Milwaukee Talks: Willy Porter

A live performance by hometown singer/songwriter Willy Porter is always full of energy and that certain Milwaukee-specific charm that comes from being a local entertainer. A cup of coffee with Porter doesn't provide the great music (he left the guitar at home), but the experience does bring out the down-to-earth friendliness of one of Brew City's better known music men.

With lyrics that offer much more than ordinary pop songs and are incredibly full of life, Porter's songs blend creative guitar arrangements, passion and a unique vibe that make the singer/songwriter and his band a national draw.

His latest self-titled release is a bit different from previous albums, but still spins stories and life with grooves like " If Love Were An Airplane" and the inspirational "Unconditional."

We enjoyed our recent cup of coffee with Porter as much as we do his new disc. He talked about life in Milwaukee, a new live album, future plans and more. Read on for our new installment of "Milwaukee Talks" with Willy Porter.

OMC: Where did you grow up?

WP: Born on the East Side and lived there for the first five years of my life, then moved to Mequon. I went to Homestead High School and I have continued to live in the city of Milwaukee ever since.

OMC: When did you start you music career?

WP: I started playing guitar when I was about 13. I studied classical guitar for a year, but mostly studied folk and contemporary acoustic music at the time of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez … also studied traditional music but contemporary song writing. Later on I got into rock 'n' roll bands and stuff and spent some time in high school as a guitar tech for a popular band at my high school.

When I got to college I fell into this group of people that were running a coffeehouse at the University of Wisconsin -- Eau Claire. Through those connections, I realized that acoustic music and songwriting was what I wanted to do.

OMC: What year did you graduate high school?

WP: I graduated in '83. I am officially old.

OMC: Did you start playing then in Eau Claire?

WP: I played at high school AFS and talent shows and stuff like that. That was my first taste of live performance, I guess. Really it was at UW-Eau Claire that I got into performing, at this coffeehouse which was a national-level room with a great sound system. It was called "The Cabin." They brought in a lot of people that were really amazing musicians, Preston Reed and Stanley Jordan.

They booked Leo Kottke and Michael Hedges -- they didn't play in that venue, but the community that was booking the concert that I was on was in part responsible for bringing artists to our campus. Some pretty amazing folks were running that program and they did a great job. I was sort of at 'musician graduate school' because I learned everything about booking a concert and promoting it. Learned how to deal with the agents, what the artists wanted to see when they were on the road, and how to take care of people to get the best results out of performance … that helped me understand how to tour later on.

OMC: Did you know early on in high school that this was what you wanted to do?

WP: I was pretty sure I wanted to be a musician, I just wasn't sure what genre of music I wanted to be in. First I thought it would be really cool to be a classical musician, and that was really attractive to me. But I have to say that I wasn't good enough and I wasn't disciplined enough at a young age -- so that wasn't going to be my calling. I think playing Bach tunes and things for six hours a day really didn't speak to me. But I have a deep respect for classical musicians and the discipline that it takes to do that.

OMC: What about the challenges and opportunities of having Milwaukee as your home base. Do you see that as a positive more than a negative?

WP: I do. I think Milwaukee is a particularly competitive town in that there aren't a lot of places to perform here. It is expanding as time goes on. It's a hard town to "get over it" musically. There is a great quote and it goes this way "if your band is big in Southeastern Wisconsin there is probably something wrong with you." I think without being too negative towards Milwaukee, it's a great city and I think it beats you into shape. People here are very tough on their bands and they don't give praise very easily.

I found that as I got outside of this town that the music went over better in other communities and things. If I had a tune that people enjoyed here, I was pretty sure that it was going to work elsewhere and in that regard I think that it is a harder city than New York or Los Angeles. It is daunting for other musicians that don't get to go to other towns and have their music resonate there and they get discouraged here.

OMC: Do you listen to commercial radio in Milwaukee?

WP: I really don't. I listen to Lazer (103) somewhat, I think that Marilyn Mee has done some things to help the locals out and that's great. I listen to WMSE and WUWM. I like the college rock 'n' roll lead show on The Weekends on 'KLH (96.5 FM) -- I think that's pretty good. I think there is good radio here, but I also think there is a demographic that really isn't represented in radio programming in Milwaukee.

OMC: Let's talk about what's new in your career. Are you working on a live album?

