Q&A with Grace Potter + Editor’s Pick: The Lion The Beast The Beat

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. Photo by Phil Andelman.

By: Lisa Occhino

When I first heard an electronic beat instead of Matt Burr’s drumming on Grace Potter and the Nocturnals’ new single, “Never Go Back,” my first impression was that they had given in and jumped on the commercial bandwagon. Fearing that my beloved Nocturnals had forfeited the soul and rock ‘n’ roll that initially drew me to them, I anxiously awaited the release of their sixth record, The Lion The Beast The Beat, to find out what direction the band was really heading in.

I breathed a deep sigh of relief when GPN proved once again that they’re the same band they’ve always been: a band that refuses to be boxed into any one genre, and constantly defies expectations.

The title track starts off the album with strong, primitive beat, as Grace sings, “I found the heart of a lion / In the belly of a beast.”  About a minute and a half into the song, an unexpected tension-filled swell leads into a climax of driving electric guitars and Grace’s signature raspy vocals.

I was impressed by the prosody of the soaring melody and lyrical content in “Stars,” which has just been announced as the second single off the album. While “Timekeeper” borrows from ‘60s Joplinesque influences, Grace and the boys keep this record fresh with contemporary beats as in the aforementioned track, “Never Go Back.”

My three personal favorites are tracks that really show off Grace’s vocal ability, personality, and energy: “Runaway,” “Turntable,” and “One Heart Missing.”

Although this album as a whole may feel slightly over-produced to longtime Nocturnals fans, the bluesy and soulful roots of the band nevertheless shine through in some capacity on each recording, sonically tying the project together.

In our interview with Grace Potter below, find out why she almost pulled the plug on this whole album, and why she won’t give advice to aspiring musicians:

Berklee Groove: You play quite a few instruments. What was the first one you picked up?

Grace Potter: The piano. My mom actually taught piano lessons when I was little. She had all these students that would come over the house after school, like ten kids, and they were all going to get lessons from my mom. So being a competitive little sh*thead, I always had to be better than the best kid in class. I kind of learned by ear.

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. Photo by Phil Andelman.

BG: When did you start singing?

GP: I don’t remember not singing – I sang since I was an infant. My mom said that before I was using full sentences and speaking, I already had a pretty good sense of what melody was… so I sort of learned to sing around the same time I learned how to talk.

BG: So I know you play Hammond organ, and seeing you perform live a couple of times is actually what inspired me to learn how to play. I was wondering what originally inspired you to play.

GP: Oh wow, I’m happy to hear that you’ve been picking up the organ! …When we were just starting out [in the band], Matty and Scotty knew that I needed a different keyboard, because all I had was a Kurzweil piano. And they said, ‘Grace, you need an instrument that’s as loud as you.’ I have to credit the Nocturnals for hooking me up – they pooled money together from friends and family, and on my birthday, they presented me with this unbelievable 1971 Hammond B3.

BG: How did the Nocturnals come together?

GP: We started playing together in 2003. I met Matt [Burr] and Scott [Tournet] in 2002 when I first start going to Saint Lawrence University. Matt was a senior and Scott was actually a guitar teacher… they were both in a couple other bands on campus, and they were always doing stuff and shaking it up. I was just young little freshman chick playing the keyboards and occasionally singing my own songs, but mostly singing cover songs at the local café in town. They said they wanted to play with me, and I said, ‘Sure!’

“I think that we’ve probably evolved more than most bands ever do, just because we’re constantly searching.”

BG: What does your songwriting process usually look like? Do you write with the band or by yourself?

GP: A little bit of both, it really depends on the song. I like to hole up in Vermont and channel a lot of different concepts, because when you’re starting to make a record, you don’t know what direction it’s gonna go in. You have a whole pile of songs, but you don’t know which ones are gonna win out over the other ones… But for me, I love writing with the band… A lot of times I’ll sneak up on them when they’re sound checking with a tape recorder and record whatever they’re doing, and then write it into a song… They come up with all these great grooves and jams and vibes that if I were there, I don’t think they would do… But it’s really cool, collaboration is inspiring and it takes you outside your box a little bit, which is fun.

BG: If someone didn’t know what Grace Potter and the Nocturnals sounded like, how would you explain it to them?

