Grace Potter & The Nocturnals: On The Road To Somewhere
Sitting to lunch with Grace Potter and drummer Matt Burr at an outdoor cafn midtown Manhattan, you get the sense that the initial onset of fame hasn’t changed them one bit. The reigning holders of the New Groove of the Year title, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals (rounded out by Scott Tournet on guitar and Bryan Dondero on bass) are bracing for the August 7th release of This Is Somewhere, their second full-length album, looking to build upon the breakout success of their debut, Nothing But The Water. With the late summer release, the quartet spent a good part of the summer touring the country and offering fans a preview of the upcoming disc. An effort Potter analogizes, sometimes in jumbled fashion, to a movie trailer designed to build anticipation for a new release. In the early stages of their recent journey, they breezed through New York City for a pair of club dates and also for a session of interviews with jambands.com
The super-charismatic Potter, whose bluesy, earthy vocal style has drawn favorable comparisons to Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt, is fast on her way to becoming her own center of gravity. Without an ounce of pretension, Potter possesses a homespun charm and effortless charisma that seem well beyond her twenty-something years. Confident and free-spirited, her personality gets ratcheted up a notch when she’s on stage. In the middle of their set at Joe’s Pub, which has cabaret style seating, Potter stood with her guitar near the edge of the stage and lamented that no one was sitting at the front table which featured the best angle for looking up her skirt. Leaving aside the fact that she was wearing a stylish pair of shorts, (to the bemused disappointment of the two guys who obliged her spirited request), the overtly flirtatious display gives you an idea just how comfortable Potter is in her own skin. Her assuredness though is balanced by her measured excitement at the whirlwind of events currently swirling around her and The Nocturnals.
Anonymity looks to be one the first things the Vermont based band may leave at the wayside. Even without the Grizzly Adams beard he had at this year’s South By Southwest Festival, there’s no mistaking Tournet, or any of the others for that matter, as burgeoning rock stars. Sitting in the park at Union Square before an early evening showcase at Joe’s Pub, Tournet and bassist Bryan Dondero drew a modicum of interest from the normally insular New Yorkers, who kept peeking over, trying to rack their memories as to the identity of the two musicians being interviewed on the concrete steps.
The band looks at their latest album as a big step forward in their development. “It’s like the difference between The Basement Tapes and Rubber Soul,” says Potter with a bit a self-conscious giggle at namechecking a pair of titans like Dylan and The Beatles in comparison to her own work. “We went from literally doing a remote recording by the seat of our pants to doing it the way its supposed to be done. It was a hard transition for us, but at the same time we really challenged ourselves. The whole band sat down and said, This is it. This is the serious one. This is the one where we really want to rise to the occasion.’ I wrote all the songs but the band got really serious into arrangements, theory and context. We really tried to make this an identifiable body of work.”
“On paper it’s not our debut,” says Burr in explaining why This Is Somewhere feels more like one than Nothing But The Water, their roots-rock, Southern-gospel tinged 2005 release. “Nothing But The Water had this current four piece on it, but Bryan had just joined the band about a month before it was made. We had really just broken out of Vermont and hadn’t really gotten the chance to know each other intensely in that regard. As this outfit matured and found its footing, we’ve come to a sound that we’re really happy with, found a record label [Hollywood Records] that we’re totally happy with, we found a co-producer, a great engineer and a great studio. I feel that since all those ingredients are there, this is the first record where we’ve hit a point that we can say this is a competent coming out.” Potter echoes Burr’s feelings. “Everything was put into place in a way that we never thought it would be,” she says. “We never pictured ourselves being a band that would be at this point in our careers. We never knew how far we were going to be able to take this.” Potter clearly doesn’t take this chance to grab the brass ring for granted. “We’ve been riding the wave and taking advantage of all the great opportunities we’ve been given. Everyone greatly enjoyed the whole recording process. I mean, there’s no reason to not be unbelievably happy. You can’t complain, Oh I don’t like this,’” she says with a posh accent. “You can’t pull the rock star bullshit. Not when these little country bumpkins from Vermont have been working so hard to get so far.”
