Q&A with Grace Potter of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals

If you haven’t yet heard of Grace Potter, it’s because the 24 year-old keyboardist, rhythm guitarist and singer for Vermont-based band the Nocturnals has only been playing gigs for about five years. After the early part of the group’s career was spend self-releasing CDs (Original Soul in 2004 and Nothing but the Water in 2005) before signing with major label Hollywood Records (that same label houses teen pop stars Aly & AJ, Hilary Duff and Miley Cyrus and, inexplicably, Queen) and putting out this year’s This Is Somewhere.

National interest in the album led to various television appearances and a tour with Gov’t Mule, but despite rising stardom, Potter has her feet firmly planted. Here’s she chats with Xpress about playing benefit shows, discussing her wardrobe with reporters and the golden age of rock music.

Mountain Xpress: What are you up to today?
Grace Potter: It was a long early day. We had to get up and get out into the wintery day. It’s crazy snowy weather up here, up in the Northeast right now. But now we’re out on the road, getting ready to set the cruise control and start moving.

MX: How did you get involved with this year’s Warren Haynes Christmas Jam?
GP: We took on the tour with Gov’t Mule. We were touring with Warren and the guys for about two months through October and November. When we booked it, we basically booked a few shows way ahead of time. Early in the summer we played a couple shows with them in New York City and Boston, and at the same time we got offered this big tour with them. And they were like, “And while we’re at it, we do this thing called Christmas Jam. It’s a benefit and all.” I was just so excited to be part of something like that.

MX: Have you played other benefit concerts?
GP: I’ve actually been a long time supporter of the Ovarian Cancer Coalition, and I’ve played a lot of concerts, mostly up in Vermont. There’s also a Rock for A Cure [to raise money for] Parkinson’s. We’re going to be donating proceeds from the ticket sales of our big New Year’s shows in Vermont to that.

We’re just sort of tapping into that now, because as a young band, starting out, I was really eager to jump in and doing anything we could, to play benefits and stuff. But the reality is that you have to make ends meet at some point. But we’ve done a lot of stuff — a lot of stuff with Earthfest and the Green Apple Festival in New York City. There’s so many different things to be a supporter of, and I always try to be informed about them. I’m a little bit iffy about the Rock For a Cure thing, because it’s the one thing we haven’t done yet. But before New Year’s I’ll know much more about it.

MX: Has success happened quickly for your band?
GP: For us it’s much more of a gradual thing. When you’re in those shoes and you’re the one working your way up, it definitely feels like every day is a bit of a battle. It can feel very stretched out. The band’s been together for five years, so essentially it’s been a real slow and steady wins the race kind of thing. We never really shot to fame. It’s more that people discovered us over a quick period of time. After us being around for four years, it’s only in the last year that people have picked up on what we’re all about. Although I think that the 20,000 people who have seen us over the last four years (I guess probably more than that) you know, they’ve known about it. But it never felt like we’ve really arrived until this most recent record. 

MX: What’s happened to make you feel like you’ve arrived?
GP: Well, I think having a record on a major label, putting out our major label debut, is definitely a part of it because you’re getting put through a completely different media machine. A lot of people have access to you and the information about you. All of a sudden you’re being asked to talk about what you’re wearing. None of that was ever happening before, and that’s a strange arrival. It’s not necessarily a good arrival, but it’s a different part of it that I’d never experienced.

It’s just a different reality. Doing T.V., you know. We did the The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and Good Morning America. I think when the band does appear on something like that, it does feel like, “Wow! You’ve really made it now.” But no, man, we’ve been making it for four and a half years. We just happen to be on T.V. now.

MX: You play rhythm guitar. Why aren’t there more female musicians playing lead guitar?
GP: I think guitar is an instrument that tends to be male dominated for a lot of reasons, mainly for the legends that have come before. There’s a sense that it’s very competitive. The guitar world is probably the most competitive of all instruments. It takes a certain constitution to want to throw yourself into that quagmire.

Actually, I only did it recently. My main instrument is actually the keyboards and the Hammond B3 [organ]. I picked up the guitar three years ago because I was noticing a pattern in my song writing that my songs were getting really, really intricate because I was playing the keyboard. I wanted to sort of simplify and let the lyrics sort of hold up the song instead of lots of intricate chord changes and noodley solo sections, stuff like that. So that’s really why I picked up the guitar: To have a different kind of canvas to paint on. And then I realized how much I loved it, because I can be standing up and dancing around. I can move. God, it’s so much fun. You know, it really does make you write a different kind of song when you’re writing on guitar.

MX: Since you weren’t even born until the 1980s, what was it about the 1970s sound that inspired your second album?
GP: That was the best time in rock ‘n’ roll. From 1968 until about 1973, the music that was being made and the sound in the studios were at their peak. I think studios just were, I don’t know, the tape machines, I don’t know what it was about it but there was some kind of magic. There was this little magic time.

It was the late ‘60s [and] early ‘70s sound that really drew me into rock ‘n’ roll to begin with. I got this buzz off that sound and the world and all these great old photos you see that just look like everybody was having so much fun. I love that. It’s awesome. It’s an awesome thing to have under your belt: That repertoire of ‘70s rock. That inspiration. It lead to what rock ‘n’ roll is today, there’s no denying that. Anybody who tries to say their influences began in 1986 with Duran Duran, they’re just full of s**t. Even Duran Duran listened to a little bit of The Who, you know?

MX: Has modern music lost its soul?
GP: It’s tricky. I think there’s a very, very small collection of bands that are doing exactly the right thing right now. I love Wilco, love My Morning Jacket, Dr. Dog is doing a lot of great stuff. Spoon … there are modern bands that are awesome, that are just great sounding. But I do find it tends to be more formula now that it was before and I think there was a lot more originality going on before, when rock ‘n’ roll was still in its, I guess, golden years. Now things have transitioned a bit. Studios push you to sound a certain way. Engineers and producers kind of know what works now and they kind of just try to copy what’s been done before. But there’s that few bands that bring that glimmer of hope. Pearl Jam is at the top of their game. I love what they do. So, yeah, there is modern music that’s beautiful, but it’s harder to find than it used to be.

MX: When do you go back into the studio?
GP: God, I don’t know. I want to go soon, I’m itching! I’ve got so many new songs. I think it’s probably going to be another six months before we get serious and look into making another record. We started and we were still in the process of making this record exactly one year ago today. We were in the studio and working hard on this. Our pattern tends to be every two years we make a record with some kind of live release in the middle. I would love to put out at least another live CD. But I don’t know! It’s hard to say.

—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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