Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
On A Quest For Sonic Greatness
By Ara Ajizian, Musician's Friend Managing Editor
In an age where overnight sensations regularly crop up thanks to a YouTube video, it's nice to see a band rising to success at a slow burn as Grace Potter and the Nocturnals have. Since releasing their 2005 debut Nothing But The Water, the band has paid its dues on the touring circuit, exploring its influences and evolving its sound. June saw the release of the group's boldest offering yet, The Lion The Beast The Beat. We caught up with frontwoman Grace Potter and discussed the band's new sound, her influences, her crossover country success, and more.
As a band that's covered a lot of sonic ground across your catalog, what's the common thread that you feel defines your sound?
GP: Right now it's a combination of things because the band's membership has changed. The only three core members of the band who have carried through all these years are Matt Burr on drums, myself, and Scott Tournet on guitar. There's been a lot of shapeshifting that's gone on, so it's hard to put my finger on one thing. Part of it is a duo of really powerful guitars. Scott and Benny's guitar work and what they do when they play together is very specific to the two of them. Any other guitar players trying to do what they're doing wouldn't sound the same.
On our new record, The Lion The Beast The Beat, Scott and (guitarist) Benny (Yurco) picked up the bass, we added a multi-instrumentalist (Michael Libramento) who plays keyboards, drums, sings and plays guitar, so that's added a different sound. At the heart of it, my B3 is always there in maybe half the songs—that rich, throbbing, grinding B3 sound that I've worked so hard to manipulate to perfection.
What were some of your earliest influences that still have an effect on your approach to creating music and your sound?
GP: I listened to a lot more folk, choral and gospel music as a kid, just from being in the chorus. And from going through my parents' record collection…they listened to a lot of Dylan and Donovan. I loved The Pentangle and John Renbourn, a lot of that Celtic-style music. As I grew up I got completely obsessed with The Beatles, Jethro Tull, Spooky Tooth, King Crimson. So the rock and roll thing really evolved as I got older and started making mix tapes, and digging through my parents' records and realizing how cool some of that music was. But it was gradual. My tastes started out much softer.
Were you raised in a musical family?
GP: They are a musical family. My mom taught piano, and she and my dad are both beautiful singers in their own way. My dad plays trumpet and was in the choir in college, and my mom sings opera in the morning as she's feeding all the cats and birds and dogs. I think my Uncle Spiegel (Wilcox) is the one who taught me that music could actually be a job. He made a full-on career out of being a musician and traveled the world over and over again. I went to his house and saw all his photos—him with Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, these legends who weren't around anymore. I thought, "What an amazing way to live your life, from gig to gig." He did that until he was 96, when he died.
Have you ever felt pressure from the business side of the industry to sound a certain way?
GP: No one's ever looked me in the eyes and said, "Grace, you need to sound more like Florence and the Machine." No one's ever had the balls to do that, because they know they would be killed on the spot! (laughs) Having said that, I've been asked to co-write with people who have written hit songs.
You've worked with the likes of T Bone Burnett and Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys. How have those experiences helped evolve your sound?
GP: When I collaborate, I always want to do back bends. I love flexibility. I think it shows a great deal of breadth in a musician to be able to turn everything around and try something totally new. The greatest musicians, the ones I admire the most, are able to do that without ever sounding uncomfortable. With Dan, much like with T Bone or any other songwriter or producer who's tried to pull something out of me, that struggle and that moment of, "I don't know if this is the right move" is the exciting thing. The results can be heard when you hear someone really reaching outside of their own box.
Mainly that has to do with songwriting, but production as well. I have to say that T Bone really stretched me in a lot ways that I wouldn't have gone as a musician. As a result, some of that music is very exciting. Of course, it's not available for the world to hear (laughs), but it's very cool. It's important for musicians to always try something new, and that's what collaborating does. It pulls you out of your own incubator, and you concoct a soup of two sounds. That can be really, really exciting. Even though it's fun to try things, it doesn't always work.
The Lion The Beast The Beat is certainly a leap forward for the band. Was it a goal going into the record to expand things sonically, or did that happen organically?
GP: I think it was intentional. I knew I wanted this to be an ambitious record, and one that maybe challenged fans' expectations. A lot of people thought I was going to make a country record, or veer deeper into a softer sound, just because I had so much success with "You and Tequila" with Kenny Chesney. There was a completely new fan base waiting with bated breath for what was going to come next. I very specifically knew that that's not what I wanted to do, but I didn't want to look a gift horse in the mouth and not have respect for that side of it.
Obviously country is an influence that runs through all our music, but it's just one mineral in the water, as we say. There's a lot more to it. I really wanted to allow this record to breathe.
During the recording, you took a month off to gather your thoughts. How did that come about?
GP: One of the big issues I had was that we didn't take any time off. We just jumped right into the studio from the road. There wasn't a lot of time to collect my thoughts and collect the songs that meant the most to me. I had 35 songs, so I figured it would just come together the way it always does. About two months in, I realized that it hadn't come together and it was just a haphazard collection of music that didn't really sing to me. That's where the sound search began, finding our sound and finding something that we all could agree upon. That's why there's such a wide sonic landscape on this record.
What changed for you once you returned?
GP: When I came back from that break everyone was so recharged and I was completely inspired. I sort of had a "mission from God" attitude toward the record and everyone jumped on board right away. They could see it in my eyes and hear it in the demos that I had dug pretty deep to find that cohesion.
