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Music, Interviews

Get Up Gregory

Gregory Porter Talks Trauma, Trump and Teaching Black History

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Following the release of his sixth studio album, Gregory Porter speaks to us from his home in California about the jazz/soul/blues/gospel-esque record and the meaning behind its frank and sincere lyrics. We also discuss Gregory’s views on American politics as well as the education surrounding black history.

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Do you like the press side of your job?

I would normally be talking to you just before my show or just as I wake up in my hotel, so taking questions and having conversations when I’m at home with milk and cookies in front of me is unusual, but it gives me time to contemplate my answers. Sometimes I think the press before a record is very helpful because it helps you solidify your thoughts and what you really believe about the things that you’ve written. It solidifies your musical personality.

We’ve been listening to your new album, All Rise, which is very joyful.

It’s optimistic. I’ve been through struggles, my people and my family have been through struggles, but the part I like to concentrate on is what I’ve done after that – how I’ve gotten up. I want to impart this optimism to other people as it’s something that my mother instilled in me, this irrepressible love that conquers all things.

Did you record it live with the London Symphony Orchestra or did various sections come together individually?

The process was like it always is. Myself and my piano player first, then we get together with the rest of the band, and then the recording process starts. We started the process in Los Angeles, the second set was recorded in Paris and then we finished recording some of the vocals and the orchestra in London, so some parts were compartmentalised. I wanted to give myself more time with the incubation of each song – playing it one way, changing it another, slowing it down and speeding it up.

Are the events, feelings and emotions of this record recent, or have you revisited parts of your more distant past for certain songs?

My father has been dead 20 years so I’m revisiting and re-examining that trauma. You can take a hurtful situation in your life – maybe a time that you felt defeated – and you can rewrite the story in the way you want to tell it. In a song like ‘Mister Holland’, the reality is that I was treated pretty badly, but in the song, Mister Holland treats me right. In a song like ‘Dad Gone Thing’, my father never taught me how to tie a tie, go fishing or plant a tree. Nothing. So, when I say he didn’t teach me a dad gone thing but how to sing, it means I’ve come to the realisation that he did give me something: my singing voice. There’s no way for him to apologise but I can resurrect this by saying, ‘Well, the thing you did give me is the very thing that feeds me, allows me to travel around the world and causes me a lot of joy.’ Even if I don’t go to therapy, at least I’m making great songs! When there is some damage in your life, some disrespect or some abuse, it comes out in one way or another and you’ll find a way to reconcile with it. For me, it’s music.

Are you encouraged by current representations of black music history?

I’m amazed by it and I’m amazed by the worldwide attention and trend. The desire for me though is that it won’t be a trend and that people will be considerate of this journey. Everything that is there to see about black people is in their music. Many of these hip-hop artists, in these braggadocious ways, are simply asking to be looked at. It’s a desire for respect. People want to walk into a room and not be seen as a suspect and so what do they do? They dress themselves in diamonds and gold and $100,000 watches because they don’t want to be looked down at. It’s a powerful thing.

Have you found throughout your life that you had to search for black history as opposed to it being supplied to you by educators?

There are so many things that they could have taught us which would’ve had me walking around with a whole lot more pride about who I am, but they didn’t. Had I known about who invented the stoplight [Garrett Morgan], every time I was at the stoplight I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I know that guy!’ I remember the conversation about the slave trade was about three pages long in the history book when I was in high school – it should have been three books. We talked about the silliest things like who stitched the American flag or who grew up in a wooden house in the woods – really? Did I spend all that time drawing log cabins? Even when we talk about it now, it brings up great emotions. I think some changes have been made since I was in grade school, but I think there’s more that can be done to recognise everybody’s work and values.

Are you involving yourself in American politics?

I’ll tell you what happened at the beginning of making this record, every song was about Donald Trump. I had to stop and realise that I was allowing him to dictate my moves as an artist. I was like, ‘Let me scratch those songs and start from a new point.’ When he comes into the realm of what it is that I want to say, that’s okay, but I can’t allow him to be at the centre of my brain, that’s what he wants. We’ve got to have a change because this is too much of a crazy time.

What else is on your agenda?

The same thing that’s on the agenda for the entire world, to resurrect and revive ourselves after this extraordinary 2020. Everybody’s life has been threatened and you know what happens after your life has been threatened? You say, ‘I’m not going to tell any more lies to myself, I’m gonna live.’

All Rise is out now on Decca Records/Blue Note.

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