When I rang up Grace Potter, she was "getting cozy" in a Sheridan Hotel in Baltimore. Unlike most touring musicians - whose nights are spent rolling in and out of different interchangeable, nameless hotels, if they're not in the back of a van - Potter's got a soft spot for temporary lodging. She even recorded part of her new album, The Lion The Beast The Beat, in a few of them.
Potter and I spoke about that new album, her tour with Kenny Chesney and her unorthodox recording process. But what I was really interested was talking about was the experience of being the frontwoman of a rock and roll band.
Look at that picture - Potter's a gorgeous woman. She makes no bones about it - even telling me that she thinks being a attractive woman in a miniskirt sometimes keeps people at her shows who might otherwise not stay. It's part of her philosophy; as she told Men's Health in June 2012, "Music and sex are one thing; they go together."
Potter will perform with her band, The Nocturnals, Saturday in the Egyptian Room at Old National Centre. Be prepared: their live shows are notoriously fiery. And why wouldn't they be? They combine the electricity of the group's jam band beginnings, the perfected dirty blues-rock of their 2010 self-titled album and their new penchant for pop anthems. It's a hot combination, carried by Potter's howling roar of a voice and her deadly Flying V guitar.
Potter and The Nocturnals have accumulated serious industry cred, albeit a strange mixture of it. Their fourth release was a live album recorded in Sun Studios and released on Record Story Day last year. Grace and her group were invited by Kenny Chesney on his summer stadium tour with Tim McGraw after recording the Grammy-nominated duet "You and Tequila" together. Those shows grew into the highest grossing tour of 2012; after that kind of success, it would have been easy for Potter and The Nocturnals to release a country album (and no doubt many fans expected them to do just that). Instead, we got The Lion The Beast The Beat, a collection of rock riffing with disco thumps and soaring pop ballads
NUVO: I wanted to ask you about hotels - I read that you recorded vocals for some of this album in hotel rooms. This album is not quiet. I immediately wondered after reading if you ever were reported to the front desk for being noisy.
Potter: Yeah, that happened. I'm a pretty loud person, apparently. I've been known to get more noise complaints than anyone. It's not my forte to be quiet. I really wanted this album to have the intimacy and privacy of feeling like you're in a hotel room. The vocals - we didn't need that big, booming studio sound. We wanted to create something that was more like a diary. We wanted it to read like a diary, to be more personal. I think we achieved that.
By going into the hotel, I felt so much more comfortable. I didn't feel so exposed like I do in a studio; when you're standing there and there's glass and microphones all around, a bunch of people with their arms crossed in a control booth staring at you. It's much different scenario when you're in the comfort of a place that you've made your home. And Jim Scott, our producer, did an amazing job of vibing it out, by hanging blankets all over the walls and lighting candles. We took that room over and made it our own.
NUVO: I was also reading an anecdote from the recording process where you were spontaneously jamming on a Casio keyboard, and then Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach [who co-wrote three tracks and produced one on the new album] ended up picking it up and moving it over and you just kept jamming - and in 45 minutes, that song became "Never Go Back," the first single. Obviously you don't have regular studio experiences. Do creative, on-the-spot flashes like that typify your recording process?
Potter: I look for those experiences - something out of the ordinary in a studio. I don't like that way some people treat the studio like an office. I tend to get a sense of doom whenever I walk into a studio that feels like it's going to be a day of work. That's just not why I got into this crazy business of music. I always wanted to have an experience that felt very much like the whole conversation about our live performance versus our studio performance, and the discrepancy there. I strive to find those immediate, lightening-in-a-bottle moments that make a studio experience special and memorable. Then, every time I hear that song, I can say, "Yeah, that's right! That was such a crazy day, and the battery was about to die in the keyboard and we ran [to the plug]." I remember, I was holding the keyboard and Dan was holding the cables so the keyboard wouldn't die, and kept going as we walked into the control booth. It was so unorthodox; the sound of the song still reflects that. It's different, in an exciting way.
NUVO: How has the lineup of the Nocturnals changed since you began touring as a group? Matt [Burr, drums, backing vocals] and Scott [Tournet, guitar, keyboards, bass] are founding members, along with you, correct?
Potter: Yes. Matt and I formed the band in 2003 and Scotty joined shortly after while we were all at college at St. Lawrence University. We toured our asses off in a broken down van for many years and played farmers' markets, art shows, senior living facilities and town squares. Benny joined in 2009, and by then we were humming along playing rock clubs and theaters. Then Michael Libramento joined a little over a year ago while we were recording The Lion The Beast The Beat and now we've found ourselves in front of 60,000 people in stadiums all summer! It's been quite a ride so far, and it's not even close to over.
NUVO: You gave an interview to Men's Health about sexuality and music that I found fascinating. ... You really got into sex appeal and sex in the industry, the connection between sex and music. In that interview, you said, "I think it's fascinating that with a woman [ramping up her sexual image on stage or in a photo shoot] that's something that everyone notices. But if Mick Jagger, Steven Tyler, Robert Plant or Rod Stewart decide to amp up their look for the night, it's not like they'll get an inbox full of complaints." (Men's Health, June 14, 2012) Can you tell me a few times you've felt sexism in your career?
