Rising Music Star Jennifer Porter of Cougar Moon Music On The Five Things You Need To Shine In The Music Industry
Karina Michel Feld
Jun 7, 2021 · 15 min read
You are not what you do. Do not tie your self worth to your career. There are too many ups and downs in the music business, and if you equate your career successes and failures to your worthiness or unworthiness as a human being, you will be miserable, off-balance and forever at the mercy of other people. You will spend your time fighting to please everyone but yourself. In all honesty, I still struggle with this!
As a part of our series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Porter.
Jennifer Porter is a musician’s musician who has performed multiple styles of music. Her album THESE YEARS earned her a 2020 We Are The Music Makers award for Best Roots/Americana/Blues album and a 2019 Independent Music Network award for Best Female Crossover Artist. In 2015, her album EASY LIVING was nominated for an Independent Music Award for Best Jazz With Vocals Album. Songs from THESE YEARS reached #1 on the Independent Music Network’s and New Music Weekly’s Country Music Charts.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up? Thank you so much for inviting me!
I was a painfully shy child. I could hardly speak to anyone in public, and when I did, it was barely a whisper. I lived almost entirely in my own fantasy world, pretending to ride horses to school, and pretending school was FBI headquarters where I was a secret agent. The bullies at school were my super-villianous nemeses (though their punches and kicks were real enough!) I can’t imagine what people thought as they saw me galloping down the sidewalk on my pretend horse every morning! I also used to swim home from school in a pretend ocean. It must have been quite a sight for the drivers passing in their cars! While this creating of worlds was a coping mechanism, I think it was also a natural expression of the inner creative drive that has, depending on the situation, been the joy or the bane of my life. Even though I was afraid most of the time as a child, I always felt comfortable and most at home making music or performing in some way. Art became my way of communicating what I was feeling to people. Even as an adult, it’s still the easiest way for me to communicate!
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path? When I was five, I snuck downstairs to listen to a woman named Maxine play boogie-woogie piano at one of my grandparents’ notorious cocktail parties. I thought she was the coolest thing I’d ever seen! The next morning I sat down at the piano and picked out by ear what she had been playing the night before. It felt sooo good! Soon after, my grandmother had a piano brought to my parent’s house for me. I played constantly. As I mentioned, it was the first time I felt totally right with the world, like I was where I belonged. I knew I would be a musician from then on (though I still thought I could be a secret agent on the side!). I’ve since gone on to have an acting career as well, but it all feels connected to the same inner creative spring.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career? Hmm. I suppose I would have to say it’s something very recent, and that is the experience of recording the first song from my new album SUN COME AND SHINE with Bernard Purdie. I’d always loved his drumming on Aretha’s albums. It makes you want to get up and dance! Well, we were recording the first song, which is actually the final song on the album, called I’LL BE HERE. I was in my isolation recording booth, and he was in his next to me, two feet away, separated by sound-proofed glass. He counted off, and I remember thinking, “Whoa! That’s Bernard Purdie counting off MY song. My song that I wrote! Sweet!” Then I thought I better pay attention and not mess up! We recorded the song, and when we finished he looked at me for my approval and I gave him the thumbs up and he broke into his wonderful big smile. Surreal!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This wasn’t really a mistake, per se. It was more of a willful transgression on my part! After my parents got me a piano teacher, I went for two whole years without learning how to read music, and my teacher never found out. She would play the piece I was supposed to learn for the week at the end of every lesson, so I just learned them all by ear. One day her phone rang towards the end of the lesson and she went to answer it before playing the piece for me, and told me she’d see me the next week. I knew I was in trouble! She was a very strict teacher, and I’d been fooling her the whole time! All week I was a nervous wreck. When the time came for the next lesson, I confessed everything. She was more amused and impressed than mad, which was a big relief. She made a deal that I could continue to play by ear, but I must learn to read, as well. She never played another song for me again, and I learned to read. I’m glad I did. I ended up loving it, and loving music theory. Plus, it obviously comes in handy when you’re required to play songs you’ve never heard before. It also comes in handy when I have to write out charts for band members.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? I will be releasing my newest album, SUN COME AND SHINE, on June 18th. It is my eighth album to date, and I’m more proud of it from a songwriting perspective than anything I’ve ever done. I had the great honor of recording the album with legendary drummer, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie. I had approached him about playing on one song. He asked to hear my demos, so I sent them to him, and he called back a week or so later saying he loved my songs and my voice, was interested in playing on the whole album, and that he’d like for me to use his band. He suggested we record at his favorite studio in New Jersey, called Jankland Recordings. The Covid-19 pandemic was raging here in the States at the time, but Bernard was anxious to get going, so we formed a quarantine bubble. Steve, the owner of the studio, put safety protocols in place and we began to record in June of 2020. I wanted to record some of my vocals and piano parts here in Maine, where I live, but all of the studios were closed. Luckily for me, my recording engineer and mixer, Jonathan Wyman, is incredibly smart and resourceful and he turned a room in my house into a recording studio. It worked brilliantly, though we did have to chase away the bluejays and crows a few times when they got particularly pushy about wanting to be on the recording! Mixing and mastering the album was also a real challenge due to Covid, but once again Jonathan came through. Using two computers, one to communicate with him, and one to see and hear the music coming from his home mixing studio in real time, we made it through. It was difficult at first, but once I got used to it, it worked perfectly. I had a similar set-up when it came to mastering the album, with multiple Grammy-winning mastering engineer, Adam Ayan. The album includes nine original songs of mine, and a cover of Dino Valenti’s, Something On Your Mind. In addition to Bernard and his stellar band, I was joined by Grammy-winners, Christian McBride, and Cindy Cashdollar, and Grammy-nominees, my friend, C.J. Chenier and Rob Paparozzi. Steve Jankowski, who owns Jankland, and Tom Timko, both of Blood Sweat And Tears, made up the fantastic horn section. As I said, I’m more proud of this album than anything I’ve ever done.
