MOBO Interview: Gregory Porter

From winning a Grammy award in 2014 for ‘Best Jazz Vocal Album’ to having the most streamed Jazz album of all time, which has re-entered the Top 10 of the Official UK Album Chart for the second time, it is safe to say that Gregory Porter is Jazz music’s man of the moment. We were lucky enough to sit down with Mr. Porter recently and discuss his success, what it was like receiving praise from the legend that is Stevie Wonder and much more. Check out the interview below!          


Congratulations on the success of Liquid Spirit. It recently reached the top 10 in the UK charts for the second time and in 2014 you won a Grammy for ‘Best Jazz Vocal Album’. How does it feel to have all this success?

It’s been extraordinary. You don’t know what is possible when you birth the children of song. You hope for success but you don’t know. You don’t know if people are going to like your simple messages especially as a singer/songwriter because in a way, a lot of the time your songs are personal messages and you don’t know if the listener will pick them up. Who cares about Laura? There will be no love that’s dying here. Who cares? You don’t know but then it hits the ears of people and they accept it so that’s a great feeling wherever that happens.

I’ve always had a thought that if people get a chance to hear the music or be exposed to the music, I’ll have some success with it and that’s the message in “Liquid Spirit”. There’s an artistic impatience there that’s talking. The same artistic impatience that’s in the record before in a song called “Bling Bling” but if you listen to the poetry “Un re-route the rivers, let the dammed water be, there’s some people down the way that’s thirsty so let the liquid spirit free. The people are thirsty ‘cause of mans unnatural hand, watch what happens when the people catch wind, when the water hits the banks of that hard dry land”. That’s probably what the success is with that last line. We’re watching, they heard it and they like it. Now I haven’t sold a billion records but I’ve sold some….More than they thought I would! [Laughs].


On your latest album Liquid Spirit your song “Water Under Bridges” features MOBO Award winner Laura Mvula. What was it like working with Laura?

She’s great. The best way I could describe her is as a “unique” artist. She has a personal voice and approach to music that’s all her own and that’s intriguing to me because I think that when you have a uniqueness to yourself I think you stand the test of time. You know, there’s one Marvin Gaye. There’s one Grace Jones.


How does it feel to hear legends such as Stevie Wonder praise your music?

Madness. Complete madness [Laughs]. That’s not supposed to happen. In my brain I’m still trying to understand it! Even now I’m sitting on the other side of the room watching myself because all of it is slightly surreal. On that night in Copenhagen when he came on stage and he played, you know, that’s what you want Stevie to do. It’s like yes you want him to sing one of his great master hits but what you really want is for him to pull out a harmonica. That’s personally Stevie! He did that and he played on my song “Free” and we performed together in the concert hall in Copenhagen. It was just a surreal experience and before we did the performance he said those words about my music so it definitely still feels surreal. I’m waiting for a few months off so I can fully bathe and process everything. He is a master of music, not just Soul or R&B. He is a master of music.


You briefly mentioned performing in Copenhagen and throughout your career you’ve performed at some amazing venues and shows. Can you explain how it felt the first time you performed to a large crowd & does it still have the same feeling today?

Yeah there is an energy and electricity. I think one of the largest audiences was at the BBC concert in Hyde Park. In the US, the Hollywood bowl I think holds 17-19,000 people. I think something I’ve realised for myself is that I have the ability to bring things down to scale. I’m not considering how big the audience is. You know the difference between a 50 seat audience and a 5,000 seat audience is the size, you know it’s the same song. I don’t have a button that I can push to create some afterburners. I’m still going to give that 50 seat audience the same show I’m going to give the 5,000. I just do my thing and hopefully it’s acceptable and thus far it has been. I’ve had great responses around the world and I think because I’ve come to success later in my life, I’m hugely humbled by all of it. I’ve had some really crappy jobs where nobody cared what it was that I was doing and now I have this job where people care about every note and I appreciate it.


