Grace Potter’s Nocturnal Existence

By: Dennis Cook

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
The title of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals‘ new album, This Is Somewhere, achieves a lot in just three words. These days folks are always running somewhere, focused on what’s down the line, their heads in tomorrow while the here-and-now goes neglected. The Nocturnals’ new platter very succinctly says the present moment matters.

“This is it, this is it,” exclaims Grace Potter, lead singer and undeniable leader of a band she once described to me as “sort of a rock ‘n’ roll record collection from the late ’60s, early ’70s.” Their second full-length drops August 7 on Disney subsidiary Hollywood Records, and the Nocturnals national touring profile continues to grow by leaps and bounds. There’s a powerful sense that this little rock & roll combo from Vermont with a badass vocalist is about to break big. But, inside this crazy potential-celebrity bubble lays a quartet of levelheaded, talented musicians far more interested in a lifelong career akin to their idols Little Feat, Bonnie Raitt and Led Zeppelin than anything a moment on the charts can provide.

“Everybody, especially when you’re in a band and tour for a living, is always trying to find that place they’re getting to, but we figured out a long time ago, on the road traveling around, that’s not the point,” Potter says. “Getting to the destination usually sucks. It’s not just the journey that matters, LIFE matters. It’s not just about goals.”

Road Warriors

The touring life isn’t for everyone. A lot is left behind at home, if one can even maintain one with the nomadic existence of a working band. However, for some like the Nocturnals – Potter (vocals, keys, guitar), Scott Tournet (guitar), Bryan Dondero (bass) and Matt Burr (drums) – stages are clearly their lifeblood. In the past four years, Potter and co. have logged thousands of miles, playing every club, festival and county fair that’ll have them, slowly building a rep as one of the most reliable, enjoyable rock acts currently working the boards.

Grace Potter :: 09.12 by Krolick
“This is what we do,” says Potter. “We’re balancing it out a little better now, slowing down, working our way up in the world, being healthy about touring. As long as we can do that we can do this forever. People aren’t stupid. They can tell if you’re emulating ‘performance’ rather than joy. I see bands all the time where the guy in front is a ringmaster trying to keep everybody excited but the look on his face is one of terror. He might be smiling but I don’t believe it. I just think, ‘Dude, you could be working at Kinko’s right now.’ The other thing is that fame hungry bullshit trip. Some people get off on themselves so much they need that buzz from thousands of people.”

“It ain’t easy but what’re you gonna do? I can’t hold down a straight job,” chuckles Scott Tournet. “It’s been the dream and the goal for so long, especially for me, so whenever I catch myself whining about elements of the road I tell myself, ‘Shut up and think about your friends sitting around in Burlington, Vermont dreaming of doing what you’re doing.’ There’s so many good musicians that don’t get the chance [I have] so I try to keep it in perspective as much as possible.”

One thing’s clear about Potter and her boys is they love other musicians. You’ll always find them side-stage grinning at their peers or gawking at the headliners like the rest of us. Refreshingly, they’ve maintained the spirit of fans despite shaking a living out of music the past few years.

“If you really want to get into the craftsmanship and art of music you gotta geek out on it! We’re total geeks,” offers Tournet. “There’s certain artists that can get away with [not being fans], like at this point Neil Young probably doesn’t listen to other people’s music barely at all. It makes sense for certain singer-songwriter types but for the most part you gotta listen, read and be into it.”

This Is Somewhere

After the band’s increasingly heavy shows in 2006 many expected the new album would be boot-in-your-ass ’70s style hard rock. There’s some of that, like “Here’s To The Meantime,” where Potter howls like young Linda Ronstadt with bigger balls over a mean blues-rock clamor, but there’s an overall delicacy and subtlety that takes a few spins to really sink in.

