February 18, 2011
By David Huff
The Little Mermaid Finds Her Own Voice
A JAM Magazine Exclusive Interview
It's Valentine's Day. Instead of the usual dinner and flowers, I've opted for a total change in tradition that centers solely around conversation. My early evening date is Grace Potter, the sexy chanteuse who fronts a band bearing her name - and more often than not, her soul. The Memphis hotel has graciously comped the room this evening, so we can focus on the business at hand, getting to know one another. Most first date conversations are spent trying to figure out what two people have in common. This meeting of the minds is a bit more one-sided. I just want to know who my Valentine date truly is.
Grace was encouraged by devoted parents, and a Disney film, to pursue her artistic dreams. Raised as an only child in a secluded family compound in Waitsfield, Vermont, Potter aspirations toward music began at an early age. When she arrived in college, fate intervened. A drummer named Matt Burr pursued Grace to form a band with him. Resisting at first, Miss Potter finally gave in. Guitarist Scott Tournet was brought into the fold, thus forming the nucleus that would become Grace Potter & the Nocturnals. The group's self-titled effort released last year is a reintroduction of sorts, to the world at large. The Nocturnals were almost given up for dead two years ago, but a couple of member additions here and a subtraction there turned their fortunes around. Today, a more confidant Grace can now focus on the business at hand - me! Happy Valentine's Day indeed!
JAM: I was going to apologize for not knowing anything about your group, but from what I've been reading, you really didn't become a band until Catherine Popper and Benny Yurco joined some 18 months ago. Is that a fair statement?
Grace Potter - That is partially true. I will say that the Nocturnals were more on hiatus, because they weren't a side project. Our original bass player left, and he was a big part of how we grew and what the Nocturnals became. This band changed dramatically over the past two years, and yes, it is fair to say that when Cat and Benny joined, the whole thing kicked into a higher gear, for sure.
JAM: You said in a past interview that when it was time to reform the group, instead of just replacing your former bass player, you thought it would be more interesting to kind of recreate the band with a new energy and focus. Exactly how do you recreate a band when you are the focal point?
Well, that's a good question. First off you have to have respect for the music. You have to maintain the drive that initially brought you together while pushing yourselves forward musically. Because this band focuses so much on its live performance, as the focal point, I do have a responsibility to fulfill. I really felt that when Ben and Cat joined the Nocturnals, our opportunity to step it up a notch presented itself. We cranked it up to eleven.
JAM: You can barely see your hand in front of your face without corrective eye ware, is that correct?
JAM: You don't wear contacts or glasses when you perform on stage?
No I don't.
JAM: Then you are legally blind, correct?
I have a driver's license wear I have to have a special prescription glasses in order to drive. This may sound kind of strange, but when I'm up performing on stage, I don't like to deal with details. I live my life in broad strokes, if you haven't noticed. As much as I love focusing on detail in the studio, or with music, when I am on stage, the worse thing that can happen to me is getting caught off guard. The last thing I want is to be paying attention to what the sunglasses say on the frame of the dude in the front row.
JAM: To me, your lack of visual clarity creates a total disconnect from the crowd that enables you to lose yourself in Grace World.
Actually, going on stage blind enables me to connect with the audience in a much broader fashion. Instead of looking at individual people, I'm feeling the entire energy of the crowd. It doesn't matter if we're performing to 800 people at a rock club, or 12,000 at a music festival, I am giving them an incredible ball of energy on that stage. Our music, this show, it's not about the individual person; just like my performance on stage isn't about me. When I'm with the crowd, I like to think that our relationship with an audience is a collective experience. It's not about me looking at that one cute boy in the second row and making eyes at him all night long. That is not what I am there for.
JAM: You are the first artist in over 20 years that when I first saw your video on MTV, I actually stopped what I was doing to see you perform. I was so blown away by your guitar playing and singing, I actively searched you out on the Internet. It's like you're this eight-year old surprise that finally jumped out of the cake.