Was music always something you’ve wanted to do as a career?

No not at all, I didn’t know it was possible. I didn’t know that I could make a living through music; I didn’t know that it was something that I could rely on to keep me going. It seemed so far, I heard people on the radio and I was like “I don’t know what they have to do to do that”. I felt that when I was 6, 9, 12 years old, that I had a good voice but Michael Jackson seemed so far into the stratosphere and he still is!

All I’m trying to do is achieve the sincerity of the work that the greats before us did. But yeah I didn’t know it was possible, my mother suggested it to me, not to forget about it. Before she died she said, “Gregory this is one of the best things you do. Don’t forget about music”. I was trying to assure her that I’d be a brown shoe wearing city planner somewhere for some municipal government and she said “Don’t go the safe route, don’t forget about it and keep it as a possibility”. In a way that kind of sanctioned the idea of having a music career or even just pursuing it. I thought maybe I could have a job and self produce a record of myself and sell 100 of them. I didn’t know what was possible. The dream seemed so far away from me and it was for a long time. I tried to get here when I was 20 but whatever route I took I didn’t get here properly till I was 38, five years ago.


Who would you say were your biggest inspirations musically?

Very early on I listened to the music of Nat King Cole but I don’t want to suggest that I was just sitting by the record player and that’s the only thing I was listening to. My older brothers were listening to P-Funk, The O’Jays, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye and definitely Stevie Wonder. I remember we learned to dance to Stevie, so I was listening to all of that. I was listening to my mothers Gospel music as well as singing in church so there was that cornucopia of music, of black music. With Blues, before I even knew what it was I was like “Man I don’t know what that is but it sounds close to Gospel and it sounds like my Grandfather would sing it” so it sounded familiar. But there was a sound that comes out of the church that connected all of it which let me know that the complete diaspora of music was available to me. I could hear the Blues and Gospel and R&B, I could hear it in Stevie’s music and I could hear it in Donny Hathaway’s music. I just heard it. I could hear things that we were doing in church in Stevie’s music.


How important is it to you when making music that your fans feel a connection with you through your music?

Well something I realised and learned in theatre was that the personal is universal so my story and how I felt about Laura or how I felt about my neighborhood or whatever it is I sing about might be similar to how someone else feels. Sometimes we think that our lives are just this narrow thing that only we live and that’s true to an extent but everyone has some similarities in each others lives. Someone out there might have had a “Laura” in their life at some point so when I sing my songs I do realise that it’s going out to other people that, for example, might not know this “Laura” but they know that feeling, that experience. They may even be a “Laura”.


Your music incorporates a lot of instruments, which really brings the live performances to life. Can you play any instruments and if so what made you want to learn?

No I don’t play any instruments for performance. I’m able to construct songs on a piano but I’m not a piano player, not in the least bit. So it’s just something for musical reference but I’ve never felt inferior having my instrument with me, my instrument is my voice. I write my songs that way and I’ve talked to many extraordinary instrumentalists that say that they write with their voice. I think that an instrument to a piano player, saxophone player or trumpet player that is really connected to the music that they are doing would get a compliment where somebody says “You’re singing with your instrument”. That means they’ve achieved the ability to be so connected to their instrument that it’s like a voice so I don’t feel like I’m superior to any of the other people that are on the stage with me but I do know that the voice carries an emotion and an emotional immediacy that’s appealing to people. I felt like my voice was an instrument. I used to play with sounds and my brothers and sisters would always tell me to shut up! [Laughs]. I was exploring the parameters of my voice, constantly trying to see what my voice could do. I’ve come to find that sometimes I would do that around my musician friends and they would say “You’re constantly practicing” but I never called it practice, I was just exploring. I know it’s musical but I turn it into an academic thing, it’s just very much a part of me. I’m not saying that everything I’m doing on stage is easy and just second nature to me, its not. There’s a lot of work that’s been put in but the voice and extension of it is also part of the organic process for me.


