Gregory Porter: Never Letting Go of the Dream

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Gregory Porter. Photo supplied.

Gregory Porter says he felt like an unexploded bomb while waiting for his career to take off. He had plenty of time to analyse the feeling as he was nudging 40 before his singing suddenly rocketed from Brooklyn’s clubs to a global audience. That meant he also had plenty of time to doubt it was ever going to happen.

“I felt like I had a gift to give, and no place to give it,” says the R&B-tinged jazz singer in his distinctive bronze voice. “So I was hoping for it, but I did realise there was no guarantee of success.”

Born in 1971, Porter didn’t record his first album until 2010, and then his third and fourth efforts both picked up Grammy Awards for Best Jazz Vocal Album. It’s a career trajectory to offer hope to countless undiscovered middle-aged artists the world over.

“I get a lot of messages from performers and entertainers who are encouraged by my journey and the fact that it took me some time,” he says, “in two ways: in the fact that I seem to have found out what it is I want to say and do musically, and the fact that I didn’t stop, and it happened for me at an age of close to 40.”

He sees some positives in the wait: “I wasn’t a silly 25 year old, but I don’t think that I was thinking the way that I am now about my environment, about people, about culture and in a way politics as well. And so I’m glad that I’ve maybe seasoned a bit and matured a bit before I came to some success.”

Porter, who hopes his listeners will be as affected by his music as he once was by the music of the likes of Nat King Cole, is that rarest of contemporary jazz singers who can write original songs of genuine worth. “I had simple advice as a little boy: ‘Sing with an understanding, and understand what it is that you’re singing,'” he recalls. “They’re very simple words, but I think I carry that in my writing. I want to say and sing something that means something to me, and that therefore I can deliver with some emotion.”

Part of his skill as a lyricist is converting the personal into the universal by layering in a little ambiguity. “That’s often a craft of song-writing,” he says, “to try to not tell everything, and obscure the names of the guilty, and protect the innocent!” Another aspect is building empathy: “I think it is what we’re supposed to do in art, to walk somebody else’s shoes, and to feel somebody else’s emotions.”

Porter’s vast baritone voice actually used to be pitched higher until he suffered two prolonged, severe bouts of bronchitis in his teens and early twenties. The performer in him was further shaped by having been an actor who ranged all the way from Shakespeare to musicals.

Once be began touring his career was turbocharged by the response in the UK, where his Liquid Spirit album reached the top 10 and where he now sells out the Royal Albert Hall. “That helped propel me into different places around the world,” he says. “People were like, ‘Hmm, what are these people in the UK fussing about?’ So France got jealous and wanted in on the deal.”

After previously playing clubs in Australia he steps up to the Enmore Theatre on this tour, and hopes his audience here will keep building. “I’m willing to do the Opera House if you’ll let me!” he says.

I think they might.