Grace Potter returns with new sound, old classics, same rock-n-roll poise

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Grace Potter is passionate about music.

Get her talking about the artists who have influenced her and she might literally talk to you for hours about all the vinyl records, CD’s, cassettes and even 8-Tracks she has in her collection. In finding her muse for her newest album, Midnight, Potter took a journey to all of her favorite record stores around the country, grabbing all sorts of music off the shelves from artists she loves as well as “some music I didn’t know I wanted until I listened.”

“I compiled a list of all my favorite record stores and especially places and cities that we’ve stopped at many times, and I made a road trip out of visiting those stores. And some of them had ‘closing,’ ‘liquidation,’ ‘come get it while it lasts’ kind signs hanging in the front door by the time I got there, which is really sad. A couple of them were actually closed by the time I got there. But I made a journey out of that. I wanted to experience the physical act of being a music fan from the perspective from the kid I was who would go to record stores and just drool over Iggy Pop or Nirvana, Alanis Morissette or Blondie. I remember those days. I remember the feeling of rifling through and finding that record you’re looking for, feeling like Gollum.”

Potter listened to “anything and everything” from surf music to Lionel Richie to UB 40, and had her car rigged so it could play everything but vinyl.

“I’m very much a hoarder when it comes to music,” she said.

But one of the biggest moments in her career, as well as her own personal life, came earlier this year when she secluded herself in a remote area with no cell phone, no TV, no friends or family members and no music.

“I went out to an undisclosed location, as I always say, and I hung out in this canyon and rented a little cabin and spent a week meditating and hiking. The music (for the new album) was done. The master was in. I just sat alone in solitude with no music and no media and no cell phone and just thought about it, thought about what I wanted for myself, thought about what I wanted for the band and for my friends, these people that I’ve had such a long history with,” she said.

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What was weighing heavily on Potter’s mind was her upcoming album. She knew it was different from anything she had released before. Was it truly a Grace Potter and The Nocturnals record, or was it meant to be a solo record all along even though her longtime Nocturnal bandmates – Scott Tournet, Matt Burr and Benny Yurco – helped record it?

On the eve of her newest tour, Grace Potter talked to the Deseret News during a recent stop in Louisville, KY. and opened up about the making of the Midnight album, how her bandmates reacted to the changes, how she stripped away everyone else’s expectations of her in making the new record and addressed how fans have reacted to changes within the GPN camp.

Grace and her band will perform live at Deer Valley on Tuesday as part of the St. Regis Big Stars, Bright Nights summer concert series. It will be her first show in Utah since 2013.

Over the years, Potter has performed with a wide range of artists from Gov’t Mule to Kenny Chesney to a duet earlier this year with Mick Jagger and the The Rolling Stones on a soaring “Gimme Shelter.”

So it really shouldn’t have been much of a surprise to hear that Grace, with her multitude variety of musical influences, channeled some of that diversity into her latest album, scheduled to be released Aug. 14.

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But earlier this year, after months of not performing live and being temporarily out of the media spotlight, Potter re-emerged with the first single off her new album, “Alive Tonight,” a very pop-laced tune that was different from anything she had previously released.

“You hear the song ‘Alive Tonight’ after not hearing anything from me for awhile, and you hear my voice and you know it’s me and you can tell it’s my song writing. But usually with the Nocturnals we might take one or two steps in a new direction from record to record. But this was like ten. This was definitely me trying something deliberately different. At the beginning of the process I thought this was a Nocturnals record. I really did. The Nocturnals are all over the record. They were my session musicians,” she said.

After the new single came the announcement that Midnight would be released as Grace Potter, solo artist, and that she would be touring as “Grace Potter” and not “Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.” That was followed by word that founding guitarist Scott Tournet would not be joining Grace on her tour.

The multitude of changes “freaked out” some fans, Potter admitted, particularly the apparent shift in musical direction. Some took to social media to voice their displeasure. But that was fine with Potter who who wants those who are passionate about music to voice their opinions and have open, insightful discussions about music.

Plus she admitted she enjoyed stirring the pot.

“People tend to be very maximal about the way they feel about music. And I encourage that. I want that discourse. I want those conversations. I want the controversy. I enjoy the conversation of music and the flow and the evolution of an artist and experiencing the ups and downs of where an artist chooses to go, what it does for them, what it does for the fans in the audience,” she said.

