By: Chris Hislop, Seacoast Online
Incendiary acoustic six-string slinger (and accomplished singer/songwriter) Willy Porter is no stranger to the Granite State. As you’ll learn as we traverse the following Q&A, he’s spent a lot of time here. Though, the Wisconsin native (and resident) is still somewhat of an “unknown” musical commodity. Which isn’t to say he hasn’t found success in places like the Stone Church (as well as around the country) over the years, and, as you’ll soon find out (if you’re so fortunate) at the Music Hall Loft on Thursday, April 20th, when he and musical cohort, Carmen Nickerson make an appearance there in support of their new record, “Bonfire to Ash,” (which is technically under the moniker Porter Nickerson). Whew, that was a mouthful. Read on for a few more…
EDGE caught up with Porter and Nickerson to chat about the record, musical collaboration and their connection through the late, great bassist Steve Kleiber, songwriting victories and woes, and, well, cheeseburgers.
EDGE: Let’s talk about “Bonfire to Ash,” your collaborative work with Carmen Nickerson. How’d you guys meet? What was the impetus behind putting this record together?
Nickerson: We met seven years ago. We had the same bass player in each of our bands, Steve Kleiber, who made it clear to both of us on several occasions that we’d sing well together. I had met Willy a few times at different events we were both at and I knew he might need a female singer to cover some of the vocal parts over his then-released record, “Available Light,” which featured a choir of voices from Los Angeles – voices he wasn’t going to be touring with all over Milwaukee. So I auditioned and then, after getting the job as a backing vocalist, we started to write together which included a couple of co-writes on “Cheeseburgers and Gasoline.” After coming up with enough material, we just thought it made sense to start a project together.
Porter: There it is. Got it all (laughs).
EDGE: The title is somewhat aggressive. What’s behind it?
Porter: Yeah, aggressive. Well, it’s a line from one of the songs, “Wasting Time,” and the album has an arc to it of people meeting significant others and how that relationship develops and, in some cases, falls apart. In some cases, things work out. Though it’s interesting because we found we could write songs with a little more dialogue to them. A conversation between two people – and that sort of empowered the writing process for this record specifically.
EDGE: You’ve been on the road making music for what, three decades now? Is this sort of collaboration what the doctor ordered in regard to keeping things fresh?
Porter: In some ways, it really is. I’ve toured solo for a long time. I still really enjoy that, but to have one plus one equals three in terms of the musical output – the amount of energy we can convey is definitely more than the sum of its parts. That’s really what has made this a great collaboration. It’s fun. I’ve tried not to repeat myself too much over the years – from lyrical content to the actual musical style – so this has been a very logical, welcome change for me.
EDGE: Why music? Why do you seek it? Why do you create it?
Porter: It won’t leave me alone (laughs). That’s my answer. I’m just haunted by it still.
Nickerson: I truly didn’t have a lot of support for it from my family, even though I had a somewhat musical family. My father was a singer, my parents hosted fiddle-driven barn dances, but music was supposed to be more of a hobby or something you did in church. When I started singing as a little kid I couldn’t stop. I felt so strongly and was so passionate about it. … Yeah, it wouldn’t leave me alone. It’s hard to describe. It’s just that feeling that you get from doing it that you know you have to do it.
EDGE: Is the act of songwriting an easy or arduous process for you? Are you a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type of writer, or do you have to schedule office hours?
Porter: It’s a little bit of all of that. I think there’s certainly room in my life for a more organized approach, but, you know, when it hits it hits, and I’m just grateful that it still does. Every time you write a new song it adds this sense of relief that you can revisit it and have some success. Because there are moments when it feels like pulling blood from a stone. And other times it just feels like it’s all on tap and you can grab it. I think just having the consciousness to be aware when it does show up – that’s the key to the whole thing. Doesn’t matter if you’re in a café or riding shotgun. When you find it is when you should find it.
Nickerson: Sometimes things will come easy for me, but honestly it feels more on the arduous side where it doesn’t. I love it when it does come easy, but much of the time I sit down and I find it’s rather hard. I think that’s mostly because I try not to be judgmental within my lyrics. It’s so easy to be judgmental when you’re writing your thoughts down, so it’s a challenge for me to pull myself out of that. Which is why this collaboration is so beneficial to me – Willy definitely aids me in stepping away from that. He cheers me on, and is receptive to my ideas. That makes it pretty fun.
