Gregory Porter isn’t your typical jazzman. There aren’t that many in the genre, for example, that can boast a Top 10 album in the UK as well as Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. Porter, however, is something of an adopted son in many European territories. Here, his first major label LP Liquid Spirit (released on Blue Note) hit No.9 and has 73 weeks in the chart to its name.
There also aren’t that many jazz singers who are equally happy performing with a couple of DJs as they are big bands and orchestras. But, in June this year, Porter released Holding On alongside dance duo Disclosure.
Ask the 43-year-old about his route into the music business, however, and it’s perhaps a bit more traditional.
“I was performing at a pub in Harlem,” he remembers. “I had Tuesday nights there every week and it was packing out. People from all over the world had heard this was a cool spot and there was a cool singer there, although they didn’t know who they hell I was.”
Still, Porter had a feeling that his music could move beyond a small venue in Harlem, so he invited indie label Motema to one of his gigs.
“There was some reticence,” says Porter. “Can he be a success? He’s a little older, he wears a funny hat… But [Motema founder Jana Herzen] believed in me. And that’s not looking me in the eye and saying, I believe in you, it’s writing a cheque so that I can get in the studio and pay the musicians and the engineers. She believed in me in that way, and I was given an opportunity.”
That opportunity resulted in two studio albums, 2010’s Water and 2012’s Be Good, the former being Grammy-nominated.
Now on Universal’s Blue Note roster, Porter can count himself amongst the few jazz artists that have managed to cross over into the mainstream consciousness – helped in part by being comfortable with crossing into other genres.
Usually championed by BBC Radio 2, the singer made the leap to Radio 1 after Liquid Spirit’s title track was remixed by Claptone, for example, and played the station’s Ibiza 20 event at the beginning of the month to great fanfare.
You seem to be able to cross genres and demographics quite easily. Is that intentional?
That’s just how it happens. It’s just my character.. I’m trying to connect older music to a current sound or energy, and the audience shows up in that way. They hear something of themselves. The older generation hear that older sound, the thing that’s connected to the roots and then the younger crowd hears something too. I’m not saying I’m completely current and I know what the hell’s going on – sometimes it confuses me when I see 18-year-olds in the audience. I got attacked by a group of 20-something kids in Brighton because they recognised me! That’s funny to me. I’m not particularly going for the demographic of my own age either! But they find me, and I appreciate that.
What do you put that down to?
I can’t say it’s down to any particular collaboration with any artist, I think it’s probably my sound being both old and new.
Once you get past 26 you start to think, I’ll never be a pop star. I’ll never be on those nightly shows or anything like that. But somehow… I mean, I’m not a pop star but I’m an unlikely [case]. I find myself in places thinking, Wow what am I doing here? What am I doing in this category with Beyonce? What am I doing in the studio with Disclosure?
You say you’re not a pop star but you are a contemporary and mainstream music star now. Tell us a bit more about the Disclosure collaboration…
In the industry people were thinking, Oh this will appeal to this demographic. I wasn’t even thinking about that. I was just thinking, That’s an interesting connection musically. I like unlikely connections. They can make for interesting things.
I’ve always known that for dance music, what they like to have in the centre of it is a soulful voice – probably a voice that almost sounds like it’s from 50 years ago. I’ve done that before, so when I connected with Disclosure, we didn’t write from a dance track, we wrote at the piano and they adapted to what I was doing. So it’s a soulful song that you can dance to.
We’ve had dance tracks that have brought country music and all kinds of genres into the charts recently. Is it a good vehicle, a Trojan horse perhaps, for other genres to get into the mainstream?
Yeah. And then they’ll check out some of your other stuff. This is a different generation – when they like something they dig in through Wikipedia, Google, SoundCloud, YouTube… every place they can find it, they’ll get your interviews and they know your stuff.
Is the way that people access your music and the fact that you can no longer charge £10 for a CD anymore something you think about?
The thing about that is it cuts both ways. Maybe for an artist like me there’s some benefit because I get to an audience that I might not have a chance of getting anyway. For some artists it helps. For the artist that doesn’t have a machine that can get them out, all of a sudden there’s a way for them to get heard. I’m sure at some point the artist wants to and needs to have a tighter way to monetise what he’s doing, but everybody wants to get there and get heard. So, in a way, we play it to our advantage to a degree but then when it stops being to our advantage we want to snap it back.
Do I want 10 million people to hear my music? Yes. 10 million people have probably heard it. Have 10 million paid for it? No. But I’m getting some benefit. I wasn’t making records in the era where I would have seen every dollar of every CD, so maybe I’m complaining about something I don’t even know about.
It is important. There’s probably a dance track or a remix that I did that went out to a whole bunch of people and I didn’t get the money. I can sit and be upset about it, or I can realise that, many times, my shows are sold out because of that. So where’s the problem really? Maybe if I wasn’t doing so many shows it would be a difficult thing, but I do 250 shows a year.
Would you say that live is the bigger part of your career at the moment? Both in terms of activity and how you make a living?
Yes. That’s the same with most musicians these days, I think. I write most of my music, so that works as well, but yeah, it’s the live performance. You’ve got to think about radio, TV and all the ways you get out there – which includes some of that free stuff as well. I didn’t know I was popular in South Africa. I went out there and people were singing all of my songs. I look at the sales there and they’re not that strong, but my concert’s packed with thousands of other people and there are more that want to get in. That’s a beautiful experience. How do I complain about that?
How is it working with Universal? Do you get very involved beyond the music?
They do bring me in for my thoughts and advice on things. Nobody pushes me around and says, This has got to be done. They do have an ideal schedule, but I put those same pressures and deadlines on myself.
This web that Universal has [across the world], they all seem to be collaborating quite well. I was nervous initially because I noticed that the individual markets were competitive towards each other, which shocked me! But everyone’s working together and it’s helping my project. People in France are working with people in the UK and the US to work out how to elevate at the same time as opposed to [selling] half a million in Germany and then 10,000 in the US.
Was that initial competitiveness at the start of the Liquid Spirit album campaign?
Yeah. It was strange for me. I suspect it’s because everyone was trying to figure out what this new thing meant [after Universal took over EMI Music].
With the two big label groups coming together there was a fear that some mid and lower tier artists would be forgotten, or a priority act on one side might lose that status. You obviously got through that, but a lot of people must have wondered what might happen to them….
I’m sure. Maybe there are some stories of unhappiness, but for me it seems that, in every market I got to, people are working really hard. And this competitive thing now helps! They’re like, Oh ok, Germany’s at this number, so the other territories [want to pick up the pace].
What were your feelings about signing to a major? They perhaps unfairly have that reputation of being ‘big machines’…
Nobody bothered me. I assumed that it was coming but nobody bothered me. The people that came to the recording session like Don Was, people from France and some people from the UK were just cool. They didn’t bother me.
This is the thing, you’re trying to create this vibe, this energy, this buzz, this feeling, and if too much power structure comes in it can mess up that vibe. But apparently they’re aware of that. They didn’t come in and say, What kind of bass is that you’re playing? Turn it up! They want to make sure that everything’s in place for it to be successful if it’s a good record – and that’s all I care about.