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Amazing Grace

"I always had a death wish to be a star," says SCAD's year-end concert headliner

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POSTED: May 30, 2012 10:10 a.m.
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Grace Potter and the Nocturnals will perform at 7 p.m. June 1 in Forsyth Park in Savannah.

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If there’s any mojo left in the music business, this will become the year of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.

This year’s headlining band for the SCAD “New Alumni” concert is an exemplary rock ‘n’ roll outfit, tough as the Foo Fighters and tender as the Avetts, big on soaring guitars, chunky riffs and insanely catchy melodies.

And then there’s Grace.

The charismatic Vermont–born and bred Potter, 28, is the band’s chief songwriter, frontwoman and, most auspiciously, lead singer.

Potter is a rock ‘n’ roll vocalist with a bluesy edge, but there’s this thing in her voice that you don’t often find in singers from that dime–a–dozen milieu — a clear, almost innocent tone that gives everything she sings a wonderful gossamer quality.

She’s a dynamo onstage, too, loose and wild and funny, exuding feel–good hippie–jam love and a contagious zeal for the unfettered joy of music–making.

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals’ fourth major–label album, The Lion The Beast The Beat, will be released on June 12.
The day after the Savannah show, Potter and the boys begin a long summer tour that includes high–profile stadium slots as the opener for country stars Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw.

Congratulations on the new single, “Never Go Back.” I can’t get it out of my head.

Grace Potter: Oh, thank you. It’s really great to hear. It’s funny because it’s a dividing point for me as a musician — this is that moment, just now, where I’m just starting to hear what other people think of the song. It’s a really cool thing to see how everybody’s receiving it. Obviously, I’m biased.

What does this album represent to you? Is this like your Sgt. Pepper? Are you rubbing your hands together, going “Just wait till they hear this one”?

Grace Potter: (laughing) This is definitely our Sgt. Pepper. Actually, it might be more Rubber Soul. There’s just a lot to it. It was a real labor of love. This was an intense record to make because we were much more involved. I co–produced it. Really sunk my teeth into it, in a way I’ve never done before. Usually, my experience with making records is you find a producer, the producer kind of does his or her thing with you, and you come out the other side and go “Oh, I’m glad that turned out great.” Or: “I didn’t like how that turned out, and it’s all their fault.”

But this time around, it was kind of taking all that load and putting it on ourselves. With the deft ability of people like Jim Scott and Dan Auerbach, we marched on. One thing that’s very different about this record is that it’s a mobile record. We didn’t just make it in one place. We made it everywhere. I mean, we tracked in Nashville, L.A., I did the vocals in a hotel room, we tracked some of it in Vermont, some of it in Northern California. There’s just a lot of elements in play that much more reflect how we’ve been living our lives for the last few years.

Is every record a make–or–break thing? Do you ...

Grace Potter: Always, yeah. They all have to be the make–or–break thing, absolutely. And it’s not like I would quit making music if we stopped selling records. But I think there’s an expectation every time we put a record out that this is gonna be the one. I think we’ve always thought that. Every single record I’ve ever made, this is definitely the one.

And what I love about that is that we never really have had the one. We’ve had a lot of close calls and some near major smash–it–home hits. But it never really goes all the way there, which I’m really grateful for in a way. Because it’s given us a really nice solid foundation to stand on so we’re not just a, you know, hit machine. And I think that’s a pretty cool thing to be able to say, that we’ve really enjoyed almost a decade of making music together.

One thing I like about your music is that it has a strong strain of pop in it – there are really strong hooks in the songs. Is pop a dirty word for you?

Grace Potter: No, I love pop. Because everything’s changed. It’s not what it used to be. I love pop music — I listen to fuckin’ Rihanna, and I dance around like an idiot. There’s a place and time for every kind of music, but pop is so many things — and obviously we are a rock ‘n’ roll band, but within that, yeah, we would like to be considered pop music because that’s what it is. If we’re getting right down to the nitty gritty of it, a hook is a hook because people want to dance, they want to sing. They remember it.

It’s not a dirty thing to do; if you want to sing it over and over again, and get it stuck in your head, that’s a good thing. So yeah, we’re pretty fearless when it comes to hooks and things like that. But having said that, there does have to be a craft, and a sensibility, and a balance to it. You can’t really put your finger on it – you just have to know what the fuck you’re doing.