“That’s totally what we were going for! I hated the new Wilco record [Sky Blue Sky] when I first heard it but now it’s thrown me for a total loop,” explains Potter. “The whole thing about putting out a record is you shouldn’t like it all on the first listen, and if you do then you’ll probably start not liking it as much pretty fast. The biggest challenge in putting out a record like [This Is Somewhere] is being prepared for everybody to take a while to digest it. It’s not a blow-you-away first listen record. It’s a slow burn, and that’s kind of what our music has become. It’s taken five years to get a sound, and that sound is still changing.”

Potter and the Boys
“[Shows like Bonnaroo 2006] were a reaction against being pigeonholed and against having to play softer, more nostalgic music,” says Tournet. “It was about proving we’re a band, a cohesive unit, which has been a big thing. Beyond that, it’s about making a splash and it’s easier to make a splash when you’re loud and in people’s faces. Earlier we were very into subtlety. That’s something we tapped into with The Band, Little Feat, J.J. Cale and early Taj Mahal. We all dug on that.”

“Then having to open for Trey Anastasio and having a 30-minute slot or even 15 minutes to prove yourself, what do you do to really make an impact? You go nuts. That’s what we started to do. We just freaked out – banging on the cymbals and Grace is screaming and I’m getting feedback. Looking back on our live tapes a couple months after we got off the road, before we went into the studio, and we thought, ‘Some of this doesn’t sound good.’ It was a blast performing it, and we love it so much. I got to do 10-minute guitar solos! Of course I’m happy about that, but this is an album and we thought about albums with 12-minute songs that we like and there weren’t many, really just live Neil Young or live Richard Thompson. Being honest, there’s a little piece of me that’s sorry we didn’t get into more of the filth and fury. We did just cut a fuckin’ cool, really ballsy song Grace came up with. It’s a kind of ‘When The Levee Breaks’ meets the White Stripes with Grace squawking on top of it.”

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
Their early press was riddled with comparisons to Norah Jones and Vanessa Carlton, what Potter refers to as “corny pop music,” which disturbed the whole band. “We thought, ‘This is not gonna do. We can’t be dinner music for 75-year-old people.’ So, we grew harder and louder,” says Potter. “Being silent and subtle is something we’ve learned over the last five years. You don’t always have to smash people over the head with stuff. We’ve made plenty of organic records in barns and old sign shops, and this time we knew we had an opportunity to step it up and do something different. I love when musicians challenge themselves, and their fans, to take it a little outside the comfort zone. That’s exactly what we did on this record.”

This Is Somewhere‘s cover is a shot of a group of people grappling a rope, and even before you know the story behind it there’s a vague similarity to the classic picture of American soldiers planting a flag on Iwo Jima.

“The five people in the photo are just desperately struggling to get to something bigger,” says Potter. “The backstory on that photo is my dad took it in 1976 during the Bicentennial. There was this guy, Lenny Silverfein, who was all about showing the size of your cock by doing something big [laughs]. He wanted to get into the Guinness Book of World Records by hoisting the largest American flag in the world. They were going to hoist it up on the Triboro Bridge for the 4th of July Bicentennial celebration. Two days before that they did a practice run and stopped traffic miles and miles away. They got it up and then the wind picked up. A couple of bridge engineers were on-site who said, ‘If this wind gets any faster this bridge is going to fall over. You have to take the flag down.’ At that point, the wind was suctioning it to the bridge, so they had to take people up on pulleys to cut it. The flag was literally torn into about 30 parts so they could let each piece billow away. They had to completely ruin this flag. It was just so poignant. That image [on the cover] is those guys hustling to keep a guy who’s up there with a knife from falling off.”