You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?
Well, I must confess that I don’t always feel particularly successful! That said, if one wants to go into the music business to become rich and famous, it’s not my place to tell them what to do, but if it were, I’d advise against it! Music is something one should do because it feels as necessary as breathing to her or him. The music business of course has its glamorous side, but the other 95% of it is hard work and sometimes downright drudgery. The music business is primarily populated with what I call working-class, or blue-collar musicians; those of us who cobble together a living touring, teaching, recording, and selling music. As for being afraid of failure, don’t be! We have such a relatively short time here on Earth, to not try is in itself to fail. I’m more afraid of feeling regret at the end of my days than suffering through failures. As the quote from my favorite movie, Strictly Ballroom goes, “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.”
We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
I think it’s important for everyone to see themselves in the stories they view. It offers validation, and can help us feel we belong. Of course, movies and television shows can offer a glimpse into what it might be like to live a life one has never experienced, which is valuable in itself, but how many more glimpses into the twenty-to-fifty-year-old-white-male experience does our society really need?! When a group is represented on screen, it makes them more visible in society as a whole, and that visibilty is extremely important. You can’t fix inequalities suffered by a particular group if they and the pain and discrimination they endure are invisible. You can’t fix what you can’t see.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each. Number
1: I don’t know how it is for young female musician’s getting started now, but I wish someone had told me that a shocking majority of your male teachers, conductors, bandleaders, and fellow musicians are going to view you as a potential sexual partner more than they view you as a musician. This was devastating for me the first time I experienced it at 16 years old. I was coming to the musical project with a deep sense of myself as a fellow musician and it really hurt to realize that I wasn’t being viewed in this way by the other all-male members. When I was a music student at university, I went to the head of the music department for help with a teacher who was coming on to me and making me very uncomfortable (I was 17, he was 54). The head of the department told me that was the way things are at university, that he himself dated students all the time, and that I just wasn’t used to it because I had only had female teachers before. That was just the beginning of decades of disappointment in some fellow male musicians.
Number 2 is related to Number 1: Again, as a female musician, I wish someone had told me that I would have to fight to make my voice heard, even on my own projects! That male musicians were most likely going to talk over me, and that I would have to fight for room to be heard, even when I am technically the boss. That trying to be nice and have everyone like you will not help matters in these situations! And that far too often, you are going to be the only female in the room. I was recently working with some background singers in a studio, and was trying to teach them the arrangement I had created. The men in the room kept trying to take over and teach these women their parts, even though not only had they not created the parts, neither of them sang or could play the piano to teach them! I could not get a word in edgewise, and the clock was ticking. My husband (who is super cool!) finally stepped in and stated the obvious, which was that I was far more equipped to teach these parts than anyone in the room. I went in, sat at the piano and taught them their parts in five minutes. So frustrating!
Number 3 is related to number 2: Not everyone is going to like you, and that’s okay. Your artistic vision is more important. I hate conflict of any kind and tend to shy away from it, but every time I’ve given in to someone’s idea out of a fear of conflict I have regretted it because I didn’t remain true to my art, and consequently to myself. Find the people whose opinions you trust, but above all, listen to your gut. (This is, by the way, not the same as listening to your ego!) If your gut is telling you someone’s artistic idea is wrong for your project, fight for your project, because after all, you’re really fighting for yourself.
Number 4: Not everyone is going to like what you do. You will get a bad review. The review might even attack you personally. I actually had a reviewer call me a bitch in a printed article. Every musician you admire, adore and emulate has had a bad review, so when you get one, congratulate yourself on your entry into the club! Welcome!
Number 5: You are not what you do. Do not tie your self worth to your career. There are too many ups and downs in the music business, and if you equate your career successes and failures to your worthiness or unworthiness as a human being, you will be miserable, off-balance and forever at the mercy of other people. You will spend your time fighting to please everyone but yourself. In all honesty, I still struggle with this!
