Earlier this month, we welcomed Porter to our cover for the first time as we celebrated the career of modern jazz phenomenon.
In a wide-ranging interview, Porter talked about race and the music industry, the making of his new album, the state of jazz in 2020, why labels shouldn’t overlook older artists and also how his new songs have given him strength in the aftermath of losing his brother to the coronavirus.
At the heart of All Rise are songs about identity, race and humanity. On one new song in particular, Mister Holland, Gregory Porter delivers one of his most powerful songs yet, painting a picture of himself 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. ‘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,” Porter told Music Week. “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].”
Here, in an unread extract from our cover feature, Porter takes us further inside the making of All Rise…
What's the difference between the Gregory Porter that went into making this album and the one that came out?
“[Laughs] Confirmation. I'm probably more confident that I'm able to write and get the result that I was thinking. I always say at the beginning of the process that I want to be honest and get what it is that I want to say across. And as I listened to this is record that's what I did.”
You also worked with a handpicked horn section, 10 member choir and the London Symphony Orchestra – you’re basically ready to soundtrack a film!
“Right! That’s what I’m aiming for. For a person that comes from a 40 seat, jazz club in Harlem it is, quite frankly, a larger sound than I'm used to. But in a way it is a melding of the two ways I've been recording, which is with my band and working with orchestras with the Nat King Cole And Me project: slamming those two together has been exciting and fun. I've gotten used to those strings, maybe it's something I have to have all the time now!”
Building on the message at the heart of Mister Holland, do you think this album and its themes of identity and race will have a greater resonance in light of the Black Lives Matter protests of recent months than it would had it been released back in April?
“Yes, I think so. If it's listened to that way. Take the line about ‘If you ever been on the outside’ on the song You Can Join My Band, it’s a desire for mutual respect and connection – it's not just a theme that’s cool to talk about. It's a real thing. The idea that it was recorded before this unrest that we've had all over the world is, in a way proof of evidence that it's an issue in people's minds and in people's hearts. The fact that inequality exists creates the energy that can create songs or artwork that express the desire for such a thing.”
With that said, then, it must be incredibly sad you can’t tour this uplifting album right now…
“There's a sadness in that. I get the messages it's on social media, it's like, ‘Man, it would be really healing to hear a concert of the new music and some of your old songs as well.’ Both for normalcy and for comfort, people use music to settle their souls and I realised that's probably a box that I tick in my performances and in my lyrics for some fans.”
Subscribers can read the full Gregory Porter cover feature here.
Photo: Paul Harries