Gregory Porter: “I harvested moments from my life to put into songwriting”

Jazz giant Gregory Porter opens up about the empathy, strength and love he inherited from his mother and discovering that his voice was inherited from his father in his Letter To My Younger Self

When I was a young teenager, [I was] very into sports. My knees were hurting because I was growing so fast. I was an optimistic, probably slightly insecure, kid. But I think I was a pretty nice guy. I probably identified as an athlete. Yeah, I loved singing but it was just something I did – nobody at school knew that I was really a singer.

My older brother was like a comedian. And people at school would always go to him to laugh. But there was something about me, people would come to me with their problems like I was a counsellor. Even my mother, when I was a very young person, about 10 years old, would ask me about life advice. She’d say, what do you think about this Gregory? And she was always amazed by my very reasonable answers. She’d say, but how did you come up with these things? So she called me an old soul. I think empathy, a deep empathy, is one thing that I’m certain that I have, and it has affected my music and the way I walk through life. I think people can sense that I have the ability to feel what it is that they’re going through, whether it’s a person who’s going through some really difficult times, or somebody who just tripped and fell. I think it’s an awful thing to laugh at somebody who’s fallen down on the ground. I see people do it all the time. I like to put myself in other people’s shoes and that’s definitely affected my songwriting.

At 16 I was already harvesting moments from my life to put them into my songwriting. I still do this. One of the songs on my new record is called Mister Holland. Mister Holland is actually a love song to the father of the girl that I wanted to date in high school. It’s a song to him, telling him that I’m thankful to him for treating me like a normal guy, for showing me respect and allowing me into his home and just treating me like a normal teenager. The reality of what happened is that the father opened the door, called me a very, very bad name, and then told me to get away from his house. And told me never to see his daughter and if I did some harm would come to me. That is what really happened. But the magic of music is that we can go back into our history and rewrite it. And so in the song I’m thanking Mister Holland for inviting me into his home, and not having a problem with the colour of my skin.

Much of my character came from my mother and the places she took us [Porter has described his father as being ‘largely absent’ from his life]. She was a fearless woman. She was a minister and her congregation was from the roughest, toughest neighbourhood you can think of. So we were with her, we went into abandoned buildings and drug houses, and strange dark hotels. She was trying to help people – mostly children. Many times she would give my clothes away. If she saw a child who didn’t have clothes for school she would give them mine. Sometimes it would make me feel upset. But I think it caused me to develop an automatic empathy. If somebody is cold you give that person a jacket, that’s what I’m saying. She gave me this golden rule; treat people the way you want to be treated.

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When I lost my mother [to cancer, when he was 21] – and this is not a lie or something I’m just saying because I’m doing a beautiful interview – I went straight to music. I hear people say when they’re going through some difficult times they turn to some artificial substance, some drug to make them feel some warmth. Music releases endorphins in my brain and makes me feel better. I remember when she was ill going onstage and singing Moon River. And people thought I was thinking about this sweet song in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But really, the emotion I was putting into the song was about the love that I had from my mother. I knew her health was failing. I knew I wouldn’t have her long.

My mother was clever. She said Gregory, it’s not a sin to have a favourite child. You are my favourite child. After she passed away, I’m sitting at the table with all my brothers and sisters and I said, guys, I just want to let you know that my mom said that I was her favourite child. And my brother says, she told me the same thing. She told all eight of us the same thing. But I do think I was particularly close to her. I was a mama’s boy, and also, because I was maybe the best singer of her children, she would always take me with her when she would go visit another church. So we spent a lot of time together in the car, just talking, just me and her. So, yeah, we had a special relationship. And it’s in a lot of my songs, that powerful message she gave me. Liquid Spirit, Take Me to the Alley, No Love Dying, Don’t Lose Your Steam, so many songs have been influenced by her.

When I was 30 I had this pain in my chest that I thought was a heart problem. I went to a doctor and the doctor said there’s nothing wrong with you, and suggested that I go to a therapist. I went to a therapist and for most of the sessions she said there’s nothing wrong with you. Then she brought up my father and right away she said, oh, that’s what’s wrong with you. Some of the first songs I wrote were about my father and all those years of neglect. And I found that when I wrote these things down, the pain in my chest became easier and lighter. But still for years, I had a lot of pain about the lack of interaction between us, disappointment that I didn’t get some gifts from him, just a watch or a tie from my father. But the interesting thing is that I probably have inherited some things from him, deeper than a watch or an old jacket he wore. I have a voice. I went to his funeral and person after person after person got up and said, your father when he was singing, it was a beautiful, extraordinary thing. So he did give me something, he didn’t leave me with nothing. And this is something that’s come about very recently, this idea that I can give myself this present, tie it up with a nice bow, this gift from my father. And I don’t have any pain any more.

If I went back and told my 16-year-old self what life had in store, he wouldn’t understand how all the difficult valleys in my life would eventually make perfect sense. I wouldn’t understand that experiencing deep, negative, and violent racism would have any use in my life. I wouldn’t think there would be any value in having a broken heart or moving to the other side of the country [after a childhood in California he moved to New York in 2004, originally to work as a chef before he started singing in small clubs]. I wouldn’t think that the most important part of my career starting at age 35 would be a positive thing. I had to go through some difficult things in order to come to a new place in my life and understand the power of optimism and the power of love. And now these are the things I write about, in a dark time when racism is rising again due to other people’s words. I think we need that message more than ever.

If I could go back to any time in my life it would be springtime when I was eight years old. I was with my mother and my seven brothers and sisters, we were all still living in the same house in Bakersfield, California. It was a lot of fun just talking and joking. We would have family talent shows. We would always cook and eat together. It was like something in a movie, we all sat around a table for dinner. There was a bright sun, and a chill wind and beautiful flowers. The smell of jasmine in the air. That spring it seemed like everything was beautiful.

This article previously appeared in Big Issue #1405. You can buy one-off issues or subscriptions from The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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Image: Amy Sioux