WP: I am. I have a good deal of stuff already recorded for that and I recently opened a studio in town here called "The Engine Room" -- it is right on Water Street; it is a digital studio. So that's been taking up a good deal of my time. That's starting to bring in a lot of bands that are looking to record and do other things. That's been great and it's really nice to be able to mix the whole thing there and generate my own masters from my own studio, which is a first for me.

OMC: How is the tour for the latest album? How does the schedule look for you?

WP: Pretty good. I tried some new things. I tried to get into some new towns that I haven't played much before. That's brought some mixed results. But with every record you put out ... it's a difficult thing in the music business ... there is that tag line on the securities offering sheet that will say "past performances no indicator of future results." The music business is exactly like that. Even if your last record did very well, there is no guarantee that the audience is going to be as willing to greet you with what you are doing now.

This record is doing quite a bit better than the last one, and I am grateful for that. On a really basic level, I love my job. I am just glad to go out and play music at all and that there are people at every show. So it's going well, to be more direct.

OMC: How did you select Turner Hall to be on the cover?

WP: I have to give props to Deone Jahnke, the photographer on that. She is a great scout for atmosphere and stuff when she is photographing so she found it. I am just really happy that all the photographs are from Milwaukee on this record, it made me feel really good.

OMC: What are the best and worst aspects of your chosen career?

WP: I think the best is that every day you get to be your own boss. It is a highly creative job from writing the song, to how you perform it, to how you record it, to how you sort of nourish your muse. I would never trade any of those aspects.

The difficult side of it is that it is truly hard to merge art and commerce, and I think the business side of the music is a really slippery slope. I've had to educate myself on contract law and educate myself on a lot of other aspects of business that I never saw as being that germane in music when I was starting out. And I think that it is very difficult to be your own advocate.

OMC: What are your general impressions of Milwaukee, the biggest assets and some of the things Milwaukee could improve upon in the area?

WP: I think its greatest assets are that it has a great quality of life here. Having traveled throughout America extensively and Europe, I see Milwaukee in a much different way. And it is not just because it is home to me, I think that the lake is a phenomenal advantage and the seasonal changes are a great side of the city.

And I think the people here are generally very friendly. I love living here and making my home here. I am really happy that this city exists. I have traveled to so many towns that are similar in size and they really don't hold a candle to Milwaukee.

Having said that, where could it improve, I think this city needs to embrace its diverse ethnicity a little bit more. I wish the lines were a little more blurred between ethnic groups sometimes. I wish there was a more gregarious peace between those groups sometimes, I feel a little tension there. Those are long term artifacts that we all have to strive to overcome, but it is changing and I think it is evolving into a great city.

OMC: What was the last concert that you saw?

WP: The last concert that I went to, I think it was "South Pacific" actually. It was Robert Goulet and I am pretty sure that was it. As far as rock shows, the last big rock show that I saw was Radiohead (in Chicago) and that was a while ago, other than shows that I was opening in, or a part of.

OMC: Do you have a favorite restaurant in town?

WP: I tend to like the beaneries and the little sort of places that are off the beaten trail, where the working folks go. I like Michigan Street Diner, right around the corner from my office. I don't go to a lot of restaurants, and when I am home I try to eat at home. I eat enough "McHappiness" when I am on the road.

OMC: Do you have a role model or mentor?

WP: Probably my father. He is a great man and he has helped me through a lot of sticky situations, particularly in business. I don't consider myself a great business guy. I work hard at it but it doesn't come easy to me.

OMC: How do you define success for yourself and you career?

WP: A roof over your head and your kids are fed and that you have a place to call home that really feels like home. I used to think that I would have to have my face on the cover of Spin magazine or I would have to trip the wires on a grand scale in order to be a success in the music industry. But I have learned that survival and the integrity of doing the best work you possibly can is success enough for me.

OMC: If you had three albums to take on a trip across the county what would they be?

WP: Probably the "White" album by the Beatles, (Pink Floyd's) "Dark Side of the Moon," and probably Leo Kottke's "6 and 12 String Guitar."

OMC: What's the timeframe on the live album?

WP: I am not sure. There are a lot of grown-ups that have to be involved in that decision-making process. I'll record it and mix it and then see how the grown-ups feel about it. But hopefully sometime in the spring. I feel odd saying that, I have no idea.

