BLONDE ON BONDS Grace Potter & the Nocturnals
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN | BLURT | http://blurt-online.com
“Hold on,” Grace Potter tells her interviewer abruptly, before yelling to the unexpected guest at her door. “I’m doing an interview. I’ll talk to you in a little bit.”
Message delivered, she returns to the business at hand. “My dad just knocked on the door,” she explains. “He has a bucket of ash that he’s going to put out on the trail. It’s very slippery outside our house right now. He’s surprised, because I’m never on the phone.”
That momentary exchange says a lot about Grace Potter, who, up until recently, was simply a small town girl testing her fortunes at the helm of a college combo, dubbed the Nocturnals due to their forced late night rehearsal schedule. At the time she was a budding singer hoping to transform a homegrown sound mined from rustic influences like Dylan, the Band, Neil Young and other roots-relevant predecessors into something that she and her comrades could call their own.
“That’s what I grew up listening too,” Potter confides, referencing her dad who presumably is out in the yard emptying the contents of his pail on her pathway. “My parents had impeccable taste in music and that was my idea of what was hip, so I’m glad it comes through. In fact, I never knew Bob Dylan was such a popular artist early on because I kind of discovered him around Nashville Skyline. So to me Nashville Skyline was his natural voice. One of my biggest eye-opening moments was – here, she goes into a mock Dylan drawl – that this guy really sang like this. It was really wild for me. That kind of taught me that you can reinvent yourself and you can change.” She then proceeds to lay out a roll call of early influences: “The Band, the Allman Brothers, Spooky Tooth, Steeleye Span… a lot of stuff around that time, like King Crimson, Jethro Tull… ”
Admittedly, it’s a surprisingly eclectic list, especially coming from the lips of one who was presumably too young to have even been born around the era being referenced, specifically, the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
“Me and my dad bonded over music when I was going through my adolescent phase,” Potter explains. “It was great to sit down and realize I didn’t have to go to the record store to pick up the cool stuff. I was the cool kid in class who would make these really obscure mix tapes and my classmates would go ‘Jethro Who?’ My folks headed up this cool little production company called Dream On Productions – it was a precursor to MTV — so they could write off their record purchases. So I had a lot of that visual/musical experience going on as a kid, and it certainly carried over because now I visualize my songs, and I think about all my songs as movies.”
She chuckles, sensing she’s starting to sound a bit dramatic.
“But maybe that’s just my ego.”
Ego seems out of sync for a small town girl who still lives near her parents in the idyllic environs of the Madrigal Valley situated in the center of Vermont. “This is perfect terrain this time of year,” she said of the January winter at the time when Blurt spoke with her. “There’s not as many tourists and it’s a nice time of year for me to be anonymous. It’s a small town, but I can go about my daily schedule and not be, you know, scared off by the crowds. There are three ski areas that surround the valley that I live in… it’s very artist heavy. And very snow bunny heavy on the mountain. It’s gorgeous.”
So gorgeous apparently that Potter’s never left. And while that hardly befits the image of an emerging rock star whose vocal reach falls midway between, say, Janis Joplin and Bonnie Bramlett, she does admit to one diva-esque indulgence. “My biological clock is set to a different setting than most people,” she concedes. “I sleep ridiculously late. I’m a very late sleeper. By the time I wake up, the sun is setting. The night time is the right time, what I can say?”
Potter claims she’s been singing since she was a toddler, when she would trade vocals with her cousin in her grandparents’ backyard. “My grandparents would be sitting in the hammocks and we would be singing in each other’s faces and pretending we were having a singing competition for the world’s greatest singer. My cousin has a great voice but I was loud, like in the ‘Annie’ category. I was aggressive from the get-go, but I went through a phase of being really quiet. I was a hushed vocalist when Matt (Burr), our original drummer, an original Nocturnal, first saw me singing Joni Mitchell and Neil Young songs in a café with a piano and kind of crying into my drink. That was my hushed phase, kind of post-9/11, when everybody wanted that sort of soothing sound, like the Norah Jones kind of thing… and it felt like the right thing to do, to sing this subtle careful music. But after the band formed and we got amplifiers, that’s when I started singing loud again because I had to sing over everybody. However, I first sang that way as a kid and later during my adolescent years, my early college years, and then it went away again. Eventually though, I just became the loud grave digger I’ve always been.”
