Gregory Porter talks finding fame, reinventing jazz and Pizza Express

Categories: Interview, Members

Interviewing Gregory Porter is like jazz. He skips and flits from answer to anecdote – less like conversation, more an improvisation. But the mellow, soulful baritone in which he delivers his words means the double Grammy-winner keeps things beating along comfortably, at once both calm and cool.

“Pizza,” smiles Porter, from beneath his signature peaked cap. “My first ever concert in the UK was in a Pizza Express not far from here. It was a little tiny space – I don’t know if you could get even 50 people in there. But yeh, Pizza Express – that’s when I really arrived.”

Today, just over five years later, Porter is back in Britain with his fifth album, Nat King Cole and Me, in tow.  And, although fame may have found the Californian soul singer a little late in life – he had his first worldwide hit aged 41 – Porter believes that the years he spent playing small venues, cafés and even Pizza Express influenced not only his music, but also his outlook on life.

“In those moments, when it feels like no-one is listening, you’re still touching souls,” croons Porter. “Here’s an interesting thing: I always think you just need to find the right place for you to be in at that time. You may have the seed, but you’ve got to get it in the right soil.”

For Porter, whether his ‘soil’ was the Bakersfield church where his mother was minister, or the smoky Harlem clubs where he played residencies, one thing never changed: his voice.

“As an artist, I’ve always had this voice, and there was a time when I could sit in the corner of a café, and people had no problem turning their back to me and talking over the music. But give me a different time, a different place, a different soil – and it can change everything.”

One of Porter’s most charming anecdotes tells the story of a Russian restaurant in New York City, where he used to play intimate sets.

“This guy paid me to stop singing,” chuckles Porter. “He was on a date, and the girl was looking at me, paying attention to me rather than him. So he offered me $200 to stop – biggest tip I ever got!

“Maybe it’s because of these experiences, and learning to adapt, that my music is accepted in very different arenas. I can play jazz festivals, one-off concerts, Glastonbury. I love that my music is so varied. It keeps me busy.”

"This guy paid me to stop singing. He offered me $200 to stop - biggest tip I ever got!"

And busy Porter has been. His third and fourth albums, Liquid Spirit and Take Me to the Alley, both won the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album. He has played across the world, from New York to Ibiza – “in front of a bunch of really cool, shirtless 20-year-olds,” Porter laughs – and, at the time of our talk, has been touring for four months.

“But this is what you used to dream of. So when it comes, you better wrap your arms around it.

“I saw a really great singer on the street in Paris a few weeks ago. The waiters were bumping into her, the bartender had knocked a bucket of ice in her lap. So I went over and told her not to get discouraged. Keep doing your thing and practising your craft,  I told her. Despite all of these things coming your way, keep going – because this is exactly where I was.”

Porter’s music is infused with this optimism. An inspiration to musicians around the world who still haven’t made it, he spends much of his time replying to messages on social media, encouraging artists to ‘keep chipping away’.

“There’s a string of optimism and irrepressible love in my music. I must have an agenda,” he laughs, “but I can’t put my finger on it. It’s just positive – No Love Dying, Holding On, Don’t Lose Your Steam – my songs are lyrically and musically optimistic. And that comes from my mother, gospel music, and Nat.”

Nat King Cole inspired Porter. But, never being one to follow trends or styles – it is still almost impossible to place Porter’s music into a single genre – he explains why, in Nat, he found an exception.

“People always seem to have a formula for you to fit in. But I’ve never been that way. The cats I grew up around all had their own things, and so I don’t listen when people tell me what to do or how to be. At college, I was meant to like R. Kelly, and music you can grind to. But I just did my own thing.

"Keep doing your thing and practising your craft,  I told her. Despite all of these things coming your way, keep going - because this is exactly where I was..."

“So when my mother told me I sounded like Nat, that interested me – being told I did something like somebody else. And since I first heard his warm, rich voice, Nat’s music has informed me. It was as though his words were crafted especially for me. And that’s the power of music.”

Porter’s new record – a tribute to his musical hero – is the first he has recorded with a full orchestra. And, although he still wants to speak to people directly, it’s a far cry from the intimate restaurants and cafés of his past. This Friday, he is to perform at the Royal Albert Hall, but remains determined not to lose the personal Porter touch.

“Your arms may open a little bit wider. It may become a little bit bigger. But I never give a small audience a smaller performance. And I’m singing the same songs in concert halls that I did in cafés. So you gotta ask yourself – how do I reach every audience?

“But that’s easy. I just create a small venue wherever I sing. It’s all just Pizza Express.”

Read the full interview in the Nov/Dec issue of Gentleman’s Journal. Subscribe here.