GRACE POTTER: NOCTURNAL ADMISSIONS

By Paul Freeman [July 2011 Interview]

You canít get much hotter than Grace Potter. Thatís true whether youíre talking about her scorching vocals, her whirling around in sequined micro-dresses or her recent chart action.

Her self-titled Hollywood Records album, with her rock band The Nocturnals, is a breakthrough. Their third studio album finally captures the excitement the band generates live. ďParis (Ooh La La) leapt out as a single. And sheís made an impact on the country world, thanks to her ďYou and TequilaĒ duet with Kenny Chesney.

The band was born in 2002, when drummer Matt Burr [now her significant other], heard Potter singing at a student open mic night at St. Lawrence University. They were signed to Hollywood Records in 2005. Potter is a dynamo on stage and they worked their way up to opening for The Black Crowes and The Dave Matthews Band. In 2010, the classic rock-influenced Potter and The Nocturnals did a version of ďWhite RabbitĒ for Tim Burtonís ďAlice In WonderlandĒ companion soundtrack and Rolling Stone magazine listed them as one of the Best New Bands.

Potter vocalizes with a power thatís earned her comparisons to Grace Slick, Janis Joplin and Stevie Nicks.

Potter, 28, had a different sort of upbringing, raised by artist parents on their hippie-style compound in Vermont. Her mother gave her piano lessons. She later learned to play guitar. But itís her dynamic voice and charismatic stage presence that really rivets audiences.

POP CULTURE CLASSICS:
Things have been going great for the band lately. Having fun?

GRACE POTTER:
Iím in Aspen now. Iím enjoying the shit out of today

PCC:
With the new record, can you hear the bandís gelling and growing?

POTTER:
Definitely. This record was our opportunity to play together. This album was a live experience and so much of what goes wrong in the studio is when you pick things apart and everybody isolates themselves and spends their hours in a room, doing their parts. And then everybody else goes and layers on top of that. We really did play together. A lot of those songs you hear on the record are actually first and second takes. And thatís a great way to do it. I mean, Iím not thinking that weíll do it again that way. But it was a really amazing experience.

PCC:
With the string of successes happening lately, does that come to be something you expect or is every step forward still something special to you?

POTTER:
Every step forward is always special and I think it should continue that way, for the rest of my life, hopefully. I donít like when people take things for granted. When I see success, certain musicians and other famous people not enjoying what theyíve done and not seeing that thereís always something else to do - resting on your laurels is the worst thing thing you can do. Certainly itís all about the work and itís all about making sure that the quality of your work doesnít suffer, because you think youíre the shit. You know what I mean?

PCC:
Between the time of signing with Hollywood Records and then being mentioned in Rolling Stone as one of the best new bands, were you always confident that you were going to break through and find an audience? Or were there moments of doubt?

POTTER:
There were moments of doubt, when it came to the band, for sure. For me personally, Iíve always been in this direction. And I think I had a lot of different options and a lot of different ways I could have taken this. But I really stuck my heels in and said ĎNo, this is about a band.í Iím obviously the front woman and I enjoy that deeply. But I really wanted this to be an experience thatís more about a group of people creating great music. And I knew this record was that record. I knew before most people knew [Laughs] that ĎParisí was the song. I said it the day I wrote it, in 2007. I said, ĎThis is the song.í And I just continued to pull through and push and insist that this was something that was going to happen. And I didnít want to break away and go all Gwen Stefani. I just wasnít ready for that.

PCC:
You mentioned the bandís development. Can you also hear the development in your own songwriting?

POTTER:
Absolutely. I think my songwriting changed, because of what I heard in the musicianship of the members. And when Cat and Benny joined, I started recognizing what Scott was more capable of, that Benny being in the band was freeing Scott up to do a lot more with his guitar. And that a band is only as good as their worst player. And everyone in this band is the best. Everything that weíve done, I feel like theyíre bringing the cream of the crop to the table, especially on the record. And that has allowed me to now, thinking about new songs, writing new material, Iím always thinking of what the band is capable of and trying to push the limits of what theyíre capable of, so that we can make beautiful music.

PCC:
Starting out, when Matt first heard you at the open mic, you actually turned him down several times? Why the hesitation?

POTTER:
Oh, because he was like a little band whore. He was in like seven bands. I didnít want to be another one of his bands. He was in the coolest band on campus at the time, which was like the jerky, asshole, hipster boys band. And then he was also in this world music thing. He was in a folk trio. He was in this thing called Soul Patch, which was like a hip-hop, soul, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder band that was like a super jam band with like 12 people. I just didnít want to be another one of those people in one of his bands. I thought he was overbooked. I like feeling special. And I didnít feel special. And then, he started quitting bands [Laughs].

PCC:
The music, the performing is that something that has always made you feel special?

POTTER:
It took a while. As a 17-year-old kid, I certainly wasnít comfortable on stage, when it came to my own songs. I loved the spotlight. I was the lead or the second lead in all the musicals. And I always enjoyed the performance aspect. But performing my own songs and sharing my own music was really uncomfortable for a little while. The hard thing is to get over that hurdle. Itís scary to share your own music with people, especially when you donít know what people are going to say or whether theyíre going to misread your lyric. I mean, itís you. Itís much easier to read somebody elseís creation, to read lines out of script or to sing a song out of a songbook than it is to bring something new into the world. But certainly, it has wound up being very rewarding.

