For Grace Potter & The Nocturnals
, the time is ripe for them to move up another notch on the rock and blues hierarchy. With a superb, extra bluesy/captivatingly mystical new album called The Lion The Beast The Beat,
the Vermont based band are storming across the country, opening for Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney, and taking a hooky day to sit in with the Flaming Lips as they broke the record for most concerts played in different cities within a 24-hour period. And it feels good. Just ask Potter, who has an infectiously natural joie de vivre about life at this moment in time. Calling in from a sunny Florida, she shared with MY ROOTS some of the moments from her past and how recording the new record threw her an unexpected curve ball.What was it like for you growing up in Vermont?
It was quiet (laughs). No, it was good. It was kind of one of those things I think about when I go back home and it all kind of sinks in how much of an impact Vermont had on me. But it almost has become like a folklore, cause people talk about Vermont, and especially people who have never been to Vermont, they kind of get this glazed over look in their eyes and be like, “Oh, that place sounds amazing. It’s like The Lord Of The Rings.” But honestly, I think my childhood was full of creative energy. My parents are unbelievable artistic people who kind of constantly kept me inspired and constantly challenged me to create from the inside. Because in Vermont there were a lot of activities to do but it wasn’t like growing up in New York City where you are constantly bombarded from every end with inspiration and people and different characters and places to go. Vermont is definitely a little simpler than that (laughs).How did you discover rock & roll?
Yeah, my parents played Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline
and The Band and Derek & The Dominos and The Beatles and The Kinks. I mean, I grew up with Rod Stewart and The Faces. There was a lot of music in my house and I grew up surrounded with it. Then I kind of rediscovered it in college when I started playing music again; because at that time I kind of thought of rock & roll as my parents’ music, not realizing that all along it was better than most of the new music that was coming out. Not to say that I didn’t love Nirvana and Pearl Jam but rock & roll changed a lot in the 90’s. So when I got to college in the early 2000’s, I really wanted to create a new kind of music that sort of blends rock & roll and lots of other styles that inspire me: blues, gospel, soul, R&B, reggae, country, folk. It’s all in there.What album captured you the most?
You know The Beatles is a big one for me, just because they created the art of the album. When I think of an album, I think of listening to something from beginning to end and there’s a flow and a performance art to what The Beatles did on record, which I think really set the bar ridiculously high for everybody else that existed after. I loved them, I loved the Allman Brothers and I loved Little Feat. I listened to the Kinks like a ridiculous amount cause as a kid I thought it was the coolest music. I mean, I still do. And like I said, The Beatles were a big one for me. But it just goes on and on. Jethro Tull was a big one too. I loved Jethro Tull. My parents kept playing me new music and I was just a sponge for it. So I think it definitely served me well to have grown up in a place where rock & roll wasn’t considered rebellious and in fact was the opposite. It was commonplace.When did you start playing guitar? And when did you know that you had a great voice?
You’d be surprised but I actually picked up the guitar really late. When I was about three or four, I picked up piano but I didn’t start playing the guitar till I was twenty, which is an interesting little tidbit about me. But since I could talk I was singing. And not just singing but singing like harmonies and making up my own lyrics to go along with Michael Jackson songs. I mean, I had a whole thing that I would do as a kid. I had my own concept of what music was supposed to sound like. So I had a bit of a vision even at an early age of wanting to be a great singer.Do you remember the first song that you ever wrote?
I don’t remember exactly what the first song is that I ever wrote but I remember a pile of songs when I was about fourteen or fifteen that came out all around the same time and they were all really cheesy, stupid songs (laughs). Like, there was this one song that I played for my whole entire high school assembly called “River Of Time”. I mean, it was like really bad, really cheesy, cheesy music. But I did really enjoy writing music and that was what brought me into being a songwriter and listening to people like Townes Van Zandt and Neil Young and Lucinda Williams and Guy Clark. Most of that inspiration came from realizing how much more I enjoyed singing the music when I was the one that wrote it.
You’re not a typical jeans and t-shirt girl on stage. You’re very flamboyant and sexy. Have you always loved the feathers and sequins?
Oh yeah, and performance allowed me to do that. Even as a little kid I think that’s why I loved the stage and craved performing for people even if it was a small audience of my grandma and my grandpa. I loved having to dress up and it was always a part of me. In fact, I think I was way more out of my shell when I was four, five, six, seven and eight years old than I was through my adolescence. When I turned fourteen or fifteen, I got really self-conscious and I think that’s when I started to close up and kind of feel like I had to dress down in order to be taken seriously.
But you know, I love fashion and it’s been a part of me from a young age. I have a sewing machine and I sewed a lot of my own clothing when I was young and I always had a fascination with it so I’m glad that it’s still able to be a part of my life. I’m glad to have a job where I can still stitch things together and wear them out and actually get away with it (laughs)Would you rather go barefoot on stage or be in your heels?
I do both but I usually start the show in heels. But at a certain point you can see my resolve and you can see that I just want to dance and I usually kick them off. I love heels and actually sometimes on a rainy day on a slippery stage it’s more dangerous to be barefoot than it is to keep the heels on cause at least a spike can kind of like dig into the ground and keep you stable.
Who was the first real rock star that you ever met?
Oh my gosh, it would probably be Iggy Pop – and that’s a real rock star. I think I was twenty or twenty-one, and I met him and I freaked out and I ran up to him and I threw my arms around him and I caught him in a weird position. He was in a van and I like ran up through the van and he had the window rolled up and I jumped in the van and managed to somehow lick his chest (laughs). I actually wound up with my tongue on his chest. Don’t ask me how it happened but I was just an excitable young thing, just basically a screaming fan, you know. So that was my epic rock star first ever meet-up and it was one that I will never forget.You have a new record out but something happened while you were recording it.