Welcome To The Machine

Grace Potter :: 09.12 By Krolick
“I’m not gonna lie and say it’s been easy [adjusting to being on a major label],” says Tournet. “Compared to other label stories I’ve heard we do have a pretty good deal and people for the most part at Hollywood are pretty damn cool. At the same time, it has been a pain in the ass to listen to other people’s opinions. I’m probably the biggest problem child when it comes to that stuff. I was not having a good time for the first three weeks in the studio, which this time included click tracks and a very slow approach to putting things together. Ultimately, when I look back now I think it was probably the right move on producer Mike Daly’s part. All the nuances were really paid attention to. There’s a lot of little hidden gems and sweet things. We recorded the bass and drums analog and used the best microphones and coolest, tastiest old soundboards and mixing boards, things that were used by our favorite bands. We mixed everything down to tape, and all our gear was super vintage and carefully selected.”

Despite this vinyl-era vibe, it’s not hard to imagine “Apologies” or “Falling Or Flying” being used in a montage in a Winona Ryder movie. It’s something Tournet in particular is especially concerned about.

“In rock & roll you still need to say ‘Fuck You’ sometimes. If you don’t say it then by the time your music comes out the other side it sounds like everything else. We all battled a lot to avoid that,” Tournet says. “The thing about becoming a successful, popular band these days is so many people want to do it there’s all these schemes – marketing schemes, MySpace, label publicity. We’re sniffing around that world now, and we’re trying to maintain our integrity. What you get for it is industry people saying you’re difficult to work with. It’s very similar to being a politician. If you get to the place of being the Dave Matthews Band, or whoever you want to be, you’re expected to do these shitty things like songs on crappy commercials. It’s really hard to keep your integrity and get big.”

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals :: 09.12 By Krolick
There is the legitimate concern a major label will push Potter hard and the Nocturnals will become the blurry guys on the t-shirt like in Almost Famous. She’s easy on the eyes and her stunning vocals have been compared to greats like Janis Joplin, Mother Earth’s Traci Nelson and Koko Taylor.

“We’ve been fighting with that one for years. It’s a tricky thing, and it’s still sometimes a touchy issue, but Grace is so damn cool about it,” Tournet offers. “She really wants us to be a band, and announces us like 20 times – sometimes too much – on stage. So, I feel bad when I get frustrated with something because it hurts her a lot. Even without Hollywood [Records], local people do this stuff to us. We were on Vermont Public Television recently to help [during a pledge drive]. I was born and raised in Vermont but we were just ‘the guys’ behind Grace. When we’re in the van together it’s so much fun, and there’s not that kind of energy. We all have our voices. It’s pretty democratic, but when we get outside of our little world it’s funny what people try to put on you.”

“It’s not really a label thing. We’ve been fighting this battle since the beginning,” adds Potter. “[Hollywood] has been really supportive of the band angle. There’s times when the label would fly me out separately without the band. That stuff freaks me out. But, I think they’ve learned their lesson because the meltdown occurs from the inside out. Our band is such a core, and there’s such a molten center to it that they’ve figured out they can’t play that card with us. It’s not a Gwen Stefani scenario.”

“If this was an all-girl band, even if I was the lead singer, every girl would be in every photo. I hate girl bands, fucking hate ’em! It’s always some novelty thing that’s not gonna last. So, I’m really glad that’s not the case and I just happen to be a chick who’s the lead singer but I could just as easily be the bass player,” Potter says.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals by Krolick
One senses the Nocturnals enjoy life as it comes, particularly when it’s a little wild. This is especially palpable in the forthright sexuality of Potter’s delivery and lyrics. Where most female singers in 2007 capitalize on the power of titillation, Potter is the real, sticky truth of human coupling, sometimes, happily, delivered in a curve-clinging denim jumpsuit. One would be hard pressed to find a naughtier line than “She waters the garden but maybe she just likes the hoses” from new single “Ah Mary.”

When my appreciation of her earthiness is pointed out, Potter eagerly responds, “Good [laughs]. I’m so glad you picked up on that lyric! That illustration of sexuality isn’t me pushing it. I’m not Hilary Duff going from sweet Christian girl to a fake, processed rock star that’s sexually free. I’ve always been that way. I’ve always been blunt and I liked the opportunity to put that into a song. Sometimes you just have to get right to it – big, long hoses [laughs]!”

