Elevated Fret Alert: Willy Porter channels the skills of Leo Kottke and Nick Drake.
Soul of Willy Porter
The unconditional life and times of a great American songwriter
By Bill Forman
Imagine playing guitar as well as Leo Kottke, writing songs as thoughtfully as Nick Drake and charming an audience as thoroughly as Richard Thompson. Willy Porter routinely earns such comparisons, yet the Milwaukee-based singer/songwriter remains surprisingly obscure.
Porter's critical and cult following dates back to "Cool Water," an insidiously catchy track off his self-released Trees Have Soul album that was reprised on his 1995 major label debut, Dog Eared Dream. In the years since, he's continued to develop a fingerpicking style that's as full and rhythmic as a whole band, while penning wistfully poetic songs that are spiritually and emotionally moving.
In concert, Porter also has a knack for improvising entire songs in real time, asking his audience to suggest a subject, a musical style and maybe a subplot or two. In fact, he expects to release an all-improv album not far down the road. Sure to be included is a song suggested by one particularly disconsolate couple who sat at the front table during his most recent San Francisco show.
"She had her arms crossed and looked very disconcerted," Porter recalls. "She didn't like being with the guy, and she couldn't have telegraphed it any harder. So I just looked at them and I said, 'What's going on? This is kind of a dark table to have in front here.' And the guy goes, 'Well, this is our last date. She's leaving me after this.' I'm thinking: Whoah, that's harsh. And he goes, 'Yup, I'm fucked.' And I thought, well, OK. So the tune was 'You're Fucked,' and it was like a country classic. You know, it's not for kids, right, but not a lot is these days."
So did the song help relieve their tension, at least? "Well, no," admits Porter. "What's really amazing was, at the close of it, the woman just goes, 'You know, you're right.'" All of which suggests the guy may have been better off in the long run. "I would have to say so," laughs Porter. "Let's just leave it there, can we?"
Porter's most recent studio album, titled Willie Porter, was a quiet masterpiece, ranging from the whimsical "Dirty Movie," in which Porter's partner offers a subversive response to citizen surveillance ("if they're gonna watch, let's give 'em a show"), to the breathtakingly brilliant "Unconditional," in which Porter reveals facets of unconditional love through a series of verse-length vignettes--a mother on a train, a man dying in a motorcycle accident and a vulnerable first-person conclusion.
"Yeah, I'm one of those left-wing Christians you hear about, that are so rare," he says when asked about his own spirituality. Raised by agnostic parents, Porter says he still has a hard time with literalism, fanaticism and the corruption of religious sentiments for political purposes, regardless of faith.
Meanwhile, his own priorities have changed when it comes to his livelihood. "I've gone back to the way I started, which is totally independent," says the artist, whose next album, Available Light, is due out in June. "I like having a music career, but I don't really want to be owned by it. I think to be really focused and make it in the music industry, it has to be the main priority in your life. And while being a better musician is one of the main priorities in my life, my musical career is not."
As it turns out, that may end up being the best thing for Porter's music. "My family is definitely my first priority, and so I accept that I'm not gonna be writing a song every week. And now I write about stuff that really moves me, or I just don't write. So maybe the filter's on a little stronger. But it's great, man, I have no objection. My motto is make a living, not a killing."
Willy Porter plays Monday, April 10, at 7pm at the Attic, 931 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $15 adv/$20 door. (831.460.1800)
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