It's a crazy world out there, that's for sure. It's cool we live in a time where people can take their creative energy and do something extraordinary with it. The fact you were able to track me down through the Internet proves that.
JAM: You are very fortunate you grew up in a household that embraced and nurtured whatever artistic endeavors you chose to pursue.
I couldn't agree with you more. My folks are amazing. They just came out on the road with us for a week and a half when we traveled the coast of California. I am kind of amazed my parents actually did the whole tour thing with us. Not only did they dig it, but mom and dad totally understood what we were doing. They raised me to appreciate the gifts I was born with. Beyond the liberal lifestyle I grew up in, my parents fully embraced this one philosophy to live by. Sometimes doing what you want to do leads to more success than doing what you are supposed to do.
JAM: You speak a little Spanish, French and Italian. You play piano and a mean guitar. You have the voice that blows people away when you open your mouth. You can cook, and you aren't too bad to look at. But the most important thing you actually have going for you Grace is this. You are a highly regarded guitar player, not a female guitar player mind you, but a guitar player. Do you understand what I'm saying?
Yes I do, and I appreciate you saying that. I don't take my guitar playing skills lightly. When it comes to singing, yeah, every once in a while I take my voice for granted. The guitar however, that's something I am constantly working at and have a great reverence for. I deeply respect people who can do it well. It's a unique craft to master, and I certainly do understand what you are saying. I just want to continue to become a better and better guitar player. That's real rock and roll to me.
JAM: When you exchanged your blue jeans and flannel shirts for stylish dresses and a look that embraced your sexuality, did the overall concept of Grace Potter & the Nocturnals change as well?
The music was the source of the change visually. Music sustains this fire, and the lather of sexuality it stirs up, you just can't do in jeans and cowboy boots. All of us have had to step up our performances. Since I'm out front, I've had to incorporate the visual thing to go along with my other responsibilities. I want people to walk out of our shows thinking they just got a two and a half hour massage. Our overall performance has to be sexy and really fulfilling. I think that the clothing and our sexuality onstage, as well as that energy the five of us can pull out of a crowd, is really reflective of the music. If we make a different kind of music some day, and we all go Sigor Ros and make a crazy spiritual art record, then the visual will change again.
JAM: With Cat coming on board, did it allow you to be more comfortable in your own skin, so to speak?
I think it actually started with the music, and growing up to be a woman in this business as opposed to being a young lady trying to be taken seriously as a singer / songwriter. When I fully embraced who Grace Potter was, I finally felt my songs were garnering respect and understanding from people. I had passed that bridge in my career were I was happy to have the respect I had worked so hard to get. Then I thought I love to dress up in nice clothes, so I started wearing dresses on stage. The music was the source of the change visually.
JAM: So has Playboy made an offer to you?
No, I'm keeping these puppies covered up. These are all mine to enjoy.
JAM: Relationships in bands, and I've noticed the past 20, 25 years, are often very tricky, mentally challenging, sometimes volatile, but they always make for some great songs because of the emotions involved. As the leader of the band, is it difficult for you to maintain a relationship and still be the boss?
Well, not if I screw all the guys in the band, then get out the whips, chains and ball gags when they've been bad boys. On the flip side, I can be all tender and wear lace when they've been good. So, it works very well for me being in charge.
JAM: With all channels of this band literally running through you, is it difficult for you to find songwriting partners, or do you even need one?
Writing music is definitely an emotional thing for me. Personally, I love writing with someone. When this band first started out, I was really scared to bare myself emotionally. Part of that came from being protective over my own songwriting abilities. When we first started out, whenever I would see a woman's name as a co-writer on a song, I thought to myself, "Yeah, she probably wrote that fluffy love part and the dude probably wrote all the good shit!" I stereotyped women in this business just like everybody else does. Once I got over that, and realized that people understood what kind of songwriter I was, it actually opened me up to pursue more songwriting opportunities.
JAM: Did these opportunities involve your band or other people?
