Q&A with multitalented award-winning artist Jennifer Porter, a musician's musician blessed with a beautiful voice

"I would hope that my music would make a lonely person feel less alone. That it would help them feel seen. Music is such a shared experience, both between the musicians playing together, and between the musicians and the audience. Even when someone is listening to my music alone in a room, I would want them to feel that they are a part of that sharing."

Jennifer Porter: Sun Come And Shine

Jennifer Porter is an award-winning singer, actor and screenwriter. A musician's musician blessed with a beautiful voice, Jennifer has performed a repertoire that spans from Jazz and Blues to Country and Opera. She has sung with Classical and Jazz Orchestras, including the world-famous Glenn Miller Orchestra. Though trained as an opera singer and classical pianist, she considers herself a Roots Musician at heart, as she began playing piano at age five after sneaking out of bed to watch a boogie-woogie piano-player named Maxine perform at one of her grand-parents notorious cocktail parties. Jennifer is still most at home sitting at the piano and singing while banging out an old Blues tune in a red-hot 88 style. Jennifer has recorded eight albums to date, and will be releasing her newest, Sun Come And Shine (2021), recorded with legendary drummer and music director Bernard Purdie. This sensational new project features Bernard’s stellar all-star band, and special guests, Grammy winners Christian McBride and Cindy Cashdollar and Grammy nominees Rob Paparozzi and C.J. Chenier.

Also contributing to the project are bassist Wilbur Bascombe, and Steve Jankowski and Tom Timko on horns. Jennifer holds a second-degree black belt in Tai Jujitsu, and has advanced training in Kali and Jeet Kun Do. In 1989 Jennifer was the first vocalist in Maine inducted into the prestigious musical honor society, Pi Kappa Lambda, which recognizes excellence in both musical performance and academics. In her spare time she enjoys gardening, and learning new languages.

 

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the American Roots music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Roots music is connected to the natural rhythms that pulse and throb around us every day. It is simple and profound. It is what the intimate smile of a loved one that communicates decades of joy and pain in milliseconds sounds like. This is the complex perfection of its straightforwardness. It contains our heartbeats. It makes us want to move, to dance, to wail, and to connect skin to skin. It respects its elders. It is unapologetically familiar and slyly magical. It is like nourishing comfort food. I feel that it allows me to be myself, both as a musician and as a person. I’ve performed multiple styles of music in my life and have enjoyed them all in their own ways, but when I’m performing Roots music, I don’t feel like I’m playing the role of a musician. I’m simply being a musician. Roots music has taught me to search for and find the most uncomplicated way to express things that are infinitely complicated, whether it be writing lyrics and melodies or making improvisational choices when singing and playing.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

As I mentioned, I’ve performed many styles of music, and they have each influenced my sound in their own ways, leading to a singing and playing style that is an amalgamation of Jazz, Blues, a bit of Country and even some Classical music. My songwriting is a mix of these genres as well. I try not to analyze too much when writing and performing and instead try to lead with my gut instead of my head. That said, if I hit a road-block, my head definitely comes in handy. My musical philosophy has always been to follow my muse wherever she might lead.  As frightening as that can be, it’s important to dare to follow. Don’t box yourself in with self-imposed labels. I’m never sure where my creative drive comes from.  It’s been with me for as long as I can remember.  It is my deepest joy and greatest agony depending on the day! When writing songs I often don’t feel like it’s me who’s writing them. Of course I know it’s me, but I feel connected to some universal creative wellspring.                                                 (Photo: Jennifer Porter)

Here is a poem I wrote about my feelings surrounding that elusive thing called creativity. It is called Muse:

She asks of me my life

I was born belonging to her

I cannot leave but she haunts me

Restless in her mortal cage

Rattling my sleep

Like an army of angry ants

Then come her days of silence

When she retreats and cannot be found

And panic steals my heart

Even though I’d wished her gone

Wished she’d found another

Left me free

To be a bit reckless

Then the chaos inside me stills

And I know that she’s returned

Remorseful as cat

(as though she’d have come if she hadn’t been called)

To lead me round in spirals

While I long for a straighter road

And when it’s time to part from her

When I’ve given her all I can

When she releases me

From this chaffing flesh

To burn a little dimmer

To shine a little bit less

I’ll know she asked of me my life

But what a life she gave me.

I hope this answers your question!

