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Rise above: Gregory Porter - The Music Week interview

A decade on from releasing his debut, few artists have done more to popularise jazz music in recent years than Gregory Porter. But with his sixth album, All Rise, he may have just made his most important artistic statement yet. Music Week speaks to the star, manager Paul Ewing and Decca co-MD Laura Monks about music, race, family and hope…  When the video for Gregory Porter’s comeback single Revival first appeared back on January 16, 2020, it’s possible that – amid all the incredible visuals and choreography – some viewers may have initially missed its most arresting moment. It only appears in-shot for a couple of seconds, right at the start. Before we see dancer Jemoni Powe shrink – imperceptibly at first and then rapidly – to the size of a mouse and proceed to be stalked by a cat, he is first glimpsed at home watching TV. The power comes from what is on its screen: footage of African Americans being arrested by police as news audio from the aftermath of Rodney King’s infamous 1991 assault by the LAPD plays. “Parts of Los Angeles were in flames,” says the reporter. “Neighbourhoods erupted with anger after four white LA police officers were acquitted.” The words fade out. Powe starts shrinking. The arrest footage is over in mere seconds but it’s there, subtle yet utterly devastating. Make no mistake, the Revival video begins this way for good reason.“I realised that it would really be a call to humanity,” Porter tells Music Week. “We have a history of compartmentalisation and segregation of black people, black issues, black problems, but it’s a larger concern, a human concern. It’s not a young black man issue, it’s a human rights issue. And guess what? We’re all humans. Freddie Gray, George Floyd... They’re more than just some dude on the street; their lives mattered more than maybe even they knew because there’s been a profound reaction to their demise.”  It’s a message that cuts to the heart of Porter’s sixth album All Rise, which will finally arrive on August 28 via Decca/Blue Note, having been pushed back from its original April release due to the coronavirus pandemic. This cover story has been a long time in the making, Porter first joining Music Week to speak about the album way back in January at London’s The Standard hotel, and again for an update via Zoom in July. He makes for an effortlessly cool, endearingly humble and deeply intelligent interviewee – one prone to moving quickly from laughs to intense bouts of silence as he chews a question over in his mind. There is a lot to chew on, such as his new record’s title All Rise.“That’s something that’s said when the preacher, bishop, judge or the President comes into the room,” he tells Music Week. “In a way, we look at somebody else as a reason for us to rise, when I say we just rise on our own. There’s some messages on it about race and the ‘least ones’ in our society.” Indeed, with new track, Mister Holland, Gregory Porter has delivered one of his most powerful songs yet, as it paints a picture of him as a teenager standing on a porch hoping to ask a girl out. ‘By the way Mister Holland, I like the way you make no trouble of my skin,’ Porter sings oh-so soulfully. ‘It’s not a problem, nor has it ever been’. In case you haven’t already guessed, this sentiment is dripping in sarcasm. And, presumably, grounded in real life? “Yeah,” nods Porter. “When you get a microphone, you have the ability to correct some wrongs in your life. Now I can talk about something that happened that I didn’t have any power to talk about then. I took my lumps and walked away. You go to the door of a girl you wanted to take to a dance and the family greets you with, ‘Get away from my door n*****.’ It’s powerful in those teenage years. Those are moments where you’re launching your manhood and masculinity and, if you’re already starting a little bit like you don’t fit or belong, it can be taxing. I just wanted to have a teenage experience: go out, hang out with a girl, have a soda. That was the extent of my threat [laughs].” All Rise is, then, an album destined to move listeners, especially in light of recent months. When Music Week catches up with Porter in July, he says he has not only been struck by how much of his new material’s themes resonate with the recent tenor of our times, but has also been finding solace in the music in a way he never could have envisioned when he made it. “It became very personal with my brother getting sick and then passing away after a month in the hospital from Covid,” says Porter. “It just changed a lot for me. The music that he’s in took on more importance for me, I’m glad that I reference him in some ways. A song like Thank You has the line, ‘Rough cut stone I couldn’t polish myself, had to be done by someone else’. I’m absolutely talking about my brother, you know? Since we were babies, he’s been that way with me. I have a personality of humility; he was a bit more boisterous. He had these grand statements like, ‘Man, you’re one of the best singers in the world – you’re going to have success don’t worry, just wait, be patient.’ And so when I find him in the music, it’s a sweet thing.” The day before he caught up with Music Week, he celebrated his late brother’s birthday.   “I’m still full of all his favourite foods,” he says. “It was a grand celebration. But the music that I just made is helping me heal. I didn’t know it would be a balm for this pain, but it is.” Identity, race, humanity, hope and family. These are the pillars of an album that bring us closer to Gregory Porter than ever before…   The music I just made is helping me heal, I didn't realise it would be a balm for this pain Gregory Porter   There is one song in particular on All Rise that Gregory Porter says “therapeutically had to come out” of him. Although Dad Gone Thing is more accurately a eulogy for his father and a firestorm of conflicting emotions. “It could have been a longer song because he was a very complex man, not from personal experience with him, but from just understanding him after he passed away,” explains Porter. “I always wanted to impress him, I always wanted him to know me. And that never happened. He was an extraordinary person, the ladies were important in his life. He was married multiple times and had several families. He was a charmer. I was always trying to stand in front of him and be noticed and it didn’t work. It didn’t work…” While being interviewed in London, Porter was once asked where he got his singing voice from. It proved to be an epiphanic moment..  “I promise you I’d never considered it and so I had to say my father,” he says. “The whole reason I’m here overseas and that people come to my concerts is because of my voice and my poetry, and he was a poet. So I have to give him some credit, he was a charismatic man. I learned at his funeral that he was a great singer. I never heard him sing. After his passing, I was like, ‘I don’t have a tie, I don’t have a watch, no material thing, no book, nothing.... But I have his voice’. So he did give me something.” And what an incredible gift to inherit… “What a gift,” Porter nods. What he has done with his voice since remains extraordinary, with Porter helping jazz music hit numbers more typically the preserve of pop stars. To date he has two gold albums to his name in the UK, 2016’s Top 5 Take Me To The Alley (160,754) and 2017’s Top 3 Nat King Cole & Me cover set (226,614), plus his platinum 2013 breakthrough, Liquid Spirit, is now on sales of 381,515, according to OCC data. Beyond this, his manager, Paul Ewing of Wingsmusic Inc, says Porter has made his mark in other countries, too, with Germany, France and Holland all key territories for him and “the US also becoming a major market”. All Rise has all the ingredients of another global smash, too. Produced by Troy Miller (Calvin Harris, Rag‘N’Bone Man, Amy Winehouse), the record sees Porter join forces not only with his trusty band, but also a hand-picked horn section, a 10-member choir and the small matter of the London Symphony Orchestra Strings. “That is going big!” Porter winks at one point. The arrival of All Rise will be a big moment, too, for Porter’s label in the UK: their most high profile release since former president Rebecca Allen migrated to take over the reins of EMI. “We are all just so excited to see her star in ascendance and how this reflects on the work we have done as a label in the past few years,” says co-MD Laura Monks, who now runs Decca alongside Tom Lewis. “We’re in a great position now to focus this energy and take Gregory’s success to even greater heights in the UK this year. I often describe Gregory’s music as a warm hug, and All Rise does not disappoint.”  Porter’s manager Paul Ewing has worked with him for 13 years now, having first been blown away by him after seeing him in a small – now shuttered – jazz club in Harlem called the River Room. “He is truly in a class of his own,” says Ewing of the Grammy-winning musician. “He’s brought many people who thought that they weren’t jazz lovers to seeing that perhaps they are. I think he can be seen as the Louis Armstrong of modern times, in as much as he has deep roots in jazz but appeals to a global audience of all agesand ethnicities.” Indeed, Porter has established himself as an incredibly versatile star, no more so than on his 2015 collaboration with Disclosure for Holding On and the Ibiza-rocking dance remix to Liquid Spirit by Claptone (which is on 38m streams on Spotify alone). To continue this process, Decca’s Laura Monks says the label secured several major dance influencers – including Kaycee Rice, who has 2.2m Instagram followers – to create their own pieces of content for the launch single Revival to engage a new and young audience. Porter, meanwhile, has other dream collaborations in mind, too. “Both Kendrick Lamar and Chance The Rapper have mentioned my name before, and I’ve mentioned their names,” he says, pondering his personal bucket-list. “I think they’re awesome, and they wouldn’t be making a mistake if they called me and I did something on their records. I would try to kill it.” Clearly, Porter is unafraid of taking his music into other spaces... “I’m not scared of remixes,” he says. “If the message stays intact, I’m OK with it being wrapped in another package, and sent to the other side of the world for some 19-year-olds to enjoy. It’s not just the streams or the sales, it’s the message. It doesn’t matter if it’s…” At this point Porter starts mimicking hi-hats. He then switches gear to a sputtering beat box. “I’m OK with both,” he says as a big smile spreads across his face.   