After that month off we just sat in a rehearsal room and just played until the songs chose themselves. I needed to hear the full band playing the songs without anybody with a red button getting ready to push it. As a band, we naturally selected the 12 winners.
You did the song "You and Tequila" with Kenny Chesney and picked up a CMA for it last year. On the new album he's returned the favor on an alternate version of "Stars," and you also did a track with Willie Nelson. Did the whole experience with "You and Tequila" make you want to explore that country sound more than you might otherwise have?
GP: In a way, yes, but it was all circumstantial, mainly because I didn't know anything about Nashville. I loved Townes Van Zandt, and I listened to every Gillian Welch record that was ever released. Guy Clark, Lucinda Williams, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris; these were people that were absolutely intrinsic in my upbringing and influential to me as a young songwriter. Hearing how unbelievably careful they are at interpreting songs in Nashville really struck a chord with me. There's a deep respect for songwriting in Nashville, and almost every country musician I can think of knew who we were. So that was a pretty wild discovery, just to realize that unbeknownst to us, we had been there all along. When I finished The Lion The Beast The Beat album and we started talking about deluxe tracks, I couldn't deny that those cuts came out so well; there was no point putting them aside. We might as well share them and give people a tiny taste of what they want.
As veterans of the rock circuit, you now find yourself opening stadium shows with Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw. How do you adjust the band's sound accordingly?
GP: This is a good question and one that I asked myself going into these stadium shows. We tried to cater our set, because we're obviously "one of these things is not like the other." At the heart of it, country fans are rock fans. They just want to listen to awesome rock and roll and fist pump and yell and scream and dance. They're very receptive—surprisingly so—to letting us do what we do. So at a certain point I stopped worrying about catering the set and started thinking about exactly what songs have a "bigness" that belongs in a stadium. So really the only care that's been taken is to make sure that the songs sound big enough. A lot of those intricate, delicate, beautiful songs that we have just get lost on the crowd. We needed some of the broader-stroke songs. Which is what we love to do anyways!
How does gear fit into your creative equation?
GP: Gear can be the guideline for an entire song. "Never Go Back," the song we did with Dan (Auerbach), was completely based around a 1980-something, battery-operated Casio keyboard that he had sitting in the corner. I turned it on and started the little rhythm machine, and there's that default, giddy-up click that kicks in. If you listen to the beginning of the song, it's that same beat that almost every Casio keyboard from the '80s had. That entire song was defined by that keyboard.
The same goes for the work we did in Jim Scott's studio. He had an unbelievable collection of keyboards, with marxophones and baby toy pianos, dulcimers…the most bizarre s**t you've ever seen. One of my favorite things to do was to keep playing a melody until I found the instrument it belonged on. The hooks would sometimes change because of the instrument too. I'd say, "There's a lot of sustain on this piano, but I love the sound of it." So we'd take a couple notes out. We simplified hooks and made them better because the instruments were asking for it.
How else does gear affect the band's current sound?
GP: We've definitely had fun mixing it up and f***ing around with the gear. Now that we're getting into this multi-instrumental thing, Benny and Scott pick up the bass for a couple songs in the set. Michael plays the keyboards. So there is some bending and messing around with some different sounds. I have to say, that's been one of the most exciting things, that we can't put our finger on exactly who does what anymore. Scotty has a mellotron now, which is one of the coolest sounding instruments in the world. I also just started bringing a CP70 out on the road, which is a great half-acoustic, half-electric Yamaha piano. It's got tines, so it does have that organic sound, but it's actually an electric piano. I'm such an analog junkie, I have to feel like I'm playing a real instrument. I wince whenever I hear something that's overtly digital, especially when it comes to piano. So it's been really nice to have that beautiful compromise of a CP70 onstage. It carries over and the crowd can feel it more when there's that gravity behind it.
How did your new Signature Gibson Flying V come about?
GP: I'd been talking about doing a signature V with Gibson for a long time, sort of half-jokingly. I didn't feel a deep need to make a signature model because the V is intrinsically signature. Gibson brought me into the factory while I was doing the songs with Dan. It's mind-bending, the amount of energy and effort they put into every single guitar. I fell in love with the entire process, so this is a collaboration I can believe in. I put a lot of trust and faith into these craftspeople to do it exactly the way I wanted, and I can't believe the result. It's such a breathtakingly beautiful guitar. And it's only the second signature electric guitar that Gibson's ever released for a woman. The only other is Joan Jett's. That's pretty substantial.
What led you to the Flying V as your main guitar?
It's got a lot to do with weight distribution for me. When I'm onstage, the V hangs just so, where I'm able to perform the way I like to perform. And there's just something about the neck on it, especially up high. It's got that ratty, Ray Davies rhythm guitar feel, which is primarily the way I like to play guitar.
Lastly, do you feel that your sound isn't so much a destination as a never-ending journey?
GP: I think that sentiment is very accurate. I doubt we'll ever get there, but it is a destination. Rock and roll is about striving for greatness, and occasionally achieving it. It takes a really long time to find out what that is. People can stumble upon it, and there are those moments of accidental magic where it just sort of happens—a flash in the pan and then it's gone. But striving for godly sound quality is what rock and roll is all about.