Saturday, 29 December 2012

Interview with Gregory Porter 2012

Heralded as jazz's best kept secret, there is a man with a big voice who is creating a tremendous buzz everywhere he goes. American singer-songwriter Gregory Porter has taken the jazz world by storm. In the past eighteen months or so, he has crossed continents performing sold-out shows, played all the big festivals, received numerous awards and nominations, notably a second Grammy nomination. Gregory's sophomore album Be Good was released in February to outstanding reviews and not surprisingly, is included in all the top albums of 2012 lists. He's already worked with many big names in the business, Jools Holland, Wynton Marsalis and Jamie Cullum to name just a few. And he recently signed to major record label Universal. A worldwide tour and a brand new album are being planned for 2013. Here's a taste of what's been said about him:

"Gregory is one of the greatest new jazz singers on earth. When people see and hear him, especially with a big band, their jaws drop open. He has the spirit of someone from another age but then he is from tomorrow aswell." - Jools Holland

"Gregory Porter stands imposingly on the cusp of jazz, soul and blues...Gregory is unquestionably a new giant in our music." - Jazz and Blues UK

"If Water heralded the arrival of the next big name in vocal jazz, then Be Good makes it clear that he's here to stay." - All About Jazz

In the summer of 2011, I interviewed Gregory before his debut show in London which you can read here. One year on, I met up with him again whilst he was touring the UK with Jools Holland and have just been waiting for the right time to put this interview out there. We spoke a little more about Gregory's approach to songwriting, his highlights from the past year and the deeper meaning behind his song Water.  

Both on stage and in person, Gregory is a storyteller, a poet, an artist. He is a very honest, inspiring and charming person and though we barely scratched the surface, you quickly get to understand why his music is touching so many hearts. I highly recommend you go and see Gregory on tour next year if you can. After seeing Gregory perform, fans have spoken of feeling like they have been in the presence of greatness. I concur.


How are you enjoying touring the UK with Jools Holland & his orchestra? 
Gregory: I've found the audience to be cool. It's great to get to places where people already know of me. This can be good and bad, as they could be expecting to hear Be Good and 1960 What? and I can't give it to them because I'm part of a larger show. But it is good to have that first interaction and when I get to come back on my own, there's an automatic fanbase. Jools has been very generous and it's been a great tour. One thing that strikes me, I hadn't thought about the UK as extremely natural and beautiful. Yes, rainy, but it's very beautiful and green!

You said before about hoping to have something more to get out in each record you make. As someone who enjoys photography, I can't help but look at a lot of things in life as if through a lens, seeing potential shots in most things I come across. Does this happen to you when you get song ideas, where you can't switch off? 
Gregory: Absolutely. I tend to write best when in motion. The other day, someone was waiting on me and I had to apologise for being 15 minutes late, because when I get an idea, I don't want to miss it. I don't know if it will be a song that everyone wants to hear but I have to document it. A good portion of the theme or idea is documented, then I can go back to that space and try to flesh it out.  

Have you got many ideas like that going back a long time? 
Gregory: Sometimes I will have a phrase that will stay with me for a long time, I will sing a phrase, I don't know what it's going to be. Probably the ideas I am thinking about are developed but just in my subconscious. That's the way I operate, I like things organic.  If I have a phrase in my head, I just keep singing it and little tidbits of ideas keep storing in my brain, then I can finally put it down. It's a game I play with myself. Quite frankly, it's been coming to me over several weeks. I casually find it, that's the way I like to keep it.  I remember with Be Good that most of it came to me on a bike ride from that ex-relationship's house. Little words or melodic ideas came later. I had some friends recently tell me, 'That was the song you kept singing a couple of years ago.' I would sing just one line 'She said lions are made for cages, just to look at in delight', over and over. Many ideas come like that. I can't tell them what it is because I don't know. Now people ask me if that is something new I'm working on but I try not to have too much conversation about a song that hasn't been written yet because it will cease to be organic.  Or it will take on it's own life too soon.  I don't want to say it's a song yet. 

You've had an amazing year. What have been your highlights from the last time we talked? 
Gregory: The TV appearance with Jools, North Sea Jazz Festival just recently, sometimes just simple things like meeting Dianne Reeves and her knowing my music, Erykah Badu tweeting about me. Releasing Be Good and having that done - there it is, this is what that is - that felt good. Before you've heard a song, I've lived with it for quite some time. Before anybody knows things about you, you've lived with that.  Before I knew you loved photography, you've had a chance to settle and live with that. There's my life before the world knows about it. I feel that way about songs too. The life of a song exists only for the individual who is hearing it.  Some people who just got Water and are hearing it for the first time are finding it so fresh, which is great! It is interesting to deal with people's excitement when they've just found out about me since I've been knowing about me for a little while! In terms of things I've enjoyed, working with the orchestra at Jazz Voice London and Cheltenham Jazz Festival would be highlights.  I am looking forward to the Oslo Jazz Festival, doing 6 or 7 of my songs with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra at the Oslo Opera House in August. 

