Porter-Nickerson bring their popular collaborative song makings to The Blue Loon

By: Julie Stricker, Newsminer.com

FAIRBANKS — In the six years since Willy Porter and Carmen Nickerson started their musical collaboration, the two have created a lush aural landscape that touches on love, loss, relationships and the joys and hardships of everyday life.

Guitarist and singer/songwriter Porter has been on the indie music scene for 25 years, mostly as a solo performer where he shared the stage with such artists as Jethro Tull, Tori Amos and the Cranberries. Even among those artists, he made an impression.

“The first time I saw Willy Porter live, the son-of-a-gun completely hypnotized me,” says rock legend Al Kooper. “He’s an amazing guitar player, singer and songwriter.”

Porter met Nickerson, a strong, soulful singer who also has Midwestern roots, in 2010 and the two shared immediate chemistry on stage. They’ve been writing and touring as a duo ever since, collaborating on the 2013 EP “Cheeseburgers and Gasoline” and on Porter’s 2015 album “Human Kindness.” Earlier this year, they were the featured musical guests on NPR’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” Porter and Nickerson will be performing Friday at The Blue Loon, 2999 Parks Highway.

Porter is a modern troubadour, punctuating his songs with stories and improvised ditties, and wowing audiences with his finger-pick guitar, but he said working with Nickerson has pushed him to raise his game.

“We’re really good friends,” he said. “We stand strongly in each others’ corners as far as musically and as far as life’s journeys. I think we both enjoy the musical side of what we do together. That’s just been a real gift.”

Porter has released 10 records to date, with his newest collaboration with Nickerson, “Bonfire to Ash,” produced by Grammy Award-winner Ben Risch and due out later this year.

“For me, I love to sing and I’ve worked on the guitar for years and years to try to be proficient at that. On the records of the past, I did a lot of the singing myself,” he said. “When I met Carmen, I realized how much horsepower she really has. It allows for greater harmonies and arrangement. I think she’s really pushing me to really raise my game.”

The two try to write songs together in as organic a process as possible, he said. One of them would come up with a great thread or melody for a song and they would work on it on and off until it came together, tracing a dialogue between two people as they traveled on the arc of their relationship.

Performing with another person has meant Porter, who is known for his improvisation, has to stay closer to the script, he said. 

“You’ve got to stick to the art as it’s written a little bit more,” he said. “That’s been great for me.”

Porter hit the road full-time in 1990 after the release of his first album, and gained notice with the 1994 release of “Dog Eared Dream,” including the song “Angry Words,” which moved into the Top 10 on the adult alternative chart. As the music industry moved online and fragmented over the past 15 years, Porter has maintained a strong base, but said he still has trouble embracing social media.

“I’m not the greatest at self-promotion and never have been,” he said. “I’ve never been one to put the sandwich board on and stand out on the corner and say ‘here’s our latest song.”

Although greater interaction with fans is a positive side of social media, there may also be the expectation that the artist is promising fans something on the front end of a project that may not be evident in the finished product.

“Artists are indeterminate at best,” he said. “The outcome you plan for isn’t necessarily where you end up.” 

Porter wonders if artists such as James Taylor were starting out today, if they’d be able to make it without the backing of a record company. Today’s pop success is fleeting and there’s little outside pop music that is easily monetized, especially with audiences thinking music is free. 

“There’s a lot of good stuff out there,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of music that doesn’t fit the cookie cutter. Obviously, art and music are alive and well, but you’ve got to look for it.”

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