OMC: If you could have a drink or coffee with one person alive or dead who would it be and why?

WP: Let's see. I would have a cup of coffee with Jerry Garcia. Just because I think that the spirit of what he did musically has really transcended generations and I think there are a lot of people that are playing music now that wouldn't enjoy the success they do had he not done what he did. And a close second would probably Jack Nicholson. I'd love to have a beer with Jack Nicholson some day. There are lots of women too, but I am married so…

OMC: "Unconditional" is one of the most moving songs on the album, can you talk about where it came from?

WP: That song was inspired to a large extent by the fact that I was a new dad and the way you look at the world shift in a way that you can't see coming when you have a little one. All of a sudden you are not the focus and you are not the priority anymore, everything shifts and in a lot of ways, it is a great release. It puts your life into a whole different framework. So she (my daughter) really had a lot to do with that.

And also the story about the guy and the motorcycle which is the second verse, that is a partially true story that was related to me by a friend of mine whose brother passed away on a motorcycle. We were maybe going to write a song about it, but it never came to be, but I thought that it tied in a nice way. That tune is my favorite on the record because I think it is the one that has the most relevance today and also because it has the most emotional impact for me.

OMC: "Watercolor"?

WP: That was tune that I had written 80 percent of and wasn't sure of. I went to Nashville, I was doing a showcase at the Grand Ole Opry with some friends of mine, who were all at this college booking convention trying to get shows at different colleges and stuff. And a friend of mine, Mike Rayburn, and I were hanging out in a hotel room and I played him the song and he said "I know that girl" and we wrote the bridge and finished it. It's a tune that I really didn't know much about I was just trying to envision what I thought was sort the goddess or the matriarch and it was really an attempt to find our who she was.

OMC: How about "Mystery" from the last album?

WP: Really an attempt to sort of tap into the spirit side of your lover. How do you quantify what it is that draws you to somebody? It is impossible really in so many ways.

"Mystery" was written in Amsterdam by Steve Kilborn and myself when we were on tour with Tori Amos. Steve is playing the bass on that. We just couldn't handle Amsterdam at night one night, it was just too chaotic. And it was kind of pathetic because you would think that here we are this American rock band we should be down partying in the streets with the locals and coursing and that. But we sat there and looked out the window and thought, we don't want to deal with that at all. Kind of boring really.

OMC: "All Fall Down" is pretty fun.

WP: A fun little ditty, but really just a song written in France with a couple of people. I went to (Sting manager and brother of Stewart Copeland) Miles Copland's castle retreat in the south of France and there I was: just a songwriter who was just going to get together with a bunch of people. It's really a songwriting grad school. Each day you write with two people that you don't know and you come up with a song. And in seven days you write and record six songs and then you go back home again. The whole thing is like a giant brain cram, but it's really great because you become very kinetic in your writing.

I wrote that one with Ed Robertson and Donny Brown. Ed Robertson is from "The Bare Naked Ladies" and Donny Brown from "The Verve Pipe." That was the first day on that trip of writing a song that was supposed to be for me as an artist so it was great. I think Ed was responsible for the lyrics for the most part and Donny and I were more musical on that one. But it's a great collaboration of a song written in an hour and a half.

OMC: "Angry Words" one of your better known songs…

WP: That was a tune that I'd written the words for and I had the verses and the music at about 70 percent. Then I got together with the drummer I was working with at the time and he and I wrote the bridge … I changed the music up a little bit and it became what it is. Miraculously, it was sort of a song looking at the past and looking at how when you integrate your history into your present, when you really except it for what it is, blame becomes irrelevant and you just move forward. I was trying to capture that pivotal form.

OMC: What do you see as your next step?

WP: I'd like to get into some production work with other artists. I would like to some day make a kids record. I think that I have really been enjoying being a dad and playing songs with my daughter, making up songs and stuff. It's really ridiculous and fun. And I'd like to, at some point in the future, make an instrumental record of either ambient stuff with guitar or something that is non-guitar completely. Having the studio is kind of a liberating time. I'd also like to record with this new band that I have, that think is a really good band. We'll see.

Willy Porter plays two shows on Jan. 11 at the Cedarburg Cultural Center. Call (262) 375-3676 for tickets to the 7 & 9:30 p.m. shows. He plays Shank Hall on Sun., Jan. 19.

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