A FEW MINUTES WITH… Willy Porter

April 21st, 2016, 3:00 pm by Greg

By Don Wilcock

Willy Porter is a singer/songwriter/guitar player who is four credits shy of a degree in psychology. “I never got the calculus, and I never felt I needed it,” he says. He got dumped by a major label that wanted him to sound like Dave Matthews, but not before Porter made a dent in the charts in 1994 with a song called “Angry Words” with its lyric “I’m finally getting over, the sad part of yesterday/Yeah, I’m finally getting over, over you.”

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A lot of his lyrics are about problems and insecurities over women. “My fascination is with the power of women and what they bring to the universe in terms of peace and matriarchy. The power structure that that represents is absolutely fascinating to me.” He’s been married to the same woman for 19 years and claims his songs are not autobiographical. As far as the struggles with the women he glorifies in his songs, he says a happy song is a hard sell. He plays Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs on Saturday night with Carmen Nickerson who has been his performing partner since 2009.

Ian Anderson, the eccentric and brilliant founder/flute player of Jethro Tull, is quoted on Porter’s webpage as saying “Thank goodness he doesn’t play the flute.” Tori Amos says, “Willy plays rhythms that make me want to crawl inside his guitar and sleep there forever.” He’s worked with Anderson and Amos, as well as such A-listers as Paul Simon and Jeff Beck.

“They’re all pretty fully formed,” he says about these highly regarded musical associates. “And they stand in their shoes well, meaning they’re not looking over their shoulders for any sort of assessments about what somebody might think about what they’re doing. They’re not people pleasing, and they’re not trying to get over. I think certainly in the case of Tori the level of artistry that she brings to what she does is absolutely unapproachable. I’ve watched her play probably 50 shows, and every one of them was unique. Every one of them had a sense of wonder about it. Ian Anderson is the same way. He’s a fully formed artist. He’s not questioning what he’s doing.”

Porter got dumped by BMG when they folded their Private Music label and retained only Leo Kottke and Etta James. But not before trying to get him to dump his band and spending $60,000 for a week of recording. “The record that I made that they signed me for cost me $7000,” he says as a comparison. Since then, he says the process of writing hasn’t changed that much for him.

“It still comes down to sifting for what I think is truthful lyrically and what I find to be relevant and in the frame of my own existence, but I’m also trying to find these universals that connect the dots between different human experiences and the different satellites that we sometimes become to each other.”

I haven’t seen Porter live, but he’s credited with establishing an unusually strong connection with his audience. “Part of it is the guitar’s fault,” he says with a sense of self-deprecation that is pervasive in our interview. “I have to change tunings a lot based on the way that I play and the way that I approach the guitar.

“I’m using open tunings all night, and suddenly I’m thrown into having to talk to the audience in a bar where I first started playing. In those clubs and little pubs in Milwaukee where I lived, people are very important, and if there’s dead time between tunings, they wouldn’t start throwing things, but they’d start gnashing their teeth. So I started to talk, and it just led to this kind of babbling brook of bullshit, which has been really fun.”

These are comments from a guy who says he’s the weakest member of his band. (He performs as a duo with Carmen Nickerson at Caffe Lena.) “I’m 51 now, and I’m done bullshitting myself on whether or not music works or it connects. You know in a short amount of time if it’s been good. It’s worth working on and I’m trying to follow this easy path to truth.”

Porter is not a big fan of what technology has done to us in terms of the way we relate to one another. “It’s funny about that statement that pop will eat itself. It really did. I mean Steve Jobs helped, but it really did, and ultimately what are we left with now? We have nobody really sifting anything. There are no gate keepers anymore.”

To Porter the Presidential candidates are an example of the problem of a society polarized into only selecting those sources of information that agree with their own myopic point of view. “I think (the Presidential candidates) actually show us the dark side of ourselves ever more clearly. I think that it’s really troubling that we elevate these kinds of personalities in these kinds of agendas when the world seeks something so completely different. I’m terrified. I’m not going to lie. I don’t know. I mean the statements about Muslims, the statements about Islam. Has anybody taken a look at what the core concepts of that faith really are?”

Porter sees himself as a poet open to the disparate ideas of his fans. “Not everybody that I play for
would agree with my politics, and I respect that, but what I really like is the fact I think they’re open to dialog. I think they’re open to non-emotional objective discussion, and I think if we could just subtract the emotions from our decisions, we could really look at what we have on the page, and that’s the part of it that’s so hard right now, given the social media and given the way that information is transferred today.

“Sitting down and reading a newspaper and having a conversation over a cup of coffee about what you read, that seems like an ancient idea to me. It’s somehow lost from our consciousness that we’d actually have a discussion with somebody we don’t agree with, but we have a tendency to surround ourselves, and consumers have always done that.”

We as a society have gotten lazy about seeking out the truth. “I remember Bruce Cockburn at one time was talking in an interview about how you have to balance the intake of the information you get so that you can hear points of view that you don’t agree with and try to place them in a framework of understanding and apply them to what you see in the world. And I think that’s become more and more difficult for us because people are lazier. I think it’s easier, and it feels better to go to the source that sounds like your own thinking. It matches the dialog of your inner voice.”

WHO: Willy Porter & Carmen Nickerson
WHERE: Caffe Lena, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: Saturday (April 23), 8pm
HOW MUCH: $20 in advance; $22 at the door

ALSO READ:
LIVE: Willy Porter @ Caffe Lena, 4/19/15