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Grace Potter makes her presence known

Grace Potter knew she was destined to sing from an early age.

Grace Potter says she knew she was destined to sing from an early age. Harmonizing with her cousin in her grandparents’ backyard, she recalls how they would compete for the pretend title of world’s greatest singer. Aggressive at first, she was going through what she calls her “hushed phase” when drummer Matt Burr caught her singing Joni Mitchell and Neil Young songs in a café and “kind of crying into my drink.” The two formed a band, later to evolve into The Nocturnals, so called because the only time could reserve the rehearsal hall on their college campus was during the wee hours of the night.

Potter cranked up her vocals to make her presence known, even though the Nocturnals’ first two albums — “Nothing But the Water” (2005) and “This Is Somewhere” (2007) — recalled the rootsier influences of The Band, CSN and Neil Young, not to mention the more organic folk and country sounds vested by other communal combos she cites, like The Dead, The Allman Brothers and Steeleye Span. However, the band’s changed its tack with its just-released third album. With a new producer at the helm, Mark Batson (Dr. Dre, Dave Matthews Band, Alicia Keys, Eminem etc.), the self-titled set finds Potter letting loose a soulful bluster. The rest of the outfit — Burr, guitarist Scott Tournet and newer members Catherine Popper on bass and Benny Yurco on guitar — responds with an equally emphatic delivery, rummaging through 13 tracks with a wail and wallop that’s bound to make longtime listeners take notice.

The name of your band, The Nocturnals, is really a great handle. You’ve said that it had to do with the band’s rehearsal schedule.
Grace Potter:
It was a complete fluke. It was an accidental name. It was quite literally what we were — and still are. I don’t wake up until the sun’s about to go down. We had rehearsals in this old barn space where I went to college, and we couldn’t get a slot to rehearse until late at night because all the other bands on campus were taking up the rehearsal slots. So we wouldn’t get in there until 2 or 3 in the morning. Our name sort of came from our real lifestyle.

How would you describe the evolution from your first couple of albums to this new one?
We were digging into the roots and taking the time-tested examples, and on this record we departed by not trying to sound like anybody. Of course, we’ll probably end up sounding like somebody, but if that is the case, it was purely accidental this time around. When we were recording our first couple of records, we would sit there with Neil Young vinyl on and play it to our engineer and say, “Make it sound as much like this as possible.” Now we don’t think in those terms anymore. It’s about inventing something that’s completely fresh and untouched. It’s a natural progression, although it feels so exciting. I know every artist goes through it, but to me, you don’t know until you get there, because if you asked me four years ago I would say, “Oh no, I’m going to write songs from the perspective of a 55-year-old woman forever, because that’s what works for me, and I like playing that character and blah blah blah.” But, OK, I played that character, and that was one thing, and this is another. I’ve lived a little bit of life now, and I have my own stories to tell. I’m now in the affirmative direction of telling my own stories.”

But as far as the sound was concerned, what was it that actually moved the band into this new sonic territory?
I think the change was the band members. I think that’s exactly what happened. It was a slow epiphany. It certainly wasn’t a moment. These two new members — Catherine Popper (replacing original bassist Bryan Dondero) and Benny Yurco — came into the picture, and I wasn’t prepared for how much I was going to change with that. Of course, I think that a lot of bands go through that. You lose a member, you add a member, you add a new sound, you add a number — it went from a four-piece band to a five-piece band. That one addition changed so much about what we do and what kind of music we’re playing, and the epiphany was sort of this really fresh sound, a new direction. Over time, you might keep on adding people, but you can only capture the lightning in a bottle once, and it was just really exciting and magical to be able to do that with these guys.

The new album really marks a drastic departure for the band.
Sure. Absolutely. It’s more out there. We took so many risks, and we did a couple of things that made us say, “What were we doing? We really went out there!” I do hope that those risks pay off.

At the same time, it seems that Grace Potter and the Nocturnals really defy any absolute categorization.
I think that’s a blessing. It’s tricky, because we’re that gray-area band. We don’t fit into a perfect sock — “Oh, this is a Coachella band, or this is a band that we could put on MTV, or let’s have them cut a video for Japan and have them tour over there forever.” There’s no simple way to put us, and there’s so much possibility. And yet, in terms of being a crossover act, all those possibilities can become mind-boggling, and you don’t know what path to choose. And so that’s been the case over the past seven years — you just follow whatever path it’s going to be and see what happens. And I never look back and wonder what would have happened. But certainly every step has become more fundamental in where we eventually wound up.

In this case, it was just completely natural, and it all just sort of happened. I’m telling you some of these songs fell out of us like “I’ve never seen a song be created or hope to be able to be created so quickly.” The song “Oasis,” the second track, the demo was a reggae song or a hip-hop thing, and we thought ‘How is this going to make sense to our fans that have heard us for years?” They had this guitar piece going that was so endearing and wonderful, and all of a sudden, the hook just formed, and the song took shape, and we were ready to record it. And every single song on this album was the second or third take at the very least. “White Rabbit” we recorded in the same session, and that was the first take. There were a lot of first takes on this record, and it just happened. The word synergy can be overused to describe what was happening, and I don’t know if we went into the studio now if it would come out just the same.

I think the switch in musicianship was Brian, our former bass player, leaving and that was a somewhat tricky and emotional time in the band’s career. Not to say the band fell apart, or me and Scott and Matt said “OK, we’re going to disband and there’s not going to be a Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.” But when you’re in a band, it felt very much like a hole in the entire future of a band, so the idea of replacing him was not in our mind at the time. But we had some gigs we were already committed to, and we needed to fill in for him for just a couple of gigs, and that VH-1 Woodstock movie documentary. So the whole changeover in the band was kind of an emotional time, and it was a time of not knowing what was going to happen next. And what happened next was Catherine Popper was looking for a job, so it was either us or Led Zeppelin, so she said “I’ll come in and do a quick audition and whatever,” and Benny had already been in rock bands that had played with us, so he already knew our songs, and we just pulled it together for that movie. And at the end of the show, we all just looked at each other and said. “My God! We have a band!”