I was talking to someone yesterday and found I was shocked that he hadn't heard of you.  It's easy to forget you haven't actually been around that long. 
Gregory: This is interesting. It seems there is something about my voice that makes people believe I've been on the scene for 20 years. They will ask me 'Where are the other 8 records?' Another thing I provoke is people's impatience. People thought Be Good came quite soon after Water but then they are asking when the next one will be out! People are excited for more as they hear a lot of possibilites in my voice. 

What can't you do without when you're on the road? 
Gregory: I'm not an iPhone nut but I enjoy settling down with music. In some strange way, when I write a song, I write it for myself aswell and I like reintroducing myself to the message. I don't mean to be narcissistic when I say that but I go back to Painted on Canvas because it's just reaffirming it, even if it's not a real overt message that everyone understands.  People come to me with a bunch of ideas of what they think it's about. But I come back to that message all the time: it's about me, it's about children, it's how we see ourselves and how we allow ourselves to be seen. I listen to that song quite often, and I don't mean to be like 'yeah, I need to listen to me'. But it's just a reminder of letting people be who they are. I like it when people have their own curious interesting ways. I was watching this family, the father was a big burly man, way too fat. The daughter, about 9 years old, dressed in 18 different colours. The mother had on a really interesting and bizarre but probably comfortable dress. What a cute family! I thought it was beautiful. And they have the right to be whoever they want to be. I just thought that was beautiful. And that's really what the song is about.

I totally get what you say about listening to your own songs. I find the same with photos I have taken that really mean something to me. 
Gregory: There are things, even if you've created, you don't see. Someone else will notice. When a woman came up to me and said about Water, 'It's amazing that you wrote that prayer'. I thought you're right, that's what it is, a renewing prayer. She was so matter of fact about it.

The song has a deeper meaning for me. I may have told this just once before to a newspaper in the Czech Republic. The middle part of the song, Wash me wash me wash me is about cleansing or renewing, but also it's about slaves. There are many stories of them jumping into the ocean. They weren't swimming to an island, not swimming to another boat, just into the water. Not to save themselves but they saw jumping into the water as better than being in the ship or going to where these men were taking them. Wash me, wash me, wash me, let me flow away to glory, save me save me, save me - that's their death or their rebirth. For me, it's sad, and it is suicide but it's so brave. To know that there's no rescue. It is really taking control of your life. That's a thing that I do, I bring a personal meaning to a song I am singing, when the full meaning is not known on the surface. That allows me to sing the song with intense passion, coming from that place that I'm thinking about. Without question, some of my ancestors, that's what they did so that's what I'm singing.

1960 What? is made of stories and incidents in my family in my lifetime that have happened. I can sing that song with great intensity. I wasn't born in the 60's. When the burning cross was burning in my front yard, [the burning cross being a symbol of the KKK to bring fear to black people], so when they did it in my house, I don't have to sing and tell people this is what happened to me. There are other things going on while I am singing. People will interpret in their own way. I heard from a gentleman in the military the other day of how Be Good meant something totally different to him. I can see where he took the emotions that he took. When you create something and you put it out there, you don't have control over how it affects people. So I hope that when I do things, that it always affects people in a positive way.

Must be really moving for you to hear those personal experiences. 
Gregory: Yes, It's communication because I'm thinking of people when I write a song. There's children I'm thinking about when I write We are like children, painted on canvases. I've watched some children when they are walking down my street. So it's communication, you're thinking about people. 

Do your family and friends recognise the people you are singing about in your songs?
Gregory: Yes, they know. My friend Kamau [Kenyatta], produced the first album and he knew it was a reference to him when he sang 'like Motley and Bearden' [in the song Painted on Canvas]. Those were the first 2 artists Kamau introduced me to. And Mother's Song. Everybody knows if there's me in the song, there's a bit of them. My brother and my sister know I'm talking about them. Hold your sister's hand as she walks across life and look out for each other. That was my mother's message to me. On her dying bed, she said take care of each other.  

How has it made a difference to you getting involved with the UK jazz scene? 
Gregory: Of course, Jools' name holds a lot of weight, as does Jamie's. All my friends from High School ask me 'What you doing on stage with Jamie Cullum?' We've talked about doing other things in the future. I like the varied assortment of people that I've been able to work with thus far. James Carter [sax player] at North Sea Jazz Festival, Jamie Cullum, Wynton Marsallis, all very different. The people that I'm working with feel that I'm a perfect fit for where they are. So somebody's doing something soulful, bluesy, bebop jazz, I fit in. That's how I listen to music and how I like to approach it. 

It's great that you have been welcomed here. 
Gregory: People like a soulful expression coming from a real place. Recently in a restaurant, a guy literally pushed Jools out of the way to get to me, it was a funny moment. I feel like I'm on the right track. If I'm doing something strong and positive and affecting people, whether it brings me enormous wealth or not. Yes, I hope to be completely successful, but if it doesn't happen, I will keep singing my songs nonetheless. 


Thank you Gregory for taking time out to talk to All Things Cullum again.
Looking forward to what promises to be a very exciting 2013!

Gregory with his band
Aaron, Yosuke, Gregory, Emanuel, Chip


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