EDGE: Was there a moment or experience that led you to chase life as a professional songwriter/live performer?
Nickerson: Singing at the talent show in high school (laughs). I loved it. Sure, I was nervous, but I loved it. I was a pretty shy person and had a hard time talking, but singing – that always felt natural. I had a teacher stop to tell me how perfect my pitch was, and, as a really shy person, that gave me a lot of confidence that really stuck with me.
Porter: For me, it was really hearing the Jackson 5 when I was about 5 years old. My brother had a 45 and we used to play it constantly on his close-and-play. I remember thinking this is as good as anything I’ve discovered in the world – I’ve got to be a part of this. That just put me on a path. I didn’t know if I’d be in music as a performer, but I knew it really was a pot of gold unto itself and I needed to be around it somehow.
EDGE: You’ve had no trouble packing the rooms I’ve seen you in up here in the Northeast. I’d say you have a bit of a ravenous fanbase, but yet you’ve always been sort of “under-the-radar.” You know what I mean? Do you appreciate that role or do you long for bigger rooms?
Porter: You know, I’m really happy, Chris. I feel like to survive and sustain as long as I have doing this is the greatest gift. So I don’t really … I don’t need my face on the Wheaties box. I kind of gave up on that when I signed up for it. My motivation to be in music was in the music more than it was about the response an audience may give. That’s not to say that I don’t love it when a song goes well and the crowd gives you a loving response. I love that. But, you know, I think there’s something to be said for making a living and not a killing. So, yeah, I’m good with it.
EDGE: This is a bit of a strange question, but, of all the records you’ve released, which title strikes your fancy best? If I may, I love the title “Cheeseburgers and Gasoline.” I feel like it sums up the life of a traveling musician quite well.
Porter: That’s certainly one of my favorites. And I love “Dog-Eared Dream,” too. But yeah, “Cheeseburgers…” it’s sort of the last bastion of hope in the rough and ready West, isn’t it? You know? It’s from the song “Tilt-a-Whirl,” which stems from the line “I set it up and tear it down for cheeseburgers and gasolin …” It’s every musician’s life – it is. But as you age, Chris, I would submit that the dairy and the quality of the burger… not such a great culinary destination (laughs).
Porter: That lower 48 just doesn’t hold up to that burger as well …
EDGE: Speaking of the road, you’re heading back to New Hampshire to play a show at the Music Hall Loft. What excites you about this particular performance? What keeps you coming back to the Granite State?
Porter: For me, New Hampshire is probably one of the most pivotal musical places in my life because of Tom Pirozzoli – the great painter and songwriter, and collaborator that I’ve worked with for many years. Tom really changed my musical life. I don’t say that in anyway lightly… We’ve written some of our favorite songs together and he just took me around to the houses in New Hampshire and I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in that state and I love coming back there. Harvey Reid is a good friend of mine – I love the Seacoast Guitar Society. There’s so much good music that’s happening … Ed Gerhard – there’s a hero of mine. All these amazing musicians that I’ve known for years populate there… I love it. It’s like a second home to me.
Nickerson: I’ve always loved the shows we’ve done there – it’s such a beautiful state. I always make Willy take the coastal route so we can look at the water – and we find beautiful quaint towns where we can grab a tea and take in the local ambiance. … Last time we drove through we actually stopped in Portsmouth – around Christmas time – so we got to see the lit trees and festivity.
Porter: Yeah, we’ve been late to every gig in New Hampshire, Chris. (Both laugh). Just kidding!
EDGE: What can folks expect this time around?
Porter: Well, we’ll certainly hit the new record. We’ve got some new material as well. There will be some improvisation, we’ll visit some older tunes in the catalogue, and maybe even roll out a couple cover tunes as well. It will be a fun, balanced show.
Nickerson: A good mix of emotional songs, and some light-hearted numbers as well.
Porter: There will be a lot of guitar playing.
EDGE: No, you don’t say…
Porter: Maybe I should cut back on that.
Nickerson: I bet people will be way into the steady beats on my egg-shaker.
Link to original article HERE