Published On: Sun, Apr 12th, 2020

Gregory Porter on his new album, his family and meeting the Royals | Music | Entertainment

Gregory Porter is back with a new album

Gregory Porter is back with a new album (Image: Ami Sioux)

“Yesterday I was in the garden digging up weeds with my son, and I thought, ‘It’s nice to be back on the ground,’” he says, looking out from his office at the little bit of land attached to his house in Bakersfield, California, where he grew up in a much less fabulous property. And now it’s without the KKK crosses that, back in the 1970s and 1980s, were occasionally burnt in the front garden because his mother had moved him and his seven siblings into a “white” neighbourhood.

Today, he’s lounging back in his old-school leather chair in a room that could be in a traditional London hotel rather than on the sunny West Coast. 

“People come into this office and feel like it’s very British, what with the leather boxing gloves and cricket balls,” he chuckles with that lazy, gravelly laugh we’ve become accustomed to over the last few years. 

“It feels a bit like a British gentleman’s room where you’d go to have a cigar.”

It’s part of the mutual love affair that has developed between Britain and Gregory, a love affair that saw his hugely successful, Grammy-winning rise to the top launch not from his native US but from London.

“I think the energy of my career is seeded in the UK,” he says. 

“And anything that happens in the UK makes the French and the Germans a little jealous, so then you go there.” More chuckles. 

“I think between Jools Holland and Jamie Cullum and the BBC, it’s been good for me.”

He even performed at Buckingham Palace, got the full tour. “I was meeting Royals and I didn’t even know I was meeting Royals,” he says. 

“I don’t want to get any names wrong but I met quite a few. 

“And I got to run about the house. And they gave me cologne and I think a pair of socks – but that might have come from my piano player because I was wearing the wrong pair of socks.”

And, yes, the hat – that doesn’t come off for anyone. 

He never talks about it but he started wearing it to cover some scars that he got when he was young and it just sort of stuck, became his trademark.

But even before the UK got behind him, Gregory had his mother to thank for his career. 

Having brought him and his brothers and sisters up without a dad, she died from cancer when he was just 21, with her last message to Gregory being, “Sing, child, sing.” 

And sing he did.

Gregory Porter performs

Gregory Porter performs during Sir Lucian Grainge’s 2020 Artist Showcase (Image: Lester Cohen/Getty Images)

With a football career cut short because of injury, and juggling cooking in cafés with working on his music, Gregory now laughs at the idea that these were the lost years until eight years ago when he finally cut an album, aged 40.

“It’s funny, the thing about the lost years, because the lost years are me making music and trying to find my way to a platform where I could be heard,” he says, philosophically. 

“The lost years are what give me the seasoning for the music I make now.”

And the thing that really does make him proud is that he’s never compromised, never done music or written songs for success or for money.

This is probably what makes his sound so eclectic, weaving from jazz through funk to soulful ballads – something he says comes from his need to make everyone happy.

“It’s like when I come into a room and it’s like, ‘Oh, you need a gin and tonic over here? And let me squeeze you some lemon juice and get Grandma a tea.’ 

“I’m that kind of person, musically as well, all under the umbrella of jazz. 

“I’m dealing with all the music that influenced me: soul, my mother was a minister so gospel, I like to dance so I’ll make some dance music. It’s not a conscious thing. 

“If a song writes itself, it’ll come out a particular way because that’s how I heard it when I was lying in bed at 3am.”

And that’s never been more true than with the new album, All Rise

“I’ll sing a gentle lullaby about my mother, then I’ll sing about the riots in the 1960s,” he explains. 

“But it’s all about love. 

“It’s about overcoming any difficulty you have in your life. It’s about the renewal of the spirit.”

Gregory Porter attends the 61st Annual GRAMMY Awards

Gregory Porter attends the 61st Annual GRAMMY Awards (Image: Steve Granitz/WireImage)

But it must be bittersweet, with those words of his mother’s inspiring the whole journey and yet her not being here to enjoy the success. 

“Yes it is,” he says, the chuckle gone just for a moment. 

“But the funny thing is she’s still there. 

“I think of a song like Liquid Spirit, which was inspired by the sermons she would give when I was little. 

“When I write a song like that, there she is in my success. 

“There’s a song on the new record called Thank You and the lyric is ‘If I rise, there you’ll be.’

“My mother’s name is not written on my Grammys but she’s there.”

His father Rufus had already died when his mother passed and although he admits to still crying over that today, he has very little memory of the man who he later realised gave him the voice that has made his fame and fortune.

“Even though my father has been dead for 20-some-odd years, I’m still considering what he was and what he wasn’t in my life,” he says now that he has his own son, Demyan, playing in the back garden. 

“What I’m doing for my son, is I’m laying things out for him. 

“With the records, I’m saying something to him that my mother said to me, that I want to give to him.”

And he sings a bit from the track Concorde from the new album. 

“‘My life is moving under me, before I touch the ground…’ 

“He’s my life under me. And he’s all up in the music, literally on one of the songs. 

“I feel like I’m leaving him something because when I’m gone he can say, ‘That’s who my Daddy was!’ Because I don’t know who my father was.”

Gregory and wife Victoria at 59th GRAMMY Awards

Gregory and wife Victoria at the 59th GRAMMY Awards (Image: John Shearer/WireImage)

And it looks like music has followed through the generations to Demyan. 

“When he was four he was into Earth, Wind & Fire because he loved the horns,” says Gregory, quite happy when you think of the music a lot of parents have to put up with from their children. 

“Now he likes a lot of DJs, so he likes the things I did with [British electro duo] Disclosure. 

“He heard some stuff when he was younger but now he’ll be like, ‘Hey, Daddy, that was you!’ 

“And he likes stuff like [super-cool DJ outfit] Deadmau5, which keeps me up to scratch. And he sings a bit himself.”

The fact that someone who grew up with a father who left before he was born, who he knew only through photographs and from a handful of meetings, can put his son – and his wife Victoria – at the centre of his very busy life, shows that we’re not destined to repeat the mistakes of our parents.

“It’s good to be home with my seven year old, who’s out of school because of the virus and we can play in the mud, jump in the pool, spend a little time,” he says. 

“I’m supposed to be on a serious tour in Europe right now. But that can wait.”

• All Rise is out on Decca Records/Blue Note on August 28.

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