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Do not chase trends. Don’t try to write music in the style that is currently trending (unless, of course, you happen to write in that style anyway!) Chasing trends means you aren’t truly connected to yourself as an artist. You’re not expressing who you are. You are trying to be what you think everyone wants. And as in the rest of life, trying to be what you think people want is exhausting. Ditto, trying to keep up with every form of social media on the planet. On the flip side, don’t box yourself in. Don’t give you and your music a specific label and then smother yourself with it. If you want to try a new style of music, go for it! Take chances. Staying in one’s comfort zone is another way to burn out.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Gosh! I’ve never been asked such a monumental question! So many people are doing such amazing things all over the world, and I try to support them through donations and attending rallies and protests whenever I can. But if I could inspire a movement, it would be inspired by my love of gardening. I love flowers so much, and I also enjoy growing my own food. I have planted my own yard with all pollinator friendly plants which support a nearby hive of wild honeybees (as well as butterflies and over 35 species of birds). I would love to inspire people to plant any and all available spaces; yards, rooftops, balconies, back patios, spaces around fire hydrants, around street signs, in cracks in the sidewalk, on pots attached to sides of walls and fences with foods and flowers that support our pollinators, particularly those honeybees. Tear up paved parking lots and put in rows of parking that are broken up by hedgerows of bee-favorite shrubs. Put climbing vines on skyscrapers and give the pollinators more foods to choose from. Get rid of bee-killing pesticides. I know this is not about people directly, but without the bees, our crops will fail, and people will starve. I’d love to have a World Bee Celebration Day, on which everyone goes outside somewhere and plants something that helps out all of our pollinators, with a fund set up to buy plants for those who can’t afford them.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
The person who has helped me more than anyone is my husband, Dana Packard. We’ve been together since I was 15 years old, and he was 17. He plays drums in my band and is my best friend in the whole world. We have produced and acted in plays together for 30 years. We’ve produced three movies together. I as Actor, Screenwriter and Composer, and he as Director, Producer, and Editor (plus he wrote the screenplay for one of them). We’ve bought and dismantled a three story Victorian house, then moved it 20 miles and put it back together — together. We’ve driven back and forth to NYC in the middle of the night for various artistic projects so many times I’ve lost count. We’ve driven cross-country three times, and taken countless overnight flights together. He has been the facilitator for all eight of my albums. He does all of the behind the scenes, unglamorous and under-appreciated work to get them financed and off the ground, and leaves me free to just create, even though he himself is a talented artist in his own right. He believes in me that much, which is endlessly humbling. I never would be where I am today without his help. He has believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. When I have a crazy creative idea, or a wild flight of fancy he might need a day of convincing that what I’m suggesting is possible, but then he dives in with his whole being and keeps me afloat when I start to wonder if he wasn’t right to resist my idea in the first place. I knew him the first minute I laid eyes on him, and what’s even more amazing — he knew me.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have two favorite quotes. Even though I’m not really a sports fan, the first is a Wayne Gretsky quote. “You’ll miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” I try to live by this. I take all the longest and impossible shots I can. You never know when something you think is hopeless or unattainable might not actually be so, and if you don’t try, you’ll never find out. I also live by one of Winston Churchill’s quotes, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” I’ve never spoken of this publicly, but I’ve suffered from anxiety and depression for a very long time, brought on by PTSD. Sometimes to keep going, I blindly hold on to faith in the idea that to continue moving forward, even if you have to drag yourself by inches, is better than staying stuck in the darkness. That the act of doing is, in itself, your candle to illuminate your way out. I tried to express this in a song from my first album called, TRAVELING IN THE DARK:
When you travel in the dark sometimes there’s a star
And a body will lay beside you to keep you warm
And it won’t be the result of righteous action
And it won’t be the due you deserve
And it won’t be the rain of fortune’s fall
It’s because you were traveling at all.
It’s because you were traveling at all.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Hmm…There are many people who would be interesting to share a meal with; iconic feminists, other musicians and actors, authors, scientists, and political activists. But I would have to say — and this is again connected to my love of gardening — British gardening icon, Monty Don. His gardening shows have helped me get through long dark winters here in Maine. I know he would be fascinating to talk to and he could probably give me some good tips!
How can our readers follow you online?
Readers can follow me through my website: www.jennifernicholeporter.com or on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JenniferNicholePorter or instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jennifernporter/?hl=en. My music is available on all streaming platforms including Apple Music: https://music.apple.com/us/artist/jennifer-porter/431875433, Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/artist/6PCx7DzXne6wDYZhNhccG8, Pandora: https://www.pandora.com/artist/jennifer-porter/ARtV74dwqxbhg3K, and Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCoyFS0ht6VuY_C5F7-eS0Cg.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Thank you so much for having me, and for asking such interesting questions! Best Wishes to you and to all of your readers!