The endless rise and bottomless love of Gregory Porter

When Gregory Porter arrived on the music scene a decade ago with his first album Water, it signalled something very special.

Jazz had a major new artist, someone whose voice sounded like a friend we had known our whole lives and at the same time like nothing we’d heard before.

Porter is now about to release his sixth recording All Rise, and we’ve come to learn that along with that voice, he’s also one of the great songwriters of our time. All Rise features many more of the two-time Grammy winner’s compositions.

Porter joined us for a conversation about how he’s been holding up in the place he calls home, the messages of his latest album, and his deep belief in the healing power of music.

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How have you and your family been doing over these last few months?

It has been both wonderful and very trying. This virus is very, very serious, and it took the life of my dear brother. He passed away from the virus a couple of weeks ago. We’ve been just surviving and thinking about the important things in life, thinking about what brings us to this place. A lot of what I’ve been thinking about is in the music. My song Revival is definitely something we need at this time, for sure.

You had the record done, it was all ready to come out, and then you had to hit a hard stop. Can this downtime be inspirational for you, or is it depleting?

There’s a lot going on. Between people protesting in the streets and venting their frustrations with police brutality and this virus, several things are going on. Because we’re isolating and we’re together, the family may be getting stronger. But also, there’s this deep observation of the exterior, of the outside world. It’s been a really creative time for me because I’m reflecting on everything that’s going on in the world.

My condolences about your brother. You know, your mom comes up so much in the way that you talk about yourself. She was a nurse and a minister, someone who encouraged you, protected you and introduced you to music. Did you understand her importance at the time, or was it only in hindsight that you could stand back and see all those gifts that she gave you?

She used to give away my new clothes to kids who didn’t have clothes. No, I didn’t understand it at the time. I didn’t understand those lessons. Now I do. Now I understand empathy. If there’s anything that I get from my mother, it’s to have empathy for other people’s plight or condition. It affects my writing and how I see the world, and the way that I feel. I didn’t exactly understand it, but I do now.

You were born in Bakersfield, Calif., and that’s where you live now. You travelled the globe and probably experienced so many beautiful places, but ultimately you decided to make your home back where you grew up. 

This is my home. Twenty-five years later, Bakersfield is still a complicated place. But it’s home. The rest of my family is here. There’s a lyric in my song on the record Thank You: “If I rise, there you’ll be.” It does me no good to have a house in Hollywood living this wonderful life without my family being there with me. So here I am in Bakersfield with them, and if I rise, there they rise as well. I’m home. That’s where I should be.

Let’s talk about the album. You say that all the songs start with just you and a piano. On this record, you had the resources and the time to add horns, choirs and strings. When you’re in a position like that, is it as difficult to know what to leave out as it is to know what to put in?

Yes it is. There are some things that are still very beautiful, but they’re on the shop floor. On a CD or a vinyl record, there are time limitations. When you’re in the space of creating, time limitations are not a thing that you consider. There was some picking and choosing that we had to do to find out what we wanted to put on the record. With my band and the London Symphony Orchestra and my producer Troy Miller, I had an abundance of talent and different tastes that we could have put on the record, but I’m satisfied with what we settled on, and I’m thankful that it’s being received well.

Are you saying that you could have taken even more time? 

You create your own little universe. You get your coffee in the morning, you go into the studio and you don’t come out until it’s dark. You eat something and you do it all over again. It becomes a beautiful creative routine, and before I knew it, it had been two weeks. I enjoyed the process, and I hope the joy, the optimism and the thoughtfulness is in the music. I hope it’s there.

You were ready to release the album in April, and now it’s been moved to August. How difficult was it for you and your team in these uncertain times to come up with a game plan when the game plan is changing all the time?

Many things changed. Even the songs that would be released had changed because of the atmosphere. Yes, there was a desire for people to hear music, but for me there was a seriousness in the air, and that was paramount to me personally. With the difficulties that we had in my family, with my brother passing, and still with this environment of fear, I wanted to put out some music of comfort. It has been difficult because when you make a record, there’s already some anxiety about giving it to the people. And then it’s like putting someone on stage and then snatching them off before they get to perform.

At its core, your music is about positivity, the healing power of love, and building ourselves up. This has been a thread through all your music. Can music heal? Can it be therapeutic? Can it do more than just make us smile?

I’m going to let you in on a little thing that moves me. It may be a little bit selfish, but it affects me first. If I make the music, if I write it, if I sing it, I get these messages first. And if it makes me feel good and lifts me up, then yeah, let’s make that music. So, music can definitely be a comfort. It has been for the entirety of my life. As I travelled and as I performed all over the world, people would say, “How do you hold it together?” It’s the music. It’s the very thing that I’m doing that gives me the fuel and the energy to keep doing it.

Did you always have those instincts? Were you always in a place to trust that inner voice?

I think after my first record Water, it’s the response that I got from fans, family, people around me. “Rough-cut stone, I couldn’t polish myself / Had to be done by someone else.” [That’s] one of the lyrics in the song Thank You. That polishing is what allows me to carry on. It gives me confidence record after record. It is something that I didn’t have always, but when I made Water, I [wanted to] say who I am, even though people were encouraging me just to make a record of standards. I had decided that I wanted to put some of my original music on the first record. I’m glad that I did, and I think the success of that gave me confidence to continue on with it.

About your new tune…. You said the climate dictated some of the different moves you’ve made, and I wonder if the release of Mister Holland is because of that.

Mister Holland is a song [with which] I’m saying thank you to the father of a girl I liked in high school … for treating me like a regular guy. Now, this can be extrapolated to many things in society. I could make a song about saying thank you to a bank manager for treating me like a regular guy, or to a police officer when I get stopped. I just want to have a regular experience. In the song, Mister Holland is a person who treated me like I was grown. “I was only 18 / And Rosie was a beauty queen.” This is a subtle protest saying that I want to be treated like everybody else.

And you wrote this song that was counter to your own experience, correct?

That’s correct. My own experience was that I went to the door of this girl’s house, and the father told me to get away. He called me a name, and I wasn’t able to see the girl again. This is this thing about music healing. I can take this experience and rewrite it. I can take hold of these pains that have happened in life and reconstitute it in music and turn it into a positive thing. This is what I wanted to happen. But it didn’t happen this way.