Dondero concurs that Somewhere feels more cohesive. “We did Nothing But The Water in three or four days,” he recalls. “On this one, we worked on it for over two months; it’s much more deliberate. Whether consciously or not, we all collaborated on the arrangements. Just playing together for a couple years, your influences inherently find their way more into the music.” Both he and Tournet look at This Is Somewhere as a rock album. “There’s definitely more rock influences on this one. We were more aggressive,” says Tournet. “Collectively, we went through a bunch of different phases this summer,” continues Dondero. “We went through a big Who phase where we were watching and listening to a lot of their stuff; same with Led Zeppelin, who we’ve listened to for a long time. It’s weird to come back to [these bands] because you have a whole new take on them. You have fresher ears cause you’ve grown up some.”
For long time followers of the band, This Is Somewhere will sound familiar though more polished. “That’s where our co-producer Mike Daly really deserves eternal props,” compliments Burr. “We have our own way, but [Daly] showed us a new creation process. In the moment, it seemed like a pain in the ass but it’s great in hindsight.” With some of the songs on the album having been part of their repertoire for over two years, Daly, listening with fresh ear, provided an honest sounding board for what they were trying to do. “He cut the fat off a lot of tunes: on some, he suggested making them shorter, not for radio reasons or any of that b.s. but for good reasons,” says Burr. “He basically called us out when he had to and said that’s not a good song,’” interjects Potter. “Besides, gratuitous jamming isn’t what we’re good at anyway. We’re not an instrumentally incredible band. I’m not a virtuoso. Maybe Scott’s a virtuoso,” she digresses. “Most of us have a good understanding of the fact that we’re comfortable with our music and our style. I think that that’s a reason to weigh our talents and make sure we’re emphasizing the right things. One thing we didn’t want to do was have a bunch of gratuitous wanking on the record just for the sake of making a song longer.”
To illustrate the point, Burr points to their unsuccessful attempt to capture “Over Again,” one of their favorites, in the studio “We recorded it late at night and had a pretty magical take. We added some noise and overdubs and really did a lot of work to it.” Despite the effort, they were unsatisfied with the finished product. “Scott especially was like I don’t think we pulled off this 9 minute epic rock song.’ There’s like 5 or 6 minutes of guitar solos and us freaking out behind him. It was just a realization we all came to that we’re still young in terms of being Led Zeppelin/My Morning Jacket jam rockers. Those are the pinnacles for us. I love the way they so-called jam. It’s organized yet it’s loose and free. Its smart and it makes sense. When you listen back to ours, there are some moments that gave us shivers and others that made us go, Wow. We’re still young.’”
On Nothing But The Water, a handful of songs come from the viewpoint of a scorned and angry woman, leaving open the question of whether Potter has some sort of Alanis Morissette-type story lurking in her background. Unfortunately for the gossip hounds, they weren’t written from Potter’s personal experience. Not so for This Is Somewhere. “Most of the songs on this album are autobiographical,” she explains. Even those that aren’t from Potter’s personal point of view, don’t stray from her heart. “Big White Gate,” Somewhere’s closing song, written from the point of view of an aging New Orleans soul singer, originates with Potter’s grandmother, even if the facts are fictional. “Later on in [my grandmother’s] life, she told me that she wished she had taken a few more risks. I thought she deserved a glamorous song, so I wrote one for her.”
Potter also dabbles a little bit in subtle political commentary on “Ah Mary,” the lead single. In moving into broader subject matter, Potter’s moving with baby steps. “Neil Young already wrote “Let’s Impeach The President,” I don’t need to rewrite it. It’s probably time for subtlety and it’s also time for speaking out. My style of writing is such that I would never preach, I’m not Ani DiFranco. I’m not going to tell you how to think cause I don’t appreciate it when people preach at me and try to tell me what’s right and wrong. I like leaving something open-ended, so that it makes you think harder then you would when hearing a song that’s so blatantly angry. There’s some really angry stuff on this album, but you might not catch it until the third or fourth listen.”