The big thing was that he and I had written these songs together in March. Right around the time that Brian left the band, I was working in L.A., working on songs and feeling very aimless — aimless in terms of the record, where it was going to happen, how it was going to happen and who was going to play one. Do I even have a band? So we started writing songs in the midst of all that. It was a very short time that we sat writing together, but we turned out 14 songs. We would write two or three songs a day — we were insanely prolific, and I had never co-written in my life with anybody, so I was nervous; I was worried. I didn’t want to give away that piece of myself as a really capable songwriter, like my own skin, and within five minutes we had this completely symbiotic work sense, so it was really perfect. He’s done a lot of co-writing, but he’s been perceived mainly as a producer, and our relationship was purely songwriting for four months or so. And through the spring and into the summer, as we got going and the band formed and everything kind of happened at once, there was this kind of sliding scale of experiences where you can hear it in the lyrics of the songs. I changed from “Tiny Lights,” which was one of the first songs we wrote, to “Hot Summer Night,” which was one of the last songs we wrote — things are really heating up — and we breezed through the record.

I think the label wanted me to keep writing. I think the record company was really loving a lot of what I had done so far, like “Goodbye Kiss” and “Colors,” and there were some songs on the record that were done, but they just wanted me to keep writing. I think they knew there was more in there. So upon their suggestion that I continue to pursue the writing thing, I talked to my manager. “What should I do? Do I need to co-write? I don’t really want to co-write, and I just want to keep writing by myself.” So Justin, my manager, hooked me up with Mark, and all he knew about me was that I played the organ — it was through a mutual friend — and then the label people suggested I go there. And you know what? If there’s anyone I’m going to co-write with, its gotta be with Mark Batson. He was completely out of the wings, like “Where? Where? Who?” That sort of surprise and collaboration felt really, really right.

I think it used to be a lot weirder than it is now. A lot of the relationships were formed at the beginning of this band were so strong. We’ve all been kind of ready for anything, and nothing stops us in terms of requests — for me on a cover, or “a picture of Grace here,” or “We just want Grace’s voice,” or “We’re going to a radio station and we only need Grace” — they’ve all heard it before. And at the venue, half the time it just says Grace Potter on the dressing room door. So, yeah, there was a time when I was probably more organized than anybody in the band — I really felt upset when I felt the band wasn’t being respected or given the attention they deserve. But I think certainly the shift in the band members helped people put things in perspective. I think everybody in the band had the experience that when the band changed over where the identification of importance was made clear, because not a single person in the band had felt not needed, and I think they got the sense that “If I could do this myself, none of you would be here anyway, so, obviously, I need you guys,” and we all understand that. And that’s really all that matters. Certainly there’s some ego there, but its not half as bad as it used to be, mainly because I’m more comfortable with it than I used to be.

Well, Levon Helm is one of my greatest examples of that, and look what he’s done with his career and his life after The Band. He and Garth still live in Woodstock; Levon has his rambles. Levon’s a star, and he went and did his thing and had his own career and his own direction, and everybody else could have thrown their hands up and said, “We give up, we’ve got nothing; it was only Robbie’s talent and songwriting that got us where we got,” but that’s not what happened. Everybody forged their own path, and use that as an example. I could use Tom Petty — Mike Campbell is one of my favorite guitar players of all time, and so there has to be an understanding that certainly the lead singer is going to get more respect or whatever, but it’s bullshit respect half the time. It’s attention, but its not always the revelry that the artist might want, and then the true appreciators are the ones who really dig around and so, “Oh my God. Mike Campbell was on that record?” Those are the things I seek out in my spare time, so I can only hope the knowledgeable fan will do the same with us.

I have been tapped for some of that, actually. I’ve been on a couple of records of good friends. There’s an artist named Lowell Thompson, and I sing on a couple of tracks of his. Another artist — I used to be a huge fan of this group when I was a kid — called Strange Folk, another Vermont band, and I was a total hippie. I used to go to festivals and see them everywhere, and he asked me to sing on his new record, so I’ve done that. It’s all about creative anarchy, and everybody has their experience doing that. Scott and Matt and Benny have their thing. So I encourage that. But everybody has their opportunity and possibilities to play with other people. So I just treat myself like another cat when it comes to that, because its just another gig.

I plan on world domination, myself. I have utter faith in at least starting with Europe, because I always wanted to tour over there and travel. I lived in Spain; my parents couldn’t handle me anymore, so they just said, “God, put her on a plane and put her somewhere away from us.” So Europe is a big one for me. I’d love to get back to Asia. I’ve spent a lot of time in Ireland, and we did a mini tour over there. We played St. Patrick’s Day week, and we had a great time. Brian quit his job for a couple of months and booked us an Irish tour, and we wound up working with the biggest promoter in Ireland. We actually ended up playing after Glen Hansard of The Swell Season and The Frames for St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin, which was really nice, long before “Once” and the phenomenon of Glen Hansard. We were sharing dressing rooms. So there was a great community of friends in Ireland, but Ireland is kind of an insular thing — like Vermont — so first you play Ireland and then you play Europe. I’ve got lots and lots of plans for England; I think its going to be fantastic when we get over there, so I’ll put on my best stage presence.

I grew up an artist’s kid, and my parents raised me right. I feel really, really lucky to be coming from that place. It’s much harder when you’ve had to fight against the current, and my folks have been incredibly supportive of me since the beginning so that’s where that comes from.