I think that making an album is like brain surgery. There is a point where you realize that you can’t just spit it out and it’s not going to come out exactly the way you want it to. You have to wrestle with it a little bit and I felt like the record wasn’t going the way I wanted it to, mainly because I didn’t know what exactly was going to happen next career wise and I felt like I wanted the album to guide the progress that we were making. There are a lot of different ways to go with me. You can pair me with the hot rod songwriter guy who writes songs for Adele and make a global hit and I could become that kind of star if I wanted to and if I was hungry for that kind of thing. I think we could have really aggressively pursued that and I’m not saying I would get to an Adele level, don’t misunderstand me, but there is sort of a gunning for it sound on an album versus a sound that is more cohesive and more about the album than it is about just one or two hit songs. It’s something that I just felt early on in this process that we weren’t being fully fair to the songs. A song like “Stars” was actually re-cut like four times in order to get it to a place where I felt like it really had all the elements that the song deserved while also sounding beautiful, like something that could be played over and over again. I didn’t want it to be nailed on a chalkboard and I didn’t want it to be too country or too blues or overly commercial. I just really wanted to service the song as best we could.
There are just moments where you just really have to be honest with yourself and know that you’re going too far. And I felt like I was going too far into like commercial hit-making land for the first part of the album process. It just felt like we were shooting for the stars but they were the wrong stars. And that’s when I stepped back from the project and took a month to write some more and that’s when I wrote “The Lion The Beast The Beat”; that’s when I wrote “Timekeeper”; that’s when I wrote “The Divide”. I also finished a song called “Runaway”, I finished “Parachute Heart”, I finished “Turntable.” There was some unfinished business on the album that deserved a chance and I’m glad I gave it a chance because I think it’s more like I wanted, what I envisioned when I started making the record.Well, the songs are definitely deeper into the soul.
Yes, absolutely. There’s some aggression in there, there is some pain, some heartbreak, there’s fearlessness and there’s definitely sort of an animal instinct that keeps falling through the seams; in all the songs really. But in some in particular you can really hear that there was the connection between the whole album where I didn’t feel there was a connection before. It’s nice to have achieved that.You collaborated with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. What did he bring into the creation of this album?
Oh, he cracked a great shell for us, I think. It’s just like any collaboration, when you bring two heads together you’re going to get something totally different than what you’re expecting. And our fans and his fans, I think, all expected this like super bluesy, super kind of garage-rock sound, and all of a sudden we turned out something that neither of us expected or even really pursued on any level. This Casio beat keyboard thing, almost an 80’s influence, so there’s a little tiny, tiny hint of New Wave in it, which I don’t think I ever would have thought. If you had asked me four years ago if I was ever going to say the word New Wave next to my music, I think I would have told you to kill myself (laughs). But it just kind of happened that way and I think we were all surprised by it but that’s what is so great about bringing two minds together. Dan was a great collaborator, he has great lyrical ideas. I love how broad he keeps his lyrics because I’m much more specific and much more of a storyteller in my songs, whereas he loves to keep things broad because he knows that a song could be about seventy-five different things all at once and everybody who hears the song is going to associate it to their own lives in a different way. So it really was a great exercise for me to see how to keep things in those broad strokes and find hooks that really get under people’s skin and that’s exactly what Dan Auerbach does.Who did the album cover? It’s very interesting.
Oh yeah, it’s this artist named Deedee Cheriel. She and I met a couple of times and just talked about sort of the animal element in the record because you listen to the record and there are a lot of different pieces to it. There is definitely a bluesy mystery to it. There are also a lot of references to animals. So I had discussed this with her and got way existential and we had a really fun time just kind of dreaming up these sort of animals puking laser beams (laughs). We went really far out there. Kind of the same way we went with the songs and with me with the songwriting. But again it was a reward because the record artwork is really, really fun. The cover is one thing but if you leaf through the entire liner notes it really ties the room together.
You have a new member in the band. How is he working out?
Everybody is loving each other. Oh my God, we’re having so much fun. Michael Libramento is the new member and Benny, Scott and Matt are sticking with it and going as strong as ever and everybody is really happy to be back out on the road. It’s like summer camp. You get back into the groove and it feels great to sleep in your bunk. You kind of can’t imagine what life was like without your bunk at a certain point when you get in there. But the energy is really great. Michael, who is our new multi-instrumentalist, is primarily playing the bass but he also plays keyboard, guitar, drums, sings, pretty much anything that you ask him to learn how to play he can play.Where did you discover the Flying V and what turns you on about that particular guitar?
It’s Freddie King. He is like my original favorite bluesman of all time. Freddie King always played a Flying V guitar. So it inspired me because Flying V’s sound really great in open tuning, which is primarily what I play the guitar in. I like to play with a slide and I like to play in open tuning for “Paris Ooh La La” and for a bunch of other songs. Those V’s are really rigged up for it and then I don’t know if you’ve heard but Gibson actually has now made a signature Flying Grace Flying V. It’s only the second electric guitar that has ever been a female signature. The only other woman who has ever had a signature electric guitar is Joan Jett. So it’s pretty awesome.With Choice Of Weapon, The Cult are back in full musical swing and next week we get to the nuts and bolts of guitar player Billy Duffy.