Potter acknowledges the poppier inclinations of some of the songs on This Is Somewhere. The new album doesn’t constitute a fundamental shift away from rootsy-blues based shuffles like “Gumbo Moon” or “Left Behind” but it does move the band a little closer to the mainstream than Nothing But The Water, containing a couple ballads that seem ideal for mainstream consumption. “Hearing the songs live is actually a really good way to ease into the album,” explains Potter. “Our music has a definite undercurrent that remains constant. We’re never going to lose the blues, we’re never going to lose that gospel blues sense of melody.” The assimilation into pop culture’s collective unconscious may have already begun: in the industry’s current equivalent to product placement, “Falling Or Flying” made its debut on the season finale of the wildly popular Grey’s Anatomy,
Like most bands, Potter & The Nocturnals have endured their growing pains. “Every show we learn from our mistakes and from our accomplishments,” she explains. “Being in the studio allowed us to be better critical listeners of ourselves. We’ve now come to a great level of communication: we love talking about the shows, what we want to change and what we can do better. We’re learning how to criticize each other without it becoming a personal battle. It’s been a very gradual process getting comfortable criticizing each other. We’ve been together and we’ve known each other for five years now; Bryan came in later but we knew him before that. We’ve dealt with that communication barrier a lot but it wasn’t until this record that we realized that it’s our job to be good communicators. It’s not a choice anymore; it’s a necessity to be honest and open up to your good friend.” Burr couldn’t agree more. “It’s one of the biggest humps a band needs to get over in terms of continuing on. To be able to communicate openly and not be sensitive about it is huge.”
To a person, they are coy about This Is Somewhere being a response to Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Given Tournet’s love of Neil Young, it’s not that hard a mystery to divine. It also stems from their trepidation about moving to Los Angeles to record the album. “We do not like being captive in a city. When you’re from Vermont and the biggest town is Burlington, there’s something really strange about being in a big city,” explains Potter. “The process of making the album and moving [out to L.A.] for a half a year was a really hard thing for us.” Though it’s hard to imagine any of the four of them being overwhelmed by a metropolis, it made the band more insular and the increased trust and reliance they placed in each other manifests itself on the album. “I was dreading it at first,” recalls Dondero. “We were in our little routine. We would leave the apartment, be at the studio for 12-13 hours, then go back and crash and watch VH1 Classic. That was pretty much it for two months.” A favorite of the band turned out to be VH1’s Classic Albums series that usually runs in the wee hours. While swapping favorite moments from the show, Dondero and Tournet joke about sitting behind the production board twenty years down the road moving levels up and down while explaining the genius of what they were trying to accomplish.
One of the common misconceptions about the band is that they are GRACE POTTER . . . and the nocturnals. It’s a perception that can only be held by someone who has never seen the band perform. It’s an issue they’ve had to confront for some time, not just from the fans but from record labels as well. “I was told by one producer that if he had his way, the band would have been fired after the first week in the studio and replaced with some session guys,” recalls Potter with a slightly irritated tone. “They told me that if I really wanted to I could bring the band back out on the road after the record.” When the topic is raised with Tournet and Dondero, they both give a knowing chuckle. “When we were first being pursued by labels, they were whispering in her ear for sure saying, What would you think about bringing some other cats in?’ That was the vibe we were getting,” recalls Dondero. “But Grace was never into that,” he says with sincere appreciation. “She was solid. She said, This is a band.’ Even today, we’ll have an interview and someone’s completely focusing on her. Not that that’s the way she wants it but people perceive it that way.”
