Gregory Porter | Interview
With his new album, All Rise going straight into the top ten of the UK Album chart – above Katy Perry of all people – Buzz’s Carl Marsh had a lengthy long-distance phone conversation with the (always) hat-wearing jazz singer/songwriter that is, Gregory Porter.
Due to the current worldwide nightmare that we’re all in, you obviously had no crystal ball when writing All Rise knowing that it could be the uplift we all need right now?
Yes, I didn’t know that the timing would be right, but it absolutely is. Even for myself, I’ve been going to my music, both past and with this new record to kind of lift myself up out of this deep, deep trough that we’re in because, you know, there’s a lot of pain, a lot of revival and renewal that’s going to have to take place for us to get back to where we were. But yeah, I’m thankful to have recorded that kind of music that’s not putting anybody or any group down. This (album) speaks about being optimistic and of irrepressible love.
Considering what you have just said, how did you approach writing these new songs?
[Laughs] You know it is quite personal and finding how universal our human emotion is. You know, if there’s anything I could say about this season of – in a way – black and deprivation and even protest, we find that many times we’re having some of the same emotions about some of the same things. So I turn myself and some of my past pains and current concerns, you know, the melody and, and the issue pops up in my head, I’ll tell you, like a song like Mister Holland, it comes from several encounters. I didn’t meet a person like Mr Holland. I didn’t, when I was trying to date this young lady, you know she was threatened, and I was intimidated as well at the doorstep of her house. And so it wasn’t positive, but the interesting thing is I was visiting the UK, and I had a visit to Jools Hollands house, and his daughter happens to be named Rosie May. I wasn’t attracted to her, but I mean I wasn’t, you know, I was married, but their names are so wonderful; Mr Holland and Miss Rosie May. We listened to a blues record that day, and he invited me to his house, and we walked around and because I was in the songwriting mode when I was at his home. That’s why the song is called Mister Holland. So you pull from real-life experiences and any concerns that have been welling inside of you. For me, somehow, the melody just comes, and the feel just comes. The idea of wanting to have a bit of irony in the song and of writing a social song that has a bounce that you can almost dance to is something that Marvin Gaye taught us and so, you know, ‘How do you write a song?’, magically [laughs], it comes into your head.
Does it bother you when people might ask you about the meaning of certain songs that might be way too personal to explain?
No, I don’t, I guess what I’ve realised is that people will take your songs and will apply it to their lives. (The album track) Hey Laura is actually quite a sad song, but I’m basically saying that I’m trying to connect with you, even after it’s impossible to connect with you, yeah? ‘The river of your love flows uphill to me’, but it’s impossible for a river to flow uphill. Some people want to hear that at their wedding [laughs]; so allow people, allow people to have their own interpretation. And the idea of love being so strong that it flows uphill is also beautiful, you know, it’s impossible, but it’s also beautiful, so if they take it in a positive way I let them have it.
For me, the track Mister Holland has some standout lyrics, what do you want the listener to take from this track?
It doesn’t bother me that a song like Mister Holland is suggesting to the listener that outside of the bubble that Mister Holland has created for me, this bubble of kindness. ‘Outside of that I’m not treated with respect, I’m treated as a suspect. And as something or somebody to be feared, said Mister Holland, don’t play that game’. The reality is my mother did talk to me and all of my brothers and sisters, particularly the boys, the five of us, she had the talk! Yeah, so that last lyric ‘Mama used to fear for me. She said when you go out into the world, you see people will fear your face and name, but Mister Holland don’t play that game’. Right. So, she did talk to us. She’s like, be careful of how you are and how people perceive you out there because it’s dangerous and I want you to come back home to me alive. She had those conversations with us, and I referenced that in the song, it’s an upbeat song. Still, the underlying question is suggesting that outside of this environment or in the past, there’s potentially some negativity there.