For the latest in our WISE WORDS interview series – which sees stars from a range of fields share the important life lessons they’ve learned along the way – we’re posing some of the big questions to Gregory Porter.
In recent years, the jazz singer has enjoyed chart success, performed at Glastonbury and, perhaps unexpectedly, recorded with dance act Disclosure.
Now, he’s returning to his roots and celebrating the music of one of his heroes, with a new album titled ‘Nat King Cole & Me’ – meaning there’s no better time for a trip down memory lane…
What do you do to switch off from the world?
The nice thing about living in a semi-small town is that I can just go home and switch off. I go home now and I trim roses, rake leaves, wake up early in the morning and scare the raccoons off the lawn! It’s kinda nice, that’s the way I turn off, in Bakersfield, California.
Oh and reading, of course.
How do you deal with negativity?
I think sometimes you can be around somebody and take in certain energy and read certain things and you don’t know why your neck is stiff. But if you can recognise the negativity, once you identify it and you know what you are dealing with you can make a point to counteract it with a different energy.
I do it with music but you can do it with conversation, you can do it with just general positivity, which sometimes can really irk a negative person. It’s not just whitewashing things, it’s not just smiling in spite of it, it’s a concerted effort. It could just be someone’s having a bad day. You never know what someone’s going through. So yeah, identifying and counteracting it.
When and where are you happiest?
I’m happiest in nature, in trees, rivers, streams, and I’m happiest around my kid – you know that’s the funny thing, he is not always in the best of moods, but I am always happiest around him and in nature. Around my family is where I am happiest.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
The best career advice was to sing with an understanding and internalise the music – that was my mother’s advice. Sing with intention, believe what it is you’re saying, and think about it, before you sing it.
What has been the hardest lesson you’ve learned?
Letting go. I’m not very good at dismissing people who have just gone out of my life because their life has ended – you know, my mother and other family members. Even people who go away because of unnatural reasons, because of an argument or a misunderstanding – it’s hard, letting go.
What would you tell your 13-year-old self?
There became a point, I guess in my twenties, when I realised how big the world was and how wide and how many opportunities there were. And so I would tell my 13-year-old self just that – don’t limit your scope and what you can achieve, what you can do.
I think the only thing that separates happily performing in intimate spaces and being in large performance halls, it’s confidence. Sometimes it’s already there, it just needs to be switched on. Fortified by mastering the music, by your parents, but until you do it for yourself, it won’t be any good – it’s about self-confidence.
What three things are at the top of your to-do list?
Well doing a Nat King Cole record with an orchestra was one of the three – we just did that! I don’t particularly want to climb a mountain but I want to get on the top of the mountain so how about a helicopter dropping me off! The mountains on the Swiss-German border are always amazing to me – I’d like to chill up there and have some tea.
And I would like to go deep into a forest in China, central China, that’s what I want to do.
What do you think happens when we die?
I don’t think energy is wasted, I don’t think energy is lost. My mother’s been gone 20 years and I’m singing her sermons. I just got stopped by some 16 year-olds in the store for pictures and they said, “Liquid Spirit’s our favourite!”.
In a way, if they like ‘Liquid Spirit’ they like the words of my mother and so maybe they will take that energy and give it to their friends or their kids and so the energy is not lost. I think we are still here, I feel my mother’s spirit, I think we are still here, in another way.
When do you feel a sense that we live in the presence of something bigger than ourselves?
During those moments of deep human connection. That embrace with a distant loved one, that you haven’t seen in a long time. Both of you just spontaneously agree, let’s hold on a little bit longer than normal.
For me it happens in music, not just in the high note but just in a feeling I get in my body, it’s a tingling and a feeling that I’m getting. Encouraged and pushed on by something else. I feel like I’m doing better than I can actually really do.
What do you try to bring to your relationships?
Calm, comfort, I like to give the sense that there’s always a solution to any problem. The ceiling is dripping some strange green substance, okay let’s get a bucket, let’s get a hammer, bust out the wall and then I will hire you a contractor and we will fix this! There’s always a solution. Yes it’s easiest and maybe most comfortable to panic sometimes but let’s just go straight to the solution.
I used to sing with this singer who whenever she made a wrong note she would just freak out, shake her head and really let everybody know, she sang the wrong note. I said quite frankly nobody even knew that you sang a wrong note, just calm yourself, relax yourself, relax your face because, they won’t even remember that note once you sing them three more. So just keep on going and the solution will be found, it will resolve itself.
What keeps you grounded?
My family, the fact that they were there in the beginning of you, automatically that’s grounding. You know they make me take out the trash and that keeps me level headed for sure, and the fact that I’m a part of the whole thing you know that makes us a group, makes us a family.
What was the last good deed or act of kindness you received?
We were on tour and we were in a theatre in France and I was in sound check and the woman noticed a stain on my shirt. She said, “Let me have your shirt!”. So then I had on just a T-shirt and she said, “Where are the rest of your clothes?” I told her they were back at the hotel, so she asked me to go and get them. She proceeded to wash all of my clothes – bear in mind, this was week six of a 10-week tour so it came just at the right time. I’m not her son, it’s not her job, but I thought that was the sweetest thing. What a sweet lady.
‘Nat King Cole & Me’ is out on Friday 27 October.