So it’s been exactly 10 years since you stopped doing open mic nights in Vermont and started a rock ‘n’ roll band. Was your musical evolution – getting here from there – gradual or fast?

Grace Potter: I think my evolution would have been drastically different if I wasn’t in a band. That I was loyal to and that I loved. Benny, our guitarist, was driving recently and he was listening to the record, and he was like, “God, I fuckin’ love this record!” We were having a love–fest on the phone. And I said “Everything that happened built up to the music sounding the way it sounds. If any little piece of this had happened differently, it wouldn’t be this kind of music.”

I always had a death wish to be a star. When I was 4 years old I was singing The Little Mermaid and dreaming of the day when I could be in the spotlight. So there was always that ball of energy inside me, waiting to pop off and tell the world what I had to say. But I think the way in which it has happened is so much more rewarding, because I never did have that one defining moment, or that one defining song, or that really sad “trying really hard for 10 years and never quite making it” thing. I think this was completely a group exercise.

But was it always going to be rock ‘n’ roll? I’m trying to figure out if you were more Jewel or Shakira in those days. Or more Bonnie Raitt?

Grace Potter: Defnitely Bonnie Raitt. She was the guideline for me and for a lot of young women coming up in the music industry.

I wanted to be Robert Plant. Or Mick Jagger. I didn’t think about the female side of it. I wasn’t really led by many females; I wasn’t attracted to as many females as I was attracted to males. I would watch footage of Mick Jagger humping the big inflatable penis and I was like, “OK, how do I make that my job? How can I be that guy?” So I’m happy to have made it even a tenth as far as I expected to.

You walked out of the initial sessions for The Lion The Beast The Beat. What was that all about?

Grace Potter: I was having a mid–life crisis! It had to do with the music, more than anything. What was happening was, we were churning out song after song and the process was not rewarding to me. The songs sounded great, and we were poppin’ ‘em out like bunnies, but it didn’t feel “sticky” – there didn’t feel like there was anything was sticking together. It was just a bunch of songs, and it sounded like we were really searching for a hit. And I was losing faith in myself, because I don’t like writing songs to sound like hits. That’s not how I work. That’s not how my brain works; I don’t want to write a hit. I just want every song I write to BE a hit. (laughing) You can’t aim for it, though. It’s a delicate balance and like I said, you either know how to do it or you don’t.

I didn’t think we were reaping the benefits of what the process of making a record should be about, which is continuity and really falling in love with a body of work all at once. So I scrapped pretty much everything we had done — we’d been recording for two months — and I threw it in the trash and said “Let’s start over.” And I just jumped in the car and drove. I drove for a week; I just pointed the car north and got out of the city. I also went to Vermont, and down to the Caribbean, I just needed to be a vagabond. And that’s where the album really came from.

You’ve said it’s a concept album. Is it?

Grace Potter: That’s a good question. It is and it isn’t. I don’t like saying “concept album,” because I wouldn’t want to deter people from listening to each song. If you hear a song from a concept album, you’re like “I don’t get it, because I haven’t listened to the big picture,” or “I guess I’ve lost the plot.”

I really did want these songs to stand on their own and be their own things, but then also feel like they fit into the groove of a deeper thematic road map. If you listen to the whole record, top to bottom, we tracked it in order so there was a lot of time and thought put into the transitions between songs. I do think that this is a concept record at the heart of it, but I try not to overstate that.

OK, but lyrically does it go from “Tommy, break the mirror” to “Tommy, can you hear me”? That’s what concept albums mean to me.

Grace Potter: Well, the lion and the beast make appearances in a bunch of songs. There’s also a sense of time and scale, by which we’re all living this life that kind of keeps going whether we want it to or not. And that’s actually the beat. The phrase refers primarily to the beating of time, the beat of a drum, the turning of the planet, the ticking of the clock ... it all adds up to that.

Every song has elements of that in it, but at the heart of it, we’re talking about human strength and human weakness, and how we act on impulses. And how that defines who we are. In every single song, you’ll find those themes.

You’re going on tour with Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw. With all due respect to them, how do you fit in with country singers?

Grace Potter: I did a bunch of shows with Kenny last year, and they went over gangbusters.

We’re trying to do the Eagles crossover thing! That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I love not having a genre to point at. I love not being one thing or another. And I think that being on tour with Kenny and Tim is all about that.

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals

With JJ Grey & Mofro

Where: Forsyth Park, Bull Street

When: At 7 p.m. Friday, June 1

Admission: Free

 

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