The Nocturnals’ first two albums – Nothing But the Water (2005) and This Is Somewhere (2007) – took their cue from the rustic influences bestowed by The Band, Neil Young, and the more homegrown elements that populated her parent’s record library. “We were digging into the roots and taking the time-tested examples,” she recalls. “When we were recording our first couple of records, we would sit there with our Band and Neil Young records and play them to our engineer, and say, ‘Make it sound as much like this as possible.’ Now we don’t think in those terms anymore. It’s about inventing something that’s completely fresh and untouched. It’s a natural progression, although it feels so exciting. I know every artist goes through it, but to me, you don’t know until you get there, because if you asked me four years ago I would say, ‘Oh no, I’m going to write songs from the perspective of a 55 year old woman forever because that’s what works for me and I like playing that character and blah, blah, blah.’ But I played that character and that was one thing and this is another, and I’ve lived a little bit of life now and I have my own stories to tell.”
Indeed, that’s evident in their new album, aptly self-titled as if to reflect the band’s rebirth. Working with a new producer, Mark Batson (Dr. Dre, Dave Matthews Band, Alicia Keys, Eminem etc.), the Nocturnals opted to abruptly shift their stance. Consequently, Potter channels her inner Joplin, while the newly expanded Nocturnals morph from a rural communal aggregate into a combo fueled by soulful bluster. Always a powerhouse in terms of her gritty delivery, Potter ups the ante in terms of crafting a more powerful presence, wailing away on sinewy, soulful manifestos like “Paris,” “Oasis,” “Only Love” and “One Short Night” while the rest of the outfit responds with an equally emphatic delivery, rummaging through 13 tracks with a wail and wallop that’s bound to make longtime listeners take notice.
For her part, Potter tends to agree with that assessment. “Sure. Absolutely. We took so many risks, and we did a couple of things that made us say, ‘What were we doing? We really went out there!’ I do hope those risks pay off.”
The evolution of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals was initially precipitated by the material, which first found Potter writing on her own, and then, at her record label’s urging, in tandem with Batson. It also followed the departure of longtime bassist Bryan Dondero, which nearly had a devastating affect of the group’s psyche. “Right around the time that Bryan left the band, I was working in L.A., working on songs and feeling very aimless, aimless in terms of the record – when it was going to happen, how it was going to happen and who was going to play on it? I was thinking like, do I even have a band?”
“So Mark and I started writing songs in the midst of all that. It was a very short time that we sat writing together, but we turned out 14 songs. We would write two or three a day. We were insanely prolific and I had never co-written in my life with anybody, so I was nervous, I was worried, I didn’t want to give away that piece of myself as a really capable songwriter, like a piece of my own skin. But within five minutes, we had this completely symbiotic work sense, so it was really perfect. He’s done a lot of co-writing but he’s been perceived mainly as a producer and at first our relationship was purely songwriting for four months or so, through the spring and into the summer.”
Meanwhile, the singer had also accepted an offer to work with famed producer (and Americana guru) T Bone Burnett. Recalls Potter, “It seemed like a great time for me to jump on an amazing opportunity to work with a legend and his amazing team of studio musicians – Jim Keltner, Mark Ribot and Dennis Crouch.” She goes on to describe the ensuing sessions as “magical. It was like taking a masters class in studio recording. But, as the sessions developed, it became clear that this project was more of a solo album. I’m incredibly blessed to have worked with T Bone and I feel a lifelong connection to him. It’s a rare privilege to do a project like that, and I look forward to a time when I can share it with the world.”
Shortly thereafter, the Nocturnals drafted two new members – Catherine Popper on bass, replacing the departed Dondero, and Benny Yuro, who started sharing guitar duties with original recruit Scott Tournet. This set the stage for recording with Batson, for as Potter explains, “Later in the summer when I started touring with the new lineup, my label saw some video of us at Bonnaroo, and I got a call the next week saying, ‘We need to capture this energy. You guys wanna go into the studio and bang out a few demos?’ Then the demos quickly materialized into a full-length record with Mark.”