Gregory is one of the most iconic voices of our generation Laura Monks, Decca   The message is what matters most to him, and what remains is to get it out to more people than ever before. While Porter’s sales remain predominantly physical, a key objective for his management and label is to really drive Porter’s presence on streaming platforms. He currently has just under 2.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify. “Gregory’s music continues to develop broad crossover appeal, and the DSPs have played a huge part in growing his audience,” adds Monks. “His recent singles have all been added to new music playlists alongside current pop acts, and remixes have landed on the biggest global dance playlists. Apple Music premiering Mister Holland on Beats 1, and being placed at No.1 on New Music Daily is testament to that. We are working closely with each DSP on specific, tailored support plans for album release in August.” Porter says he is no expert in the intricacies of streaming remuneration (“I understand streaming, but I don’t know what 0.00000735 means,” he laughs. “But I have accountants that do!”), there are other aspects of the modern business that he has, however, demonstrated a real understanding of. More than just a snazzy dresser, he’s also a savvy businessman. “Now, as an artist, you have to have a four, five or six-prong approach to a career to keep it going,” he says. “You have to be more than just a singer and a songwriter.” Exhibit A: Gregory Porter’s acclaimed podcast The Hang, which has seen him interview guests including Annie Lennox, Kamasi Washington, Jamie Cullum, Celeste and a Hollywood legend who he indirectly helped secure a Decca record deal after they duetted together on the Graham Norton show: Jeff Goldblum. Surely Goldblum owes Porter a favour now? Perhaps we may yet see Porter running in fear from a T-Rex one day… “I would do it in a heartbeat!” he laughs. “That’s what I will say [to Goldblum], ‘Yo, you know this new Jurassic joint you got happening? I want a song in that movie, player, and a cameo!’ But yeah, the people that I’ve interviewed thus far have been amazing. Being with Annie Lennox on top of a hillside in Majorca and having a conversation about her music, joys and pains was awesome. I hope to continue doing it.” “Gregory has the most amazing personality,” says Monks. “When we decided to create the podcast a couple of years ago we just knew people needed to be able to experience hanging out with Gregory. From the connections it has helped him make with interesting artists and personalities, we have been able to bring fans closer to Gregory as well as introduce him to new audiences. The Hang’s been a success in its own right and gives us the opportunity to promote Gregory outside of new music moments.” About that. Some artists like to shoot for the moon, but Gregory Porter? He’s the kind to aim for Mars. The video for Porter’s latest single Concorde features him dressed as an astronaut, appearing alongside his NASA T-shirt-sporting son. Houston, we have a promo-opp. It led to Porter becoming the first recording artist ever to be invited by NASA to perform for a Mars mission launch as he delivered a special rendition of America The Beautiful from his home as part of the coverage of the launch of NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover Mission. As far as album campaign pillars go, Music Week didn’t see that coming… “Neither did I!” laughs Porter. “You mess around, don a spacesuit for a video and put some spacecraft-y words in your song and things can happen!”     It’s just one strand of what Decca and Porter’s team have been working on to get word of All Rise out to the public. With the coronavirus pandemic still wreaking havoc, they may not be able to get him out touring venues in 2020 (though plans for 2021 are in development), there are a lot of other things they have been able to do. For one, Monks outlines how they conducted a virtual world tour of Gregory’s live gigs, which were made available for the first time on YouTube, each for 24 hours. “We’ve also been focused on high level cross-promotional opportunities,” explains Laura Monks. “The Mars Perseverance Rover Launch event was livestreamed to millions, and NASA’s social media accounts collaborated to promote his new video and track. Gregory has a stellar promo run locked in and the team have been exploring every avenue possible for him to record remotely and ensure his music is still brought to the UK masses from across the ocean! There will be further special livestreamed performance moments to harness the audiences that sold out five dates at Royal Albert Hall for him, plus statement TV creatives that continue to show Gregory Porter as one of the most iconic voices of our generation.” Yet for all the talk of interstellar ambition, during recent months – throughout the coronavirus pandemic and global Black Lives Matter protests – Porter has been pondering something closer to home: his legacy and his purpose.  “I’ve realised that we lean on music for the backdrop and the companion in this journey, in this life,” he says. “Diving back into my own catalogue, I realised I’m quite proud that I’m not saying anything that degrades people, that brings anybody down, that brings a culture down, that brings people down. There’s nothing that I’m ashamed of. I like that I have uplift and it’s informative, thoughtful, soulful, sometimes prayerful, because in a dark hour you go to those touchstones.” So, with that said, will all rise now as Porter sheds more light on his life and music...What does All Rise say about you as an artist in 2020?