Potter quickly dispels any notion that the Nocturnals are her band and not one cohesive unit “It’s not me,” says Potter in regards to her lack of desire to hog the attention. “I’m not the star of the show. I love singing and I love being the lead singer. I love writing songs but these three guys that are in the band with me are absolutely the lifeblood of this body of work. It would not have been this record without them.” Potter sees parallels to the No Doubt video for “Don’t Speak” identifying with Gwen Stefani’s struggle (in the video) to not leave her bandmates behind. “In photo shoots, if the photographer doesn’t know the band really well, he’ll keep pulling me out front and doing my hair and trying to make sure that I’m wearing the shortest skirt possible,” she says. The camera surely takes to the lovely musician, but Potter’s attention doesn’t seem centered on Vogue or Cosmo. During their New York stay, Potter was agog with excitement over visiting the Gibson guitar studio, much less so about her planned session with a couple fashion designers, expressing an endearing self-consciousness about any attempts at a makeover or a perceived need for one.
“The cool thing is we’ve been through that struggle and I think everyone in the band has kind of accepted that fact. I’m a girl, I’ve got a pair of legs and a pair of tits, I’ve got a big voice, I write the songs, I’m a loud person and I’m probably going to get noticed more than everyone else,” says Potter of her impressive rock and roll resume. “There’s going to be times when interviewers aren’t going to ask a single question to Scott about his guitar solos or his idea of melody or his own solo career. Someone’s going to compliment Matt about his drums but not say anything about Bryan’s bass. That’s what being a band is all about, dealing with that ego battle and coming out the other side. The four of us know what’s going on and what we’ve contributed to this record and to our careers.”
Tournet, a very straightforward guy that doesn’t suffer fools gladly, seems to have struggled with the issue more than Burr and Dondero. Not a surprise as Tournet has experience being front and center in The Scott Tournet Band (his side project with Dondero, now called Blues and Lasers). “I understand why people do it. It’s easier that way,” says Tournet, who has adopted a pragmatic approach to the intense interest in Potter. However, like any guitarist worth his salt, Tournet doesn’t relish having the spotlight shine elsewhere. “It’s something you just have to learn to detach yourself from,” he explains. “Bryan’s amazing at it. He’s totally selfless. I’m the one with the ego problem and I’ve been battling that ever since I started playing music. Playing in a band, struggling and having five people show up: it’s a huge blow to your ego.” Tournet found a kindred spirit in This Is Somewhere’s producer, Mike Daly. “Mike was in Whiskeytown, so he had a similar experience oh you were in Ryan’s band.’ He saw that some of that stuff bothered me and provided some perspective. The people who matter the ones you care about and who know about music recognize that you are one band. The people that don’t matter, don’t get hung up on them.’”
You get a wonderful sense of the band’s unity during their live performances of “Nothing But The Water,” their signature tune that has become one of their most versatile concert warhorses. As an opener, it’s an invitation to a party with Potter immediately inspiring hushed silence with nothing more than a couple shakes of the tambourine and her gospel-inspired a capella intro; as a closing number, Potter typically leads the band offstage in a recessional, leaving the crowd to keep the closing chorus alive. Regardless of its location on the set list, “Nothing But The Water” has become one of their best vehicles for letting their musicianship burst forth, always featuring inspired guitar and bass solos from Tournet and Dondero, Hammond organ solos and some shimmying from Potter and, when the crowd picks up on it, a nice give-and-take between Burr’s drums and the audience’s handclaps.
Another misconception the band deals with stems from their origins at Goddard College in Vermont, a birthing ground they share with one of the mightiest jambands in recent times. Much like a teacher who unfairly expects the little brother to act like the older sibling she once taught, they struggle a bit with the jamband classification. “It’s a bit of a stigma,” explains Dondero. “It’s hard because we don’t want to reject anybody. You don’t want to be labeled as a jamband, but you also don’t want to reject it.” With humility Dondero acknowledges how welcoming the jamband world has been towards the band but also expresses concern in the way others can misinterpret the label. “Its only been the critics who put that label on us. I’ve never heard our fans call us a jamband. That’s a critic kind of thing. You would never call The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin a jamband . . .” starts Dondero but Tournet finishes the thought. “. . . or Neil Young but yet they’ll do 15 minute jams.”
