Hear Her Roar
After making music together for nearly a decade, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals are turning heads in the mainstream with their fiery blend of classic rock ‘n’ roll, blues and country. In anticipation of her upcoming show at The Pageant on Jan. 10, ALIVE caught up with Potter to talk about her rock star lifestyle, her Nocturnal brothers and their powerful new album, “The Lion The Beast The Beat.”
ALIVE: With such a rapid rise, how are you keeping sane? Is there anyone helping you get through it or does it just come naturally to you?
Grace Potter: You know it’s so funny because everybody asks me this. It feels like this overnight thing, but it’s so not. Actually, a good example is the Avett Brothers—we’re dear friends with them and we were talking about how everybody al of the sudden says, “Oh my god! You guys are all over the place! You’re so famous, how did this happen?”
And when you’re in the middle of it, it’s not just like, “This is crazy and I’m going insane.” It’s really one day at a time, because everything that happens to you—if you’ve worked at it as long and as hard as we have (we’ve been together for 10 years this February)—it’s kind of laughable. People say, “You guys are blowing up, has anything changed?” I’m like, “No man I’m still eating spaghetti and drinking wine out of a box.” It’s the same.
The thing that does keep me sane, whether we’re majorly successful or not, are really my brothers/best friends/family-mates in The Nocturnals. I think that’s been a huge piece of my life and my sanity, knowing that I’ve got such an amazing team of guys who love and cherish being on stage as much as I do, and love making music as much as I do. We’ve stayed together—me, Scotty, Mattie—since 2003. We’re coming up on our 10th anniversary, so I’m reflecting on that a lot—it’s certainly a huge piece of what’s kept me sane and kept me grounded.
ALIVE: You’ve been making music for a long time now. Was there a certain point where you realized, “Wow, I’m making a career out of this this thing that I’m passionate about?” Is that a moment, or is it just kind of a slow realization?
GP: It happens all the time. I am grateful every day. I’ve got a really good friend who will stop me and say, “Are we having a moment? Let’s stop and have a moment.” And we sit and we think about all the things that we’re thankful for. It’s not gushy-mushy, it’s actually really real. If you think about it, life happens to everybody every day and just like any other person, with any other career, you have to reflect on what you’re thankful for. You have to realize how lucky you are. I mean, looking at a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy or what happened with the tsunami or the earthquake in Haiti…everyone should be thankful all the time.
But those moments come in these flashes of gratitude that can be as simple as being able to pay my rent, pay my bills, go out to dinner. I’m so lucky to be able to actually say that music is my career. That this is the thing I chose to do, and it wasn’t running away to join a circus…that it actually turned into something viable is a real accomplishment and something I’m so proud of.
ALIVE: Did it ever feel like running away to join the circus?
GP: I thought it was! For years, especially when I dropped out of college to pursue rock ‘n’ roll, I knew it was all going to work out. I knew in my heart and in my head that this is what’s going to happen: we’re going to become ginormous and show everyone what rock ‘n’ roll is all about, all over again. In my mind, that’s what was happening.
Of course, things change and I had to show a lot of patience at the same time. As much as I love doing what I’m doing, there are moments of major frustration to see other small bands coming up through the ranks and all of a sudden surpass us. There are definitely those moments where you’re like, “Ugh!” But you can’t let that shit get the better of you. It’s not as important as making music that you believe in, and believing that whatever you’re doing, and however slow or fast its happening, that it’s all happening for a reason. And that’s a very important thing to me; I remind myself of that daily.
ALIVE: Your style musically is so much a balance between classic rock ‘n’ roll and country influences—can you talk a little about that?
GP: Yeah, it depends…I’ll write a song and it accidentally turns into a rock song. I’ve written ballads that then turn into songs like, “Paris Ooh La La.” They start out as one thing and become something very different. I think that also when we’re fired up and we’re having a good day—if we’re feeling feisty—we’ll kind of put some fire behind it, and what was a wilting 3/4 ballad turns into a crazy rocker. But thinking of it the other way, sometimes a song decides what sort of song it wants to be once the band learns it. That’s why I love writing on my own, disappearing into my own world to write songs but then bringing it to the band and seeing what happens—because they bring it to life. I’m not capable of bringing a song to life on my own. The closest I’ve come is a song like “Stars,” which I can perform solo, and you get the heart of the song, and its emotional in that way. But with most of our music, it’s more about the group effort. That’s where the country influences, blues influences, gospel influences, soul, electronic, R&B, reggae, psychadelic…all of that stuff starts playing its part as we pull the songs together. But, it takes a second—it doesn’t always come easy. Sometimes we have to work really hard at it.
ALIVE: Your new album, “The Lion The Beast The Beat,” is such a powerful and—to use your words—feisty, very fired-up album as a whole. Where did that come from?