Potter: My main thing about sexism in the industry is when people say, "You're my favorite chick rocker!" or "You're one of the best female musicians out there." To me, what is with the discrepancy? Why are there "female" and "male" musicians? Why is "female" a category all on its own? What have we done to define ourselves from just being musicians? [We] live in a culture where people don't even think twice about saying that. "You're my favorite chick rocker; you're one of the best chick rockers since..." and then they list off every other woman who's ever had blonde, long hair and yelled a little louder than normal. It's a weird thing.
As frustrating as it is, I see why people do that. Humans have a deep need to categorize, put things in their place and make things make sense to them. And females in music - I gather what people really absorb from a woman performing versus a man is that vulnerability and sometimes lyrics that cut right to the heart of the matter a bit more. But I've never done that. So I get what people mean, because there are certain female musicians who are iconic as women and have chosen to really identify themselves through being women. The fact that they are women makes them who they are [as musicians]. But in my case, I literally never try and sound like another female singer-songwriter.
I've never enjoyed hearing that sort of vulnerable thing. I always remember listening to more beautiful, vulnerable music and thinking, "God, grow a pair of balls or something." If you're angry, sing angry. Don't put this tenderness behind it that is disingenuous to the song you're trying to sing. If you're mad, be fucking mad. I like to strive to cut to the heart of the matter. That's why I wrote the song "Paris Ooh La La." There's no cute, flowery lyrics around it. It's, "Let's get on the floor and have sex." That was a surprise and one of the things that was appealing about the song for so many people. It was very unapologetic approach to a woman singing a rock song.
I've seen it in other women. I'm not saying that all women don't do it right. There's plenty of women doing it right and it's awesome. I just don't understand why we have to have our own little special category in people's record collections.
NUVO: It's an interesting problem with music journalism. I have to remind myself all the time, if you would write about a band as a "girl group" would you call an all-male group a "man group?"
Potter: Exactly! It's easy. I do shows every night where there's someone in the audience screaming, "You're fuckin' hot!" It's not, "I love your music; play this song" or "I love you for this or that, for what you've done." It's, "You're hot." And one of the things I've learned to use to my advantage is [this]. The sexism thing isn't going to go away, right? No matter what. I'm not a feminist. It's not my cross to bear, to fight this huge battle my whole life to try and be sanctified and recognized as just as good as Robert Plant or some bullshit like that. It's not what I'm here to do. ...
Dudes are gonna be dudes and gals are gonna be gals -- we just gotta work with what we all got, you know? Listen, I'm a girl in my 20s in a rock and roll band; I know I'm gonna get a few catcalls, but I'm not gonna let that drown out the other 2,000 voices that are singing along to every word and finding deep meaning in the songs. But I also I recognize the fact that I've been very fortunate. A lot of women who came before me paved the way and I respect them for breaking down the walls that were much more prevalent for the last generation of artists. ...
What I think is interesting is using to my advantage the fact that I'm a woman. Right down to having the production guys and the backline guys and production company be really nice to me. I can get a few more things done not by being a big dude with my arms crossed, saying, (in deep voice), "This is what I need; this is when I'm going to get it." But also [I'm] not a diva and [I'm] down-to-earth, but also being a woman and learning how to work what is left of my youngness - that works.
Maybe there's people who got dragged to the show and didn't want to be there, and what keeps them there is a girl in a miniskirt. They get hooked by the second or third song, and they become fans. Basically, they start out from a place of ignorance but grows into a very interesting dialogue between the audience and the performer.
NUVO: There's a quote by Kenny Chesney about you and your tour together. He says, "My fans are smart, Tim (McGraw)'s fans are smart - they know good music when they hear it." Essentially, they're not engrained to their radio pop country listening and would be cool with a non-country act opening. How have you felt the crossover effect since the Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw tour?
Potter: It's kind of faded now because our tour is so different and a lot of fans that we're seeing at these shows are integrated. There are country fans, and there are pop radio fans, and there are crazy college kids and old-school hipsters coming out of the woodwork from their hippie days. I haven't seen such a direct hit from the Kenny [tour and songs together] as I thought I would. I thought the whole fall tour would be country fans. I was interested in what would happen there, because we've got such a large group, starting with the jam band circuit, that we've built on.
... Like Kenny was saying - there's some brain activity that has to happen in order to draw the connection between our music and Kenny's music. But it's not that broad. Music is music, and the thing we have in common isn't necessarily the song, because the songwriting and production is vastly different. But we have the energy, and the stage presence, and the utter joy to share music and try your darnedest to make every single person in the room happy. People see me doing it, and I think they can see why Kenny and I are such good friends. We're very much the same kind of people, cut from the same cloth. Not annoying people-pleasers, but [we've got] genuine joy to be on stage and be doing what we're doing. We understand how lucky we are to have that job.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
"Nothing But The Water" by Grace Potter and The Nocturnals