Being a songwriter these days is no mean feat for anyone, including Milwaukee's Willy Porter, who released his first album a quarter-century ago, and has cultivated a cult audience with the care and oversight of an organic farmer.
During that time period, he's also watched the recording world become more democratic and less discerning. "It's sort of funny," says Porter of what he sees as a good news/bad news situation. "Anybody can make a record now, but, unfortunately, anybody can make a record now."
Porter, who was also a pioneer in the live-looping movement, is currently touring in support of his eighth studio album, Human Kindness, which manages to stand apart from just about any other release out there.
"It's cultural ADD," Porter says of the current situation. "Who has time for a three-minute song about something that forces you to be introspective and consider the shell of your own existence?"
Porter was inspired early on by artists like Leo Kottke and Peter Gabriel to make richly detailed but evocative music.
"A lot of singer-songwriters just want to strip it down to guitar-bass-drums," he says. "To me that's a really flat canvas. I've seen that movie. Frankly, I run back to Peter Gabriel's So record, because every time I hear it I hear something different. And I really want that."
With that in mind, Porter decided to write, play and produce Human Kindness entirely himself. Sure there were some strings and horn arrangements done elsewhere, but most of the album was pure Porter, and he took his time.
"It was not an easy project. I learned a ton. I was in over my head most of the way, but I believed in the tunes and I believed in the performances. I think that the hardest part, is being a singer on your own record and mixing your own voice," he says. "That's about as much looking in the mirror as I want to do."
The album is also pretty keenly wrought, and strangely taut with the tensions of the age. Tracks include the soul-funk duet "A Love Like This," with Carmen Nickerson. (The two are finishing up a full album of co-written duets, peeks of which they'll be sharing on tour.) Other highlights include the muscular blues-funk "Freedom," and the dark moody string-laden "Walking With the Man."
One particular standout track is the seven-minute title track, which begins with a man pulling a woman out of the road just before she's hit by a bus. It was inspired by a dramatic incident that Porter actually witnessed, one which reinforced his faith in others. "I'm such a believer in human beings' ability to react the right way," he says.
Porter figures that human kindness may seem like an endangered species, but only because of how we engage with the world these days.
"It used to take six or seven days for a bad idea to get around the planet; now it takes nanoseconds. It's that amplification that's doing us in," he says. "We're giving voice to too much that's negative about us culturally, spiritually and otherwise, and there isn't enough amplification for the kid selling lemonade on the corner."