Willy Porter & Carmen Nickerson At The Jensen Center in Amherst WI

By: Michael Casper, The Scene

Willy Porter is an extraordinary songsmith in the folk / bluesy vein, whose lyrics weave tales you follow as if on a pleasant walk. Native to Milwaukee, he thinks himself a ‘musical carny’ singing his soulful collection on stages around the world, pausing between tunes long enough to tell stories and improvise ditties. He and Carmen Nickerson have collaborated over the last several years beginning with their “Cheeseburgers & Gasoline,” CD, and followed by “Iowa Sky.” In March they were featured on A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Kiellor. Theirs is a harmonious blend.

“This past December we released ‘Human Kindness,’” Porter said “here and in the U.K. on my Weasel Records imprint. And right now Carmen and I are about finish a new record, an album of ‘co-writes,’ and it will debut in October of ’16.”

Carmen Nickerson grew up in rural Iowa.

“She’s a fantastic singer and songwriter,” Porter said “who had been playing in various projects including a jazz-standards duet with a wonderful Russian pianist in Milwaukee, as well as having her own quartet. She can sing anything.”

At the urging of Porter’s former bass player, Willy and Carmen finally connected musically.

“He said our voices would be perfect together,” Porter said. “I listened to her music, and lo and behold, it did work, and she is great. I have sort of a unique voice in some ways, but our blend has been great, and we’ve become good friends, and good writing partners.”

Willy’s interest in music began early.

“My folks were fairly musical,” Porter said. “My dad played jazz piano as a hobby, but was a pretty good player. There was always a lot of music in the house growing up. And a lot of encouragement to play music. I started out on the viola, and then in 3rd or 4th grade I discovered the guitar, and I never really thought about anything else since. I really wanted to be a classical musician, but I realized rather quickly when my friends, who were really really good were going to camps for classical music, how difficult it is. All I wanted to do was play songs.”

Willy majored in psychology and business administration at UW Eau Claire.

“I went up there because I fell in love with the campus,” Porter said. “I loved the geography of the area, but more than that, they have a great theater department. I didn’t participate in it, but there was a lot going on, and the music school was great, and I thought this is a great place to get a good liberal arts education. I was compelled by the university’s activities commission, and through that got involved with the great Cabin Coffee House, and their open mike nights. That’s when I thought I should really try to work on my own material. It was a great environment to be creative.”

Melodies and riffs come to Porter before the lyrics.

“I tend to trust the guitar, so I’ll go to the guitar first,” he said “I do a lot of writing by just rolling tape. I’ll just record as I go, meanderings, mumblings, then go back later in the day and see if there’s anything there. For me the main objective is to trust whatever is within me, and just let it out. A lot of times it’s just dreck, and I don’t want to deal with it or it’s not very musical. But sometimes I’ll find these threads, and they’re sometimes worth working on. Songs come from everywhere, from seeing how other people are dealing with the stresses and structures of their lives, as well as how you tackle you own things. I tend to be more interested in the observational point of view.”

Porter’s current CD “Human Kindness,” was made over the course of three years.

“The songs from the ‘Cheeseburger’ album were pulled from that project, because they were so different,” Porter said. “Cheeseburgers & Gasoline felt like it was a project unto itself, and for the Human Kindness record I decided to write a few more tunes that were more band-oriented, and the result was the two projects over that span of time.”

The album Porter is currently working on, due in the fall, he says is quite a bit different.

“It’s Carmen’s and my combined ‘voice,’ which is different than mine on my own, certainly,” Porter said. “A lot of the songs are relationship based. We’re both old enough to have a pretty solid perspective on the ebb and flow of relationships. So, there’s some dialogue pieces, there are some tunes about ‘things working out’…or not. Its emotional landscape is rich, because of Carmen’s perspective. I think it’s a broader view than some of my writing, which can be a little more constrained ‘topically.’ In that regard, it will be an interesting album.”

Expect a cross section of music on April 30th.

“Songs from my catalog as well as many of the co-writes from the new record,” Porter said. “Plus we’ll perform brand new songs that aren’t on the record. It’s been a prolific time (laugh). It’s a fun show when Carmen and I get together, with some interesting balance to it, musically.”

The show is at the Lettie Jensen Community Center in Amherst, Wisconsin
Saturday, April 30th – 7:30 pm
$20 in advance
$24 at the door
Tickets online at jensencenter.org

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