In parsing through some of the various attributes of jambands, some of which aptly apply to them (i.e. great live performances, exceptional improvisational skills), we get to discussing whether people come to a show to see a singer or band ply their craft or come to hear familiar songs. “I don’t want to reject the tradition of the jambands like The Allman Brothers, but, wouldn’t it be cool where you could walk away with both: the experience and the songs?” reasons Tournet. “I think that’s what we’re shooting for; tap into all these different things and extract the best out of them.”
One of the joys of watching GP&TN mature has been Tournet’s growth as a lead guitarist and his development into a fascinating slide guitarist. He’s initially self-deprecating about the breadth of his skills. “I’m a slut,” he says. “Oh yeah, he’s a genre slut,” laughs Dondero. Tournet does give the topic more reasoned consideration. “It’s been a natural process,” he explains. “I never really sit down, chin stroke and get the tablature out. I never even learned a whole song, people used to get pissed off at me. I was just jamming along and then someone like Eric Clapton will catch your ear, so you grab a couple licks here and then you hear Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix, but then also Roy Buchanan, Lowell George, Mark Knopfler and David Gilmour.” He first picked up the slide guitar, featured so well on “Lose Some Time,” while in college. “It was kind of a slow process, little baby steps. The first song I learned was Muddy Waters’ “Can’t Be Satisfied” cause it was so easy and then moved on to Elmore James, where you could just do an open tuning and go to a twelve fret. At first it was super-easy, simple stuff. Only recently has it been Ooh, Derek Trucks’ and that type of style.” Tournet also credits Luther Dickinson and the North Mississippi Allstars for toughening them up. “They were the first rock band we went on tour with. We learned as much from their attitude as we did from their music.”
Even if Potter didn’t inherit Janis Joplin’s innate charisma, she would still stand out in the jamband world by the sheer fact of being a woman in the predominantly male-oriented scene. It’s attention she clearly adores. “I think it’s great,” she says with a playful grin. “It only puts me at an advantage. All those guys standing down in the crowd don’t know what hit them. Sometimes being a girl [in this scene] can be a little weird. Sometimes, I do feel that a lot of the acts I want us to play with don’t want to play with us because they have some sort of preconceived notion of what we are: that I’m some pretty girl or not-pretty girl who sort of has talent but is working her assets for all their worth. We’ve lost out on some things cause I’m a girl,” she laments. One thing Potter didn’t miss out on was the opportunity to sit down at her Hammond B-3 organ to match licks with Joe Satriani and Steve Kimock at the 2006 Jammy Awards. Knocking the proverbial ball out of the park, Potter more than held her on with the guitar wizards on a smoldering cover of Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer.” Potter clearly doesn’t feel singled out or treated like an outsider at an all-boys club. In fact quite the contrary. “I love men, what can I say. If I see a whole crowd full of men I can handle myself,” she says with great assuredness.
Although Potter relishes the occasions when she’s the only female on the bill, don’t look for her at the next Suffragist meeting. “I am less of a feminist now then I was before,” she says after giving the issue a little thought. “I listen to the girls that are out there making music who are feminists. I’m not judging or making any blanket statements about all of them, but I do think there’s a preachy quality to feminist musicians that occasionally goes over the top and alienates people. Maybe with the exception of Joan Jett, I think she’s pretty righteous,” she digresses. “I do think that women can get a little overprotective of their domain; I’m not one of those people” Potter’s not bothered by the issue of gender but she’s also not oblivious to it. “I think there’s an insurgence of good women making great rock and roll: The Noisettes and Earl Greyhound with their wild chick bass player (Kamara Thomas) just to name a couple. I don’t want to discount women but I don’t want to be any kind of sex warrior either. I don’t think there needs to be some revolution of women learning how to rock. If you have the music in you, it shouldn’t matter. I don’t think there’s a reason for me to fight that battle. That battle’s been fought and if anything it’s being overcompensated for on the other end. I love men and I value and worship their muse in my songs. If anything, men are getting the shaft. I’m more defensive of my male friends now.”