GP: That’s such a hard question! I’ve never been able to answer it myself, but that’s part of what makes it interesting… because we don’t define ourselves. The only thing I can say is that we play rock ‘n’ roll – but rock ‘n’ roll is a lot of things. It’s a pretty broad statement. So we’re certainly a rock ‘n’ roll band, but within that there’s blues, there’s gospel, there’s country, there’s soul, there’s complete apesh*t psychedelic music, there’s dark undertones, there’s dance, there’s hip hop, there’s afrobeat – I mean, we go all over the place and don’t ever settle on anything, which is why we’re so hard to put your finger on.

“I hated being in the studio – so much so that I actually pulled the plug on the whole project for a month.”

BG: Would you say your sound has evolved over the course of your career? Do you think there’s a specific path you’re heading towards?

GP: I think that we’ve probably evolved more than most bands ever do, just because we’re constantly searching. And because we didn’t define ourselves in the beginning of our career, it’s allowed us to really go in every and any direction, wherever the wind takes us. I think we’ve evolved a lot. I hear our music and obviously it’s my voice, so that sort of ties it together – so that’s kind of like the sail, but the boat just keeps changing. We’ve got so many different styles that we like to incorporate into our music that it’s hard to say whether we’ve improved or just changed, or what. Band membership has changed, inspiration has changed, and music in general has changed. You know, we’ve been together for almost 10 years, so that’s definitely allowed us to evolve… music is changing and growing, and collaborations are totally different than they used to be. I think the band has sort of reflected that.

BG: Tell me about your new album. How is it similar to or different from your previous releases?

GP: It’s very different. It’s really on another playing field altogether, I think… Making this record started out [fun], but then it very quickly changed and became a pretty big monster in the studio. I allowed myself to become completely overwhelmed and consumed with the project… And I hated it – so much so that I actually pulled the plug on the whole project for a month… I think it was mostly because I was internalizing a lot of the pressure and stress from it, and I had taken on a role as co-producer – which I had sort of done before in a very collaborative way, but never directly having it all on my shoulders. So I think I was biting off more than I can chew, I guess. I took a brief sojourn in the middle of the project, which led to a major breakthrough. It brought it back down to the basics and made it fun again. It brought that energy we had from the 2009 record… and made it not just fun, but really rewarding for the band, because we just got back to the music… that sort of euphoric, visceral experience that’s just performing the songs and capturing them.

“It wasn’t cool to be the hot cheerleader type; it was cool to be the sexy farmer’s daughter.”

BG: So you mentioned that you love performing, and it’s very obvious when you’re on stage – you have such great energy. Have you always felt at home on stage? Does it just come naturally to you, or do you ever feel like you have to put work into it?

GP: I always enjoyed being on stage, but there was a phase in my adolescence when I didn’t like being on stage anymore, because I felt like I was being pushed up on stage. Not by my parents – I didn’t have stage parents or anything – but just by adults in general. Like, ‘Oh, look at little Gracie Potter!’ So I had to break through that because as a young child I lived for the spotlight, but when I got into my teens, it wasn’t cool anymore. I broke back through by performing musical theatre in my high school. The theatre department was a big part of my life… and there was some unbelievable talent. I think that as a child, we in Vermont aren’t raised to let your peacock feathers show. It wasn’t cool to wear makeup in school, or work too hard on a cool outfit, or wear great clothes, or do your hair, or bleach your hair. Anything unnatural was actually the opposite of most high schools. It wasn’t cool to be the hot cheerleader type; it was cool to be the sexy farmer’s daughter. It was a little bit like fitting a square peg in a round hole because I was always drawn to feather boas, high heels, pearls, lipstick, performing and glitter. So I had to break out of that shell a little bit. It took me a long time to do it, but I think it was right around my mid-twenties that I started to own it again, and really enjoy that feminine side of myself.

“You can’t really depend on anybody but yourself to make it in this world.”

BG: What advice do you have for aspiring artists and bands?

GP: Oh, f*ck ‘em, they can figure it out for themselves. When people ask for advice, I say, ‘Listen, no one ever gave me any advice.’ It was complete trial and error, and that’s what gets you to where you go… You can’t really depend on anybody but yourself to make it in this world. Because I didn’t get a whole lot of advice or help, as a kid from Vermont I was literally starting from the ground up. I didn’t even know what a booking agent was… I was doing it myself. I obviously wish young, aspiring musicians the best, but I also encourage them to not ask for advice, and to go out and figure it out.

 

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