A Q&A with Willy Porter
By Geoff Gehman
A tilt-a-whirl operator who yearns to seduce a seven-foot bearded woman. A gleefully greedy banker who has no guilt whatsoever about spanking debutantes and wanking congressmen. A believing non-believer who grills God about non-believing believers.
These colorful characters appear in songs by Willy Porter, who considers himself a musical carny. The 49-year-old Milwaukee native writes transcendental ditties, bruising valentines and watercolor confessions. He paints his tunes with a soulful, flexible voice that’s off and on the cuff and a kaleidoscopic gypsy guitar that ranges from barbed wire to bird-on-the-wire. He animates his shows with wickedly funny stories and numbers improvised around wacky topics suggested by spectators.
On April 19 Porter will play the Mauch Chunk Opera House, where he once ad libbed a jive about moon pies and midget wrestlers. He’ll perform with singer Carmen Nickerson, who shares vocals and writing credits on his latest CD, “Cheeseburgers & Gasoline” (Weasel Records). The disc features his bluesy version of Peter Gabriel’s “Digging in the Dirt” and his first recording of the live favorite “Tilt-a-Whirl,” the first-person yarn of a carnival poet.
Porter was entertaining and enlightening during a recent phone interview from a New Hampshire lodge. The father of two enjoyed rapping about some of his progressive partners: four classical musicians who dig Radiohead; his late car-racing father, and the supreme bowling team of God and Buddha.
Q: Did you take any new directions on “Cheeseburgers & Gasoline” besides covering “Digging in the Dirt” and finally committing “Tilt-a-Whirl” to record?
A: The biggest twist was singing and writing songs with Carmen [Nickerson]. When you perform with a woman, you have license to go to places you don’t necessarily go as a man. You can stretch to reach different things; you can validate different emotional landscapes.
I’m such a huge fan of Motown, how [label founder-impresario] Berry Gordy would put male and female singers together to make a musical message work that wouldn’t necessarily work with a girl or a guy alone. As soon as they’re dueting, wow, we have this whole confluence of rich relationships. That’s such a deep well to go down into.
Q: You first heard “Digging in the Dirt” on your car radio, and it excited you to the point that you were driving 106 mph. What gave you such a lead foot?
A: Well, my father raced cars, so I’ve always felt a great connection to automobiles. My foot got heavier and heavier just in reaction to how much I was enjoying the song. I was doing what that guy does in that Who song [John Entwhistle’s “My Wife”]: “Gonna buy a fast car, put on my lead boots, and take a long, long drive.” Although I don’t think a state trooper would see it the same way [laughs].
Q: “Tilt-a-Whirl” has a whiff of rough stardust standard, or singed valentine. Have you considered marketing it to other singers, even country or cabaret folks?
A: I’ve never been a writer who’s tried to plug songs, much to my manager’s disappointment. I’ve never been an aggressive self-promoter; it takes a certain tireless belief to do that effectively, in good conscience. Now, would I mind if somebody recorded [“Tilt-a-Whirl”]? Absolutely not; I would be very flattered. At the same time I don’t want to make that happen by shaking hands or kissing babies. I enjoy the security of obscurity [laughs].
Q: You’ve introduced “Tilt-a-Whirl” in concert by claiming you’re basically a carny, ready for anything thrown at you on the road or in life. Why do you think you’re a carnival gypsy?
A: It’s partly that I really believe a good show, musically, is a suspension of disbelief. I also believe a great song is really a fragile gossamer spell. That’s a carny’s milieu, and when you let everybody into it, they’re in the tent with you. You’re not trying to pull something over on somebody; it’s not three-card monte, or “I’m going to cut this woman in half.” Plus, I really think a lot of people look at musicians as hucksters. I have to say it’s a much-deserved reputation [laughs].
Q: You’re a bit of a high-wire artist in shows; you’ve been known to make up tunes on the spot with three suggestions from listeners. Can you remember a particularly inspired, surreal improvisation?
A: Moon pies, midget wrestlers and lesbian lap dancers. I’m pretty sure they were offered up by an audience in Jim Thorpe. Oh yes, really fun times [laughs].
I got some of my comic chops from working with the Dead Alewives, a Milwaukee-based improv troupe. They’re just forward-thinking, tremendous people. I would do musical accompaniments to sketches and invariably they invited me up to work with them. It was comedy jazz.
Q: Why did you sign up to work with the members of the Carpe Diem String Quartet and what did you get out of the gig?
A: They approached my manager, who told me they were as good as you can find, really unimpeachable. “They like your music,” he said. “You might get beat up a little bit. But it will do your chops some good.”
So they worked up arrangements of my songs and we really hit it off. In the process I gained a great deal of respect for their breadth of music and talent. We tend to think of classical musicians as stoic and stuck, unable to improvise. But these guys are really flexible, and they love everything from Rachmaninov to Radiohead. They’re on my new band record coming out this summer. I’m happy to count them as my friends.
