Willy Porter’s Latest Adventure
How the longtime guitarist and singer-songwriter became the composer for an original children’s play.
Back in the late 1970s, a Mequon teenager was frustrated with his lack of musical progress. He was learning to play the viola and loved the instrument and its alto range, but felt he was falling behind his peers.
So, at age 13, he dropped the viola and picked up the guitar.
Today, Willy Porter has more than 20 years professional experience as a musician and is one of Milwaukee’s most technically gifted guitarists, who can make even the most complex, fingerpicked passages sound easy. The Washington Post called him “a dazzling acoustic guitarist” while the Boston Globe touted him for possessing “the Olympian speed of Leo Kottke.” You would never guess that he once had his musical struggles.
Porter’s story reflects his outlook on life: You need to be willing to take the opportunities as they come, whether it be a new stylistic influence that might lead down a new trail, or say, an offer from First Stage’s artistic director Jeff Frank to score the company’s new original play, Nancy Drew and Her Biggest Case Ever
Through his daughter’s involvement in First Stage, Porter and Frank had developed a friendship. Frank and another First Stage director, John Maclay, were co-authors of the new Nancy Drew play, and Frank suggested they ask Porter to create a score for it. Porter is a prolific musician with seven different studio albums, but this theatrical score was a first. He did have some experience with theater music, having previously played for the now-defunct improv troupe the Dead Alewives, but this would a formal score for an entire pit orchestra. For somebody so used to improvising in his own touring act, the very scripted nature of this project was something new.
Scoring a musical is a noteworthy, but it’s hardly the only thing that makes Porter stand out from the crowd. The Mequon native even has his own unique guitar, a 9-string baritone acoustic made by Gordy Bischoff of Eau Claire. Baritones with more than six strings are a rarity, but that didn’t faze Porter, who wanted an instrument that could balance the manageability of a conventional guitar while still bringing in the richer sounds of the more novel double-stringed setup.
As somebody who has left Milwaukee (for school in Eau Claire) and returned, Porter sees many advantages to basing his music career in Milwaukee. “I think there’s a great sense of community here,” he says. “Musicians do try to support each other.” And there are geographic advantages to Southeastern Wisconsin, he adds. Day trips to play gigs in Chicago and Madison are easy, and flights to further flung shows are easy with the central location. “It’s almost like we get the benefits of living in Chicago, without actually having to live there.”
On the down side, Porter says the Milwaukee music scene isn’t as vibrant as it once was, with lower levels of energy being directed towards new, local music. He also feels the music scene is plagued by the same segregation issues that impact much of life in Milwaukee, citing the hip hop and gospel scenes on the North Side that most Milwaukeeans never experience.
Porter’s professional career as a musician began in 1990 with his album The Trees Have Soul and he’s been touring steadily ever since. Over his long, decorated career, Porter sees a music industry that has become more demanding on artists. “You used to just try to get a label, but now you have to be your own marketing department.” In fact, the guitarist runs his own independent label, Weasel Records, started in 2006 with his sixth album, Available Light. One of the biggest challenges Porter finds with a music career is the balancing act of work, life, and family. It’s hard to make his children’s lacrosse games and plays when he’s touring the country. On the other hand, Porter has the flexibility to stay home with his sick children when he’s not on the road.
“Every day is an opportunity to try and write,” says Porter who, with his 8th album Human Kindness expected to drop late summer, knows quite a bit about the process. The guitarist says there’s a long, long list of influencers that stretches from Radiohead to the Jackson 5. “If something resonates with you, it becomes a part of your music.” As for what he’s learned about the songwriting process,“If you come up with something and it’s not leaving you alone, that’s a good indicator you should finish it.” He improvises and writes in journals almost every day, and is always observing the world, waiting for his next big inspiration.
Nancy Drew and Her Biggest Case Ever will run through June 1 (buy tickets here) and Porter’s next local performance as a musician will be at Bastille Days on July 13.