“That I’m not bound by genre. I have a healthy respect for jazz, and I consider myself a jazz singer, but I’m also raised on the culture of gospel, blues and soul and it would be inauthentic to ignore that, to ignore the sound of what I was raised in, which is a gospel sound and ebullient expression with handclaps. That is my musical rearing. Everything I’m doing, I’m just trying to keep it organic and organically me. People get used to you in a certain way and they don’t want you to change. That’s the funny thing. I released my song [Revival] and, in my mind, that’s straight-up out of my childhood in terms of a gospel sound. Someone online was like, ‘I miss the old Gregory,’ and I’m like, ‘That’s actually the original Gregory!’ As an artist you can’t even worry about that. You just have to let what’s inside you flow out. Some things will get a bite, some won’t. Success can do two things: it can damage you so you say, ‘Let me do the same thing again,’ or it can make you say, ‘My house is paid for, let me just do what I feel’.”At the same time, you’re often credited as bringing jazz to the masses...“I’m not saving jazz, jazz saved me. My mother died, I injured myself coming out of college and I was directionless. I didn’t know what way to go. But I knew there was a jam session on Monday night and I was going be there. I’m just doing my thing. I don’t feel like I carry the mantle. I think of the legacy of the people that came before me and I’m thankful for the road that has been paved for me, because it has been paved. But I’d like to think that I add to the story of jazz. Every generation they say, ‘It’s gone’ – it’s never gone. There’s new energy. A lot of energy in jazz is emanating right from the UK and that’s awesome. Is jazz getting the attention it deserves? It is [more visible], but it’s not like it was when there was 52nd Street and Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane when it was front-page stuff, but there are some moments when we get a lot of energy. It continues. But I do like the fact that the utterances that I have that are of my culture, which is jazz, blues, soul, gospel, adds to the story.”What did you make of the music industry’s expression of solidarity in relation to the Black Lives Matter Movement in recent months?“Well, I’m of the mind that they don’t have to do it and that’s a positive first step. There are a whole bunch of ways you can look at it. People do talk about reparations – there are some wrongs that we could set right. But I think it’s just positive in just acknowledging that. To speak about it is the right thing to do; corporate entities should have a conscienceand show solidarity.”Were there any obstacles going into the music industry that you faced specifically as a black man?“It’s subtle. Your expression, or even the level of your charisma, nuance and irony is sometimes not afforded you if you’re black. Sometimes you’re funnelled into a, ‘This is the people that will listen to you, here you go’ and it’s, ‘All of the black music goes here, the urban music goes here’. So, funnily enough, I found myself touring around radio stations in the US with rappers. I love rappers, but here I am trying to sing ‘There will be no love that’s dying here!’ They didn’t even know how to interview me when I got there. They were like, ‘Do you dance?’ I’m like, ‘No, I don’t dance.’ Sometimes you can be pigeon-holed into a narrow, narrow little thing. What can be most annoying is that anything you do is not seen as an artistic choice, it’s based on limitation. If you don’t make a bunch of chord changes it’s because you don’t know how to make chord changes, or the brevity of your song was not because you love Japanese poetry or your appreciation for the blues, it’s because you had nothing more to say. Nuance, subtlety and irony is accidental. But I’ve been blessed that people are interested in my cultural expression all over the world and so I don’t feel like I’ve been shut out. And even if you don’t get me, then maybe I’m not for you [laughs].” You mentioned ‘urban’ earlier – a word that a lot of platforms have now pledged to remove. How do you feel about that?“I think cultures always try to find a word that’s satisfying and that’s not disrespectful or hurtful. Remembering my studies about where language comes from and how it’s developed, I know that sometimes a word gets stuck to something and people don’t even know the origins of it. Like, where did ‘urban’ come from? When did we have that brainstorming meeting? It’s just one of those things where we knew what [it] meant. But even politically, you can slight a community and build up a community by using words like this. If you say we have a lot of ‘urban problems,’ it’s like, ‘What do you mean when you say that? Do you mean you have a lot of problems in the city or with black people?’” So do you think it’s good that it’s being phased out?“I think yes, probably. In all things, I just hope for more specificity. And, at the same time, I think what you replace it with maybe doesn’t have to have a tag. We know what black music is. I’m the wrong person to ask because I just want it to stand for good music. ‘Oh, what music is that?’ Good music! I get that we need these categorisations, but I always use the term black music, and for me what it means is music that comes from a place with deep roots in the black experience. But it means a whole bunch of things around the world.”You signed your first record deal when you were 38. Do you think being older helped you in your career?“Yes. It can be a trial by fire because you’re in a position of, I don’t want to say desperation, but like, ‘If I don’t get this done soon, the train’s going to have left the station’. But it can be beneficial in a way. Sometimes you can get [good deals] because they’re like, ‘40-year-old pop star? Sell 5-10 thousand records, that’s what we expect out of you.’ Then if you sell a bunch of records it’s like, ‘We’ll give you a bunch of money!’ [Laughs] But it’s not just about finances, it’s about being grounded and knowing who you are and what you want to say. The freshness, optimism, the indestructible nature of the young heart, the naivety of the young heart, is beautiful. Youthful expression is beautiful. But also when you’re a bit more grounded and have an understanding of love and life, that expression is beautiful, too.” It does seem like the music industry often has a tendency to focus on younger talent at the expense of all else…“A lot of great, great artists continue to have things to say. Look at Marvin Gaye. And just think about the great albums that accidentally happened when they said that an artist was done. To dismiss artists when they become more mature is wrong. You’re missing so much.” Photo: Paul Harries  

Hitmakers: The songwriting secrets behind Saint Jhn's Roses (Imanbek Remix)

Saint Jhn’s Roses was released four years ago but didn’t become a global hit until 2019, when teenage Kazakh producer Imanbek’s remix sent it into overdrive. Here, with the help of a translator, Imanbek tells the story of a hit that let him give up the day job… It was just a normal weekend day. I was chilling and checking the local Russian social media, VK.com, when I found Roses. I loved it and had an idea to pitch up the voice and speed it up. It was the first time I had tried that, I don’t remember doing it with any other tracks. I sat at the computer and spent two or three hours playing around with it and then uploaded it straight to VK.com. I wasn’t really in demand as an artist at the time. I’d had a couple of releases and local exposure as a remixer and producer in Kazakhstan, but nothing on the international scene. I don’t know exactly what touched me about Roses, it was just a general feeling, I can’t explain it. On March 21 [2019], I uploaded the remix and, for two months, nothing was moving, but then it was added to the big public music section of VK.com for hot new tracks. After that, it started to blow up and was shared by everyone. By July, the track had started to blow up on YouTube, spread virally on TikTok and was heading for every independent playlist. At the very end of August it was released by Effective Records because they had managed to contact me and broker the deal – a lot of people had been pointing [Effective owner Kirill Lupinos] towards this remix. More or less the same day, Effective called [Saint Jhn’s label] Hitco and agreed to do it officially, and Hitco was a very fair and open partner. Before then, we were not sure what the scenario was for Saint Jhn because it was official only in terms of the statistics. We understood it would be very helpful for him, but we weren’t too sure what the plan was. I tried to contact Saint Jhn when I did the remix but he never replied, even when the track officially came out. We eventually spoke on Instagram, but it was very brief, like, ‘Hey bro, congrats’ and that was when the track was already No.1 on Shazam and had entered the US chart. That’s the only time Saint Jhn interacted with me. The number one thing that has changed in my life as a result of the remix is that people now recognise me on the street. Secondly, it has meant lots of big names, mid-sized names and smaller names from the artist world have been contacting me, asking if I would like to collaborate with them. This has led to a lot of collaborations that you’re going to be seeing this year! My lifestyle has also changed in that I have been able to leave my day-to-day job and make a living from music as a producer. Previously, I was working as the signal manager at a railway station. I listen to Roses many, many times daily, and not always by my own will! I hear it playing from people’s phones and in cars passing by. I feel as happy and proud now as I was on the first day of it becoming a hit – I could not even imagine this one year ago and it’s now it’s the peak of the trip, so it’s incredible. It sounds like a TV series, but it’s actually the truth! My main message to the people who are interested in my career is that my goal was just to do music the way my heart was telling me. I was not aiming for the money and the success at the very beginning. My position is that money and success will take care of itself if your music is very pure. It doesn’t really matter what you do, but you have to do it from the bottom of your heart.

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