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Willy Porter

Milwaukee's Willy Porter CD: How To Rob A Bank
Record Label: Weasel Records
by Mike Huberty
August 2009

Wisconsin folk artist WILLY PORTER has been touring around North America for the past two decades, seeing national success that began with the release of his 1995 album, Dog Eared Dream, which led to opening spots for Tori Amos, Jeff Beck, Toad The Wet Sprocket, and The Cranberries and catapulted his style of folk rock meets Dylan-esque wordplay to the top echelon of modern singer-songwriters.

His new album, How To Rob A Bank, just came out in June of this year and he produced it himself, a process that he says was more difficult in some ways and easier in others. “I think that it’s harder in some ways”, he says, “especially when you’re singing to know if you have the right inflection or you’re capturing the feel of what you want to convey. But I’m a big believer in the things that are a mistake today are the things that you love tomorrow. If the musicians played something and the musicians think that it’s cool and if you respect them and trust them, then it’s good. I tried not to use technology to edit or fix things into a state of unrealistic perfection and that was very liberating. I’ve worked with some people who let the machines get in the way and I’m not feeling that at all lately.”

As to how his producing duties affected his guitar playing, Willy says that on this album, he was going for the nitty-gritty of each melody. “As a guitar player it’s so easy to overplay, it’s really hard to play the right part and not play more stuff because you can.” He continues, “Having the strength and the economy in how you approach the production side of things, finding that less is more. You just keep skimming stuff back until you get to the core of the idea that you’re trying to convey. It’s kind of like a house, you want the minimum construction that will support the house so you save material and save confusion.”

His favorite track on the new album is “Psychic Vampire” because “I really love singing it”, he says, “it’s about how some people around you can drain you until you become just like them.” As for the title track (a clever, self-reflexive crime reference-laden ditty) and how it relates to the rest of the album, “Once the tune appeared, I thought ‘here it is, here’s the title of the record.’ I don’t really know that there’s a theme or it’s a theme-based record. Each song deals with different aspects of the human condition, but it’s not unified by the title in any way, but I guess that’s not for me to decide”, he laughs.

On tour nearly constantly and playing with a wide variety of musicians from hard rock to pop, Willy, just got off the road with Toad The Wet Sprocket (who has reformed since the 90’s) and he describes how it’s not wise to judge audiences in advance, because you never know how they’ll react. “That’s happened to me many times, especially opening for people, especially when you think the music’s not ‘sympatico’. I did a casino tour with Jethro Tull in California. I thought I could really get killed out here being a solo folk guy opening up for rock legends and it was great. I’ve been wrong about that so many times, I’ve learned not to be prejudiced about an audience.”

Porter brings his new record to Madison for the Madison Roots Festival on August 22nd and is looking forward to the show. “I love the city of Madness, I really do, I used to live there and I always love coming back.” As for the band and what to expect, “We move through a lot of different musical forms together, the band covers a lot of ground from more traditional-based contemporary folk to some more roots or Americana rock stuff to some more blues-inflected rock. This is the best band I’ve ever had and I’m excited about these musicians and the way they focus on music. We’re getting tighter and looser all the time, meaning that we’re getting better every time we play. I’m the worst musician in my own band and I’m excited about that.”

He has tour dates lined up until the end of the year, but as for beyond that, he’s not sure. “There’s so many things that I’d like to start or keep working on”, he says, “ but I’ve learned to never try to say what I’m planning to do next because I’m always changing my mind!”

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