I first saw Gregory Porter on September 29, 2011, in New York. He was playing Smoke, a tiny club on Broadway, up at 105th St. he was doing three shows a night and I caught the third and came back and told everyone who would listen to go out and buy Water, his debut. The combination of soul, jazz, a voice that drew on the past but was very much his own, a great band and fantastic material was irresistible. Then Guy Barker and Gilles Peterson over here began championing him, he appeared on Jools Holland to great acclaim and now he is playing the Albert Hall on October 30th (see http://www.bluesfest.co.uk). So that’s been some ride these past two years. I have now seen him perhaps half a dozen times. He never fails to deliver. This is from an interview done backstage at the Love Supreme Festival this summer. You can see the new video for his song Laura here:
Grammy-nominated singer Gregory Porter, 42, was born in Bakersfield, California. After a shoulder injury put paid to his ambitions to be a Pro footballer, he took his baritone into musical theatre and jazz clubs, until his first album, Water, and a career-defining appearance on Later with Jools Holland brought him international notice. His third album, Liquid Spirit, is out on Blue Note now. Married, he lives in Brooklyn.
“I am on the road a lot at the moment, but I keep notes on where I am going to come back to for a vacation. One thing that surprised me is how beautiful the UK is. I knew it had history, but in the States we tear everything down every ten years. Here, you got original castles and Tudor houses and country estates coming out of your ears. For instance, I love Cheltenham and the Cotswolds – I got to hang out for a few days there earlier this year and that’s gorgeous countryside with really cute hotels like Cowley Manor. I’ll be back there, for sure. Some of my other choices surprise people, especially when I tell them Skegness is in my little book.
Yes, that Skegness. I like the political side of this. You see, the working class got to have somewhere to go on vacation. They can’t afford the Cotswolds. When I saw the rows of neat beach huts, and the lines of cheap shops and food joints, I thought, yes, I recognize this. It’s where the blue-collar families go – like we were. And people here say to me: I used to be taken to Skegness as a kid and eeewww, it’s horrible. And I say – well, you turned out OK didn’t you? You’re a decent human being? There’s a lot of snobbery about such places, but I think you should embrace them for what they are.
For us growing up, vacations meant Santa Monica Beach. Now, Santa Monica has been spruced up, it’s pretty clean and chichi now. But back then, we’d go swimming and you knew you risked coming across something in the water and go: what’s that? It’s not.. it is, it’s a bag of sheeeee… Well, you know what I mean. But if the water was too rough or dirty, there was also the pier, with the Ferris wheel and the Playland Arcade, which are still there. We had good times at Santa Monica.
Then we’d go to Venice Beach. That’s a place to see. Venice Beach is where someone will try and sell you something, hustle you, entertain you, day and night. There was a guy who when I was a kid used to roller skate around with an amp on his belt, playing Jimi Hendrix electric guitar. And the last time I went, he was still there, and he hadn’t changed at all. That’s freaky. Some people there are pretty desperate, though. When I was a teenager, I saw this guy lying on a bed of nails and he let a woman walk over his chest. And there was blood everywhere. And I said, man, you better get a different act because this one ain’t workin’ for you. In the end the cops came and took him away, because he was frightening the little kids.
The first time I left California was on a road trip. We were going on vacation in Oklahoma, where my mom’s sister lived. And my mom always worked hard – when she was thirteen, she was still pickin’ cotton seven days a week. So when people say I work too hard, I just tell them that. So, we are driving from California to Oklahoma, which is a long way even by US standards, and my mom says she is too tired to go on. I was fifteen and my brother was sixteen, never driven, but we said: we’ll take over. So we took turns at the wheel. Look, it’s the Texas desert. It goes on for two days. There are no bends. All you got to do is point. And Paul Simon’s Graceland had got jammed in the tape deck, and so that’s all we had to play, so whenever I hear those songs, I think of driving through the desert at night, heading for Oklahoma, with my mom asleep in the backseat.
I didn’t get to leave the States till much later, when I went to Moscow. It was a gig, with my band, in some underground club. I mean, really underground, down and down. It must have been a Soviet-era bunker, but when you got to the bottom it was a wild jazz club – beautiful jazz singers from Siberia, Tuvan throat singers with weird harmonies, and this bunch of guys from New York in the corner just trying to take it all in. I always say, you want an intense time, head for Russia.
If I could go anywhere right now, it’d be Curacao. It’s part of the ABC islands, the Dutch Antilles. I don’t think they are that well known here. But they are really interesting. I discovered Curacao because there is a link with Holland’s North Sea Jazz Festival, so I got to play there. But I fell in love with it – fabulous beaches, clear water, lovely people, it’s a place where you can relax. And I can relax, given the opportunity.
I got married recently. We took a break rather than a honeymoon, went to upstate New York, to the Taconic Mountains, which are part of the Adirondacks. Again, I don’t think many Brits get up there, but it’s a really beautiful part of the country. You’ve got the castles, I think we’ve got the scenery, right? It’s all about taking a little cabin on a lake, walking in the woods, it’s a very romantic, very cool place. But, as I have been told, it wasn’t a honeymoon. It was a post-wedding break. So, I still have that to do. I wonder if she’d like Skegness?”