PCC:
Was it just experience? Or how did you overcome that fear?

POTTER:
I think having a band really helped me. Doing it by myself was comfortable, because I was in control of my own destiny. I liked the idea that, if I messed up, it was just me and I had to kind of swallow that and deal with it. But thatís very nerve-wracking. If I went to play a piano solo and I blew a chord, thatís terrible. If I f--k up, then Iím the only one to blame. So I liked it, as a growing musician and someone who really wanted to hone my craft and become an excellent piano player. But yeah, it was nerve-wracking. So when Matt and Scott came around and we started writing songs together, I realized that you can put your trust into other musicians on stage and maybe make something thatís even better than the sum of its parts. That was an exciting thing to see. So as the band got stronger and stronger, I got more and more confident.

PCC:
Once it evolved and youíre out there in the sequined mini-outfits, do you feel like youíre adopting a stage persona or are you unleashing the inner Grace?

POTTER:
I think itís all me. I donít have like a Sasha Fierce character, like Beyonce or whatever. Itís all me. Itís just a certain corner of me. I think everybodyís got lots of different personalities, lots of different pieces of themselves. Youíll find me on the floor scrubbing dog shit, just as likely as you will writing songs or running around at night clubs. Thereís just so many different parts of my personality. My stage piece is a big part of who I am and how I am, but everyoneís got their moments and their moods. So I certainly have to be in the right head space to get on stage and do what I do. But I always seem to get there. I donít think thereís ever been a moment where Iíve been on stage and I didnít feel like myself.

PCC:
You mentioned doing theatre. Was the original dream, Broadway?

POTTER:
I like the theatre. I actually applied to acting school. I went over to London and was thinking that was what I was going to do. But I hated the music in Broadway musicals. I still do. Some of that shit is so f--king annoying. And I was like, ĎI canít stand to sing something from ĎPhantom of the Operaí one more time. That, I think, is the impetus for what got me writing songs, because I just hated the material that I was being forced to perform. Because I knew it was giving me a platform for being on stage, I was doing it. But the actual material itself was like nails on a chalkboard. And still is for me, in a lot of ways.

Itís all part of it. And thereís a lot of theatre in what I do on stage. But again, itís me. Itís my character. Itís my kind of Lucille Ball self that comes out of the cage every once in a while and I just let it loose.

PCC:
With all the comparisons youíve gotten, I donít think Iíve heard Lucille Ball mentioned [Laughs]

POTTER:
I wish I got more of that, because thatís the real me. If you hung out with me for five minutes, youíd pick up on that [Laughs]

PCC:
Do you find all the comparisons flattering? Do you just wish people would take you as you are? You have such a distinctive voice.

POTTER:
Thank you. I think comparisons are both helpful and hurtful all at once. I donít get angry anymore about it. Certainly itís nice to feel singular. But itís also good for people to understand kind of what theyíre getting into. For people to say stuff like, ĎWell, the bandís like The Rolling Stones and sheís like a white Tina Turner,í thatís cool. Iím not angry about that. Iím not going to be indignant about that. I love Tina Turner. And I love The Rolling Stones. But weíre more than that. And weíre different from that.

PCC:
And the idea of acting projects, if they come along, would that appeal to you?

POTTER:
F--k yeah! Yeah.

PCC:
So any new challenge, really?

POTTER:
Yeah, I really want to be a renaissance woman. I want to do it all. Iím not afraid to try anything twice. Except heroin [Laughs] Or Cocaine. Iím staying away from the pills and the powders. But when it comes to creative stuff, itís good to be fearless. Thatís whatís provided me with so many opportunities up until this point, is just trying new things.

PCC:
You joke about the drugs, but I read that you actually dropped acid when you were 12.

POTTER:
Oh, yeah, yeah. I got over it very quickly, but yeah, I took acid when I was 12. I smoked pot. I sold pot to my classmates for a while. I was a total black sheep, bad kid in school. Parents wouldnít let their kids come to my house. Yeah, I went through my bad kid phase. But I started dating a very, very good boy when I was about 15 and I wrung all that shit out of my system. To this day, Iíve never put anything up my nose in my whole life. And I never will.

PCC:
But do you think the drugs did help in some ways to open up your mind?

POTTER:
Yeah [Laughs]. Iím always careful about saying yes. But it really did make me think in a different way. Thereís a lot of things in life that make you think in a different way, though, not just drugs. Taking a hike can open your mind just as much as dropping acid.

But growing up in the open-armed environment that my parents raised me in allowed me to think outside the box and believe in this crazy dream of being in a rock Ďní roll band and actually making it come true. It all definitely contributed to the sum of whatever I am now.

PCC:
Your parents are very involved in the arts themselves?

POTTER:
Yeah, they are, actually. My Dad, at this moment, is helping us design the entire set for our music festival in Vermont. We spent a couple hours over the last few days, every day, drawing pictures and creating this kind of world that weíre inviting people to come be a part of in Vermont.

