A FEW MINUTES WITH… Grace Potter
Interview and story by Don Wilcock
Call it unfortunate, ironic or even bad business that Grace Potter and the Grateful Dead & Friends – or whatever they’re calling themselves these days – are playing the same night (Thursday, October 29) at competing venues in Albany. I’m sure the promoters of the Dead at the TU Center and Grace Potter at the Palace Theatre had no idea they were bumping heads with one another. I also suppose that the overlap market for both may not be as big as it is in my head.
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals have made quite a name for themselves in 10 years with a weathered but raw rock sound that appeals to the jam band crowd that morphed as a result of the Grateful Dead counter-culture improv scene. Both acts also appeal to blues lovers and hard rock fans alike.
But Grace Potter is a couple of generations younger than the Dead, and her appeal is as much about her amazing and erotic energy as it is her jam band chops. But at age 32, the still young siren is making a rather dramatic right hand turn with her recently released debut solo album Midnight, which shares more in style with some of the Disney artists on her Hollywood label than it does the Black Crowes, Gov’t Mule or Dave Matthews, all of whom she’s toured with. Or with the Dead for that matter. After all, Potter sang solo on the soundtrack to Disney’s 50th animated feature, “Tangled.”
Yes, at the Palace, she’s performing with her husband, Nocturnals drummer Matt Burr, but she’s no longer calling the band the Nocturnals. And her music is – well, shall we say – more mainstream friendly…
Q: How did starting with drums influence your muse on the new album as opposed to starting with melody or lyrics when you were with the Nocturnals?
A: That’s a great question. You know, I didn’t think it would do much, but it really does because when you start with the beat as opposed to starting with keys or a melody or lyrics building scaffolding, you already know what the building looks like. You just have to figure out what color to paint it, and where and when the bridge is going to come banging in and all that shit. Sorry. You’ll have to edit around my French here.
Q: We’ll say spit instead of shit. How’s that?
A: But, yeah, it really does change the nature because you’re building a framework, and for me a lot of times, I’ve always built from the melody and even with Matt (Burr), my drummer, whose been around forever, and has really learned and become the drummer he is by playing around my melodies. It was kind of a cool vacation or just the opposite because all of a sudden he was at the center of it, and being able to really understand how words and phrases of my vocal can fit around a beat. So, it changed things from a fundamental level because I then built a melody to dance around the beat instead of the beat dancing around my melody.
Q: Did his being your husband and you’re having an intimate relationship help in that process?
A: I don’t know if it was directly related. I mean other than just the fact that he was in a brilliantly close proximity to me when I was writing. So, if I had an idea for a rhythm, I could spit it out to him and say, “Hey, can you turn out something like this,” so that I could sort of feel the live experience of his drums right there next to me. The proximity was really the main advantage, but I don’t necessarily feel that our relationship played into it as much as the proximity of having an awesome drummer right there when I needed him to kind of throw down and go for it.
Q: What was different about Eric Valentine as a producer that led you to feel that you could play your songs for him before he signed on?
A: Eric brought about a comfort the second that I met him. It was just like this guy can be trusted with new music. He has not just a sensibility like a producer in Hollywood where you go in and he’s like, “Alright. I’m gonna fix you. Here we go! This is what we’re going to do with you, lady.” It was this sort of a commonality in the sense of sort of a communal, creative appreciation for one another, a mutual respect that made it really easy for me not to feel cagey about it ’cause I’m cagey about my songs. I don’t like sharing them with people. It’s like especially if they’re not done or if I’m still in draft mode, I’m very shy about it.
Q: How did he make you feel comfortable? What was it about the chemistry there?
A: I think he’s just a really chill dude. He’s really got an energy that invites as opposed to reflects something that he expects out of you. It’s just kind of a curiosity and a common understanding and goal like, “OK, let’s make this as good as it can be. How do we do that?” You know?
Q: Your solo album has guitarists Scott Tournet and Benny Yurco, bassist Michael Libramento and your husband on drums. They’ve all played with the Nocturnals. Why not continue with that name? What was your rationale for calling this a solo album and not a Nocturnals album?
A: Well, I think it was two parts: One was it was that was supposed to be a Nocturnals album, and when I started writing it, I thought it was a Nocturnals record and presented the songs to my band after I’d written them as like, “Here we go. Let’s go to the studio and do this.” But I think the combination of two things; one was I think they knew before I did that this was definitely not Nocturnal sounding music, and the second they heard it – well, not the second because it took two weeks for them to actually respond after I sent them the music.
Q: Wait a minute. Say that again. Back up. It took them two weeks to figure out that the game was up for this album?
A: Uh – yeah, I think they were just trying to kinda figure out where they fit into the sound, you know, because these demos I did were really complete. They were really the fully realized sound that I was chasing, so there wasn’t a lot of space for like, “OK, this is where I’m gonna come in, and this is where my guitar solo is gonna be.” It was kind more like, “OK, there is no guitar solo, and also there’s six more keyboards than there have ever been before.”
I’m talking about song by song here. I’m not talking about the whole record, but I think overall there was just a sense that this is a very specific shift happening, and they were just trying to understand and take account of where they were as creative people because everybody in the band is their own creative entity, and everybody wants to feel appreciated and represented in the demo, and there was just none of that because the demos sounded like me, sounded like my voice, but I was in denial of that, and I definitely continued on. I went on for another five months thinking like everything’s fine. It’s a Nocturnals record. Everything is great.
This is definitely still a Nocturnals record. They came in and recorded, but then as we were really winding down the process of making the record, I started thinking about the fans. I started thinking about the people that have come to these shows, the legacy we’re built as a band and how valuable that is, how much it means to me to be respectful of that legacy, and that’s when it dawned on me that the reaction of my band was actually totally understandable and that the reaction of my fans, yeah, I could slap the Nocturnals name on it like the fuckin’ sticker on an orange and say, ‘Cool, this is an orange,’ but it’s not. It’s an apple! It’s a different thing.
So it wasn’t the same old great – you know – countrified classic rock, American roots band that you’ve loved all along. I mean, this is not that record. It’s a creative expression and an extension of me just like the Nocturnals is an extension of me, but it’s not the whole me. So it was a good opportunity for me to sort of separate the two things. Call attention to the fact that I as an artist have a lot of different creative directions I wanted to go in. I took the opportunity with this record even though I didn’t necessarily mean to.
I’ve always written the songs, but I’ve gone out of my way and made sure to really acknowledge the rest of the band because I think especially female artists tend to get shoved up front, and then the band is the backing band, and that always bummed me out.
I wanted to be the cool girl that didn’t do that. So, I’ve always really gone out of my way to make sure that the Nocturnals were recognized, represented, were talked about in the press, trying as much as I could to prop up the entire band experience. And that was in part also because it’s sort of a bummer to take all the credit because if something is bad, then it’s all your fault. So that’s another piece of it. It’s not just me.
Q: So, it’s not Disney, and it’s not the Nocturnals.
A: Oh, I don’t know. I think Mickey definitely smiled a lot when he heard the (song) “Delirious”… until he heard the outro. I definitely wasn’t pandering to Disney by writing this record. It was more my own exploration, but I wanted to make some music they might actually be able to sell, for sure.
Q: So, you think you’ll go back to a Nocturnals album next time?
A: No, no to the Nocturnals thing. I don’t know if I’ll go back because something didn’t work. I think ultimately it’s about continuing the exploration. Life and music is not about saying I’m gonna do this or that forever. It’s about saying, “OK, cool. I tried this. Now I’m gonna try that, and now I’m gonna try the third thing, and I’m not done trying things. So we’ll see what’s gonna happen next.”