An Interview with Willy Porter
Part Two of Two
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 1998, Volume 5, #6
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. The first part of this interview appeared in our May issue and dealt with his beginnings in the music industry and the recording of his first album.
Paul Perrone, who provided the drums and percussion on The Trees Have Soul, moved to Hawaii to pursue a graduate degree. In 1992, Porter brought in his high school friend John Calarco to fill in for Perrone. Porter stated, "I was doing a solo thing, and I had asked John to come and sit in at some shows. We really connected."
Several bass players came and went before Calarco and Porter hooked up with Steve Kleiber. "He had been playing with Keedy at the time," Porter explained. "[Keedy] was sort of Arista's attempt at a Madonna-type thing, and so he was very frustrated and bitter with the music business. He was the perfect guy for our band."
This trio formed the foundation for Porter's band, which, over a twelve day period in 1994, recorded the more polished, but equally inspired Dog-Eared Dream. Porter wrote in the liner notes for the disc, "The sessions were punctuated by the bells of the nearby church, as well as the recess schedule of the first through third graders at the adjoining school."
Dog-Eared Dream became the first national release for Porter, attracting the attention of radio station WXRT in Chicago. In March 1995, WXRT invited Porter to perform the middle set of a three-band free concert at Chicago's Vic Theater. The opening band was The Dark Horses, featuring Gregg Allman's son, and the headliner was Blues Traveler. WXRT also added three of Porter's songs — Angry Words, Rita, and Cool Water — to their regular rotation.
"Radio's been great to me, and I'm very grateful," said Porter. "Radio stations probably get a lot of music that they would like to play, but understanding their listenership, they just can't force-feed it. Chicago is a really rare town. People in Chicago are spoiled because WXRT is a unique station. [They have a] very unique programming stance that many radio stations in this country can't get away with because they don't understand their listeners and because they don't respect them as much as they should."
Porter, Calarco, and Kleiber, augmented by a variety of musicians, toured together regularly through the end of 1997. The first incarnation included musicians from Madison, Wisconsin. The first was Biff Blumfumgagne, an incredible electric violin player who has since formed his own band — The Reptile Palace Orchestra. The second was keyboardist Dave Adler, more widely known for his improvisational comedy with The Annoyance Theater in Chicago.
Both Greg Koch and Jim Eanelli took stints as lead guitarist in Porter's band before he settled on the most current incarnation, which features Calarco, Kleiber, keyboardist Matt Meixner, and Porter in a lead rhythm role. Porter explained, "I've never been a big fan of guitar solos, so if someone is going to take one they had better be a good player. That's why I brought in [Koch and Eanelli] who were the real guns. [Now that they've left] I think there's a little more space and a little bit more interaction [among the remaining band members]. There doesn't seem to be as much competing for rhythmic or melodic space. It's a very cool band. I'm hoping that they will stay together long enough to do this next album. [Calarco is] moving to New York, so there's some uncertainty there. He may end up doing a couple of tours and some other stuff before we can record, but I'm hopeful that he won't get a big gig for a minute or two so that I can still work with him."
Lately, Porter has been extremely busy. Throughout the first few months of 1998, he performed a number of solo concerts in the Midwest and also completed a mini-tour of Wisconsin with bassist Steve Kleiber. In April, he picked up two Wisconsin Area Music Industry awards for Male Vocalist of the Year and Songwriter of the Year. In May, he began a six-week tour, opening for Vonda Shepard. He's also been working on three separate recording projects — two of his own and one with Tori Amos.
Tori Amos' latest album From the Choirgirl Hotel is scheduled to be released on May 5. She recorded 35 songs for the disc. Porter stated, "I played on four tracks. The songs felt great. She had assembled a really cool band with Matt Chamberlin who [played drums] on The Wallflowers and the Fiona Apple records. He's done a million other things too. George Porter from the Funky Meters is playing bass."
The final result was an album of 12 songs — only one of which includes Porter. He joked, "For all I know my stuff will end up on the editing room floor, [but] the tunes are great, so I think it will be a very cool record. It's pretty cool to have the opportunity to work with her."
Porter had met Amos when he performed a solo opening set for her 1996 tour, and it is the recordings from this tour that will form the basis for his next project. Said Porter, "I was touring with Tori Amos, and her sound crew was kind enough to record a lot of the shows. I think there will be about 8 songs on this live [album]. It will be more of an EP."
The album will consist of solo versions of previously released songs as well as some material that has not yet made it onto a studio album. The project came about because many fans had seen Porter's solo performances and requested that he release some of the alternate versions of his songs. The solo versions are often quite different from those that appeared on his albums, and his guitar has plenty of room to sing and blend with his voice. Of course, there's also a whole host of outstanding songs (from the mantra Breathe to the soaring Seagull to the driving instrumental Roadbone) that have not yet been recorded, and hopefully some of these will make the final cut.
Added Porter, "I've been through a lot of weird business turmoil, changes, and stuff with my record company (who I'm not longer with). Because I couldn't release an album for a long time I wanted to put this live album out in lieu of another studio recording."
Unfortunately, Porter has since stated that he was unable to pull together enough material from the Tori Amos tour to complete the album. He has now begun to pour through some additional recordings and hopes to release the disc through his web site and fan club, sometime this month.
Finally, Porter is in preparation to record a new studio album. He had begun to lay down a few demo tracks with his band last Fall, but the ensuing dispute with his record company, which revolved around artistic control, has caused much of the hard work to be scrapped. Said Porter, "I think I'm going to have to start over. Some of the tracks were sounding really good too. It just wasn't a really good marriage between myself and the record company. I definitely want to be able to put out the music the way I want to put it out whether or not it's as commercial as they want it to be. I'm in for the long haul so the fewer people that tell you what to do as an artist, the better. If people don't like it, that's fine but you owe it to yourself to be honest with yourself. You've got to live with yourself."
Porter plans to begin recording his third studio album this month. Once it is completed, he will begin his search for a record company that is willing to release it under his terms. If all goes well, he is hoping that the album will be released before the end of the year. In the meantime, he'll continue doing what he does best — writing and performing honest, down-to-earth music from his heart. He certainly can't go wrong with that strategy.
Dog-Eared Dream is available from Barnes & Noble.
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