"I’ve learned that, just as in the rest of life, not everyone is going to like you or what you do, and that is okay. Trying to please everyone is a losing endeavor.  Try pleasing yourself instead. Every successful artist has had bad reviews. To get one means you were doing something. You were trying.  You put yourself out there, and it means that you now belong to a giant club. Welcome, and give yourself a pat on the back!  I’ve also learned how important it is to separate one’s self-concept from what one does for a living. There are too many ups and downs in the music business, and if your self-worth is tied to those ups and downs you will be miserable. You are not what you do! This is a lesson I still struggle with."

Which meetings have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Most important to me was meeting the boy who would eventually become the man who became my husband. He has believed in me as an artist since the day we met, and from the first moment, he took my dreams seriously and made it his mission to see them fulfilled. We have created hundreds of artistic works together including plays, movies, and music projects. We have dismantled a three story Victorian house into eight pieces, moved it twenty miles and put it back together as our home together. He has facilitated all eight of my albums, doing all of the unglamorous behind-the-scenes work, even though he’s a talented artist in his own right. I would never be where I am without him.

Recently, I had the honor of recording my latest album, SUN COME AND SHINE with legendary drummer and music director, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie. That was quite an experience! From that same project, I also feel so grateful to have met Producer/ Mixer/ Engineer Jonathan Wyman without whom, SUN COME AND SHINE might not have been made. We recorded the album during the height of the pandemic here in the United States, and his ingenuity made it possible to turn a room in our house into a recording booth so I could continue to work on the album, even when all the recording studios had been closed. He is someone whose opinion I trust completely.

I also feel incredibly lucky to have played with so many great musicians over the years. I’m beholden to every one of them for the talents they have contributed to each of my albums.

The best piece of advice I ever received was from my husband who told me to always be honest and to not say things just to please people. I’m going to use his piece of wisdom now and say that I honestly have yet to find a mentor to offer occasional much-needed advice, though I’d love to have one! I’ve mostly learned from the school of hard knocks, but aren’t life and time the greatest teachers if one pays attention in class?

"Roots music is connected to the natural rhythms that pulse and throb around us every day. It is simple and profound. It is what the intimate smile of a loved one that communicates decades of joy and pain in milliseconds sounds like. This is the complex perfection of its straightforwardness. It contains our heartbeats. It makes us want to move, to dance, to wail, and to connect skin to skin."

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Singing with orchestras is always special. The energy is so palpable, I feel like one could wring it out of the air and hold it in one’s hands. I have fond memories of singing with classical orchestras as well as The Glenn Miller Orchestra. When singing with The Glenn Miller Orchestra, I had to wear earplugs because I was standing right in front of the horns and I thought my eardrums would burst!  Singing with earplugs felt a bit strange, but it all worked out well. Recording SUN COME AND SHINE was amazing. We recorded almost everything live, (which in my opinion is how music should be recorded along with being played on real instruments). The other musicians were so talented and had played with so many other legendary musicians. The stories were flowing, but most aren’t fit for public consumption!

One of my favorite gigs ever was in a special little place called Mandy’s Lounge in Homburg, Germany. It was the last gig on a tour I did of The Netherlands and Germany near the end of 2019, and was one of my last live performances before Covid-19 closed down music venues around the world. The place was just so inviting and laid-back, and the owners were wonderful. The audience was fantastic, and we ended up doing three encores. Finally, Mandy, one of the owners, came up and said we (The band and I) needed to eat. A toast was poured for all of us, and we toasted with the audience, emptied our glasses and were treated to a delicious meal. There was something magical about that convivial night.  All felt right in the world.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss hearing real instruments, particularly real drums. I miss hearing singers that have individualistic sounds - singers who sing in their own unique ways instead of trying to recreate whatever the latest trendy sound is while destroying their voices in the process. I miss waiting for a new album to come out. I miss the anticipation that comes with the waiting. I feel like music has become a throwaway commodity, catering to the section of the listening audience with the shortest attention span and pandering to those who demand a new single every month, if not every few weeks. Not that singles are bad, but it bothers me that artists are made to feel like they can’t take the time necessary to create an album, and in the process possibly create a lasting work, or even a masterpiece.  Again, not that a single can’t be a masterpiece, but imagine talking about a group such as, say, The Beatles, without talking about their albums.

