While attending the Eau Claire campus of the University of Wisconsin, Willy Porter was instructed by his creative writing professor to write a poem at home and to read it in front of a mirror to see if he looked like a chump.
If he did, the professor explained, the poem was probably not very good.
For the past 25-plus years, instead of looking in a mirror, the celebrated indie-artist has been singing his lyrics while looking into the reflection of his adoring audience’s eyes.
And, night after night, Porter looks and sounds like a champ.
The son of an amateur jazz pianist father and choir-singing mother, Porter has gone from playing the viola badly in grammar school to becoming a virtuoso acoustic guitarist touring the country and opening for such heavy-hitters as guitar god Jeff Beck, ivory-tickling chanteuse Tori Amos, rock legends Jethro Tull, chart-topping powerhouse Sting and street-beat wordsmith Paul Simon.
Building a reputation for his “non-traditional, blues-inflected, guitar-driven, acoustic-rock,” Porter – who had an unexpected radio hit with “Angry Words” in 1994 – was strongly influenced by the glory days of AM radio during the late ’60s and early ’70s and by his parents’ tastes for folk music.
A major influence on the way Porter approached the guitar was late guitar great Michael Hedges. Porter said Hedges (whom he met only once) flicked a switch in his mind that said it was possible to combine the best elements of guitar-playing and folk music.
Pairing up with kindred spirit Carmen Nickerson, Porter’s latest creative endeavor is unlike any he has previously ventured, while being a logical progression of what he does best – writing meaningful songs about people and their lives.
With a triumphant performance earlier this year on NPR’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” Porter Nickerson will bring their music and magic Saturday night to the Historic Sumner House (aka the Heald and Chiampa Funeral Home), 5 Church Road, Shrewsbury.
“We’re both old enough to have enough experiences in the world in the life of love to have things to sing about,” Porter said via on the phone on, you guessed it, the road. “There are some dialogue-driven songs that are things that we wished we said, things that we might have said. It’s a rich landscape emotionally. That’s the cool thing about this duo.”
While Nickerson’s vocals were feature alongside Porter on 2013’s “Iowa Sky” and last year’s “This Train,” the relationship did not become a full collaborative effort until the release of this year’s “Bonfire to Ash” under the Porter Nickerson moniker.
“The first time that we were singing together I said to Carmen, ‘Wow, I’ve been hoping that I would find someone that would fit with my voice, that I could sing with and support as well,” Porter said. “And it’s effortless. It clicked immediately.”
“I heard of Willy for years. He’s a hometown hero,” Nickerson, via speaker-phone, said. “So I had this idea in my head that I wanted to work with him …; Sometimes, you think about something and then it comes true.”
An accomplished jazz, R&B and rock vocalist, Nickerson fondly recalls seeing Porter perform at the first time, many years ago at the Wisconsin State Fair.
“I was just blown away,” Nickerson recalled. “I was definitely mesmerized because he was up there by himself and he had the whole crowd in the palm of his hands with his music, with his guitar playing, with his humor. He was absolutely an artist in every way.”
A musical conversation between two kindred spirits, “Bonfire to Ash” examines the human condition at its most tender, tortured and tempestuous, while celebrating the unique coupling of and commitment to the creative process.
“Sometimes I bring something I’ve started and I say, ‘This is what I got so far’ and then Willy starts playing his rhythm guitar and takes it to another level and it’s amazing. He takes something I’m not sure about and turns it into something I absolutely love,” Nickerson said. “Willy does songs that are pretty much finished and, on occasion, I’ve added a little. I’ve seen to add a lot of bridges.”
“Carmen is a good bridge writer,” Porter interjected. “Carmen has been a great asset. She’ll come in and say that’s maybe it’s a little too much or that it could be more …; To have someone who got great musical ears and chops to say that, is really cool.”
The connection is so strong between Porter and Nickerson onstage, that the couple’s relationship is often mistaken as being more than professional.
“It happens at every show. Someone comes up and asks, “Are you guys together? Are you married? Are you a couple?'” Carmen said. “I take it as a compliment.”
“We share this love for the music that we have created and we have immense love and respect for each other but we have significant others,” Porter added. “I am grateful that we get to do this music together but we are not a couple.”
For those who’ve never seen Porter Nickerson live, the duo’s namesakes agree that the unsuspecting concert-goer can expect a colorful evening that runs the gambit of musical styles and emotions.
“It’s a ride. We want the audience to go through the whole emotional landscape of human relationships but there is also some humorous stuff, some rock ‘n’ roll stuff. There’s some aggressive guitar stuff,” Porter said. “We don’t really stray in a single realm, musically, of either the blues or just singing folk songs. It’s not a monochromatic show at all.”
“People who know Willy will be happy. People who are new to us will be happy,” Nickerson said. “Our songs are going to range from those that make you cry and those that make you laugh.”
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