Pursuing a career that includes countless accomplishments as both a recording artist and Broadway writer among other artistic endeavors, Gregory Porter has become one of the most unassuming, yet influential vocalists recording today. From his beginnings becoming immersed in recordings that ranged from Nat ‘King’ Cole to gospel hits and Donny Hathaway, to evolving into an accomplished and sought-after artist, Porter continues to amaze both fans and his own expectations. Read on as he takes us through his experiences growing up, on Broadway, and beyond.
Tell us about when you started singing. Where did you grow up, and what influenced you at a young age to start singing?
I grew up in California, at first in Los Angeles. When I was eight years old I moved to Bakersfield, CA, which is two hours north of Los Angeles. My mother was a minister, so I grew up singing in church. I come from a large family, so both my brother and my sister grew up singing when we were kids. That was my immersion into the music.
What age did you start singing?
‘Course you start singing some song you hear off the cartoons when you’re three and four — my mother heard it. And I would sing the little songs I learned in church as long as I can remember, 4 or 5 years old. I do remember my first solo when I was five years old, singing in a big church in Los Angeles, and I remember the power of the music. I sang the song, the church went crazy, and I was like, “hmm…interesting.” Not so much the narcissism (the “ooh, wow, look what I did!”) — just the power of music. I was like, “this does something.” And I was a mama’s boy and it pleased my mother.
What artists or records did you listen to?
For me, at the time, we always had gospel music going in the house. I had heard Mahalia Jackson and the Mississippi Mass Choir and James Cleveland — that’s what I was hearing in the house. But also on Saturdays we were allowed to watch Soul Train. So there were some soul influences coming from that. And R&B, of course, we were listening to Michael Jackson and all of that. I’m talking about the mid to late seventies, so all those great artists that you can think about, Steve Wonder, etc.
But I also was affected by Nat ‘King’ Cole’s music because my mother, just after taping a silly song on a tape recorder, said, “Boy, you sound like Nat ‘King’ Cole.” And I was like, “Nat ‘King’ Cole? Who and what is that?” We were forbidden to touch her records, but I remember putting Nat ‘King’ Cole’s record on and hearing his music. I was struck by it. I had to be five or six and often went back to it. And I remember imagining Nat ‘King’ Cole as my father, and that came partly from listening to the music and looking at the album covers. On his album covers, Nat ‘King’ Cole looked like somebody’s daddy, and he was good-looking, elegant, dressed in a sweater and sitting by a fire. I didn’t know my father at the time. And I kind of had a sophisticated understanding of that longing that I had — I missed my father. So I used to imagine Nat ‘King’ Cole as my father, and that’s how I came to Nat’s music. That was my first taste of jazz, really.
So Nat ‘King’ Cole had a great influence on you.
Yeah, but you’re not just in this vacuum. You get this music, if you love music. And in my young years I really loved music, so I was sucking in and taking in everything. But there was something about his emotional approach to jazz singing; I remember being attracted to that. And of course, gospel and any singer who sang with deep emotion. So you would be talking about Donny Hathaway. I remember Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack. I remember enjoying that more than the fast-paced pop songs — which were cool, too, and I dug it — but I remember I was an emotional, dramatic kid, and I remember those songs moving me more than anything.
What were some of your first performances and when did you realize that you wanted to do this as a career?
I was just about twenty-one, and my mother had breast cancer and it was her last few days. Not to sound like a movie script or anything, but I remember her just talking about everything in life — when I was going to have kids, what to do when I have my kids, what to do when I meet the girl I want to marry — she was like, “I got a few days left, I’m going to tell Gregory everything.” We were talking about what I would do for my life, and at the time I was in college for city planning. I had already torn up my shoulder. I played football, and I went to San Diego State on a football scholarship — but I had hurt my shoulder and I couldn’t play anymore. I still had my scholarship, and she was like, “Gregory, when you sing, it’s the best thing you do. You do a lot of things well, but that’s the best thing you do.” I remember her oxygen tank was turned all the way up to maximum, and she was like, “Can you fix the machine? I don’t think it’s giving me my oxygen.” Even though it was giving her everything it could, she still couldn’t breathe. She said, in a really panting-type voice, “Sing, baby, sing.”
I took that as a cue to do, as she said, the best thing I do. I really started slowly getting out there, different little jazz clubs when I was in college — maybe I would get up and sing half a song because I didn’t know the whole song. I was really just slowly immersing myself into the music and into the jazz scene. It was about maybe when I was 21, 22, or 23. I didn’t sing for a year after my mother passed, but that’s what happened.
Then you made the move to New York.
