Brian Bacchus is your producer on this record. What was he like to work with?
I’m not a person who will record a song 125 times and use take number 76. Most of the time it’s two or three takes tops. Brian is the same way. He’s just great. He was like “okay, that’s a take: we don’t need to deal with that any more.” Sometimes I wanted to do it again that he said “no, no, let’s leave it alone and move to the next.” He was just very efficient. We also had great help from the associate producer on ‘Be Good’, Kamau Kenyatta, who was the producer for ‘Water.’ It worked out just the way we wanted it, with an organic edge to it. There’s structure but there’s freedom to flow out of the structure.
Your song ‘Painted On Canvas’ is very poetical: what was the inspiration for it?
I write from a personal place. It’s about human beings: we can be so silly and foolish and cruel sometimes. When a person walks through the door sometimes it’s a lazy, knee-jerk response, to automatically just decide who they are based on what they’re wearing, the way they talk, the colour of their skin, whatever. That’s simple and it’s simpleminded to do that. We are masterpieces of creation and it takes time to paint us and it takes a delicate brush; not just a bucket of paint thrown on somebody. You have to take your time and figure out who somebody is. And that painting that is put upon people, that energy that you put upon people, they’ll carry it. If you treat a child as though they were less than (something) his entire life, that is a painting that that child, when that child is grown, carries with him. All this paint has been put upon him, just like a painting, just like a canvas. So what does that picture look like? Does it look like an individual who’s being treated like he’s less than or have we taken our time and painted all the nuance and detail that a human individual has? So that’s what I’m talking about.
That’s a very interesting metaphor. You use metaphors as well in ‘Be Good (Lion’s Song)’ – what is that about exactly?
It’s about unrequited love, the desire for the individual to come out of this box that the woman is putting this man in. He wants to be free; free to love, free to be himself, but he can’t. She admires him to a certain extent. She admires him in a cage. We love lions in a cage and we want to pet the lion if his extremities are shackled. But do we want to pet him when he’s outside his cage? I use that metaphor to speak of a man who really wants to love and who is not allowed to because he’s kept in a box. Men like that song and in an interesting way, it’s like a grown man’s lullaby. You’re still a man, you’re still a lion, but you’re able to express your vulnerability.
So do you write from personal experience all of the time?
I do most of the time. ‘Mothers Song’ is about my mother, she’s a great woman. And you know going back to the ‘Water’ CD, ‘Illusion’ is from my personal experience, and ‘Pretty’ is about a girl I knew from Pakistan who actually owned five or six camels and has incredible brown eyes so yes, I do write from personal experience. I think when I’m connected to something that I care deeply about I’m able to emote.
You’ve also got three jazz standards on your album, including an a capella version of Billie Holiday’s ‘God Bless The Child.’ How do you approach a song that’s been recorded many times before?
You do certain things as an acting exercise in a way. I do that in a way with ‘Work Song’ – I become that character and I really think passionately about what it would be like. I know for a fact that some of my uncles were in that situation and so I was able to use that energy. For a song like ‘God Bless The Child’ – I know it’s one of the few songs that Billie Holiday wrote – I thought: how would I do that? What if she was here, how would I do it? And I just made it a little more intimate and just quiet, like it felt we were just in a room together and I wanted to sing it to her. I really was just thinking: let me have a conversation with Billie on this one.
So, did you start off by being interested in music as a child?
Yeah, I remember digging into my mother’s records and remember just listening to these songs and listening to this music and I think I remember finding very early in my life that I had a gift for singing. And my mother encouraged me. Since I can remember I was up and singing in church and doing little solos. But I was still very shy, even throughout high school and college. So I was like a reluctant performer – but I would perform, without question, but there was always some reluctance there.
Who were your musical influences when you were growing up?
