FAIRBANKS – Willy Porter relishes the challenge of writing songs and playing guitar. Not a bad job if you can get it, yet, you rarely become a winner right way.
But Porter doesn’t measure his success against others. Humble and self-effacing, Porter stresses that, despite several critically acclaimed albums, he is constantly trying to become a better songwriter.
“It’s just a remarkable thing to have character development and have a real transference of time in a three and a half minute song. It is really hard to pull off,” he said during a phone interview from his Milwaukee home. “I enjoy the challenge of that, though I don’t think I am particularly good at it.
“In a lot of ways I feel I know even less about music,” he added. “It’s as fast and wider to me than when I first started out. It still holds the wonder of beginners mind.”
Such whole-hearted fascination affords Porter a wide-eyed view of the world, which invariably means his music cannot be limited to a single style or genre. There a moments of new age jazz transcended by bluesy rockers and followed by wistful acoustic moments.
His most recent musical explorations have been performing with the Carpe Diem String Quartet. The collaboration yielded “Live at BoMA,” recorded in 2010. The live aspect of the album harnesses the groups solid interplay with depth, structure and emotion, while showcasing a wide variety of Porter’s original material.
Work on a studio album is scheduled to begin shortly after Porter wraps up this Alaska tour.
Though Porter indicated that performing with these former Columbus (Ohio) Symphony Orchestra members has been rewarding, this encounter pushed him to further “focus in” on his already weighty performance skills.
“They push me to hone in on stuff, stuff I take for granted in guitar playing like technique and consistency in tone,” he said.
“When you get around a bunch of classical musicians the bar is raised.”
However, there were other unexpected challenges, such as not improvising as he performed. “I’m not a person who locks into form and plays something the same way every time,” he said. “I’m a folk musician and songs morph and change and grow but in this configuration they’re reading it off the page, so I have to stick to a page.”
Porter added that such challenges, no matter how tough, are always good for a musician with open eyes — and one open to new motivations. Porter said his recent solo shows have benefited and “seem to have more energy.” His songwriting — Porter brings “a bunch” on new material to Fairbanks — has also undergone something of a revival following his stint with Carpe Diem. Porter’s songs have returned to a more guitar intensive mode, similar to some of his earlier recordings.
“When I young I was this way and would spend months working on a particular song,” he said. “As I got older I wanted stuff more people would enjoy and started working on simpler arrangements. Working with (Carpe Diem) makes me realize I love the music first and how people react to it is a secondary thing. It’s informed some of the new stuff I am working on now and not being afraid of an instrumental section or a six minute song.”
Truth be told, Porter has never really worried about what other’s have thought about his music. Sure, he wants listeners to enjoy it, but to do so they need to be flexible to hearing a wide reach of styles — often on the same record. Is such a broad musical scope too much for the average listener to comprehend?
“There are those who listen to music and those who have music on as the background to their lives,” Porter said. “People have been trained to think music has to be one way or another. … The minute (the artist) starts chasing that you’ve already lost; you’ve lost your individually. The landscape of independence that is affordable now is a great avenue to reclaim what music really is.”
Despite his new-found focus, Porter admits that after almost than 20 years of making that music, he still isn’t exactly sure what he’s after. Instead, he remains content to just wait and see what develops.
“I feel like I’m just getting started still,” he said with a laugh. “That’s why I’m still at it. I think it’s a great gift to play music. It has a really deep spiritual power to it. That keeps me rolling. I don’t look at it without gratitude. It’s pretty sacred stuff — not just my music but all music.”—Glenn BurnSilver
(This article appeared in the May 6, 2011 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.)