When Gregory Porter was a boy he was so infatuated by Nat King Cole that he imagined him to be his father.
Years later, as a professional singer, he would write a drama called “Nat King Cole and Me,” about growing up without a father yet finding solace in Cole’s soft and sultry voice.
Today, Porter is a Grammy nominated jazz vocalist with musical accents of gospel and soul. This deep baritone voice was supposed to be a football star; after an accident in college ended his football career, he turned to singing in school groups and at jazz clubs in San Diego.
Porter has had a theater career and two very successful CDs; both India Arie and Erykah Badu have invited him to collaborate. One of his personal goals is to work with the musician Herbie Hancock, which might just happen because Porter is just that good.
Porter will be performing at Scullers on Thursday, August 23. He spoke to me while in Oslo, via Skype, about his singing career and his personal relationship to music.
Do you write most of your songs?
I do write most of them, and I like to sing about love and all of its forms. The confused love. The backwards love. The clandestine love. Sometimes hate is a confused love. It’s saying, “I hate those people because I love those people so much.” That’s a confused love, but it’s still love. Hate stems from love.
I feel like I write best from my own emotions and my own experiences. Eventually, maybe I’ll run out of life experiences to sing about or talk about. But I get inspiration from the simplest of things. I was in a new relationship, and I remember the person being so brave with me. She took me to a garden party. She grabbed my hand and we just walked through the crowd of her friends, and she was proud to have me beside her. That inspired me to sing, “When did you learn the rules of love’s game…” Beautiful moments move me to feel musical moments. Something brought me to internal tears the other day. Some young people were being abused, and it came out as a musical moment, and I started to write something about it. I think if I stay that way, I’ll be okay. Whether it will be accepted by people or not, I write from my heart.
“Be Good” is a beautiful song. Is there a personal story behind it?
Yes. I remember riding home on my bike from the breakup with this woman who I call Be Good, and I was feeling like I needed a consoling lullaby, which is what “Be Good” is, a grown man’s lullaby. I was still strong, but in a way I was vulnerable. As soon as I got home, I started to write the song. She admired me as you would a lion at the circus, and she marveled at me, and she always told me I was great, but she kept me in this friend cage. She admired my mane and my roar, but never enough so that she allowed me to roam around and be free and love her like I wanted to when I wanted to. It was always when it was convenient for her, during visiting hours at the zoo.
Who directed the lovely video for the song?
Pierre Bennu directed the video for “Be Good.” It’s so amazing because all the people in the video are from my neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant. The dancer is from DC. The little girl lives one block away from me. The male actor is a friend of ours who lives a couple of blocks away. The producer is my brother. Pierre used to live a couple of blocks away. We’re all professionals, but were also a community of people. I love the way the video came out. It’s colorful and visual and interesting. It doesn’t completely follow the story of the song. In the song, I never get to dance with this girl who’s constantly dancing around me.
“1960 What?” was obviously inspired by that decade, but what else are you trying to say in this song?
I remember thinking about the Civil Rights Movement when I wrote it. We look at it in black and white pictures, literally, and we think it was so long ago. I was born in 1971, and 1968 was three years before I was born. I got to thinking, my mother died 20 years ago and it’s so fresh and so painful for me today. The emotions and feelings of that time not only existed at that time but they carry on for life. Martin Luther King wasn’t just assassinated in 1968, the pain from that lasted for a while, up until the time that I was born and even now, but 1960, what? 1960, who? Who? Who? Who was assassinated in the1960s? So many people were and it was happening in so many places, all over the country, and so a song about when and where and who? You pick a date. Some people think I’m saying 1961, but I’m talking about all of the years within that decade. I’m also talking about the absurdity and the pain of treating one part of your society unjustly. It’s like cutting off your hand. Why would you cut off your hand? Why would you cut off your foot? Where do you think those people are going to go?
It’s only smart to treat your neighbor right because they live next door to you. So it’s a song about the absurdity of treating people wrong, and the absurdity of the people who have been treated unjustly. Generally, we burn our neighborhoods and our own stores and I know what it is. It’s self-mutilation, and it’s not just an American phenomenon, which should make people think that these people are in pain; these are people setting themselves on fire are hurting and it’s not right.