Backstage Pass
An Interview with Willy Porter

Part One of Two

First Appeared in The Music Box, May 1998, Volume 5, #5

Written by John Metzger


Willy Porter is a talented singer, songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His two albums — The Trees Have Soul and Dog-Eared Dream — give a good overview of his many talents, but amazingly they only begin to scratch the surface.

Porter is a kind and gentle soul with a great sense of humor and an incredible passion for his music. Like most performers, he is shy, but once he steps on stage, that shyness melts as the musical sparks begin to fly.

He regularly tours with a backing band of equally talented musicians and as a solo artist, and he never fails to deliver an inspired performance. Each time Porter takes the stage, he varies his set list as well as his song arrangements. Every show includes a healthy dose of outstanding unreleased material that seems to endlessly flow from some hidden well.

He truly is a folk musician at heart. All of his songs begin with a stripped-down, folk-based arrangement, but he absorbs as many influences as he can and eases them into his various performances. Consequently, you're likely to hear a touch of John Gorka, a smattering of Adrian Belew, a blend of Michael Hedges, Pat Metheny and Jorma Kaukonen, and even a bit of The Beatles and Stevie Wonder come crawling through the melody. He's always looking for something new and different, and his latest infatuation with Radiohead and XTC could certainly make things interesting. In addition, Porter is infatuated with improvisational comedy and incorporates this into his concerts. At many of his performances, he includes an improvisational piece, called The Happy Accident, which is written on the spot and includes suggestions from the audience.

In the Beginning...

Willy Porter's musical excursions began in his childhood. His dad enjoyed playing jazz piano around the house. He stated, "My dad was a piano player, and so it seemed like a fun thing to do. It was a serious passion of his."

Feeling the enjoyment and passion of his dad's music, Porter tried his hand at viola for three years. He eventually gave that up, but he couldn't stay away from music for very long. He found a classical guitar, belonging to his parents' friends, lying around the house and began teaching himself how to play it. He joked, "That was the beginning of my anti-social life."

Porter decided to try guitar lessons, but quickly changed his mind when his instructor wanted him to start over and learn the "proper" methods. Within a year, he was back to learning to play guitar on his own, choosing to play more for himself than according to the rules.

Over the years, he continued playing guitar both for himself and as a way to meet girls. Porter joked, "I was kind of a homely kid and [if you knew how to play] Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, you definitely had an edge on the community."

Porter graduated from high school and went on to college where he earned his degree in psychology. It was there that he first met and saw Michael Hedges, who became an big influence on his style, particularly on the title track from Porter's 1990 recording The Trees Have Soul.

"He came to the college I was at," said Porter. "I actually met him and drove him around that day. I was on this committee that was putting on the concert, and I had only heard a couple of songs. I watched the sound check, and it was just all over for me. I thought, ‘Good God, I've seen the Messiah.' It sounds pretty heavy duty, but at the time it really completely blew my mind and changed my whole perception of music, performance, rules, everything. I know that I probably wouldn't have gotten as excited about playing live music had I not seen him in 1983."

Porter began working as a legal clerk for a law office and considered continuing his education by attending law school to study environmental law. But in 1990, his frustration with his job became unbearable, and he decided to try his hand at performing. "I got my first house gig at a place called the Celebrity Club in Milwaukee, and once I had that, I just quit my job and went for it."


The Happy Accident

The Happy Accident was born at Porter's early weekly gigs. He explains, "I would show up for the gig and if I didn't have a new tune, I'd have to make one up because I was embarrassed going week in and week out without a new song. [The audience] can really see your artistic progression if they are coming every week. So I would do this improv thing where I would write a song with the audience. It really was heavily affected by, and I learned a lot from, The Dead Alewives. [They're] an improv comedy group that I know in Milwaukee. They do a lot of stuff where they get information from the audience, and then they develop a skit around that."

"I call it The Happy Accident," continued Porter, "because sometimes you really get a gem of an idea out of it. I've gotten some songs that I've gone home and worked on. Sometimes, it's an absolute train wreck where you just feel like a jackass up there. Nobody gets it, and nobody is laughing. Everyone wishes you would just stop and play a song that you had written before you came to the show. But it's great because it's kind of a highwire act, and I like to think that it keeps my mind more agile and loose. It forces me out of that unidirectional sort of staid musical performance that happens to people when they get on the road for a long time. They get tired of themselves and their own music, and they start to perform boring concerts. There's nothing worse than that. I fear that more than anything."

One of the stories that sticks in Porter's mind appeared during his 1996 European tour with Tori Amos. Said Porter, "I asked for a subject, and someone yelled out lesbian lapdancers. That was a pretty outstanding song. [It] one was pretty vast and covered a lot of ground."

Porter added that he's performed The Happy Accident so often, the details of even the best versions are difficult to remember, and lately he's resorted to taping his performances more often. He stated, "Once you do it, it's out there and it's gone, which is kind of cool and is what I really like about improv, jazz, and bebop. When you play that song, there's no going back. It's out there. You just move the particles of air, and it's done. That [lesbian lapdancers] one stands out because I've been listening to these live tapes. I'm trying to [record more performances so that] if I have a good improv then I can go back and develop a song out of it. Sometimes you play things and you think it was a horrible show. Then you go back and listen to it and there's a lot of good energy there."

The Trees Have Soul

Soon after starting his weekly gigs, Porter signed with Don't Records and recorded an incredible album titled The Trees Have Soul that was initially released locally. The album is raw, honest, and pure, and though there are other musicians on many of the tracks, it offers some insight into Porter's solo performances.

Two of the original tracks are just Porter and his guitar — the instrumentals Zak's Tale Part I: Zak at Home and Zak's Tale Part II: Zak at the Bar. "Zak was a little kid," said Porter. "I met this kid in Bethesda, Maryland. I was staying at his parents' house, and he was about four at the time. I was staying in the basement at their house, and Zak said to me that night, ‘If you say any swear words in my house, I get a dollar for each one.'"

Porter agreed thinking there was no way he would swear in front of a four-year old. He continues, "So in the morning, I got up. There was a coffee table [in the room]. It was dark in the basement, and I was walking across the floor. I tripped and what spewed forth was this huge stream of obscenities. I heard Zak upstairs say, ‘That's gonna be four dollars!'"

Later while on the road, Porter stopped at a wayside and began working on what became the two-part Zak's Tale. He stated, "I was really infatuated with Leo Kottke at the time, and the tune has a lot of his sort of influence and stuff in it. I had two versions of it when I got back and recorded it. There's Zak at Home which is a more sedate sort of meandering piece, and then I imagined what Zak would be like at the bar. That's a little more frantic."


Part Two: Dog-Eared Dream and Current Projects


The Trees Have Soul is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Copyright © 1998 The Music Box