An interview with Grace Potter
It probably won't be long before the rest of the world knows about Grace Potter & the Nocturnals. Already one of the most talked-about acts in the Green Mountains, Potter and company are beginning to attract the attention of some music-biz big shots. But the Waitsfield-based band isn't in any hurry to sign on the dotted line -- they're more concerned about preserving their integrity than "moving units."
With a sound somewhere between the ravaged blues-rock of J.J. Cale and the soulful pop of early Bonnie Raitt, the group channels the '70s with respectful conviction. Listening to their music, it's hard to believe all four members are still in their twenties.
The Nocturnals -- named for their after-dark work ethic -- came together in 2002 while members were attending St. Lawrence University in New York. By the following summer, they were touring New England, gaining admirers at each stop. The band's debut, Original Soul, sold almost 3000 copies within the first few months, largely on the strength of Potter's powerful pipes and solid, if familiar, songwriting style.
Heading back to Vermont in 2003, Potter and the boys continued to fine-tune their sound. Last winter, they sequestered themselves in The Haybarn at Goddard College with engineer Chuck Eller to work on a follow-up. A salty, sultry affair, Nothing But the Water showcases a talented young group coming into their own. The CD release party takes place this week at the Higher Ground Ballroom in South Burlington.
The band and their management all live together in "Hobbitville," a deserted sign-production facility built by Potter's family three decades ago. Seven Days recently chatted with her by phone from the band's rural headquarters.
SEVEN DAYS: Your mom is a craftswoman and your father a sign-maker. Did you have a typical Vermont hippie childhood?
GRACE POTTER: Oh, totally. I can't say no to that one. My parents built our house back when they were doing naughty things in the '70s; I think they were hallucinating what they wanted it to look like. It's a funky house with a mushroom-shaped roof -- really quite the place. My friends would come over and they'd think, What the heck is going on? Why is the dad's hair down to his shoulders?
SD: People talk about your voice all the time, sometimes forgetting that you're also an organist. When did you start playing keyboards?
GP: I started out on piano when I was pretty young. My mom was giving lessons to make ends meet at one point and, although I never took lessons from her, I was a highly competitive child. I just watched people's fingers. I'd listen to movie scores, and bring tape recorders into the movie theater. I remember when Titanic came out; I learned how to play the whole thing -- it was so lame!
I actually only started playing organ last summer, though. Our drummer Matt bought it with my parents and a couple of other people, 'cause they thought that would just be the hottest thing ever. Plus, we were always looking for organ parts when we were recording, anyway.
SD: Original Soul topped a lot of year-end lists and flew out of local record shops. Did you feel any pressure about recording the follow-up?
GP: Not really. On Original Soul, we were starting to develop our sound a little bit more -- at least beyond the demos. I didn't think about it too much, but I didn't want to put out a record that would alienate fans of the old one. It's a continuation.
SD: You recorded the new disc in a barn. Was there a particular sound or vibe you were looking for this time around?
GP: It was totally a "particular sound" kind of thing. We had a great time playing at Goddard before, so we knew that we loved the space. We really wanted that Neil Young Harvest, J.J. Cale, good, gritty, early '70s rock sound -- where you can hear the room and everything going on, and it's very much alive. It was a lot like being at home; we took that empty room and basically filled it up with shit like lamps and rugs. It was great to be having dinner, singing a song, and then running over to press "record."
SD: Some of your songs reference experiences that you probably haven't personally lived through. Where do these stories come from?
GP: I write about this character, this lady in my head. I'm not like some psycho that hears voices, but this one lady keeps coming back. She's someone who's been treated like shit over and over and is challenged by that, but is a strong character that keeps moving on. I don't know where she comes from. Maybe she's like the 50-year-old version of me or something. If all these songs were true, I'd be hurting the people closest to me, 'cause I'm a bitch in some of those songs!
SD: How the hell do you guys practice, tour, record and live together without killing each other?
GP: We've had it out with each other a few times, but we got through the drama and realized that we all love each other. I can't foresee anything that we haven't already been through that would fuck up our relationship.
SD: Do you ever feel like Snow White or Smurfette, being in a band with all dudes?
GP: Well, I'm lucky to have our business manager Zoom-Zoom [Kristen Monsell] on the road with us. She's my saving grace. My farting capabilities skyrocketed when it was just me and the band in the van! Sorry to express it in such a way, but when you're around a bunch of guys, you just kind of become one of 'em. It's fun, though -- I love it. I'm not a girly-girl; I don't have a lot of girlfriends. I've always been a "guy" kind of girl -- what can I say?
SD: Some of your audience is old enough to be your parents. Is that at all weird for you?
GP: No, it's great, 'cause they're the only ones who know who J.J. Cale is! Talking to them feels more like talking to my peers, actually. Plus, they're more likely to buy the records than the kids! They give us that support, and they're the ones that email us later and say, "I've told so-and-so, and so-and-so." But we're not really aiming for one audience, you know?
SD: Everybody wants to know: How close are you to signing with a label?
GP: We don't even have a particular one in mind, so not that close, I guess. We've got a list, and our manager is sorting through them. There are a lot of great labels out there, but we've heard so many horror stories, so we're just really being careful.
SD: What are you going to do if they start pressuring you to change your look or your sound? Are you prepared to tell the suits to fuck off?
GP: Absolutely! I think we've held out long enough not to fall into that trap. We're quick learners, and we really listen. That's saved us from some potentially bad situations already. The whole major-label thing is really the scary one. You could sign to Back Porch Records and probably not get screwed over. It's really the majors that do all the pressuring. That's fine, but we just need to know exactly what we're getting into before we get into it.