I had befriended the producer for my first album, Kamau Kenyatta, while in San Diego. Our meetings were like these meetings of discovery — we would get together and listen to music. It would be Brazilian music, Mexican singers, it would be, like, “check out this rare Andy Bey record, live recording, him singing in some club in Indiana.” It was just that kind of friendship. We’d just listen to clips of music, play music, and sing; he’s a piano player and saxophone player. Kamau got me into the music that way, and we started performing together in San Diego. I got to work with Hubert Laws, a great flutist, through Kamau, because Kamau was producing his record. And it just happened to be Nat ‘King’ Cole. So I went to the recording session — I was just there to meet Hubert — and they were tracking the song, “Smile,” which is a song that I loved. So Kamau was like, “Hubert, listen to Gregory sing.” So he took down the flute level on the track and I started to sing over the track, and he was like, “Oh, that’s beautiful — get ready, we’re going to put you on the record.” It was funny, though, the weren’t set up for a vocalist, there were no headphones, and I sang through Hubert’s mic was specifically for a flute, but it came across beautifully and it was a beautiful experience. And I love listening to that little record now.
So that was your first recording experience. Was it from there that you planned to make your record?
Actually, no. I thought, you know, Hubert has a nice following, so maybe somebody will hear it. I didn’t have all the wisdom of how the music game works, and I thought, maybe somebody will just snatch me up and make me a star. Or just let me sing on something, and I’d have a career of some sort.
It didn’t work that way. But everything happens for a reason, and I ended up starting to do theater, which I had done a little bit of in college. So I was doing professional theater, and that actually took me away from seriously pursuing a recording career. I was doing theater, which I had done a little bit of in college. So I was doing professional theater, and that actually took me away from seriously pursuing a recording career. I was doing theater — writing for theater — I ended up performing in a musical about my childhood called “Nat ‘King’ Cole and Me,” about my childhood and the absence of my father. After I finished doing the theater thing, I moved to New York (this is about seven years ago), and I said, “I’m going to get serious about the music.” So I immersed myself in the music — all these years I’m studying jazz, I’m learning songs, I’m writing little songs, kind of building and seasoning myself as a performer. I came to New York to try to pursue jazz singing more specifically — and that’s what I did. I started working up at the St. Nick’s Pub — Harlem, 149th and St. Nicholas. In its last couple of years, Tuesday nights were my nights there, and a lot of the songs for Water were worked on a lot at St. Nick’s.
Going back to your Broadway experience — how did you go from deciding that this was what you wanted to do to actually writing musicals and being involved in Broadway?
[Laughs] You know what the funny thing is? Everything that I’ve been able to do in my career, if you don’t ask anybody, if you don’t ask permission from someone, then sometimes you don’t know that you’re not supposed to do it. You’re not supposed to write a musical unless you have all this training, unless you’ve studied musical theory and writing and the pedagogy of it. You’re not even supposed to think about it. But I didn’t ask anybody. It was just what was coming from the heart and what I wanted to do. I had the stories, I had the melodies — so what was holding me back? I’ve got the story; it’s my story. So I just did it. The Denver Center Theatre in Colorado saw the script and they were like, “Let’s do it. Let’s develop this script more and give you a stage.” So for two months, eight hundred people a night came, and watched my childhood story. I didn’t ask.
And on writing songs. You can over-intellectualize and really concentrate on making a song sound like this and do this — you can over-intellectualize that and it’ll be fine; you’ll come out with a piece of music. But for me, I needed it to come organically. So my songs just kind of come organically; that’s the way it went with Water, and that’s the way it went with this next album.
It’s beautiful that it went that way for you, because a lot of vocalists end up going to college or institutions to study — not that they don’t already have the capabilities — to perfect their skills and study music. To pursue a career in music, a lot of artists and musicians will feel like having that theory and studying it at first is the way that you’re supposed to go. The fact that you just did it is really inspiring.
I studied city planning. Now do I wish I didn’t study city planning? Do I wish that I was studying piano at that time? Yes I do! And it’s definitely valid — to this day I still work on my music.
A song was there before the craft of songwriting was developed. There was a song before you could write a song down. The song exists in you as naturally as natural can be. There’s a standard and structured way of writing a song, and that’s great. But singing a song, I think, comes naturally — even to a child, who’s never seen the music before.
You mentioned earlier that you were performing it at St. Nick’s Pub. The song, “1960 What?” is ridiculous. Can you talk about that recording? It sounds so powerful.
Yeah, there’s some energy going on — it was a special thing in the room. It’s been a couple years now since I recorded Water. It was a special energy in the room. It was warm in the room — they turned off the air conditioning and there was just this…the spirit of my mother was in the room, and the energy was good in the room, so “1960 What?” came out. We had been performing it at St. Nick’s Pub before then.
