- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Grace Potter has packed arenas for years with her band, the Nocturnals, behind her, while continually churning out a unique sound that is part rock, part funk and all-around magnetic.

But for all of her success, the 32-year-old singer-songwriter remains remarkably humble about her path to stardom.

“Because of the audacity of wanting and trying to be a successful rock band, it was just so unrealistic to even try, [that] I think every step of the way felt like a success,” Miss Potter recently told The Washington Times of her band’s formative years in Vermont. “And in that there were just so many moments of climbing where you realize, ‘God, this is just working. It’s working!’”

With five albums to her band’s credit already, Miss Potter has just released her first solo record, “Midnight,” for Hollywood Records. “Midnight” is a bit of a departure from Miss Potter’s previous sonic signature, what with more electronic grooves and more upbeat, danceable tracks. She said that changing her sound is part of the evolution of any musical artist over time — one cannot continue to put out the exact same material and expect to mature.

“I’ve [dabbled] in so many different eras of music, but I’ve always sort of staunchly stuck to the classic rock/blues/nostalgia vibe because that’s what the Nocturnals were,” she said. “I think that it reached a boiling point … because I was so clearly reaching even further in that direction [with] my own music.”

Miss Potter’s influences are as varied as they are eccentric, from classic rock favorites like Led Zeppelin to Talking Heads, Madonna and even such modern fare as My Morning Jacket. She says her modus with “Midnight” was to give voice to some of other shapers of her sound that had been heretofore “under the surface for a long time but just couldn’t be embodied with the Nocturnals.”

But then the spirit of grace overtook Miss Potter.

“The entire time that we were making [‘Midnight’], I was kind of going through my own interior battle of sort of denial and acceptance,” she said, “and understanding how personal these songs had become — and how and why they differentiated themselves from previous Grace Potter and the Nocturnals records.”

In addition to the pop-synth impacts on “Midnight,” Miss Potter said she was also inspired by the 1950s and ‘60s girl group sounds of the Ronettes and the Supremes as well as contemporary voices such as Audra Mae and Noelle Scaggs.

In fact, “Midnight“‘s genesis effectively became a way for Miss Potter not only to spread her wings musically, but also to refocus her creative and personal energies in an often-hectic rock star lifestyle — and to reconnect with her fans on a humanistic level.

A steady rise

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals hail from the Mad River Valley in central Vermont, not far from the state capital of Montpelier. It was a long way from the music industry hotbeds of New York, Los Angeles and Memphis, but the area, known for its outdoorsy culture and beer-making, fostered a scene wherein Miss Potter and her bandmates interacted with other homegrown musicians.

While gorging herself on classic rock records and trying out her hand as a songwriter, Miss Potter said she and the Nocturnals believed they were “making it every single day” in the somewhat-isolated countryside of the Green Mountain State.

“We owned every moment of the process of climbing this mountain of wanting to share music for a living,” Miss Potter enthused. “Even when we weren’t really that successful, I thought we were … in comparison to anyone else trying to make it in Vermont. So big fish, small pond [worked] to our advantage in many ways.”

After two self-released records, the band signed with Hollywood Records in 2005. “This Is Somewhere,” featuring the sultrily mournful temporal song “Falling or Flying,” came in 2007, followed by the band’s self-titled album in 2010 and the more groove-infested “The Lion The Beast The Beat” in 2012 — the direct forebear of the sonic shift to “Midnight.”

The band caught the eyes of The Rolling Stones, who invited Miss Potter and the Nocturnals to open for them for two June dates on their ongoing ZIP Code tour.

“It’s not even that it’s a pinch-me moment; it’s exactly the opposite,” Miss Potter said of warming up crowds for the “World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band” this summer.

“It’s like, I deserve this!”


“To experience and to choose to embrace this … crazy life of being in the rock ‘n’ roll world is to essentially need to be clinically insane,” Miss Potter offers in a blunt assessment of her chosen profession.

So when not trotting the globe, Miss Potter returns frequently to Vermont for a process she describes as both “centering” and “soul-soothing.”

“It’s my rehab,” she says. “Most rock stars go to rehab; I just go back to Vermont,” she said, exuding an infectious, natural laugh.

When back in the Mad River Valley, Miss Potter picks up with friends from her youth, many of whom now have children of their own. There she feels better able to live by the Zen-like maxim of being in the moment rather than consume her thoughts with the next song, the next concert, the constant need for contemporary musicians to tour to see a profit.

“[Vermonters] are doing exactly the same thing I am, and putting exactly the same amount of energy and focus into it as I am. They’re not getting all these accolades for it, and they don’t need it,” she said, underlining the difference between show business and all-American entrepreneurship work ethic she finds in her hometown.

“When I come home, I’m desperately trying to keep up with them.”

World’s stage

In June, after Miss Potter and the Nocturnals opened for The Stones in Minneapolis and Dallas, Mick Jagger called her back onstage each night to sing Merry Clayton’s part on “Gimme Shelter” — the apogee of rock ‘n’ opportunity. Miss Potter held her own against the strutting 72-year-old Mr. Jagger, matching him in both verve and audience seduction.

Even with such accomplishment, Miss Potter, while acknowledging its awesomeness, takes it all in stride. While one might be tempted to believe she is undercutting her own abilities by embracing such humility, her confidence and poise back up what her records have long proved.

“It doesn’t mean that life is perfect,” she said, bringing herself voluntarily back to earth. “It doesn’t mean that everything that happens along the way and all the mistakes that you make and all the lessons that you learn aren’t painful or hard.

“When I have those ‘ah ha’ moments with Mick Jagger up on-stage, I just hang on for dear life, and I hope that however insane it is, that it’s happening and I can enjoy that moment fully and there was a reason that it happened.”

In the meantime, she continues to push hard for “Midnight” at a time when scaring up album sales continue to be a bane for musicians. She recently performed “Empty Heart” on “Conan” and continues on a headlining tour into the fall.

Still, Miss Potter knows she will play again with The Nocturnals. For one thing, she is married to the band’s drummer, Matthew Burr.

“Oh, that too,” she said, again laughing.

Miss Potter continues to believe in the importance of music to provide a means for sharing in collective joys and sorrows — sometimes both at once.

“People face all these challenges — pain and suffering and death and loneliness. And being onstage is an opportunity to share the joy of the moment,” Miss Potter said, striking up a refrain of acceptance in the now and of the ephemeral nature of life that not only infuses “Midnight” but also how she discusses her life and her artistic output.

Perhaps some of that understanding has come with age, what with Miss Potter “recognizing that everything is passing.” However, the gracefulness of such acceptance, she added, made her realize that the painfulness of life’s journey is itself often fleeting.

“It’s definitely been a few weeks of major revelations,” she said. “It’s just such a great life lesson in the singularity of the present moment and how you really can’t control everything. Especially how people are going to feel.”

Part of experiencing music, she believes, is the externalization of one’s internal pain of suffering.

“That’s why pop songs are only three and a half minutes long,” she said. “Good or bad, you only have to suffer through it or feel that way for three and a half minutes,” she said with a rather hearty giggle.

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