Likewise, Potter’s bandmates are protective of her, although they rarely have to take action. “The only time I’ve feel protective of her is when I sense an uncomfortable vibe like someone’s intending harm to her or being too drunk,” says Dondero. “Grace can handle herself though, she’s a tough frickin’ chick,” he adds in a voice that suggests the last thing Potter needs is a guardian angel. “I can remember only once or twice that I had to intervene.” Sensing an opportunity to tweak Potter while she’s not there, the ever-chivalrous Tournet wryly offers the most prevalent situation requiring intervention. “After she’s been drinking; if she’s stumbling out onstage and she can’t see so well cause its dark and she’s got some fancy shoes on. I’ll step in and say Whoa, Grace.’”
Shortly after wrapping up the recording for This Is Somewhere, Potter & The Nocturnals traveled to Austin, Texas for the annual SXSW Festival, playing a Thursday night set at the outdoor stage at the Cedar Street Courtyard. With every band at SXSW trying to find some way to leave a lasting impression, Potter & Tournet accomplished the task by offering the rarest experience in the world of live music: a true encore. As the 2:00 a..m. curfew neared, the band finished up their set and left the stage; however, about 50-75 fans refused to leave. Despite the fact that the venue’s staff was unplugging equipment and turning off lights, the crowd wouldn’t relent. Just the mention of the set brings laughter to Tournet and Dondero. “That was rock and roll man,” exclaims Tournet. The encore came not only as a result of the insistent fans but out of a mild sense of frustration. “Our set got cut short cause Paula Cole (who was on before them) got to play as many songs as she wanted,” complains Potter. “She wouldn’t shut the fuck up. I was going to go out on stage and punch her. I’ve got no patience for that shit,” she recalls, showing her feisty side. Tournet likewise recalls being a little aggravated. “We had been through so much just to get there cause SXSW is such an important gig: we flew down, we spent all this money, we had been up till three in the morning trying to get our gear and then we only get to play 30 frickin’ minutes. Plus, the gear didn’t work and we didn’t even get a chance to warm up,” recalls Tournet. “It felt like we were in that Bad News Bears movie when everyone’s chanting Let Them Play!’ I was the little blond kid that was running around the field.”
Even with the crowd refusing to leave, the Cedar Street staff weren’t swept up in the moment. “They were trying to stomp it out. They made it pretty clear that we were done,” describes Dondero. “I worked my magic,” says Potter with a coy grin. Potter came back down to the stage and seemed like she was bargaining for one more song. “There was a security guard in my face telling me to get off [the stage]. I was like – We got a song to play. The owner just said we could,’ – which was just completely not true,” she laughs. Just when it seemed as if the evening was through, Tournet, as if on a jailbreak, triumphantly came running down the backstage stairs holding his acoustic guitar overhead, causing an eruption of glee. Without any power, everyone gathered round and the pair offered a short, unplanned version of “Mystery Train.” What made Tournet grab the guitar? “Whiskey it was definitely a whiskey inspired decision,” grins Tournet. “We really didn’t want to screw the poor production guys who’d been working all day. In that situation, you don’t have anyone to really rebel against, so it was a half rebellion, a conscientious rebellion.” Although Potter recalls spilling her whiskey everywhere, she beamed with pride when told that though all her boogieing she in fact, spilled none. “I must have spilled it all down my throat,” she laughs. “Awesome time,” she says of their first SXSW experience. “The people who saw it know how cool it was and the people who missed it fucked up.” Ask anyone who’s seen Potter & The Nocturnals play live and you will find that the charming singer’s epitaph for SXSW might just go on to be the phrase that defines the band.