You may know her as the little girl in Curly Sue, or as Steve Martin’s projectile-vomiting daughter in the film Parenthood. You could have seen her play Blanche’s granddaughter in The Golden Girls, or watched her become the youngest participant ever to win Star Search (at age five, singing “Over The Rainbow”). Perhaps you saw her in such musicals as Footloose, The Ten Commandments, or A Chorus Line. Or maybe you know her as the former lead singer of The Canyons, and a longtime protégé of American Idol’s Randy Jackson. Her name could sound familiar because you saw it appear in headlines last September, when she broke her silence about being an alcoholic (with 7 ½ years of sobriety) on a Mommy blog she founded called The Lil’ Mamas, and the story was picked up by major media outlets.
But who Alisan Porter is today can be best understood by listening to her recently released solo album titled Who We Are. When playing to a packed room at Los Angeles’ Hotel Café, the 33-year-old pint-sized powerhouse confessed: “This album feels like the culmination of everything I’ve experienced in my life.” That show was my first exposure to the artist, and her undeniable talent and limitless vocal range led to several looks of sheer disbelief being directed towards my friends responsible for my being there — both were already familiar with Porter, and appeared satisfied that I was, indeed, being blown away. The musicianship accompanying her on Who We Are is equally impressive, with Leland Sklar on bass, Matt Rollings on keys, Greg Leisz on steel guitar, and Scarlett Cherry singing back-up vocals.
In an interview with People Magazine Porter described the album as California folk, but I was struck by an almost southern soulfulness when listening live. Her mid-tempo songs in particular sounded like they belonged in the HBO series True Detective — intensely emotional, and redemptive. I swayed back and forth with the audience, all of us appreciating that rare gift of being held in the present moment by talent. Given my natural inclination to alt-country music, the song that originally jumped out at me was the bluegrass-y “Runnin”. Though when listening to the album in the weeks following, “Surrender Your Heart” was the track I kept playing on repeat.
I later learned, while speaking with Porter at her home near Malibu California, that “Surrender Your Heart” was the first song on the album she and Drew McKeon, her close friend and co-producer, started writing together. They’d recently lost a good friend of theirs and the words and melody flowed out of them, cathartically. When it was done they called Rollings to see if he’d help them finish the song, and scheduled a recording session two days later. But that very night another mutual friend of theirs committed suicide, and plans were — understandably — delayed. Months passed before they reconnected to finish and record “Surrender Your Heart” and then she and Rollings began writing together every Tuesday. After 14 weeks, the album was done.
The timing of this required some juggling. Porter had recently married longtime love Brian Autenrieth — the two dated for four years in their early 20’s, and then rekindled their romance after eight years of friendship. They had a beautiful baby boy together named Mason (now nearly 3 years old), and the Tuesday writing sessions were based on babysitter availability. After pulling together her dream team of musicians and scheduling time to record at the legendary Henson Recording Studios — formerly A&M Studios, where Joni Mitchell recorded Blue — Porter found out she was pregnant with her second child. Fighting off the beginning stages of morning sickness during the sessions, she says she can hear the subtle presence of her daughter Aria (now 1 year old) in her vocals — more mature, and wise. She held off on releasing the album until Aria was 6 months, avoiding the need to play shows and promote it while super pregnant.
She decided to release the album independently, and says her primary wish now is to have as many people hear the songs as possible. But being a wife and mother has no doubt shifted the priorities of this woman, who worked nonstop as a child actor from the age of three to 13. She hopes to be a role model for other women in the industry who crave balance, and don’t want to sacrifice a fulfilling home life for commercial success. Having a close-knit group of female friends, many of whom are also connected through her blog The Lil’ Mamas, helps keep her grounded. When asked what three things she couldn’t live without, her answers are: Peet’s coffee, essential oils, and women. “Definitely women!” she reiterates, adding, “and that’s not how I used to be.” Being sober for the past 7½ years likely has something to do with that shift, as most 12-step programs strongly suggest establishing a solid same-sex support system.
When asked to define what sobriety means to her today she pauses briefly, and then thoughtfully says, “It’s a set of suggestions by which I religiously live my life.” Porter goes on to explain that she hit more of an emotional bottom than one that included dramatic external repercussions. Her rebelliousness began with shoplifting and smoking cigarettes around age nine, and when she first smoked pot at Topanga Days Country Fair at age 12 she remembers feeling like she’d found nirvana. Shortly thereafter, she burned out on acting and was excited by her family’s decision to move from Los Angeles to Connecticut, where she had a fairly normal high school experience — acting in school plays, being taught guitar by her best girlfriend, and spending a lot of time with her boyfriend. But she smoked pot almost daily from the ages of 13 to 23, and was also drinking and experimenting with other drugs. These substances dulled the intensity of her feelings …until they stopped working. By this time she was living in New York City, performing eight shows a week of A Chorus Line, and taking pills before going on stage. She was miserable, and her romantic relationship was falling apart. She knew she needed help, called her Mom, and went to rehab.
She tells me all of this without any self-consciousness whatsoever, and while I’ve only known Porter for a couple hours, I feel as comfortable with her as I do an old friend. When talking about her album she says the most emotional song for her is “Stay” — written about her son Mason, with the line “Your eyes telling me what words can’t say” attempting to capture that unspoken bond between mother and child. When asked what three things she wants for her children (I like top threes), she says: To feel that they are intrinsically enough, that they can express themselves through an art form, and that somebody else will love them as much as I do.
Alisan Porter is as real as they come. She speaks from that place of truth that exists deep down within us all. She is Who We Are.
You can catch Porter’s next live performance this Friday, June 27th, at Room 5 in Los Angeles. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the door, or in advance here.