As a child, in an interesting way, Nat ‘King’ Cole very much so, by way of breaking into my mother’s records. His voice just came to me through the stereo. We had the old Console stereo that looked like a piece of furniture. But for some reason the speakers and the way it was set up, they had such a warm sound. Nat ‘King’ Cole records were sounding to me like fatherly advice and it was like he was talking to me. I gravitated towards that and then went on to listen to other great vocalists as well. I grew up with Sam Cooke and Donny Hathaway and then later I was listening to Earth, Wind and Fire and Michael Jackson and all that stuff but there was always some older music, some older masterworks, from Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald to Mahalia Jackson. All that stuff was around and I absorbed it. Now that’s not to say that there was music going on in my house 24/7 because my mother didn’t want to hear music if it wasn’t gospel.
Did you come from a musical family? Did your mother sing?
Yes, my mother did sing and my father didn’t raise me but I heard him sing on tape one time and he was a great singer. He’s passed away but at his funeral people said “man, your father was a great singer.” I was like, “really?” So yeah, there was myself and my sister and my brother and when we were little kids we had a little singing group. It was just a little local church, small storefront church, thing.
What about becoming a professional singer. When did that happen?
In college I thought that there might have been a chance because people would always call me to do the national anthem or sing on Valentine’s Day; they’d say, “we’re having a program, Gregory can you come and sing a love song?” But it wasn’t until after college that I started going out to the clubs and doing some jam sessions. It took a couple of gracious musicians to pull me aside and say “you need to work on this thing and develop it because you have something.” That was Kamau Kenyatta, the producer. He took me aside and made time for me and exposed me to Brazilian music and all these great singers: he’d day “listen to this Joe Williams, listen to this King Pleasure, listen to this Milton Nascimento.” So I was listening to a lot of music by way of him. It was a very gradual thing. I got so much enjoyment out of singing I said “I don’t care where I get a chance to do this. I love jazz but I want to be able to sing period – I just want to be able to sing.” I didn’t want to rely on a gig to be able to sing. So I thought wherever I can sing, I will sing, whether it was a church or theatre. But once I started singing in the theatre for musicals it was another door that opened up for me and actually took me away from trying to work out a recording career.
I believe you actually wrote and starred in your own musical. What was the title of it?
It was called ‘Nat “King” Cole and Me.’ It was actually the story of my childhood and how I came to Nat’s music in the absence of a father. My mother said “you sound like Nat King Cole.” She never said you sound like your father so I was like, well who’s Nat ‘King’ Cole if I sound like him? So I dug into her records and found Nat ‘King’ Cole. In the musical I’m just telling that little childhood story. I probably came to Nat ‘King’ Cole and latched onto him because he sounded like somebody’s father and on the album covers he looked like somebody’s father, like he could have been my father. So, mentally as a child, I really seriously imagined Nat ‘King’ Cole was my father – it wasn’t just a story that I thought would be good for writing a musical. The musical was my childhood story and how I developed some healing in the absence of a father through music.
Do you have any ambitions for the future musically?
I do have, yeah. I’m always writing and I’m sitting here looking at my phone now and it’s over-full with messages and little snippets of musical ideas. So yes, I’ll continue to do my music. Some of it will be coming from me and some of it from other writers but I’ll always continue to have a voice in my music.
Are there any musicians that you would like to collaborate with?
Yeah, I think I said it in an interview recently; there are so many great piano players but if you want a piano player then you probably want Herbie Hancock. I would like to work with him and all the masters. I got a chance to do gigs with and play with and record with (saxophonist) James Spaulding and (flautist) Hubert Laws and that was a great experience. But I want to continue to work with young musicians and some of the more established masters. I’m looking forward to that.
At the end of last year you appeared on Jools Holland’s ‘Hootenanny’ show. How was that as an experience?
That was great. I just saw Jools today. It was a great experience. That show was really interesting, the way they would put jazz right next to pop and right after that it would be a country act. I appreciate that and quite frankly that’s the way that people listen to music. He’s been great in helping me. I feel like: “do I owe you some money for helping promote me?”
Gregory Porter’s new album, ‘Be Good’ is out now. He’ll be returning to the UK at the end of April for the Cheltenham Jazz Festival.
Read SJF’s review of ‘Be Good’: http://www.soulandjazzandfunk.com/reviews/1629-gregory-porter-be-good-motema-music.html