After I recorded and released “1960 What?,” it felt good to me and I was waiting for it to do something, but it didn’t. It kind of set for a minute because there were tentative promotion dollars put behind it. Then some DJs got it, and people started hearing about it. After I got the Grammy nomination for it last year, people started to check it out.
After the Grammy nomination, it started to build some energy. We shot a video in Detroit for it, and then a couple of DJs did a remix — and then it started to make its way around the world, actually. The track has been cool, and a lot of people know me for that tune. I was in Amsterdam recently, and as soon as the concert started people started screaming, “1960 What?!” It’s like, “You know you’re not going to get that one ‘til the end!” But it was a cool, cool experience.
Your latest release, Be Good — you’ve been topping the charts
I don’t keep up with those numbers, but I think that’s what I saw recently on the Billboard Jazz Charts.
I’m excited about it.
So what was the process in the creation of this record? Can you talk about the musicians you collaborated with?
The trio remains the same, Chip Crawford on piano, Aaron James on bass, and Emmanuel Harold on drums. And the songwriting process remains the same for me: organic, personal stories, and things that happen that I see in life that really move me. When a stranger is mistreated by a group of people — sometimes people will laugh at a person who maybe has a limp or a discoloration of the skin, or something like that — the wrongness of anybody being mistreated moves me. The beauty of true, genuine love. Real stories move me. Mother love, loving your mother. That moves me. And I can really write about things that move me.
And I have the attitude that I’m not trying to rewrite the book on songwriting, on love, on jazz, or on what’s acceptable. I’m just being me. I’m organically being Gregory Porter. And that’s why it’s been received really nicely, and I’m excited about it.
But my process is really the theme, the melody, and then sometimes the bass line. Sometimes it’ll all come to me at once. And I have my phone at the ready, or my voice recorder, or a paper and pen, and I try to get it down. If it doesn’t all come to me at once, I’ll come back to it later and develop it further. But generally, it’s something that comes from something that’s inside of me, moving me. Like one of the songs on Water, “Illusions,” that was about my last significant breakup. I could’ve kept on writing! The title track of this new album, “Be Good,” is about a relationship that didn’t work out. “Our Love” is about something that did work out. “Mother’s Song” — that’s about my gracious mother, a great lady; a tribute to her.
“Way to Harlem” was written on the train going from my house to Harlem on my way to St. Nick’s Pub. I was just considering how people feel about rising rent, the inability to buy a house in the same neighborhood they grew up in because real estate prices and property taxes have gone up so high that they can’t afford to live where they grew up. You’re going in and playing and working in Harlem, and you just hear these fifteen, twenty seconds of a conversation and that was enough to fuel the energy for that song.
And I’m talking about the culture in Harlem; great writers and these great singers and these great musicians resided on these streets. What will that be replaced with? People who support that kind of thing, or will it be replaced with people who support something else? All I know that is if you have a cultural institution or an area that is an institution for extraordinary art that has fed the world, it should be taken care of. And that’s not to the exclusion of anybody, any culture — it’s just to say, cherish it. Cherish those churches that developed those musicians that came out of Harlem. Cherish those institutions that have nurtured this culture and this art and these paintings and these poems that have come from these streets.
Back to your Grammy nomination. After everything that you just talked about, your story and your experiences, following your heart toward the music, probably falling more in love with the music the more that you do it. Then finding out that you had this Grammy nomination, how did you feel? What were you thinking at the time?
I think I was walking in lower Manhattan on Chamber Street, or something like that. I don’t know what I was on my way to or coming from, but I saw it in a random Facebook post not directed towards me. It was just like, “oh, Gregory Porter just got a Grammy nomination.” Then I was like, “that’s a mistake; people are confused!” — because I had thought they had already done the selections for the nominations. Then I got a personal text from somebody that said, “Congratulations.” So I was like, “Oh, wait a minute!” It was really cool, because quite frankly, it was extraordinary. This was my first proper CD. I had a self-produced CD before then, but it was just a little simple thing that I did in a living room. This is my first proper production CD and to get a Grammy nomination for it was amazing. To see my name next to Dee Dee Bridgewater’s and Freddy Cole’s was just great.
It all kind of works out. My first recording was a tribute to Nat ‘King’ Cole, and my first Grammy nomination was right next to Nat ‘King’ Cole’s brother. It’s like he stayed in my life in these interesting ways, Nat ‘King’ Cole.
You just don’t see a lot of male jazz vocalists really paving the way. There’s obviously tons out there, but it seems like a lot of people are paying attention to you right now — and have been — and it’s just growing. How does that feel? Is that something that you even think about, or are you just going with the flow?