PCC:
And your mom taught you piano?

POTTER:
Yeah, she did. She was a piano teacher and I was just sitting in the background, watching my mom teaching these kids and watching them learn to read music and sort of the more traditional themes of how you would learn music. And I completely didnít get it. It went right over my head. I still to this day couldnít write out a chart for you. I canít read or write music in the traditional form. But she was patient with me. She let me watch her fingers and listen to what she was playing and then I tried to copy it as best I could. To this day, I play ĎGreensleevesí a little different than everybody else.

PCC:
Did your parents just make all this available or did they actually encourage you to participate in the arts?

POTTER:
There was a lot of encouragement. They saw that I had a need to express myself. But they didnít push me. Theyíre definitely not stage parents. They were really careful about that. And to this day, Mom will tell you, ĎFame is a curse. The most valuable thing in the world is anonymity.í And of course, thatís out the window for me. [Laughs]

PCC:
What is the family compound like?

POTTER:
Thereís six buildings and theyíre all built around whatever business my parents were working on at that time. My dad is a sign maker. My Mom painted bowls for the last 30 years and had a very successful sort of heirloom, hand-painted bowl company. And then every time my parents would come up with a new project, weíd build a new building. So weíve got the woodshed, which is for the woodworking and the band saw and the power sanders and all that crazy shit. And then thereís the paint studio. Thereís the vinyl. Thereís the computer graphics. Thereís the offices. And then thereís the way that they built it. It sounds very normal, but itís not. It all looks like the shire from ĎLord of the Rings.í

PCC:
As a child, you painted a portrait of Kurt Cobain?

[Laughs] I did. I found it recently. I just found the painting I did of him. Oh, my God. I loved Kurt Cobain. My sister loved Eddie Vedder. And we would get in fights over which one was better, all the time.

PCC:
So you went from ĎLittle Mermaidí to grunge?

POTTER:
Yeah, I was a kid. And remember, I think it was BMG had that, spend 13 cents, get 13 CDs. So it was like Spacehawk, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Tripping Daisy, all the crazy shit. I mean, to this day, The Flaming Lips, my favorite band. And that was one of my most exciting moments was when I got The Flaming Lips record in my mailbox.

PCC:
The appreciation of classic rock, where did that come from?

POTTER:
I think thatís my parents again. They had a great record collection and really just a beautiful wall of sound. Another one of their companies was called Dream On Productions, where they were both photographers and they would take pictures and then project them onto his crazy screen and theyíd take it on tour with them. And so, the production company was, essentially, the precursor to MTV and VH1. Before there were music videos, there were these music slide shows. Theyíd put it to music. So they wrote off every record they bought, from 1963 till 1978. They had an unbelievable record collection. So, yeah, thatís where the classic rock came from, for sure.

PCC:
Once you really got into the singing, was it a release, emotionally? A way of venting?

POTTER:
I think so. Yeah. I was just a kid. I was 14, 15, having all the angst that other kids had. I had this outlet. I could write these songs and feel like somebody was going to listen to me. And, at the same time, I was very protective over it, very secretive over my songs. As much as I wanted people to hear them, I was also terrified to share with people, because of what people might think.

PCC:
So it must be validating that now people are accepting them, accepting the inner you.

POTTER:
Yeah, exactly. It was all me then, but just a scared, 14-year-old version of me.

PCC:
On stage, do you find that you lose yourself in the moment sometimes? Or are you always very conscious of all the aspects of whatís happening on stage?

POTTER:
Iím always pretty aware of whatís going on around me, more so than I like to let on. Iím really attuned to, if someoneís having a tough time on stage or if thereís a cable getting kicked out of an amp or if a song is too fast or too slow or where my crew guy is. I pay a lot of attention to the visual stuff, so if I think the lighting guy has kept the spotlight on the center of the stage for too long and now Iíve moved to organ, but the spotlight is still on the middle of the stage, I will secretly flag down my guy and tell him to have the lighting guy run it off, because Iím pretty tuned in to whatís happening on stage.

But there definitely are those moments where thereís just abandon and you just have to let it go, especially near the end of the show. Once my control freak self kind of lets go, itís around song 13, right near the end of the show, itís just time to let loose and really lose myself in it. So I definitely do. Itís just that it happens less than you would think.

PCC:
What have been the most satisfying and the most challenging aspects of the whole music career so far?

POTTER:
Just seeing this whole thing come to fruition. Seeing what started out as us playing in little bars turning into two or three thousand people screaming for you. And knowing that we did it from the ground up. There was no machine. There was no audition. There was no formula. We really did kind of invent this thing. And create it. And that I write these songs and people actually sing along to them. And they have all these life experiences right now that seem to be directly related to songs. Itís like my music is becoming peopleís soundtrack. And just the way that music was my soundtrack as a kid and I grew up with the music that affected me and made me think deeply about things, Iím so honored to be able to actually see that happening now and turn around and come full circle.

PCC:
Having built that, what are the dreams yet to be fulfilled?

POTTER:
I want to be the first band to play a two-hour set on the moon. Space is the next frontier.