Listening to Gregory Porter talk has a similar effect to lying in a hammock or soaking in a warm, deep bath. His speaking voice is as comforting as his singing voice – a smooth, slow, rich, reassuring baritone that makes you feel that all is well in the world.
It’s the same with the jazz singer’s latest album, Christmas Wish, a loving tribute to his favourite time of year that celebrates the festive period but is also steeped in nostalgia for his childhood and longing for lost loved ones.
“It’s an opportunity to keep my family in my life, so that they’re still there. And the emotion and passion that comes from that feeling finds its way into the music,” says Gregory, 52.
Three of the songs have been written by him and are deeply personal, remembering how he spent Christmas as a boy.
Raised in Bakersfield, California, where he still lives with his wife Victoria and sons Demyan, ten, and Lev, two, Gregory was the seventh of eight children raised by his single mother Ruth, a church minister. The young Gregory – now a double Grammy Award winner and arguably Britain’s favourite contemporary jazz artist, who has sung countless times for royalty – found his voice singing in the church choir.
Although they had very little, his mother, who died when the singer was 21, would give away the family’s food and belongings to those she considered less fortunate – which Gregory sings about in the title track, Christmas Wish.
“Anything you owned, you had to hammer down! I had this shiny white Dallas Cowboys football jersey and light blue corduroy pants, and I loved that outfit. But my mother found this little white boy from the South who didn’t have clothes for school, so she gave him mine,” he says. “If I’m honest, we didn’t understand it at the time. We were like: ‘Oh come on, Mom, let us just be us.’ But it was beautiful. Nobody was watching her. No one was writing about it in the paper. The only people who knew were us and the homeless people.”
He performs more shows in the UK and Europe than America and believes that part of his success in Britain is due to the fact that he’s crossed over from jazz to work with artists from other genres, such as Mumford & Sons, Ellie Goulding and Ed Sheeran. He’s played at Glastonbury and performed for the late Queen Elizabeth “many times”, including at the Platinum Jubilee. He never had the opportunity to meet her – or King Charles. But he has met the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Sussex, telling Prince William that his song Take Me to the Alley was partly inspired by their mother Diana, Princess of Wales.
“There was a video of her talking to African children who were ill, and she’d been told not to touch them, but she did anyway. That royal humility is in the lyrics,” he says, as he recites them: “‘Well they gild their houses/In preparation for the King/And they line the sidewalks/With every sort of shiny thing/They will be surprised/When they hear him say/Take me to the alley/Take me to the afflicted ones/Take me to the lonely ones that somehow/Lost their way.’
“I got the chance to tell him in one of those greeting lines, so I hope he got all of what I was saying. I appreciated having that opportunity… this little black boy, who grew up poor, finding himself in these places.”
Gregory Porter’s album Christmas Wish is out now via Blue Note/Decca Records.