The Charisma of Willy Porter

Willy Porter, a self-taught, guitar-driven musician from Mequon, said the process of writing songs is like mining.

“It’s an old, overused cliché, but it’s true,” Porter said. “You have to show up and you have to dig. Some days you don’t find anything, and other days you tap into something and think, well, there is a lot more here only to have to leave it and come back to it.” 

Porter has been on a musical and personal odyssey for over two decades. He has released 11 albums and has performed across multiple continents. He is known for his charismatic and charming presence onstage. 

Photo credit: Lee Ann Flynn

Porter’s process for writing songs comes from his human experiences. Although songs do not always come easily, when he is able to tap into his life experiences for inspiration, the process is more natural and authentic.

“When I think about personal psychology, everybody has a wealth of experience to draw from the positive side and the lows of living and of being human,” Porter said. “The unanswered are fantastic sources of creative insight.”

During a recent performance, Porter portrayed a lighthearted message about religion in “Jesus on the Grill,” a happy and harmonic song with a charming beat that calls attention to classical questions about the Christian faith. 

“How come there’s all these definitions of love and definitions of what you are?” Porter said to his audience. “Why does it exist like that anyway?” 

Then, playfully, he responded in Jesus’s voice, “‘I don’t know, it was my dad’s idea.” The crowd laughed and responded with an uproar of applause, which showed how Porter could relieve the tension of the questions that we inevitably have when it comes to religion. 

“Some people may think that I might have taken it in the wrong direction there, but in my theological study, I find that the love that is expressed in the Bible, certainly from Jesus, is not without humor. It’s not all self-possession. It’s not all absolution,” Porter said. “There are questions, there are challenges to faith that we all face, and there are also moments where we celebrate our own humanities, our own struggle. It doesn’t mean that we can take these deities that we hold so dear and so important and also use them as a comic foil for something else. I take some great liberties, but I also believe that God has a sense of humor, and I think that is imperative and it’s a great part of our gift of free will.”

 

Porter began treating audiences with stories during live shows, expressing his random thoughts in order to keep his audiences captivated as he tuned his guitar for the next song. Porter didn’t rehearse or even know which stories he would share while playing his music.

“I used the guitar and storytelling as survival tools,” Porter said. “On stage, I learned later that it was really problematic because between songs, you have to change tunings. Then, I realized, if I want to change tunings, I have to talk, I have to come up with some way to connect the energy of the last piece to the next one while keeping the attention on the audience. That is where the storytelling took place.” 

Porter believes in being authentic and in the moment rather than delivering a scripted act. This inspired him to make jokes and tell stories in order to connect to his audience.  

“I like to think of storytelling and improvisation as empowered stupidity,” Porter said. “You have a chance to really be in the moment — be authentic, but also take great risks.  I believe through great risk you find great moments on stage. Some people prefer to have something highly scripted, they know exactly what they are going to say and do, and I am just not one of them. I prefer more improvisation and a much looser approach.”

Porter is determined to make an impact on local and international organizations by supporting humanity from multiple walks of life. He is an active supporter of Advocates of Ozaukee, a shelter and treatment facility for victims of domestic violence and abuse in Mequon. His annual benefit concerts raised over $100,000.

“One of the things that I have realized in the course of time playing music, I always wanted to find a charity close to me that I felt was doing great work,” Porter said. “It touches all of us and I am sad to say that the need of those services continues to grow.”

Porter also contributes to Guitars for Vets, a non-profit, Milwaukee-based organization that works to improve the lives of veterans by providing free guitars and lessons, and Kids for Peace, which brings Christians and Palestinians together in the Middle East to help them deal with conflict resolution.

“We need peace brokers in this next generation,” Porter said. “People can help by walking across the street to that neighbor you don’t talk to and go talk to them. More importantly than anything else in this day and age is to get off the computer and go talk to people … Go and listen to a neighbor whom you don’t understand — really try hard to engage in a dialogue because it’s the division that is really hurting us more than anything else.”

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