Q&A with Gregory Porter
We spoke to American jazz musician Gregory Porter about his Grammy Award-winning album, Liquid Spirit.
2014 was an incredible year for you after picking up a Grammy Award for your smash-hit album Liquid Spirit. How have things changed for you in the last 12 months?
I have been working hard for some time now recording music and playing gigs, but now the venues have got bigger and more prestigious, for example playing a sell-out concert at the Royal Albert Hall or performing at the BBC concert in Hyde Park. These are amazing experiences that I couldn't have imagined five years ago, but they're happening now. I get recognised a lot more now, in airports, on trains, in restaurants and so on. My music has become more popular and is now part of people’s music collections. I suppose I do a lot more TV appearances too. I haven’t changed though – I'm not trying to re-write the book or reinvent myself, I’m just being myself and that seems to be coming across. I like the fact that I'm not having to do anything to gain success but be myself and write and sing the way that I feel.
It’s been extraordinarily successful, but why was Liquid Spirit such an important album for you?
For me in particular, it’s because the ideas, the melodies and the feelings came straight from my heart. For example, the song Liquid Spirit came to me while I was on a train. I was on my way to a performance in France with another artist (I didn’t even have my band with me) and the poetry started to come to me “un re-route the rivers, let the damned water be, there’s some people down the way that’s thirsty, so let the liquid spirit free.” It’s a simple feeling or an energy inside me that just comes out in a poetic way and then that poetry, coupled with a melody, finds its way into ears all over the world. I really like that. And now the song will be in a Hollywood movie, The Avengers. It’s funny to me to see how easily a song is born and then how far it travels – it’s like a child in a way.
Perhaps the most famous song on the album is Hey Laura. Does that have a personal connection?
Yes absolutely, she is a real person. Laura was from Edinburgh, but we met in Denver, Colorado when I was doing a musical there. We fell for each other instantly and were together for some time, but it didn’t work out. It’s one of those things really. The song is about checking up on somebody when they’re out of your life. It’s not about actually ringing their doorbell late at night, but about checking on them too late in life when they’ve already met somebody else or created their own family.
What are your musical influences?
My influences are very varied. There will be some people you know, like Nat King Cole, Marvin Gaye, Joe Williams and Abbey Lincoln, and many, many people that you don’t know because they never recorded, never gained popularity or were just interesting people that I came across musically. I like music that crosses genres, for example Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway could have sung jazz if they'd decided to put that title on their music – Marvin Gaye did at one point. In a way all of these singers and writers sing about love, protest, society and deep personal passions. I’ve been listening to their music all my life and took my cue from that.
How does Liquid Spirit relate to other music that you’ve recorded before?
Liquid Spirit is the progression and extension of the music I created in my first two records: Water and Be Good. The original title of my first record, Water, was Love and Protest and I think that could apply to the second record and the third record as well. It’s a subtle protest about the media and the record industry and it’s about the music I love. I’m not just speaking for myself though. People want to hear music with a personal expression that doesn't sound like it's trying to go for the most sales.
You do a lot of touring and have performed all over the world. How is life on the road?
Yes, that’s true. I did 270 shows last year, but I love it. While I’ve been travelling I’ve built up a kind of travelog of places I’d like to visit when my touring slows down. I've been to some extraordinary places across the world but I’m only there for one to two days. I like to quickly scan over whatever environment I'm in, whether it's Istanbul or Moscow, and lock some things down. I think, “when I come back here this is what I'll do, this is what I'll eat and this is where I'll go.” But I am there for the show and so while I might visit a museum or something similar, I have to save my body, my energy and my voice for what's happening that evening at the festival or at the concert. I do get to experience some things, like the drive in, the nightlife after a concert (maybe dinner, dancing or drinks), but I’m greedy. I want four to five days everywhere I go to really immerse myself in the culture, but it’s impossible if I’m doing 250 shows.
Do you have any horror stories about being on tour?
As you can imagine travelling from Italy to Spain to Turkey to South Africa, all of our luggage has been lost three or four times for a month at a time. I had one very loosely zipped bag that had all of the receipts from CD sales in it that was floating around the world for a while – it went from Spain to Italy, back to Spain, to the United States and then sat in some room for 30 days. I think it had $5,000 in it but I got it back and nobody had touched it. Believe it or not, with all the shows that we’ve done, we’ve never missed a concert. You’d have thought that with delayed flights or whatever it was inevitable, but if the flight is too delayed then we’ll get in a car and drive six or seven hours to a show. It has always worked out.
You recently performed at the Harrogate International Festival. How did that compare to playing in Hyde Park, at the Royal Albert Hall and at Glastonbury?
They are all very different types of festival and different types of audience as well, which I think shows the cross-over appeal of my music – it appeals to an older, more mature, jazz listening audience, but also younger jazz fans who like a bit of pop, soul and groove in their music. The UK has always had a diverse audience and that’s one of the things that’s impressed me ever since I've been coming here. The thing about music festivals is that the people who are there are guaranteed to love music – they’re not getting out of their comfortable houses and going to a place unless they love that music. I like that. They're probably coming to see more than one act too. They're music lovers and they want the festival experience, which is being surrounded by musicians and like-minded people. I love all festivals and am grateful for the experience of Glastonbury, but if I was asked, I do love the hand-to-hand combat that happens at smaller festivals.
What is it that appeals to you about smaller festivals?
I think that they’re cooler because you can go out, taste the food and see who’s on the bill. It’s a free ticket to go and see a great concert so I’m always down to check out all the other music that’ll be on that day. It’s something that I always do and I’ll try and catch three or four other acts if possible. I sing a song called I Fall In Love Too Easily and it's true because I do. I fall in love too easily with people and places. If there is beauty to be had then I will be there to consume it.
Gregory Porter will perform at the Sage Gateshead on Friday 15th April 2016 at 7.30pm. Tickets are available from www.sagegateshead.com