Willy Porter is an extraordinary songsmith in the folk / bluesy vein whose lyrics weave tales you follow like on a pleasant walk. Native to Milwaukee, he thinks himself a ‘musical carny’ singing his soulful collection on stages around the world, pausing between tunes long enough to tell stories and improvise ditties.
Willy: My folks were fairly musical. My dad played jazz piano as a hobby, but was a pretty good player. There was always a lot of music in the house growing up. And a lot of encouragement to play music. That was a great environment for me.
Michael: You began playing the viola as a youngster?
Willy: I did, and then in 3rd or 4th grade I discovered the guitar, and I never really thought about anything else since. I started off really wanting to be a classical musician, but I realized rather quickly when my friends who were really really good were going to camps for classical, all I wanted to do was play songs.
Michael: Your first paid gig?
Willy: At a pizza parlor. I was still in high school and would play on Friday nights, everything from the Stones to James Taylor. I’d get free pizza, and $25…it was pretty great.
Michael: After high school was college in Eau Claire.
Willy: I majored in psychology and business administration. I went up there because I fell in love with the campus. I loved the geography of the area, but more than that, they have a great theater department. I didn’t participate in it, but there was a lot going on, and music school was great, and I thought this is a great place to get a good liberal arts education. And it was four hours away from my folks (laugh) so that was very appealing as well at that point in my life.
Michael: You began writing your own songs in college?
Willy: I was compelled by the university’s activities commission, and through that got involved with the great Cabin Coffee House, and there were several open mike nights. That’s when I thought I should really try to work on my own material. It was a great environment to be creative.
Michael: Do lyrics come first, then music, or vice versa?
Willy: I tend to trust the guitar. I’ll go to the guitar first. I do a lot of writing by just rolling tape. I’ll just record as I go, meanderings, mumblings, then go back later in the day and see if there’s anything there. For me the main objective is to trust whatever is within me, and just let it out. A lot of times it’s just dreck, and I don’t want to deal with it or it’s not very musical. But sometimes I’ll find these threads, and they’re sometimes worth working on. Songs come from everywhere, from seeing how other people are dealing with the stresses and structures of their lives, as well as how you tackle you own things. I tend to be more interested in the observational point of view.
Michael: And you performed improv with the Dead Alewives?
Willy: I’ve done a fair amount of improvisational theater. Largely as the musical accompanist. I learned a lot from that, learned about the immediacy of ‘the idea,’ and that sort of filtered into my writing. You have to learn to trust ‘the moment,’ it’s your guide. In improv there is no wrong answer, and you have to continue to go forward no matter what happens, and that’s a great axiom to apply to songwriting as well.
Michael: Is Rickie Lee Jones as cool as she appears to be?
Willy: She was when I toured with her. That was several years ago that we toured Europe together. She was fantastic. I’d never seen anybody, other than maybe Tori Amos, who can cast a spell over the room. From the first chord…she had the audience. It’s pretty extraordinary to experience that.
Michael: And what is Paul Simon like?
Willy: He was really cool to me. A great guy who works his band really hard. A taskmaster. Demanding. But exceedingly professional who doesn’t suffer fools. Why should he, and why would he? But also a very kind man.
Michael: How do you strike the balance from being on the road across the country, over to Europe, then back home to getting the kids off to school?
Willy: I married a great woman (laugh). I couldn’t pull any off any of this ‘suspension of disbelief’ if not for her. I’ll leave it at that.
Catch Willie Porter at the Cedarburg Cultural Center February 14th cedarburgculturalcenter.org or call 262-375-3676. Of the next night, February 15th at the Thrasher Opera House in Green Lake thrasheroperahouse.com or call 920-294-4279.