Grace Potter rocks.
In short, those three words are all one really needs to know about the singer, songwriter, producer from Vermont who, along with her band The Nocturnals, has been a breath of fresh air in the world of rock-n-roll since coming onto the scene six years ago.
Potter is a blend of raw powerhouse vocals, a punk rock attitude, dynamic stage presence, cool chick demeanor, movie star looks (think Heidi Klum fronting a rock band), she has her own signature Flying V guitar and she makes a mean grilled cheese sandwich (check out You Tube for proof).
So it only seems fitting that her music is as diverse as she is, encompassing rock, blues, soul, folk, hard rock and jam band styles.
Grace Potter & The Nocturnals’ debut was 2005’s Nothing But the Water, which gained them notoriety in their home state. But it was 2007’s This Is Somewhere that started to grab the attention of the nation. Their popularity continued to skyrocket with their follow-up, 2010’s outstanding self-titled album, which featured, “Paris (Ooh La La), “Medicine,” “Tiny Light” and “One Short Night.”
The band toured extensively on the album, fine tuning the sound that defines GPN. Older material, such as “Apologies,” “Ain’t No Time,” “Stop the Bus” and the brilliant “Ah, Mary” sound even better in concert today than their studio releases.
So maybe it should be no surprise that when Potter and the Nocturnals began writing material for their latest release, the dynamic The Lion the Beast the Beat, she wanted to write songs that the band enjoyed playing live.
The Lion the Beast the Beat was co-produced by Jim Scott (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Wilco) and had writing help on several of the songs from The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. It’s an album that refreshingly sounds like nothing else on the radio right now.
Speaking recently to the Deseret News from California, Potter talked about a pivotal moment in writing the new album – a point in November when right in the middle of the writing process she abruptly brought everything to a stop, threw out all but two of the songs she had been working on, and went on a road trip in the Big Sur region to clear her head.
“It just sounded too much like other pop music of today. I really wanted to just wipe that slate clean and start over. Wandering off into the horizon was a big piece of the puzzle for me,” Potter said on finding ways to internalize the new material and making it meaningful to herself. “I stopped listening to all pop music entirely. I literally went back and was listening to Beethoven, Mozart, and then some ridiculous stuff like Dean Martin and Billie Holiday and trying to really release myself from the constraints of modern pop music because there’s just too many ideas. Too much to surf through.
“I didn’t want to feel like we were searching for hits,” she said. “I think we’ve finally come into our own identity over the past few years.”
By immersing herself with that music and tapping into those influences, Potter said she would find a beach or a spot in the woods with just her and her guitar, go back to the basic chords and write songs.
After internalizing everything in December, Potter went back to finishing the album.
“I needed to filter through everything and figure out what really mattered to me, as a singer and an artist and a producer and a performer, as someone who’s going to have to play these songs over and over again live, I wanted to make sure everything was, you know, bulletproof. So it took a long time. But I’m glad it took that time, because I think it made the whole record stronger.”
The result was some of Potter’s finest work to date. The Lion the Beast the Beat starts off with the powerful one-two punch of the driving title track followed by the album’s first single (and best song), “Never Go Back.”
Potter said she had no doubt “The Lion the Beast the Beat” would be the opening song in the album.
“I think that song is our mission statement, it’s sort of our battle cry for the whole rest of the record,” she said.
The theme of the title track is that all people have both the ability to be good but also have their demons.
“More than ever, I think outside perception affects how we view ourselves… I started thinking about these archetypes: everyone perceives a lion as a powerful, glorious animal and a beast as a flawed, scary, unpleasant creature…but that’s just on the outside. You only have to read a few children’s fables to see those themes – the ‘Cowardly Lion’ from The Wizard of Oz, the Beast from Beauty and the Beast – I’m fascinated by the idea that we all hold such a broad spectrum of impulses and how we choose to act on them makes us who we are,” Potter said.
“Never Go Back” was co-written by Auerbach. And in true Black Keys fashion, the song is purposely vague on its meaning – the listener not knowing if it’s about a breakup? A divorce? Sobriety? etc .
“I don’t know what (Black Keys song) Gold on the Ceiling is. I don’t know what he’s talking about, but I want to sing it,” Potter said. “There was little discussion to what the actual storyline was (on “Never Go Back.”) It was just words that sounded cool. ‘Yeah, try singing that, do that, that’s cool. That’s good’.”
If the song was left vague, the video for the song was even more confusing. The video shows a young girl in a large mostly empty mansion with a sort-of Lord of the Flies/Alice in Wonderland-type feeling throughout.
But to Potter, the videos makes perfect sense.
Her original idea for the video focused on the fears of children, starting with the fear of going to summer camp for the first time and being away from home.
“And that fear of what you feel like when you don’t know what’s going to happen, and sort of that feeling of isolation and being away from your parents for the first time,” she said. “I wrote a treatment for a video that basically encompassed the experience of a child and all the deepest fears they feel either going to the dentist, or going to summer camp, or walking into a classroom for the first time, moving into a new school, and that sense of abandoned, like, ‘OK, my former life is over. Now here’s my new life, here’s the path it’s going to take.’ And it’s interesting that as a kid you show all your fears. But as an adult, you kind of learn how to bury them and ignore them and pretend everything’s all cool.”
Other gems off the album include “Keepsake,” “All Over You,” “Turntable” and “Roulette.”
Prior to the release of the new album, Potter did a duet with country star Kenny Chesney on the song, “You and Tequila.” The song and accompanying video were huge hits in Nashville and exposed Potter and her music to a whole new audience.
“Country is a world and stage I had never performed on before,” she said. “It’s such an isolated world for people in Nashville. You are either part of that club or you’re not. And one interesting thing I found out in walking into the country world was just how many people in Nashville already knew about the band, from like 2006, 2007. Sugarland, Lady Antebellum, Taylor Swift, Jake Owen, Kenny Chesney, all these artists who I am meeting are telling me, ‘Oh, I’ve been listening to your record since it first came out. I love that song, ‘Big White Gate,’ or whatever. This is when we first made our record deal and put out This Is Somewhere. People in Nashville were hip to what we were doing. I never in a million years would have thought they knew about (us).”
Following the success of “You and Tequila,” Potter landed an opening spot on the massive summer stadium tour of country heavyweights Chesney and Tim McGraw. But while artists in Nashville were hip to what Potter and the Nocturnals were doing, not all of the country music fans who are coming out early to the Chesney/McGraw tour have been as impressed.
“Oh I think they’re horrified,” Potter said with a laugh. “I do see the reception from some faces, and the complete horror and disbelief from others. It’s been one of the most punk rock experiences of my life. We have no place here, but at the same time we do.
“I think that with us, what’s happening on this tour is a really interesting thing because it is challenging and pushing the limits of what the country fans are expecting. At the heart of it and at the end of the day, I think that rock-n-roll and country music, I think there’s only a few shades of grey between them,” Potter said. “Modern country is different than the days of yore. Music has changed and there are more similarities now to rock-n-roll and country music than they’re used to be.”
Fortunately for Utah, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals will be playing more than just an opening 30 minute set. The band will be headlining their own show Friday night at beautiful Red Butte Gardens.