I am also bothered by the fractions of a cent per stream paid to musicians by the various streaming services.  Musicians’ incomes have declined dramatically ever since their introduction. These services wouldn’t exist without the musicians’ work, yet the musicians aren’t making a fair wage. The services serve the listeners but not the artists who make their existence possible. Additionally, I feel that streaming services have created a culture in which listeners feel entitled to not pay for music. On the release dates of my last five albums, they were available on pirated sites within hours. Those sites wouldn’t exist if people didn’t use them. People expect to pay for goods and services. Why not music and movies?                                    (Photo: Jennifer Porter)

"If I could go anywhere in a time machine is a difficult question to answer! So many places! I love history, and there are multiple things I would want to see. I know I should give one answer, but I’m going to have to give you two! First, The Roaring 20s. I love art deco style and the music and clothing from that period. I would also want to meet the suffragists. Second, I would want to go back and fall in love with my husband all over again."

What does to be a female artist in a Man’s World as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

The statistics aren’t great. According to the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, from 2012 to 2019, in the top 900 songs across three creative roles in the music industry, women made up 21 % of Artists, 12.6 % of Songwriters, and only 2.6% of Producers. Of the prominent record labels, only 15% are run or co-run by women.  In my own experience, more often than not, I have been the only woman in a band, or in the recording studio while working on a project. I am often the bandleader of a group of all men. I have worked with some very cool men that I adore who know how to listen, some men with good intentions but with whom I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, some men who were incredibly patronizing, and far too many men who saw me as a potential sexual partner rather than a fellow musician. Things are better for women in Roots music genres than they are in Pop music, however. For one, we’re allowed to grow older. Youth-based sex appeal isn’t as important. Also, musicianship matters more than looks. It can be tough, though. I’ve had to learn to speak up for myself and my projects, which is difficult for me, as I hate conflict of any kind, and like many women, I struggle with the worry that men will think of me as a “bitch” if I disagree with them about how I want a song of mine to sound. The older I get, though, the less I care about what anyone thinks, which feels really nice!

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

I’ve learned that, just as in the rest of life, not everyone is going to like you or what you do, and that is okay. Trying to please everyone is a losing endeavor. Try pleasing yourself instead. Every successful artist has had bad reviews. To get one means you were doing something. You were trying. You put yourself out there, and it means that you now belong to a giant club. Welcome, and give yourself a pat on the back! I’ve also learned how important it is to separate one’s self-concept from what one does for a living. There are too many ups and downs in the music business, and if your self-worth is tied to those ups and downs you will be miserable. You are not what you do! This is a lesson I still struggle with.

"I miss hearing real instruments, particularly real drums. I miss hearing singers that have individualistic sounds - singers who sing in their own unique ways instead of trying to recreate whatever the latest trendy sound is while destroying their voices in the process. I miss waiting for a new album to come out. I miss the anticipation that comes with the waiting." (Photo: Jennifer Porter)

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

I would hope that my music would make a lonely person feel less alone. That it would help them feel seen. Music is such a shared experience, both between the musicians playing together, and between the musicians and the audience. Even when someone is listening to my music alone in a room, I would want them to feel that they are a part of that sharing. As the lyrics to my song, “Show Me Your Love” from my new album go:

In the margins and the edges and the colors in between

In the shadow of your undercover dreams

Won’t you show me your love?

Let it mingle let it linger, Let it sparkle, Let it shimmer

Let it shine around this broken-hearted singer

And show me your love.

What touched you from the Tai Jujitsu? Where would you really want to go with a time machine?

Becoming a Martial Artist was never something I thought I’d do, but I started taking lessons for self-defense, and found that I loved it. I had always thought of myself as awkward and clumsy, but I discovered that I was more graceful and athletic than I had realized. Tai Jujitsu centered me in my body and made me feel joy at the sensation of my muscles instinctively moving and flowing in response to changing energies around me. I felt fluid and pliable and solid and unbreakable all at the same time. I earned my 2nd degree black-belt in Tai Jujitsu, then went on to study Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kun Do concepts and Filipino Kali with my wonderful teacher Aaron Parker.

If I could go anywhere in a time machine is a difficult question to answer! So many places! I love history, and there are multiple things I would want to see. I know I should give one answer, but I’m going to have to give you two! First, The Roaring 20s. I love art deco style and the music and clothing from that period. I would also want to meet the suffragists. Second, I would want to go back and fall in love with my husband all over again.

Jennifer Porter - Home

(Photo: Jennifer Porter)

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