In the mid-’90s, when major labels were flush with cash, and more apt to release music from different genres, a crop of excellent new singer-songwriters emerged. Artists like Freedy Johnston, Phil Cody, Jonny Polonsky, Dan Bern, Ron Sexsmith and Pete Droge all released major label debuts around the same time and it seemed that a modern troubadour movement was on the runway.
Unfortunately, one thing all the above artists had in common, besides stellar debuts, was that they received little to no attention from their labels and were soon dropped as a shifting industry sold out to more commercial genres for bigger profits.
One of those singer-songwriters who quietly forged ahead after parting ways with a big label was Wisconsin’s Willy Porter. With eight releases to his name, including 2009’s brilliant, How to Rob a Bank, whose title track is begging to be the anthem for the Occupy Wall Street movement, Porter remains a critical favorite, headlining small venues to a fiercely loyal fan base that comes for his striking songs, instrumental virtuosity and crowd interaction. The Reporter caught up with him before he headed west for a string of dates that includes a first-time appearance in Ventura. With just one answer, the articulate and down-to-earth Porter summed up his career and even offered a blueprint for fellow artists to follow.
VCReporter: You got the big push from a major label, opening for bigger artists on extensive tours with great reviews. It seemed you were really on the verge of breaking. Then it all seemed to be taken away. Instead of the bitterness some people in your shoes had, you just moved on and found a way to continue your career. How did you manage to do it? How does anyone do it anymore?
Willy Porter: I never really got into this to be famous. I always considered myself a musician before anything else. I did get a major label deal that was all very well and good, and it was a great ride but I never defined myself based on that. Has my audience necessarily gotten bigger? No (laughs), but it’s been pretty stable for many years. I feel an immense sense of gratitude for that because the folks who came out in the beginning when I did have more exposure and got what I was trying to do have stuck with me. I don’t feel like I’ve had this mass exodus. I haven’t really tried to be a pop star. Record companies would have loved if I went that direction and wrote more pop single-oriented type material. The fact of the matter is, I’d rather look myself in the mirror and say, “You’ve been honest with yourself and your audience this far. So just keep going.” That’s kind of my trajectory. To me, to survive as a musician full time is to win the lottery. That’s really what it should be about. It’s not about how much can I amass? How many records did I sell? How many Facebook friends do I have? If you realize it and you look at it, you have to say to yourself, “I’m making art.” That’s what I’m doing. Whether it’s for 700 people at the Ventura Theater or 70 at Zoey’s, I can’t lie; I’d get the same amount of joy from it. I still love to play music.
Willy Porter will perform on Saturday, Nov. 5, 8 p.m. at Zoey’s, 185 E. Santa Clara St., Ventura. For tickets, visit www.zoeyscafe.com. To hear more of Porter’s music, visit www.willyporter.com.