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Bring it On, Come What May: Gregory Porter is Here to Help Us Rise

Thursday, 27 August 2020 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Amy Sioux

Life is tough. We’re facing an extraordinarily challenging time right now, with the Covid-19 pandemic serving as the latest trial to test  humankind. We can’t avoid or ignore problems like this. But we can choose how to respond. We can stay positive as the storm encircles us, and we can rise above adversity and fight.

Although he’s faced plenty of struggles throughout his lifetime, resilience pours out of Gregory Porter’s music like water from a fractured dam. One of eight children, the affable jazz singer was raised by his mother after his father fled when he was a child. Both parents died early on in his life, while he recently lost a brother to coronavirus. 

Stalked by bigotry and heartache as a Black man in America, and having experienced far too many acts of prejudice in his 48 years, it would have been easy for Porter to become bitter, vengeful and downbeat. Yet the man from Bakersfield’s new album ‘All Rise’, is an uplifting, compassionate, redemptive experience.  

A gorgeous, invigorating blend of gospel, blues, soul, west coast AOR and jazz that features plenty of enchanting, empathetic and romantic contributions from the London Symphony Orchestra, it’s the most artistically broad and ambitious statement of Porter’s career. He takes on parental abandonment, racism, and the need to remain faithful and defiant with sonic and emotional payoffs that are reassuringly resolute and inspiring.  

We spoke to this modern day jazz phenomenon about everything from the powerful and prescient themes that fuel ‘All Rise’ to the strength he draws from his mother’s life, the Black Lives Matter movement and how Snoop Dogg gave him the confidence to unleash his inner gospel singer.

At what point did you decide this was the kind of genre-melding, instrumentally ambitious album you wanted to make?

After the last few years of working with some extraordinary orchestras around the world, and realising I hadn’t done that on a recording with new music, I wanted to do that with my band, with our sound, with our groove. Early on we had this idea and we’d say, ‘Let’s see what it is with just the band and then let’s think about a larger presence.’ If something didn’t require or feel like it needed to have an orchestra, we didn’t do it. But if it felt better with the orchestra, it was ‘OK, this is where we are and this is what we’ll do.’ At every moment the orchestra is embellishing and reaffirming what it is I’m trying to achieve in the song emotionally. I like to hear that and Troy [Miller, producer] did a great job of matching it with his arrangements.

On songs like Concorde and Phoenix you manifest the concept of rising from the ashes of potential defeat with ascending, uplifting vocal lines. They sound effortless.

Well, I did burst a blood vessel but...this funny thing was happening to me and, as such, there were more atmospheric songs at the beginning of this process. I kept thinking about ascension, rising, moving upward and flight. So this was in my soul and what I was feeling a lot at the time of making the record.    

How important are the gospel rhythms underpinning some songs? They not only propel those tracks but also influence your vocal phrasing.

In the gospel tradition the lyric and action are closely tied in an almost improvisational way. I’m leaning on the building blocks of who I am as an artist and what it’s made me, which is this gospel, soul, blues and jazz singer—the diaspora of Black American music. The gospel influence is important for me. It’s been there in the past but, sometimes, as an artist who crosses over to the pop or dance realm, you can be reticent to put a gospel foot forward. I was listening to rappers and Chance the Rapper, even Snoop as he cussed upon a fat blunt, would speak of God. Here I am steeped in it and I go, ‘Surely I can as well.’  

Dad Gone Thing extracts positivity from your non-existent relationship with your father. How does writing like that allow you to heal?

It’s very important, very cathartic. The first songs I wrote were about my father and the pain I felt about his absence. It’s been a part of me and been a journey. I did find a way to be thankful and feel positive about his contribution. He gave me my  voice. That’s the reason we’re talking and I’m thankful for that. He didn’t teach me how to tie any of these ties I wear to concerts, but the reason why people are coming, he gave me that. So, I’m OK with it. 

Long List Of Troubles is a heavy blues number that epitomises the album’s overarching thematic bent. How did the song's meaning influence the way you chose to present its message?

This is a tradition of the blues. If you want to know the real tradition of Black culture, that’s it—to be knocked down and get up again and survive. Whatever conditions you find yourself in, if it’s getting fired from a job, getting a divorce or whatever, bring it on, come what may. You can be resilient against the force of all those things. This is what I’m referring to and it comes from the extraordinary perseverance of the things my mother had gone through. Spending half her life in the American south, then coming to California and being a single mother to eight kids. Struggle was in her life and she handled things with such grace.  

I think of that in my family and admire people who can fight and breathe through struggle. This is what the blues is. The blues ain’t a thing to just bring you down. It’s a thing to express conquering some of your greatest fears and greatest opponents. Disappointment can drop you from a thousand storeys high. Many people go through things and it’s like, ‘Man, this is the worst thing that’s ever happened in my life and I found a way to recover.’ It’s one of those ways to remind people of their inner strength. The idea, which Marvin Gaye showed us, is that a song can groove but also have a profound ability to say something within it.