Q: In “Me and My Old Man” you honor your dad’s adventurous spirit, his love of racing cars and his dignity while facing death [“I could tell he wouldn’t give up/And I know he wouldn’t give in”]. Why did you have to write it after he passed?
A: I just had to get it out there. If you don’t honor your own truth, you won’t ever move forward. Although it took my co-producer, who was also my keyboard player, to convince me to get it out there. At first I thought it was something just for me, my own process.
The song speaks to what a great man he truly was. He was an attorney by profession, and he helped so many people. He was big into bartering: You help me with my garage lighting, and I’ll help you with your mortgage refile. I really appreciated his humanity, his willingness to take so many chances–many more than I have.
You know, my mother said to me: “You were absolutely right about your father: He did live his life on the edge.” He didn’t want to go out with a bunch of money in the bank. I have to applaud him for going out even.
Q: I love talking about the afterlife of songs, the way they take on lives you could never have imagined once you release them into the world. Have any of your tunes had a particularly profound effect? Has “How to Rob a Bank,” for example, inspired greedy bankers to see the errors of their ways?
A: “Watercolor” is the one song that has really gone the furthest. So many couples have told me: “We fell in love to that, we played that at our wedding, it has really carried us forward.” That was another song I was reluctant to record; I was ready to throw it away because I thought it was a bit too namby-pamby. I’m grateful to my producer, who told me: “This is the best song on this record.” I got over my feeling that the guitar part wasn’t exciting enough. Guitar players, you know, get bored easily [laughs].
Q: You certainly did your time opening for famous folks. Do you have a favorite story about sharing a bill with the likes of Jeff Beck and Paul Simon?
A: I had a really wonderful time touring the UK with Jethro Tull. I remember we had this fun night on the crew bus when we were passing the guitar in a circle, playing Beatles songs. We ended the night with me performing [George Harrison’s] “Here Comes the Sun.”
The next day we were shocked when we read in the paper that George Harrison had died. So we decided to pay tribute to him by working up a version of [Harrison’s] “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which we worked into my set in Ireland that night. Everyone in Tull played with me, including [guitarist] Martin [Barre] and [flutist-vocalist] Ian [Anderson]. It was pretty magical.
That was so great about that band; they made me, the opening act, feel like a member of the band. They’re good human beings and blinding musicians. A lot of musicians at the high level get comfortable and lazy. Those guys are anything but. Their desire to just grab a tune by the horns, with me, just blew me away
Q: You’ve said that your dream gig would be to open for the Jerry Garcia Band, which you can’t do because Jerry is no longer with us. Why is it your favorite fantasy?
A: Well, I love [late keyboardist] Merl Saunders. And I love the way that Jerry approached the guitar and the music. His mission was to really bring joy to the room, to help people forget their troubles for a minute, to put them in a good space. That was really special; that was really something to behold.
Q: So where the hell did you come up with that talking-to-God rap at the end of “Jesus on the Grill”? I really dig the bits about God saying that Buddha was a great bowler and the guy admitting he stumbled through every kind of –ism, including I’m-Not-Sureism..
A: I developed that after friends of mine asked me questions about the song: “Are you a believer? Are you not a believer?” I’d tell them I believe that folks who believe in something [other than Jesus or God] aren’t really wrong either. Which made them ask me: “Well, how can you be a believer if you believe in that?”
What they said spurred the idea to talk to God onstage about the whole believer/non-believer debate. No one really knows, and I get really tired of absolutes. I mean, I have a hard time separating Buddha from Jesus from Allah from the goddess.
Willy Porter: The Scoop
First song he couldn’t forget: The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” which he first heard on a TV show starring cartoon versions of Michael Jackson and his brothers. “Our parents would be asleep and we’d take brooms and things out of the closet and just rock out,” says Porter. “Michael’s voice was so incendiary. It was a magical time.”
One of his guitar heroes is the late Michael Hedges, who popularized alternate tunings, slapped harmonics and a style called Acoustic Thrash and Deep Tissue Gladiator.
His break-out song was “Angry Words” (1995), where a relieved ex-lover confesses: “I don’t need someone to smother/With the love you discarded.”
In “Loose Gravel” he honors Cecil Cooper, a retired first baseman for his hometown Milwaukee Brewers. “I admired his batting style and the fact that he was always willing to sign autographs,” says Porter. “He recognized that fans gave him a career.”
His song “Available Light” scored an episode of the TV reality series “Dog the Bounty Hunter.”
Ian Anderson, Jethro Tull’s flute-playing frontman, gave him this bumper-sticker compliment: “Thank goodness he doesn’t play the flute.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He plans to induct the following lines from Willy Porter’s “Tilt-a-Whirl” into his personal hall of fame for memorable lyrics: “Booze on my breath I strap you in like a frog on the dissection table/Carnies are not dangerous, darlin’, they’re just biologists on sabbatical.” He can be reached at email@example.com.