Some folks are lucky to find what they love to do at an early age and quietly settle in for the long haul expanding and developing their work over the arc of a lifetime. Willy Porter is one of those artists. He has followed his own path to explore the sacred language that music truly is. 30 years after his solo recording debut, he continues to reach further into his guitar & pen while stretching the form of what his own music can be. He’s currently working on his 13th album for release in 2022.
Willy Porter continues on a musical and personal odyssey spanning over two decades, 11 albums, and multiple continents. His journey has been defined by an inquisitive love for humanity and the language that describes what we all hold to be true. Porter’s songs weave a universal perspective about the questions, struggles, and triumphs of human existence. His live shows are guitar-driven grit, soul, silence and muscle– at times electrifying, dynamic, and unique in the way that Porter’s voice blends and fuses with his fret work.
A largely self-taught musician, Porter began treating audiences to his brand of guitar playing and wry storytelling in the late ‘80’s while living in Madison, Wisconsin. In 1990, he released his first full-length independent album, The Trees Have Soul, and the touring life has flowed steadily ever since. Porter has literally logged millions of miles across America, Canada, the UK, and Europe, touring solo, as well as with various incarnations of the Willy Porter Band and in support of artists like Tori Amos, Paul Simon, Jethro Tull, Sting, and Jeff Beck.
Porter’s breakthrough album, Dog Eared Dream, was released in 1994, and the song “Angry Words” quickly became a staple at the burgeoning AAA radio format. This led to a major label deal with BMG/Private Music in 1995. Unfortunately, Private was dismantled by BMG just as Porter was preparing to release his follow-up. With contractual freedom in 1998, Porter quickly signed with the San Francisco-based label Six Degrees. There he released three albums beginning with the studio gem, Falling Forward (1999), produced by multiple Grammy-winner Neil Dorfsman (Dire Straits, Sting). The eponymous Willy Porter (2001) followed featuring great guest performances by Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull and Tony Levin. His fan-favorite solo disc, High Wire Live (2003) was co-produced with Grammy-winner Ben Wisch (Marc Cohn, Shawn Colvin).
In 2005 Porter left Six Degrees and launched his own imprint, Weasel Records. Together with longtime keyboardist/ collaborator Dave Adler, Porter produced the atmospheric album Available Light in 2006. His work with Guild & Fender guitars over the next several years would result in the manufacture of the “Willy Porter Signature” acoustic guitar. Porter then took time to record and produce singer/songwriter Natalia Zukerman, on her whip-smart Weasel debut, Brand New Frame (2008). Porter released his next disc, How to Rob a Bank in 2009, the heavily Americana-flavored record featuring the contributions of the LA-based quartet, Raining Jane. Bank was followed with a live disc recorded with the Carpe Diem String Quartet in (2010). This collaboration produced a gorgeous EP featuring several of Porter’s most enduring tunes (“Breathe,” “Paper Airplane,” “Watercolor”), elevated and reinterpreted against a backdrop of lush string arrangements.
In 2011, Porter produced the second Weasel release for Natalia Zukerman, the driving Gas Station Roses. A partnership with Milwaukee-based singer/ songwriter Carmen Nickerson resulted in the album, Cheeseburgers and Gasoline (2013). This spartan production illuminates themes of life-longing and relationship repair, all while balancing the dream of self-actualization on the axle of a carnival’s Tilt-a-Whirl. The record also includes Porter’s brilliant cover arrangement of Peter Gabriel’s “Digging in the Dirt.” Porter’s follow-up release, Human Kindness (2015) incorporated all of his acoustic, electric, and multi-string chops to bear in service of a great selection of songs bearing the influence of soul, rock, blues/Americana, showcasing Porter’s growth as a writer, musician, and producer.
After touring extensively together for more than two years, Porter and Nickerson released a full-length disc of original co-writes: Bonfire to Ash (2016). Produced by Grammy winning producer Ben Wisch (Marc Cohn, Jonatha Brooke) and featuring Bassist Zev Katz and Drummer/Producer Ben Wittman, Bonfire to Ash is a record that charts the experiences bridging the intimate with the universal. Porter and Nickerson borrow from their strong stage chemistry to render the same kind of musical conversation that unfolds in performance within a studio setting. This dialogic style broadens to consider the connections and values forged in the communities we call home (“Living Proof”) and in the responsibility we have to the planet that gives itself to house us (“Plant A Garden”). Bonfire to Ash compiles candid snapshots of the human journey, exposing ideas such as hope, regret, love, loss, and connection that remain immutable against time, history, or place.
In addition to making a life in music, Porter finds ways to make an impact on local and international levels. He is an active supporter of Advocates of Ozaukee, a shelter and treatment facility for victims of domestic violence and abuse in Mequon, Wisconsin. His annual benefit concerts have raised more than $100,000 for this organization to date. He is also an Ambassador for Guitars for Vets, a Milwaukee-based International organization that works to improve the lives of veterans by providing them with guitars and music lessons.
“I found Willy on iTunes six years ago. Went to see him live and joined the converted.“
— Al Kooper (Bob Dylan/Blood, Sweat & Tears)
“Porter is a dazzling acoustic guitarist with a moody baritone…“
— The Washington Post
“Willy plays rhythms that make me want to crawl inside his guitar and sleep there forever.“
— Tori Amos
“Willy Porter captures the street corner ethic of acoustic performance perfectly.“
— The Village Voice
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