ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT: The wondrous Willy Porter: 'Your inner voice, you really can't hold that back'
Willy Porter may have earned a psychology degree at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, but those years also taught him much about playing guitar, writing music and touring, all major steps on his road to becoming the nationally recognized gu...
Willy Porter may have earned a psychology degree at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, but those years also taught him much about playing guitar, writing music and touring, all major steps on his road to becoming the nationally recognized guitarist he is today.
Much of the formative work the Wisconsin native did to start his career happened in Madison,?Wis., just after he graduated from college in 1989.
"The music scene (in Madison) was so powerful at that time," said Porter, who will play a concert Friday night in Empire Arts Center in Grand Forks. "There were so many people who were writing and playing acoustic music. There was such a great music scene there."
Madison was affordable and full of creative people and musicians, with places like the Club DeWash, where Porter could play regularly.
Over the years, Porter traveled and performed heavily in North America, the United Kingdom and Europe, building the kinds of skills, fan base and reputation that led to tours with rock stars such as Paul Simon, Sting, Jeff Beck and Jethro Tull, as well as Rickie Lee Jones, Tori Amos and the Cranberries.
Porter sold his first album, "The Trees Have Soul" (1990), out of the back of his car. Since then, he's released five studio albums and one live recording. His latest studio album, "Available Light," came out in 2006. And he's working on a new release right now, he said. It's set to come out in early 2009, and he plans to play some songs from it when he's in Grand Forks on Friday night.
His marketing methods for his first album may not have been sophisticated, but he sold enough so he could afford to make a second, Porter said.
"That's kind of the business cycle I've been on since," he said. "The records are just supposed to free up the next thought. It's never been, 'Gee, I have to be on the charts, and I have to have this stratospheric success.' Music defines itself for me and it's self propelling."
Porter began playing the viola as a third-grader, moving to guitar in the seventh grade. It was a musical home, growing up with a father who played piano and a mother who sang.
While in college, Porter immersed himself in concert promotion and programming, getting involved with coffeehouses, interacting with musicians and managers and getting a broad education about being a touring musician and how they organized their lives.
Then, after graduation, he moved to Madison. He found a great flat where the rent was really cheap, Porter said. The woman who lived in the flat below was gone all day, so Porter would get up in the morning and play guitar for five hours at a time.
"I was driven to do it," he said. "No one held a gun to my head. But it was really a transformative time in my life as a musician, to focus and learn and study, but mostly just to write and learn the guitar in my own way." He played two gigs a week to pay the rent.
"Available Light" was written, recorded and produced when Porter's father was dying of cancer. He may not have fully realized it at the time, but that loss did affect the album, Porter said.
"Your inner voice, you can't really hold that back. You'll try to (hold back), or say to yourself, 'This isn't affected by that,' when everybody else looks at it and says, 'Look, this is really affected by that.'?"
Today, Porter is married, lives in Milwaukee and has two young children. He's gone from 200 dates on the road a year to about 80.
"That way, when I come back, my family's happy to see me, but I'm not gone so long they don't know who I am," he said.
And his acclaim grows. Frets magazine has called him a "genre-defying maverick." The Washington Post said he was a "dazzling acoustic guitarist with a moody baritone." And this, from Acoustic Guitar magazine: "Willy Porter is a relaxed and fearless performer who'll entertain as well as move you."
Porter's Friday concert at the Empire will begin at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15, available at the Chester Fritz Box Office or by calling (701) 777-4090.
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