It involved both actually. For instance, Scott and I discovered cool ways to write songs. We would get together and he'd come up with these creative chord and movement changes on guitar that from my perspective as a player, never occurred to me. His creativity with the music freed me up to work on the lyrics. For example "Medicine," a song on our new record, he and Matt (Burr, drummer) wrote the music for it, and I came up with the line, 'She's got the medicine everybody wants.' The lyric and the vocal flow right in with the music. Sometimes as a writer, you just have to lock yourself into a room and be alone with your feelings. I pull from all different kinds of places - some emotional, some as simple as walking by a newsstand reading a story that so shocks the shit out of me, I just feel I have to write about it.
JAM: You are on a label that features Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers. Your presence on the Disney label, for lack of a better term, seems totally out of character for them.
This may sound silly, but this company is where my heart lies. That's the true answer to your question. I wouldn't be a singer and a musician if it weren't for Disney's Little Mermaid movie. I saw that movie as a kid, and I determined at age nine I was a better singer than Ariel. I told my mom and dad I could sing better, and that someday I'm going to be in a movie and was going to make music for a living. That's when my singing dreams started.
JAM: You're serious?
You bet I am. When a bidding war for our band started back in 2005, there were six or seven labels gunning for us. Hollywood Records came in late to the game, but their label head, Bob Cavallo, had such an understanding of what we were doing, it came down to a matter of trust. Bob approached us from an artist manager perspective. In the past, he had managed Earth, Wind and Fire, Little Feat and Seal. This guy knew a lot. He was there shooting concert photos of Janis Joplin.
JAM: Bob Cavallo was more than just a label head as far as you were concerned.
You are exactly right. Bob's rock and roll background is so extensive you can't find anybody like that any more. In the end, it came down to who Bob was. It also didn't hurt that he had flown cross-country - which he never does - to see the band perform in a shitty little Boston club. He invited us out to dinner, but we declined. I said "No, no thanks. I don't think we want to go out to dinner with you. But, you can come and hang out with us backstage after our set and drink some whiskey if you want to talk." And that's what he did. Our relationship with him started at that moment, and it continues strong to this day.
JAM: There seems to be some other tangible benefits derived from your inclusion on the label as well.
Let me put it to you this way. Disney has turned out to be an absolute God send for me and the band. Also, you need to keep in mind if it weren't for the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus, we wouldn't have been afforded the time to grow as an artist. Those two acts between them sold millions and millions of albums and actually paid for us to be on the label. Because of their success, this band didn't have to supplement our incomes by painting houses, like we used to. I always say thank you to the Jonas Brothers whenever I see them in the Disney offices, because they paid for us to record. It is very bizarre to me it wound up this way, but again, we took advantage of it on several points. We did the Jefferson Airplane cover of "White Rabbit" on the Disney soundtrack for their movie, Alice in Wonderland. I got to write the end credit song for the Disney animated film Tangled. So those are two things the Disney umbrella allowed me to do. It's like my childhood dream is coming true, and my rock star goddess dream is coming true, all in one place. That's pretty rare.
JAM: This is an interesting line that a fan wrote about Grace Potter & the Nocturnals who has followed the band for eight years. He said he loved the evolution, the exploration and honesty of the band because they were all great musicians not afraid of hard work. Is that a nice summation of the group to this point?
Here's the thing. Hard work is what gets you to really bite off and chew the good things that come at you. If we hadn't of toured our asses off, like riding in a van towing a trailer behind the Black Crowes bus, or getting out on the road with Gov't Mule and learning from guys like Warren Haynes, we wouldn't be appreciating this golden opportunities we are enjoying with this record. Over the years, we watched how bands are supposed to behave on the road. We paid our dues, learned the etiquette, and came to understand what the lifestyle of being on the road demands from you. Today, we are playing sold out shows across the country on our own in big rooms. Three years ago I couldn't imagine doing this. Our hard work out here and in the studio is enabling us to enjoy this success, but at the same time, we certainly don't feel entitled. Grace Potter & the Nocturnals have a long way to go, and the five of us know it. Fortunately, we have a solid foundation to build from.