Former football player turned jazz singer and songwriter Gregory Porter will perform at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center (WHBPAC) on August 13. Having recently released his brand new album Take Me to the Alley, Porter spoke with us about his mother’s influence on his music, what lead him to songwriting, and the reputation he’s proud to own.
What inspired Take Me to the Alley?
With this record I feel like any artist in that I’m pulling from my environment, and pulling from my mother’s energy. She’s in every record, but she’s especially there for this one. The song “Take Me to the Alley”—the alley was a street in Bakersfield. They called the road Lakeview Avenue, which had prostitutes, drug addicted people, alcoholics—basically a skid row, and that’s where my mother had a storefront church, and that’s where I learned how to sing. I also took inspiration when the Pope came to New York City. He did some humble things. He washed the feet of prisoners, fed people at a homeless shelter, and so basically that’s what Take Me to the Alley is about. It may even call up the refugee situation: Take me to those people who need food, rest and comfort.
How did you become a singer/songwriter?
I think songwriting happened when I had this pain in my chest about my father’s lack of interest in my life, and I realized that I could write music, and write songs about that pain to get it out. That happened to me at about 30, but music was something I had since I was five years old. My mother always encouraged me, and in a way I felt it was something that kind of separated me from my brothers and sisters. There were eight of us, five boys and three girls, and you need something to stick out.
You used to be a football player. Are there similarities between sports and performing?
Teamwork—the idea that in order to get the thing done, you can’t do it without the piano player, the drummer, the bass player. And really being a leader. The rest of the band, in a way, has to follow my lead in terms of intensity, sound and intention, and so I would again say that teamwork is very important.
In 2014, your album Liquid Spirit won a Grammy for Bess Jazz Vocal Album. What did this award mean to you?
It’s confirmation, in a way, of my music process, how I write and how I record. I think it was just a confirmation and appreciation from people of what I’m doing. Would I still be doing it the same if I didn’t win? Yes. Sometimes I’ll forget that I have a Grammy, and I’ll walk into my office, and just say, “Wow, I have a Grammy, and it’s permanent,” and it’s pretty cool. I sit it next to my mother’s picture too, because she informs the writing in a way. She’s passed now, but everything she put into me informs the writing.
What would you say is the greatest power of music?
When I listened to Nat King Cole, Donnie Hathaway and Marvin Gaye when I was a kid, it affected me emotionally. I didn’t understand the rhythm, the beat, what genre it belonged in—I just knew it was an emotionally deep expression that made me feel, and so that’s the way I deal with music, and I hope it has the same affect on other people as it did on me.
Gregory Porter performs at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, 76 Main Street, Westhampton Beach, on Saturday, August 13, at 8 p.m. For more information visit whbpac.org or call 631-288-1500.