your gift is worthy of a king. But you have what you have, and I have my gift. I sing for a bunch of royalty around the world now, so it’s confirmation: Yes, my gift is worthy of a king. These humble messages in the Christmas story and in Christmas songs are beautiful. This type of story, this type of vibe is in my original music, anyway.
You were looking for tunes that resonated with you as if they were your own, so they almost found you.
This is the way I choose standards. Quite frankly, it is daunting. It’s scary. In a way, the best music that’s been written is this Christmas music. So, you have to be careful: How dare I add to this lexicon of music? What right do I have, you know? The right that you have is to go to your own story. In writing the original songs, what is it that I feel? What’s most important to me? What am I feeling at the moment? I wanted to go back to my childhood. In a way, that’s what we do at Christmas: We nestle ourselves in the nostalgia. We want to give our children what we had. So, I write a song like “Heart for Christmas”: “If Christmas is for girls and boys / So they can have their fun and joys…” I’m basically saying, “Take me back to that time when I was a kid, so that I can feel that way again.”
I always think about how they albums are not actually made around the time of the holidays. Do you have to do something in the studio to bring that spirit of the holidays in there with you, or can you just manufacture it through the music? Do you put up a Christmas tree or some lights, or some way of getting that vibe?
It happens quickly. I’ve always been a person who [when I talk] to the band, it’s very casual. We don’t sit at a conference table and have a discussion about memories. But as we’re having coffee before we go into the studio, I talk about something my brother did, or how my mother really did cook turkey, greens, cornbread and candied yams, how she brought it to the table, we prayed, and then we gave it away to homeless people. I tell them these stories before we go to play the music, and before you know it, we’re in the Christmas mood. The music puts you in that space. Rehearse it a couple of times, and you’re there.
I think I heard you were able to have your children there at the sessions with you, which must have been pretty special.
It really was beautiful. Again, [I’m] trying to capture all of that. I want them to have that memory of being in the studio. Maybe that’ll be a Christmas memory for them. It was special to me. I had my son in my arms when I was singing this song, “Heart for Christmas.” He’s not concerned about all of the troubles of the world. He wants to know, “What do I have comin’? What new toy? What’s the hippest thing?” But at the same time, I’m trying to strike some real, strong memories so that he feels about Christmas the way I do.
You’ve got two-time Grammy winner Samara Joy joining you for “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” Tell me about working with her and about how that connection came about.
What a serious bonus. She’s just fantastic. Just when you think, “Oh man, I don’t know what’s happening with jazz,” boom, here come all of these extraordinary voices that seem to have a connection to the DNA, the foundation, the roots of the music. Man, if I can’t sing with Dinah Washington or Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan, I can sing with Samara Joy. She’s so beautiful musically, and inspiring. When I had the opportunity to sing with her, it was special. And just like I’m talking with you, [we were] talking about little anecdotes from around the holidays. It was a lot of fun to work with her. She’s great.
Three of your own tunes are on here, and you already talked about a couple of them. There’s also “Christmas Wish,” which I believe is a beautiful note to your mom. Tell me a little bit about the title track.
It is a note to my mom, but also, many people had mothers like that. Everything I said in the song is true. She would go to your closet, take your nicest things, and prepare them to give away. We did that. She was teaching the real Christmas message, the real Christmas story — to be charitable and soulful. From the beginning of my having a musical utterance to the time she said goodnight to this life, she encouraged me to do music. If people say, “You’re doing a lot of tributes to your mother even as a 50-year-old man,” yeah, there is. She was the beginning of it. She taught me my first songs. I continue to draw from this extraordinary well of experience that she gave me in my life with her. So, it is a tribute to her, but it’s also a tribute to the vibe that you should have at Christmas. I’m trying to tell everybody else, “This is what she told us.” The kind of things you should do for Christmas is to think outside of yourself.
In the album itself, you talk about how balance is the main thing: “Regardless of how well things are going, the importance is remembering that others may be suffering.” That is the thread of what you’ve been talking about this entire interview, so it really does seem like that’s the definition of the Christmas spirit coming together in the narrative and in the music you’ve just made.
For me, it’s got to come through like that. There’s tons of commercialism, and tons of shiny things… All of that is great, and I really do love that. If you think I don’t love Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, you’re wrong. I do. And if you let me make another Christmas record, all of that will be there. But it’s the way that I was feeling at this moment. It’s the way that I make all my records. How am I feeling at this moment? Who am I right now? And this messaging on this Christmas record is the way that I was feeling. And yeah, Christmas is on the way, and it’s going to make us feel better, I promise you.