GP: I really needed an album that roared. I needed something that officially put the stamp on the fact that we are a rock ‘n’ roll band. I think that it was accidental. When I started writing the record, I didn’t know what kind of record we were making. I think I had frustration around the songwriting process, because a lot of the songs I had turned into the record company that they really loved, I didn’t love. They loved them because they sounded commercially viable and we were on a train to a good place…but I wasn’t even halfway to that place when I recognized that it wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. Then, I felt that there was too much pandering going on in the songwriting process, so I pulled back from the whole process and kind of started from scratch about two months into making the record. I had a freak-out and just said, “No, I’m going to start over.” I went off into the woods and disappeared for a month, and then came back with “The Lion The Beast The Beat.”
ALIVE: Let’s move on to the Grand Point North Festival in your home state, Vermont. This is its second year, right?
GP: Yes! It was a major success. What was so special about it this year was having our friends The Avett Brothers there and our friends Dr. Dog, and bringing some of these national acts to come see what Vermont is all about. Everyone was just so full of love and happiness about the event, it was just a really special time for everyone. I just loved it.
ALIVE: So if you were to put together the best festival lineup of all time, living or dead artists, who would you put on it?
GP: Oh I love this question! Money not included, because I can’t afford any of these people, I would have: David Bowie, with his original band, performing “Ziggy Stardust.” I would have The Mamas and The Papas for the feel-good moment in the show, because that would be awesome. Definitely The Doors would be the late-night band. I would like The Kinks to be the mid-afternoon-turning-into-evening set, followed by…I would say Led Zeppelin has to close out one night and The Who has to close out the other night. But also I want the Electric Light Orchestra, and just for flavor I’ll throw in some Radiohead and some LCD Soundsystem on either night so we can have a little bit of an electronic art-rock influence in there. From modern-day, we should definitely have some hip-hop representation, so let’s get Jay-Z to come, and Beyonce will sit in for his set, and that will be great. And we’ll end the second night after-party with Captain Beefheart.
ALIVE: The Love for Levon concert earlier this month…can you talk a little bit about your connection with him, and his legacy?
GP: Yeah I actually came to know Levon through his daughter, Amy. We were always fans, and the band actually started based on Levon inspiring me and the rest of the guys. We would watch videos and watch “The Last Waltz,” and watch [The Band] performing in Europe, and we were just kind of dreaming of the day that we could do something similar. So, he started out as an influence on us from the very beginning, whether he knew it or not. But then, later in life, we had the great joy to meet him and go play his [Midnight] Ramble—which really just was the icing on an already wonderful cake. He’s been a part of our lives basically from day one.
We opened for [Amy’s band Ollabelle] at the Iron Horse in North Hampton, MA, years ago—2004 or 2005. We loved watching them, and we were sort of captivated by what they were doing. So I got to know Amy, we traded phone information and I just subsequently ran into her a bunch over the years and really loved that whole Ramble scene. I thought it was a special group of people who really were putting their energy toward something great.
When he passed away, it just hit us like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t imagine not being a part of the Love for Levon event. When he passed away, it just felt truly like my dad had died. Not my dad, but the father of our band—the father of everything that made us who we are initially. We felt a deep loss, and were pretty inconsolable for a few days. We had to cancel a radio show because we were crying—it was really intense.
ALIVE: How did you come to help design a signature Grace Potter Flying V guitar with Gibson?
GP: I love Gibson, and they love me! I’ve played Gibsons my whole guitar-playing life, which started when I was 20. I bought a guitar for myself, the J45 acoustic. But later, as the band got louder and more boisterous and fun on stage, I thought I wanted to get a great electric. I started trying to make sense of all these different guitars I had, and the one that felt most comfortable was the Flying V. The weight distribution on it just feels better for my body and the way that I move. So I just fell in love with it, and Gibson came to me and said, “Do you want to take a tour of the factory?” As I’m in the factory and looking around, they were like: “Okay, so what color would yours be? What do you want the pick-guard to look like? What strings do you play?” And all of a sudden, I was like, “Are we designing a guitar here?” And we did! It took a long time it was this painstaking process, but I loved every moment of it—especially the part where I got to design the pick-guard.
ALIVE: So is that what you play on stage now?
GP: Yeah that’s the guitar that you’ll see. I love it, and it’s got a great tone. It basically just hearkens back to the great sounds of some of the blues men I admire…like Albert King, who played a V, and also a little bit of that Ray Davies/Kinks rhythm guitar sound that I admire from the ’70s. It combines a little bit of everything and makes me very happy!
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
Photo credit: Photo by Lauren Dukoff, courtesy of Hollywood Records.