Seattle artist Porter Ray Sullivan — Porter Ray when he’s on the mic — is raising the bar for emcees elsewhere with jazz-steeped odes to his fallen loved ones. A product of the Central District neighborhood who didn’t think about pursuing music seriously until age 21, Sullivan has made a name for himself in his hometown (to which he is fiercely tied) after seven years in the game. You can feel his roots in his records: rain-soaked, relaxed projects echoing the city that they’re recorded in.
Sullivan’s life has been riddled with tragedy, including the deaths of his brother, his father, and the mother of his child. The way he’s dealt with these misfortunes has been making music. Losing each person has immersed him deeper into his craft; each of his projects is, in its own way, a manifestation of a different struggle that he went through while grieving.
Sullivan boasts four EPs and one full-length album, Watercolor, which just dropped in March of this year. The tracks on these range in subject matter — dice games, weed, sex, and materialism — but the best songs are the most ambitious, the ones that dig the deepest into Sullivan’s psyche. These are plenty, especially on the new project, which you can peep on Spotify.
I was recently fortunate enough to gain insight into Sullivan’s entry into the music industry, his fledgling tour experiences, and the type of art that inspires his own art.
PORTER RAY INTERVIEW
PETER (HIGHLARK): Hey! How are you?
PORTER RAY:I’m doing well. I’m currently in the car on my way to Baton Rouge, just left Dallas. I’m on tour with Shabazz Palaces! I’m touring my album Watercolor that I just dropped with Sub Pop in March. It’s been great so far.
PETER: That’s awesome, which cities have you guys gone to?
PORTER:So far we’ve been to Portland, SF, Phoenix, El Paso, Austin, and Dallas. It’s pretty early still in the tour, I think we have about 20 cities to go.
PETER: It’s your first tour. Have you learned anything important along the way?
PORTER: Yeah I’ve learned a lot: how to be time efficient and more professional. I’ve been soaking up a lot of game from Shabazz and the crew, soaking up a lot of game from my manager. It has definitely been a learning experience in terms of being efficient on the road, learning, working, playing, trying to be creative on the road and trying to be productive. I’ve been growing a lot in terms of professionalism, showing up to the venues, making sure not to drink too much and get fucked up before shows. I’ve been learning how to perfect my performance and take the audience on a ride.
PETER: What was the creative process behind Watercolor?
PORTER: For Watercolor I really wanted to reintroduce myself to the world. Everything I was putting out before wasn’t on that kind of scale. I wanted the project to feel familiar to people that already listened to my music who enjoy it, but also get people who haven’t listened to my music to feel like they’re getting to know me. I saved a lot of content for the album in terms of talking about my brother, my father, my son’s mother, and the loved ones that I’ve lost. I wanted to take the listener on this journey and make the music feel like you were immersing yourself in a pool. The sounds too, we wanted the sounds to feel sort of aquatic. I’m just trying to paint a picture with my lyricism.
PETER: You deal with a lot of tragedy in your life. How do you cope with close friends and family passing away?
PORTER:To be honest the music has been a real help. It’s really therapeutic to get all this shit that’s bottled up off my chest. And also to be able to listen to it, because we listen to music because we like the words and shit, what the artist is saying in the song. I hear my own music to listen to my own thoughts. I take pride in immortalizing the people that I’ve lost through my music. Keeping them alive and keeping their names alive is really important. When I’m doing live shows and expressing these things and I see the audience vibing to it, that helps a lot in terms of dealing with tragedy.
PETER: You did some modeling for Nordstrom. What other forms of expression inspire your music?
PORTER:When I was a kid I always loved dressing up, I loved performance, and I loved theatre. My mom would always take me to the theater. I was also watching Michael Jackson a lot and seeing his wardrobe. In terms of other things that inspire me, I always loved to draw when I was a kid. I’ve always thought of myself as a painter for my rhymes. Growing up though there were also pottery classes and shit, so really any kind of art, painting, film, fashion — I’ve been trying to combine all of that into my music.
PETER: So why did you pick music over all these other art forms?
PORTER: To be honest I was trying to do some screenprinting, put a streetwear line out, get into fashion. It was me losing my brother — I just felt this need to express what I was going through and try and connect to people. I felt almost a responsibility to tell my story to help other people in my situation. It’s something I’ve always liked to do. When I was 13, 14, I would go to my friends’ houses, they would have studio equipment and we were always recording. The mic was always there for me. When I lost my brother Aaron, I felt compelled to make music. I never thought it would get me this far, get me a record deal. I just wanted to tell my story and get it off my chest.