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February 19, 2014IM -
Potter drifts in and out of the phone interview, commenting on Popper’s apparel when she sees something she likes or has an important observation: “Those white pants are so hot. Vests would work, but that one is too big.” She apologizes for neglecting a question. “Sorry, I have tunnel vision, I can only concentrate on one thing at a time,” Potter says.
As far as her music career goes, tunnel vision has nothing to do with Potter’s musical range or abilities as a singer, songwriter, and musician.
Throaty and soulful vocals are just the icing on Potter’s musical talent cake—she also plays Hammond B-3 organ and the guitar.
Potter has heard a million times that she sounds like singers Bonnie Raitt of Local 47 and Lucinda Williams of Local 433 (Nashville, TN). She doesn’t mind the comparisons one bit. “They can compare me to anyone they want as long as it gets people to come out and see the show,” says Potter.
In the throes of a jam-packed summer tour with major stops, which have already included performances at Wanee Music Festival in Live Oak, Florida, and Manchester, Tennessee’s Bonnaroo, Potter, 26, and her band, the Nocturnals, are soaking up the experience riding show to show in their tour bus. “I just love the raw energy of it all,” says Potter. “Being in front of people and seeing their faces, some of them seeing you for the fi rst time—you can’t recreate that. You can never get back to those rare moments when you can capture somebody’s attention.”
This bluesy-rock-funk musician certainly demands attention. Potter’s blunt-cut bangs, brassy voice, gregarious and frank personality, and tendency to drop some choice swear words, for emphasis, make her a breath of fresh northern Vermont air in the realm of female singer/songwriters. Steering away from the wholesome, earnest, polished, and pretty piano-girl songs, Potter’s style is more Joplin than sugar sweet pop music.
Besides references to Raitt, Potter and the Nocturnals have been described as sporting a late ’60s/early ’70s vibe. Delving a little into Potter’s background and influences, that observation makes sense. Growing up in an artist commune and farm, Hobbitville, near Waitsfield, Vermont, a stone’s throw from jam-band capitol, Burlington, Potter reveled in her parents’ extensive record collection. There was a huge wall to choose from. “I started making mixed tapes when I was 10,” says Potter. “I gained access to what real rock ‘n’ roll was.”
Besides playing “every single Beatles record” on constant rotation, Potter loved listening to Neil Young of Local 47, and Bob Dylan of Local 802 (New York City). “I remember loving Bob Dylan and didn’t understand how anyone with such a bad voice could get on records,” says Potter who, from an early age, appreciated the songwriting skills of Young and Dylan. Potter also admired Joni Mitchell of Local 47.
Although her parents weren’t professional musicians, Potter remembers them habitually singing and playing instruments, like the piano—her mom was also a piano teacher. “It was amateur hour—in a great way,” says Potter. “My mom would sometimes sing a full throttle opera calling the animals in for dinner.”
Both of Potter’s parents are graphic artists, her dad a sign maker and her mom a painter. Potter has fond memories wandering in and out of the various art studios, exploring paints. Potter originally thought she would go to art school, but music came more naturally. Basically self-taught, Potter says, “I never took to the whole voice lesson thing, it was too bizarre.”
Potter ended up at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. While in college, she picked up the guitar thinking it would be a good way to grow her presentation as a musician. “There are too many girls sitting behind pianos,” says Potter. “I wanted to be a multi-instrumentalist, fight that mystique of the one-shtick, girl-piano thing.” The makings of the Nocturnals were well under way at St. Lawrence University. Friend and guitarist Scott Tournet and drummer Matt Burr, both of Local 47, encouraged Potter to be the front woman of the group and they began playing the bar scene near the college.
In 2003 Potter’s bandmates pushed her towards playing the organ. “They wanted me to find an instrument that would help me spread my vocal wings since I used to sing quietly,” says Potter. “They said, ‘We need to give this girl a keyboard that would roar,’ so they surprised me with one on my birthday.”
That summer, Tournet and Burr followed Potter back to Vermont. Potter points to the band’s residency at Nectar’s restaurant and bar—an iconic live music venue on Main Street in Burlington that launched the career of jam-band Phish—as the real turning point in their musical journey.
“The first night we played Nectar’s there were two people in the audience and it was my mom and dad,” says Potter. Soon, a local newspaper wrote a big piece on the group and Vermonters began to line up outside the door. “The next thing we knew people were waiting to see the show and almost overnight we became a commodity. It’s not so much what we were doing or where, it was the fact that we kept doing it.”
That first summer brought on a slew of road shows and six months of straight touring. “Being on the road that entire summer showed us this was a lifestyle change and a massive commitment,” says Potter. “There were some tough times; we couldn’t find parking; we would play on small side stages. It was bizarre—we were sort of in a fishbowl floating around. It was our test.”
Despite the hectic touring schedule, Potter and the Nocturnals knew they wanted to stick with it. Their lively shows began attracting more fans and they garnered favorable reviews from Rolling Stone, Harp, Paste, and newspapers like The Boston Globe and USA Today, hailing Potter and the Nocturnals as a band that was destined for bigger and better things.
Idolizing the likes of Dylan and Young, it is no surprise Potter’s lyrics are intelligent and thought-provoking. Wary of appearing preachy, or out of touch, some of Potter’s more political statements are buried in metaphor. The song “Ah Mary” from the album This Is Somewhere, tells the story of a woman, but towards the end, she reveals it’s about the US: “Call her a bully she’ll blow you up your whole damn playground … Ah Mary-ica she’ll be the end of me and maybe everyone.”
Potter cites the War in Iraq as her reason for incorporating heavier messages in her music but she thinks overtly political songs don’t really work anymore. “There was this magical moment in rock ‘n’ roll where these songs mattered and people wanted to listen to them,” says Potter. “Then it became a college thesis and they were hard to enjoy. So now, when I set out to write songs, I hide the message and let it be the last thing they hear. The storytelling draws them in and then it takes a twist, like maybe the song about a love affair is really about the president.”
Other songs Potter writes come from an opening line, a challenging lyric, or some “seed of an idea” that pops into her head. Potter says most of the time she simply sits down with her guitar and writes, expanding upon an idea or lyric.
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals’ third album will be out in October. The band recorded with producer T Bone Burnett of Local 47. While the album is still untitled, Potter describes the sound as “a soul record at its core, like the Velvet Underground backing Aretha Franklin.” Burnett, an idol of Potter’s and winner of the 2009 Producer of the Year Grammy, helped the band determine the new sound to follow the highly praised This Is Somewhere album. “There’s a spirituality—a soulfulness—that’s tapping into the Al Green vibe, but with a youth, a darkness, and an edge to it that I wasn’t expecting,” says Potter.
Beyond the release of the third album, Potter hopes to visit every continent, and wants to perform in Japan, where she believes audiences are more receptive and open to hearing new music without rushing to judgment. “Honestly, I just hope to do more of the same,” says Potter. “I want to keep doing this forever, I’m as happy as a clam being on the road and building up to my whole life. Now that I’m here I don’t want to go anywhere.”