You’ve said the idea behind Revival Song is about finding a source of strength to bring us back to who we truly are so we can be restored. What’s your source of strength and how does it pull you up when you hit the ground?

Even though I travel and play 250 shows a year I still don’t work as hard as my mother did. Even though I’ve gone through difficult things, racism and pain, I’ve not gone through a tenth of what my mother had to deal with. Her strength and the anchor she taught all of us, our faith, that’s the thing I go to. Faith and my family. My brothers and sisters. The memory of that, this life and how I came here. Nothing is created in a vacuum and it took this life of people seasoning me. This is my anchor, what I go to, what lifts me.

Your unshakeable belief in love is a recurring theme on this album, as it has been in a lot of your work, but what do you say to people whose experiences of love haven’t been great, those who’ve been scarred by it and have trouble opening up again?

I write from painful experiences. Sometimes sweet songs come from getting burned. So it’s not the idea of blindly going into love no matter what. It’s love as a necessity. If love is breath, even though you’re having difficulty breathing, you still have to have it. This is how I think about love. If it’s funky, messed up, overrated, tired, cliched, still give it to me. 

You’ve talked about Black artists being pigeonholed based on perceived limitations rather than deliberate artistic choices. So is this stylistically and lyrically scopious album a retort to that ignorant way of thinking?

I may even be talking to the critic who can miss subtlety, miss nuance, miss intentional simplicity and call it something different. I don’t feel I’m responding with the record. I’m just making my music and maybe somewhere in the music, or somewhere in the interview, making the point that [people should] allow for subtlety, nuance and all of these things in every expression. It doesn’t matter who it comes from. Many times an artist is trying to get a little bit deeper.  

That is something you do on Mr Holland, which has a subtextual sadness housed within its seemingly pleasant story. 

The environment Mr Holland creates, he invited me into his home, treated me like I was grown, like a regular Bill. Why in the hell would I be saying ‘Thank you for treating me like that’? It’s because somewhere in my past, or outside of the environment of Mr Holland’s home, I’m not being treated like a regular Bill. When I encounter a police officer I’m being treated unusually and abnormally. When I walk down a beautiful street that may not be the street I live on, people pop their heads out of the windows and don’t see me as a citizen. They see me as a suspect. This is the thing I’m getting at. It’s like, ‘That’s a sweet childhood story of a guy thanking the father of the girl he likes.’ Yes it’s that, but it’s also, ‘What am I not saying?’

That last verse is a reference to the speech black parents give their kids about what to do when you get into certain situations to preserve your life. Mama had that conversation with me. She used to fear for me going out into the world, concerned about what police officers thought about me, about what homeowners with a gun might think as I delivered the paper. We used to sell Xmas cards, back in the day when you could walk up to people’s houses with things you were selling. My mother said, ‘Knock on the door, ring the bell and step two feet back so you don’t alarm people.’ I was like, ‘Oh mama, the man comes to our door to sell vacuum cleaners and we don’t make him stand 10 feet back.’  She was like, ‘Son, do what I told you.’   

Mr Holland is even more relevant given what's happening with the Black Lives Matter movement. It feels like the wider world has moved on too quickly in the past, yet there’s something about this time that feels like a real watershed moment has been reached. Does it feel different to you?

It does. Nobody wants to be exalted above anybody. The desire is, whatever the equality, let me have that. Give me that off the shelf because I feel like I’m not tasting and not getting it in these democracies that say this is afforded to you. The fact this moment has happened during a pandemic has probably been one of the reasons. In a moment in which people are sequestering themselves in order to preserve life, to keep breathing, we saw a cat get his breath taken from him needlessly. Our antennas, energy and even expression have been pent up and you have a lot of time to think.      

Even though it wasn’t written and recorded during the current troubles, do you feel the songs on ‘All Rise’ have gained extra significance because of what’s happening in the world right now?

I think it was relevant before, but even more so now. I like that I can be the kind of writer who has a universal message that was good in the OK times, but more relevant when things got a little dark and dangerous. I like that my music can be a prescription. It is for me. It is for some of the people who express themselves to me. I’ve had some difficulty in this time, in this pandemic, with the effects it’s had on my family. So I went to my own music. The memory of my mother and my family is in the music. That was a balm for me during this pandemic, so I hope it is for other people as well. 

'All Rise' is out on August 28 through Decca Records/Blue Note Records.

Gregory Porter Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Sat February 27 2021 - LEEDS first direct Arena
Sun February 28 2021 - BIRMINGHAM Resorts World Arena
Tue March 02 2021 - MANCHESTER Arena
Wed March 03 2021 - GLASGOW SSE Hydro
Fri March 05 2021 - CARDIFF Motorpoint Arena Cardiff
Sun March 07 2021 - BRIGHTON Centre
Mon March 08 2021 - BOURNEMOUTH BIC
Wed May 26 2021 - LONDON Royal Albert Hall
Thu May 27 2021 - LONDON Royal Albert Hall
Sat May 29 2021 - LONDON Royal Albert Hall

Click here to compare & buy Gregory Porter Tickets at Stereoboard.com.



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