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And really, long time fans know this isn’t the first time Potter has changed her style.

Grace started her band in her home state of Vermont along with Burr (whom she married in 2013) and Tournet in 2002. Their independent debut Original Soul – which was actually released as a solo record – followed by Northing But the Water quickly put Potter on the map as an up-and-coming blues, soulful, funky, keyboard-playing Americana, roots-rock performer that was going to make huge waves. That pattern continued with the This Is Somewhere album and the Live from Skowhegan release where Grace Potter and the Nocturnals proved they could jam with the best of the jam bands.

Then in 2010, Potter changed up both her look and her sound, turning up the guitar amps and releasing the GPN eponymous album. And while some criticized Potter for leaving behind her hippie, coffee shop girl style in favor of a sexier look, the album commercially became their biggest seller with the singles “Paris (Oh La La),” “Tiny Light,” “Medicine” and “One Short Night.”

“Suddenly I was in short skirts and I have long hair and makeup on and people freaked out then too because suddenly I was embracing my sexuality, God forbid. And that experience for me was really, really fun. I loved stirring the pot. And again I’m having that moment,” Potter said.

On her next album, 2012’s The Lion, The Beast, The Beat, people again “freaked out,” as she called it, because her first single from the album, “Never Go Back,” included a prominent Casio keyboard part instead of the duel guitars of Tournet and Yurco.

As The Lion, The Beast, The Beat tour wound down, the band found themselves playing a particularly emotional show on a rainy night in Colorado at the infamous Red Rocks Amphitheatre in September.

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“That was a really emotional night,” Potter recalled, noting the band was already well on its way to recording the Midnight album by that point. Also on that night, Grace had recently lost a person close to her, and the funeral was the day of the show.

“We were in the midst of making of record so there was so much going on, and then we decided to put in a fall tour in the middle of all that. So it was an amazing time of transformation and also kind of a reckogning. And I felt if I couldn’t be in Vermont for the funeral then there was no place I’d rather be than there at Red Rocks because it really is church. That experience, that night, the person we lost in our family, he had had tickets to that show. So it really brought it back around. So I will never forget that night. It was a very emotional night for me. And certainly rounded out a very intense summer of transition and change and trauma and loss and everything that goes with that,” she said.

The next weekend, GPN played two shows in Las Vegas. Before playing the shows, Grace sent out a cryptic message on Twitter telling fans it would be the last chance they would have to see them for awhile. It would end up being their last show as Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. But Potter said she really wasn’t foreshadowing anything when she sent that tweet.

“I was referring to the fact we weren’t going to tour til the following spring or summer,” she said. “At the time, this was still a Nocturnals record, and I was making this record with the intention of it being a Nocturnals record for the first half of the process. And it was only in the second half and as the year kind of came to a close and I went back home and saw family and hung out with friends and hung out with my bandmates outside of the studio setting that I started to realize just how different this music was and how broad of a leap I was taking.”

Then came the beginning of the year, “right when everybody makes the big changes in their lives,” Potter said with a laugh, and her trip to the canyon and isolation where she had time to think things over.

“I wanted to make sure that if I was going to do this that it was going to be for the right reasons,” she said. “I realized that they are the legacy that we’ve spent 13 years building. That we as a band, The Nocturnals, because I’m a Nocturnal too, we spent 13 years building this thing. So why would I try to distill my own personal message in such a pure way with this record, Midnight, but then package it as something else. It’s like calling a Scotch a Bourbon. It’s not the same thing. It doesn’t make it any less pure. It’s just not the same.

“It was hard for me to recognize that because I care about my friends and I care about my bandmates and I didn’t want to let anybody down. And it was in realizing that they already knew, that was the revelation. They already knew that. They knew it the day they heard the demos. The day they heard the new songs they were like, ‘Oh. This is completely not the same thing.’ It was really about me climbing out of that canyon and figuring it out for myself. Definitely a big, big moment in my life, in my career.”

Potter is also quick to point out that she definitely did not make any changes because some producer or record label told her to switch musical styles to be more radio friendly. She did it for herself.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of concern from (the band’s) end because it was clear that I was following a true muse and it wasn’t something like, ‘The record company doesn’t like any (of our songs), ‘OMG I have to make a pop song, OK, put me with these song writers and fix me, please, somebody come help me, I’m a poor Little Bo Peep and I can’t figure out how to write a song. Boo hoo. Poor me. Let’s spend some money at it and fix it.’ That’s definitely not what happened,” she said.