Strange as it seems, Americans are still largely pretty freaked out and embarrassed about sexual matters, at least in their public exclamations.

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
“It’s so true. I don’t know why after all this time and the retardedly crazy things that have happened that’re way beyond the Janet Jackson thing, which is just nothing compared to what we as a society have witnessed. People are lying if they say that Janet Jackson thing is the most obscene thing they’ve ever seen. You know they’re on the Internet at home fucking flapping it off. They’re just faking it when they say that’s obscene,” observes Potter. “It’s important to be honest about that stuff. It might have something to do with me traveling around with six guys in a van. I’m realizing I have to watch myself when I get home. You get into a dinner party atmosphere and it’s totally not conducive to the way we’ve been living the last four years [laughs]. It’s too bad because that’s real life, that’s what’s going on beneath the surface. It’s nice to be elegant and serene and have days off from being the nasty hog that we are but I just prefer the real thing, and maybe even a little bit over the top. I guess I value shock value.

There’s a danger Potter’s natural sexuality could be used to market and define the band to the exclusion of their music.

“I’m not going to be sexy forever but I want to play music forever,” says Potter. “It’s important for me to not take it so far that I can’t ever come back from it. When I’m 45 and still vamping around in a three-inch skirt, well, that just isn’t gonna work. I’m trying to be realistic and I’m also trying to embrace now for what it is. I’m gonna get some spider veins on my legs at some point so I gotta work it while I got it.”

Free as she is, I sternly admonish Potter against appearing topless in a thong in a Maxim pictorial.

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals :: 09.12 by Krolick
“I just can’t do that. I’m not an ass-girl. I’ll shake it with jeans covering it up good n’ plenty but I’m just not an ass-girl [laughs]. Hmmm, maybe boy shorts in Maxim,” muses Potter. “I love doing photo shoots. I’m a total glamour puss underneath. There’s photos of me from when I was two-years old and I have all my mom’s skimpiest underwear and high heels on and my hair’s all whacked-up in Madonna mode. I’m a total glutton for the glam thing. It’s a part of me I’ve hidden pretty well. Now, doing photo shoots and having your hair done, as long as it doesn’t permeate your soul it is fucking fun [laughs]. The guys still hate it so it balances it out. We are a band and I’m always going to take that into consideration before I take my shirt off. They keep me on an even keel. I’d love to feather boa it up and go all out but I want it to be a group thing.”

Faced with disbelief at the idea of Tournet in a boa, Potter replies, “Oh he’d look hot! He’s been on a macrobiotic diet so he can work it out.”

Earning It

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
Potter and the Nocturnals is one of those rare real rock bands that slips through the cracks into the mainstream infrastructure without seeming to lose their minds or basic character. They cite Janis Joplin’s Pearl, Led Zeppelin III and Neil Young’s Harvest and On The Beach as their models, which gives one hope they’ll never end up covering Blink 182 songs on a label tribute album. As for the endless comparisons of Potter’s voice to Bonnie Raitt, Potter says, “I think we just have a similar register. I met her a few years ago at a benefit and I handed her my CD and she said, ‘Are you that girl that sings like me?’ And I just thought, ‘Shit, no, I’m not trying to anyways!’ I’d rather be compared to male singers like Gregg Allman, Lowell George [Little Feat] and Chris Robinson.”

The whole band seems wary of pitfalls. They understand that it’s show-by-show, night-by-night, record-by-record, that a group truly builds an audience and earns their respect for a lifetime.

“You gotta keep earning it, and you gotta keep earning it when you get to the top. That’s why we change our setlist every night and why we don’t have the same t-shirt available the next time you come to a show,” Potter says. “We’re mixing it up, fucking shit up, doing it completely different than the way we’re told it’s supposed to be done. And trust me, our record label knows it and our fans know it, too. There’s a genuineness to what we do that I hope never becomes a product or a machine or too well oiled. I like our rust.”

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