Gregory Porter on the making of his first ever festive album

Gregory Porter on the making of his first ever festive album

In the latest issue of Music Week, modern jazz legend Gregory Porter took on Aftershow, reflecting on his career up to now, why jazz will always find new audiences, having a drink with Jeff Goldblum and, of course, his first ever Christmas album. 

“A Christmas record should’ve been, like, the second thing I ever did,” Porter told Music Week. “My voice and style lend themselves to it.” 

Here, the Grammy-winning star goes deeper on the making of his festive record, what the season means to him, the record’s underlying themes of nostalgia and reflection and his dream gift this Christmas…  

What is it about Christmas time that compelled you to record an album of songs themed around the holidays?

“The nostalgic aspect of it. Memories. Quite frankly, having gone through Covid, like many people, I’ve lost family members. I’m considering the people that I’ve lost in my life and I’m remembering them. So, I think of my brother and my sister, and I’ve always kept my mother in my heart. Christmas is this wonderful nostalgic thing that can take you back to a simpler place and time. It’s a more innocent time, too. I like the device of that.” 

Have you always been a big Christmas guy?

“One of the three original songs that I’ve written for the record, A Heart For Christmas, talks about that period of time when you get older and think, ‘This is ridiculous. Did I really just spend $10,000 on Christmas?’ You can get cynical about the commercialism, the propaganda and the brow-beating that all of it can be. But the idea of simply boiling it down to its beautiful memories is precious. The sentiment of the song is, ‘If Christmas is for children and children grow up to be men and women, then give me that heart again, give me that innocence, give me that purity’. I like that.”

From a business perspective, a Christmas album can be a useful thing to have in the catalogue. You do the work once, but the songs resurface every year… 

“They say that. But that doesn’t really register with an artist. It’s fascinating. I’ve been listening to Nat King Cole’s Christmas records for 45 years and I don’t get tired of them. It’s a tradition. I hope to become part of some families' Christmas tradition. If that also means repetitive sales, then bring it on!”

You’ve covered classics by Nat King Cole, Stevie Wonder, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and Marvin Gaye, but there’s no shortage of holiday standards to choose from. What was it about the ones that made the cut that appealed?

“I connect with the underdog stories, the unconsidered ones. In [Little] Drummer Boy, he’s unsure if his gift is worthy of a King. In some ways, I identify with that. I’ve performed for a bunch of royalty around the world. Chief of that was for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, before she passed. I enjoy the idea of humbling yourself, of being of service during a time where it can be about ‘Gimme, gimme, gimme’. I selected songs that had a message of humility.”

I hope to become part of some families' Christmas tradition, if that also means repetitive sales, then bring it on!

Gregory Porter

Did you feel any trepidation about approaching some of these songs, given how ingrained in the cultural fabric many of them are?

“There is that, but you go to your own place with it. Musically, you can put your own spin on things. Sometimes you’re in the mood for Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole or Perry Como. Well, why not throw Gregory Porter into that [company]? How dare I say such a thing, right? But why not?”

How was your experience of working with fellow double Grammy-winner Samara Joy on What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? 

“She’s extraordinary. Really soulful. Just the tone of her voice harkens back to another time. Her voice itself is nostalgic. Even though a lot of this music is maybe 50 or 60 years old, it can be renewed by fresh energy. And Samara brings that with her youthful genius. I am very appreciative to have worked with her. Introducing the romantic story into the Christmas vibe was important too. She’s a great artist. [She is] helping me fulfil that love theme.” 

Lead single Everything’s Not Lost addresses how difficult this time of year can be for many, something often glossed over on Christmas-themed records. Was this an important theme to touch on?

“I wanted to find a place for a couple of soulful, thoughtful, if not social messages. We are in a war time. We are in a place of economic insecurity. We are in a place where there’s large differences between the haves and the have nots. So, a song like Everything’s Not Lost, though it may have some ’60s, ’70s style to it, it’s a very modern message.

“This was something that I had to say. I have to have balance in my work. Even when I speak of love, I also speak about the difficulties. There’s always optimism in speaking of love, but it’s a fight for that optimism. That’s consistent in my writing. So, I have to stay that way even when it comes to Christmas music. Yes, there’s this sweetness, there are presents, there’s the smell of cinnamon in the air, the bells are ringing and everything is laced with a silver lining, but… I like to deal with that ‘but’ as well.” 

Although the title-track sounds joyful, there’s an almost bittersweet undercurrent to the nostalgia that’s beautifully rendered… 

“When I say that if I had one wish this Christmas it would be to kiss my Mama again, I’m not alone in that. The gift that my mother gave to me was the understanding of thinking outside of yourself during the holidays, making food and giving it away, going to the closet and finding your best. That was always a challenge to us as kids and sometimes we hated that. Giving up my good clothes? Ugh. But I loved the idea that I could in some sweet way remember her and also tell a story of what Christmas is really about, while also making something that people will hopefully enjoy listening to.”

What does it take to write a classic Christmas song?

“Audacity! You have to have a whole lot of audacity. You need that, ‘Who do you think you are?’ vibe about you. In many ways, some of the best music and most emotive music has been Christmas music. You just have to be willing to throw your hat in the ring. If you write from a personal place, you’re not alone in this world. Speak your truth and you’ll find that many people feel the same way.”

You’re in Santa’s grotto, you’re sitting on his knee, and he’s asking you about the one thing you want for Christmas that you just don’t have. What is it?

“Oh, we’re talking super greedy, material things here? I would love a 1968 vintage Mercedes. I don’t need it to be a convertible. A 280 SE would be alright. That would suggest that I might have a little time off, I might be cruising through the hills with my son in the passenger seat, and maybe we’ve both ruined the upholstery with our burgers and sodas! These are my dreams. And I will have that one day. I’m working on it.”

Christmas Wish is out November 3 via Blue Note/Decca


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