It was even suggested at one point that Potter co-write with a hit-maker for the next album.

“It was suggested that some of our music was too psychedelic, too rock, too this, too that. But none of it was a forceful, ‘Let’s fix you, let’s get you a boob job, get you some fake nails and makeup and a wind machine.’ There was definitely a moment of like, ‘Well, we just want you to be the truest you that you can be. So let’s get you some songwriters and help you do that.’

“Of course the minute anybody tells me to do something I was like, ‘Yep, you can go (expletive) yourself, I’m going to go ahead and do this other thing.’ So that’s what I did. I said, ‘Watch this!’ and I went and I wrote six killer pop songs. And we demoed them up. And that was actually before Red Rocks, that was all over the course of the summer. Demoed up six songs that were just total hit machine songs. because I wanted to prove that I could. I wanted to know for myself, for my creative process and for the people that are around me who know me so well. I wanted to be like, ‘You know what? I’ve got this whole other thing going on. Check this out,’ pull this thing out of my back pocket which is my absolute lust for a really killer hook and a really bangin’ beat and just like an undeniable chorus. So I presented it to the band and everybody played it and I came into the studio and played the (crap) out of their parts. I think they knew before I did that it was obviously something else, that something very different was going on here. And whatever I was channeling or whatever part of me I was accessing for these songs was a really important piece of my story that needed to be shared. And it took me months and months and months and a whole lot of soul searching to figure out it was a solo record. I didn’t want it to be. I really didn’t.”

Addressing Tournet’s departure from the band, Potter said, “I can’t speak to whether it’s an eternal thing. He’s a friend and somebody who’s been in this band for a long time and he’s a huge part in helping build the Nocturnal legacy. I think that the future is bright.

“For me, the future is wide open. I don’t like thinking that the road is paved. I live in Vermont. I like to know that there’s plenty of open space to still explore,” she said.

gp2Fans will still see several familiar Nocturnal faces in the band when Grace performs at Deer Valley this Tuesday, in addition to new members who come from other bands including The Whigs. And of course, Potter with her soaring voice and dynamic stage presence.

As for how her new album will fit in with the rest of her catalog when she performs live, “The shows are surprisingly fluid considering the fact this record sounds so different from me anyways. I can’t believe how easy it was to transition from a song like “Medicine” or “Ah Mary” into songs like “Empty Heart” and there’s a song called “Delirious” on the new record.”

Potter compares it to going to a David Bowie concert and seeing him weave his storied career from Ziggy Stardust to the “Modern Love” era to current day into his set list.

And as Potter points out, if fans would listen to the music – particularly live in concert where the new songs will eventually take on a life of their own – they’ll find the new material, while in many ways different, also has many of the same classic GPN elements.’

“I think that the thread is my voice and the thread is my song writing. It’s not as huge of a bridge as people think it is, especially the fans that are concerned or are wringing their hands or excited or whatever they are,” she said. “I try to put two songs next to each other (in the set list) that seem like they wouldn’t make any sense together, like our deepest rootsy Americana country song next to like the uber-disco club beat song. And it’s just really fluid, it’s effortless.

“Manipulating sounds and manipulating songs and changing the way an artist expresses themselves doesn’t actually change inherently the artist themself. I feel like the same person I was when I was 15 years old, probably more so now than I did ten years ago. I’m more comfortable in my own skin and more free to explore the outside, you know, the world beyond what I thought I was so indebted to. I’m over that. I’m over the obligatory sounding nostalgic for nostalgic sake. Who am I really appeasing? Who am I keeping happy? Am I keeping myself happy? Because if I’m not, then this whole thing for nothing and I’m lying to the audience,” she continued.

“If I hadn’t been writing the music from the beginning and if it hadn’t been me and I was just like some talking-head girl that had been brought on to be the lead singer of band, like if Scott and Matt and Benny had met and formed a band and then said ‘We’ve got to find a female lead singer’ and I was that girl, it would be one thing. But I found the band. I found everybody in the band and I was writing the songs, making this music for me and they all joined in because they wanted to be a part of my narrative. So as an extension of me, this project and this adventure that we’re on right now feels like a continuation more than ever. Not because it sounds the same. But because I have never stayed the same (laughs).”

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