Adds Potter, “I think the real change was the new band members. It was a slow epiphany. It certainly wasn’t a moment. These two new musicians came into the picture and I wasn’t prepared for how much I was going to change with that. I think that a lot of bands go through that. You lose a member, you add a member, you add a new sound, you add a number – it went from a four-piece band to a five-piece band. That one addition changed so much about what we do and what kind of music we’re playing and the epiphany was the really fresh sound. It was a new direction. Over time, over the years, you keep on adding people, but you can only capture the lightning in a bottle once ever, and it was just really exciting and magical to be able to do that with these guys.
“When Bryan left, it was a somewhat tricky and emotional time in the band’s career,” Potter continues. “Not to say the band fell apart, or that me and Scott and Matt said, ‘Okay, we’re going to disband and there’s not going to be a Grace Potter and the Nocturnals,’ but within the band, it felt very much like a hole in the entire future of our group, so the idea of replacing Bryan was not in our mind at the time. Yet, we had some gigs we were already committed to and so we needed to fill in for him for those shows and for a VH1 Woodstock movie documentary (Woodstock: Then and Now, for which the group recorded Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” which later showed up in the Alice in Wonderland soundtrack as well). So the whole changeover in the band was kind of an emotional time and it was a time of not knowing what was going to happen next. And what happened next was Catherine Popper was looking for a job and it was either us or Led Zeppelin (laughs), so she said ‘I’ll come in and do a quick audition and whatever.’ Benny had already been in rock bands that had played with us, so he already knew our songs. And we just pulled it together for that VH1 movie and at the end of the session, we all just looked at each other and said, ‘My God, we have a band!’ As we got going and the band formed, everything kind of happened at once and there was this kind of sliding scale of experiences where you can hear it in the lyrics of the songs – it changed from ‘Tiny Lights,’ which was one of the first songs we wrote, to ‘Hot Summer Night,’ which was one of the last songs we wrote. Things were really heating up and we breezed through the record.”
Still, for all the factors that transpired simultaneously, Potter says the elements fell in place in a completely organic manner. “It was just completely natural and it all just sort of happened,” she maintains. “I’m telling you, some of these songs fell out of us so quickly like I’ve never seen or ever hope to be able to see again. The demo for the song ‘Oasis’ was a reggae song or a hip-hop thing, and we thought, ‘How is this going to make sense to our fans that have heard us for years?’ Benny and Scott had this guitar piece going that was so endearing and wonderful, and all of a sudden, the hook just formed and the song took shape and we were ready to record it. And every single song on this album was the second or third take at the very least. ‘White Rabbit’ we recorded in the same session and that was the first take. There were a lot of first takes on this record. The word synergy can’t be overused to describe what was happening. In fact, I don’t know if we went into the studio now if it would come out just the same.”
Given this change in m.o., Potter is the first to admit that her band has never fit comfortably into a single narrow divide. Elements of country rock, R&B, Americana and a jam band instinct have all been tossed out to describe the group in the past. In fact, for many bands, the inability to be narrow cast would likely be considered a handicap, especially when attempting to market them to a specific audience.
“I think that’s a blessing,” Potter counters. “It’s tricky because we’re that gray area band. We don’t fit into a perfect sock – ‘Oh, this is a Coachella band or this is a band that we could put on MTV, or let’s have them cut a video for Japan and have them tour over there forever.’ There’s no simple way to put us and there’s so much possibility, but in terms of being a crossover act, all those possibilities can become mind-boggling and you don’t know what path to choose. So that’s been the case over the past seven years. You just follow whatever path it’s going to be and see what happens. But I never look back and wonder what would have happened. Certainly every step has become more fundamental in where we eventually wound up.”
While the trajectory may be tricky, Potter has no doubt as to their goals. “I plan on world domination myself,” she declares without hesitation. “I have utter faith. I’d like to start with Europe because I always wanted to tour over there and travel. I lived in Spain – when my parents couldn’t handle me anymore they just said, ‘God, put her on a plane and put her somewhere away from us.’ So Europe is a big one for me. I’d love to get to Asia. I’ve spent a lot of time in Ireland and we did a mini tour over there. We played St. Patrick’s Day week and we had a great time.”
Regardless of future destinations, Potter insists she’s pleased with the progress so far. “I grew up an artist’s kid and my parents raised me right and I feel really, really lucky to be coming from that place. It’s much harder when you’ve had to fight against the current. My folks have been incredibly supportive of me since the beginning, so that’s where the pride comes from.”