Do you feel that Jazz music gets the credit and acknowledgement it deserves in today’s industry?

Probably not but you know, nothings promised to us. I mean, once you learn to play your horn or play the piano then you’re supposed to have automatic success? You’re still connected, we’re human beings. There still has to be a level of musical charisma and the ability to connect with the audience, connect with peoples ears, say something which strikes to their heart. All of these things are still required even if you’ve studied your instrument for 30 years so I think the idea that Miles Davis & Charlie Parker were only touching people just through the ears is probably not true, I think they were striking to the heart as well. If you listen to that music deeply in the context of the time, they were pushing and pulling people’s emotional strings as well. So that’s something that’s important in Jazz, that exists in Jazz and I think needs to be appreciated more in Jazz both by the listener and the practitioner.


Recently the legendary Jazz trumpeter Clark Terry passed away. Were you a fan of his music? 

Yes because it always seemed like clearly he was a deep and serious musician but to me I always felt the humanity and fun in his music and the life force in his music. I’m always searching for that even in myself, is it alive with humanity? You can turn it into just lines and dots, something on a page or something that has been technically recorded but does it have that thing? That human touch? We don’t know how to describe it; we don’t know how to teach it, it’s just something that is and all of his music I felt had that. It had some life and some verve and yeah, I very much appreciated Clark Terry and you know, when I get asked about what films I would suggest for people to see, that documentary on him and his young protégée was such a really cool piece.


What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given & who was it from?

My mother when I was 5 years old. She said, “Sing with an understanding”. I was singing Gospel at the time and she was like “Internalise the words that you’re singing and they’ll be more believable if you understand what it is your saying” and I do that now.  When I say sing with an understanding, I’m trying to sing about things I know about, that way I have some emotional currency to spend when I go to step to the microphone.


Christmas adverts are a big thing here in the UK and this Christmas gone you got the chance to duet with the late Julie London on “Fly Me To The Moon” for the Marks & Spencer Christmas advert. What was that like?

It was really cool. This is the thing about UK culture, it’s like sometimes you step into it and you don’t really know what it is, how big it is. I think one of the first performances I did when I came to the UK was Jools Holland and I was like “Ok Jools Holland, I’ve heard of him and seen him a few times and I know he has a show that comes on here every now and then” but I didn’t know the institution that it is. There are institutions that are here that are important and extraordinary to music culture and pop culture and you have to be schooled so when you first get them you’re like “Ok that’s great” but then someone sits you down and says “Do you understand that this is part of the fabric of who we are and you get to be a part of it”. That’s dope. It’s a cool collaboration with an artist that’s not with us anymore. She was an extraordinary artist; I used to listen to her when I was in college, never imagining that our paths would cross musically! So yeah it was an extraordinary thing and I liked the track and the Christmas vibe.


Who would be your dream artist to collaborate with?

I’d like to hang out with Donny Hathaway, do a duet and do some simple Gospel song. Just him, me and a piano.


Finally, what more can we expect to see and hear from you in 2015?

I’m going to stay on the track that the UK audience has called out for. They’ve told me who I was really as an artist. I thought I knew but without conversation the UK audience will tell you who you are, who your influences are, who you remind them of, your place in this musical stratosphere, all these kind of things. So that’s extraordinary artistic fortification that the UK audience does and you get it by way of people stopping you in the street or by radio interviews and things like that. I’m an artist that’s mixed with Soul, Blues, Jazz and Gospel, a singer/songwriter, and it all comes out to be me, Gregory Porter. I’m going to search the corners of my brain and my heart and try to come up with another record and I hope it’s received as well as this one has been. This has been really extraordinary and I find myself in places, with people that they say Jazz artists aren’t supposed to be with! [Laughs].


Liquid Spirit (Deluxe Edition) can be purchased HERE


Elliot Speed (@elliotspeed90)