It is something that I think about. Because of the way music is — and the music industry here is now — you can have a song that’s a hit, and you won’t know it. If you’re just concentrating on looking at how something sells, you won’t know, sometimes, how well you’re doing. I perform at a club in New York City, which is my home club, Smoke — and when I perform there, it’s generally pretty full. It’s not a situation where I’m surprised at having a packed venue to perform at. But like when I go to other countries, and the venues are sold out — seven shows I’m doing, and every show is sold out — the waiting list has six hundred people. You won’t know how many people you’ve touched. Because of free downloads and the way the music industry is now, you won’t know how many people you’ve touched musically. It only happens when you walk on the street and people are like, “Gregory Porter — I love your music, man!” I’m like, wait a minute. I’m just walking to my house, to downtown Brooklyn, how is it that seven or eight people know me within that time frame, and I’m slightly disguised?
Sometimes you’re affecting large group of people listening, and you don’t even know. You’re just doing what you do. That’s how it’s been. It’s been cool, and I’m very grateful for the people that listen and are feeling and digging what I’m going. I’m trying to come from an organic place, really, a humble place.
It’s interesting, I was in the UK and this woman recited my entire song to me. I don’t know why I was so surprised by that — the CD was Grammy-nominated, and it’s been out there. But she recited the song to me and told me how she got it and how it affected her. I was just thinking, wow, I just wrote that at my local coffee shop. It’s amazing that music has disseminated and the people, they come back to you. The bird you have released flies back to you and tells you what’s going on.
“Be Good” is also called “Lion’s Song.” What is that from?
I was hanging out with somebody — you know, you guys aren’t anything yet; not your girlfriend, you guys are just hanging out. I wanted more in the relationship, and I went to a party that she was having, and basically, it ended up being the end of the relationship at the end of that party, right? So I’m on my way home, I sing myself through any troubles I have in my heart or in my head; I sing myself through it. I literally said to myself, I need a grown man’s lullaby to soothe me right now. There must be one, and I’m sure there is, and I could’ve thought of one, but I was like, let me think of one.
So on my bike — riding back from her house — this melody came to me, and the lyrics came to me. I’m still able to be strong; I’m a strong man. But I can express the vulnerability by singing this lullaby and express the pain that I had from this relationship not coming to fruition.
And you know, the interesting thing about it is that men like the song. It’s just that — they feel like the “lion,” and if ever they’ve had their hearts tugged a little bit, that they can still be strong and still be vulnerable at the same time. Sometimes they can be polar opposites. But yeah, it’s a grown man’s lullaby. [Laughs] Women like it too, but that’s what it is.
What’s next for you?
I have the CD releases coming up next month. I’m at Smoke — most Thursdays that I’m in town, I’m at Smoke. I take a little break before I do the CD release party — the sixteenth of next month at the Highline Ballroom.
Are there any new projects that you’re working on? Any collaborations?
I’m always writing, and incorporating new music that I’m writing in my set whenever. I don’t hold everything back until it’s time to record. I’m just working on the same thing that I was talking about — being organic, just listening to myself. And not looking in the mirror in a narcissistic way, but looking in the mirror if I can see other people. See stories that will interesting for other people. Because generally a personal story, if it’s told and sung with honesty — and I’ll use this word organic again — organic honesty, it’ll be be more than just a personal story. It becomes universal. It becomes a story for many people, because it’s true — it just deals with the human condition. And I’m not trying to sing a song that’s just like the lowest common denominator that’ll be good for everybody. I’m just trying to sing a story and tell a story that’s just personal, yet universal.
My mother made up a little life fairy tale for me. She said, “Gregory, if you’re good and kind and decent to people, then you’ll get the golden slipper. But you won’t know when you get it! So you’ve got to keep good and kind.”
If your mother could see you right now, she’d be so proud of you.
You know, I hope so. It’s just been really interesting, really fun. And really, for jazz, it ain’t about the bling-bling — for me, it’s not about showing off my musical technique or anything like that. I’m probably coming from the same place that a blues artist or folk artist would be trying to come from — just a musically intense place. I just happen to be in the jazz world. I’m trying to do the same thing: I’m trying to connect with people. But I’m doing it through this music.
And it’s nothing new. Andy Bey did that, and Leon Calvert did it, and I’m not trying to put myself in the shoes or the category of these great artists. I’m just saying, they left some legacy on which to look at and try to live up to. That’s all I’m doing.
Interview by Meghan Stabile / Written by Rachel Cantrell / Edited by Eric Sandler
Website: Gregory Porter Online
Album: Be Good