“Human Kindness” keeps singer-songwriter going strong

By: Eli Okun, Manchester Union Leader

In the early 1990s, a Milwaukee improv comedy troupe sometimes hired musicians to come play in the middle of their shows; They’d participate in a scene or two, working with cast members to make up songs on the spot.

It’s that experience that taught guitarist, singer and songwriter Willy Porter to step outside himself and live more in the moment as a performer. And he’s carried that quality through the past few decades with exuberant live shows and his signature indie-folk and rock skills.

“It’s sort of like sailing on a sea you’ve never seen before, and the boat seems to know the way,” Potter said in a recent interview. “You can hold your hand on the tiller, but you can’t determine the wind. You can’t determine any of the external factors.

“We can kind of go anywhere, and it’s wide open,” he added. “The only thing that stops that from happening is saying ‘no’ to yourself.”

Just say yes

Porter, 51, has gotten good at saying “yes.” Though he lives in Milwaukee with his wife and two kids, he tours extensively — he has a gig at Tupelo Music Hall in Londonderry on Sunday — and formed a label with his manager in 2005 to get involved with the business side of music as well.

His most recent collaborator is Carmen Nickerson, a singer-songwriter who has been touring and creating records with Porter for the past few years. (She’ll join him on stage in this weekend’s concert.)

Their partnership has blossomed organically, Porter said, who tapped into a shared musical lineage and love for emotionally rich songs while incorporating Nickerson’s background in funk, R&B and jazz.

“The absence of doubt about the music has been really a strength for us,” Porter said.

They last worked together on 2012’s “Cheeseburgers and Gasoline,” and Nickerson also was featured on Porter’s most recent release last year, “Human Kindness,” he sad.

Though the pair is on the road now, their next album — as yet untitled, but inspired by the ebb and flow of a relationship in dialogue — won’t be released until October. Unlike Porter’s last three records, he took a step back on producing this one, he said, and the new approach created much more of a live feel to the album.

Fingerpicking finesse

In his songs, Porter’s distinctive guitar fingerpicking braids are coupled with emotionally intricate lyrics, whether it’s an older hit like 1994’s wistfully mature “Angry Words” or a recent tune like “Constellation,” an otherworldly ode.

“I’m always trying to reach for my own definition of the truth in the moment,” he said, “and I think (with) each song … there’s an opportunity to dig into your own experience in a way that’s universal.”

Frequent co-writer Tom Pirozzoli, who lives in Goshen, first introduced Porter to Meredith and Kent Allen back when they owned the concert hall and it was called the Muse at the Gray Goose.

Those were the days when Porter was driving around in his Volkswagen, and he recalls the Allens as very supportive.

In fact, the human element of being a touring musician has proved to be perhaps its most rewarding for Porter. He glimpsed it first as a college student. Studying psychology and business at the time, he began doing open mic nights at a coffeehouse. Working with and watching the musicians who came through to play gave him an understanding of performance, audience communication and the touring lifestyle.

Nowadays, even when travel demands can exact their wear and tear, the friendships he’s struck up with fellow musicians and music lovers across the country endure, enabling him to “have the humanity of touring be the punctuation,” he said. “Music is what brought me there, but it’s really the people that you remember.”

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