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Published: 2011/08/04
by Randy Ray

Grace Potter’s Golden Compass

Photo by Steve Moyles

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals headline the inaugural Grand Point North Festival on August 13 and 14 in at the Waterfront Park in Burlington, Vermont. Fielding a diverse and energized set of performers, the Nocturnals offer an intimate experience in a very scenic and “classic American boardwalk” setting, according to their band leader/vocalist/songwriter/keyboardist/guitarist. Potter is a lively, down-to-earth, and engagingly warm conversationalist, as well as having one of the strongest voices in American rock music today. Her band’s continuing ability to stay fresh, focused, and ever-evolving while keeping its roots firmly planted in good ole rock ‘n’ roll with a large heaping of jamband is matched by Potter’s unique ability to absorb and transcend a wide variety of influences while always maintaining her own inimitable sound. sat down with Potter just days before the GPN festival to discuss its origins, the band’s recent touring, Potter’s other collaborations, including a foray into a country music duet, and her desire to “be the new Randy Newman.” She may just yet accomplish that lofty goal, but she will always be the one and only Grace Potter, as well.

RR: We first spoke back in 2005 when things started to happen, and now, I feel like one planet isn’t enough for you.

GP: I know, dude. It’s pretty hilarious. I feel like we’re a tank, a big ole Army tank. We have to stop for gas every once in a while, that’s all. (laughs)

RR: Having your own festival, Grand Point North, has to be a career highlight.

GP: Yeah, it’s been on the top of my head all week because I actually just got finished writing all the thank you notes for everybody that’s going to be a part of it. I got overwhelmed by how many people come to play—not just the bands, but all the local companies that are donating to the gift baskets…I mean everything. I’m completely overwhelmed and the whole way that Vermont comes around and embraces things, even when it’s a first-year event like what we are doing. I think it shows this incredible faith in music, and in what we are trying to do, which is to curate a wonderful experience for fans who love our music, but maybe, need more than that.

When you come to a concert, sometimes you don’t know what you’re going to get. And I tend to find that my biggest surprises come in the opening act. What we wanted to do was to expand on that, and drag a bunch of bands that we’ve met around the country like the Wood Brothers and Taj Mahal and Fitz & the Tantrums and Rubblebucket, and we want to bring the whole experience together at the festival.

The most exciting part for me is just where it is located. The Burlington waterfront is pretty insane. It is right in downtown Burlington, so it allows for that sense that you are

already in a city, or somewhat of a festival experience. Burlington is especially during the summer, Burlington is so beautiful. People will just spill off Church St. and just wander down to the waterfront, and there’s a really beautiful boardwalk and there are all kinds of things to do down there—there’s a museum and there’s a great little restaurant right on the water—and if you keep going, you continue down this great little bike path. There’s a dog park, and then it opens up into a huge green area. They’ve been doing concerts there. We were actually the guinea pig band when they started doing concerts there a couple of years ago, so now, we’re heading it up with the Lake Champlain Maritime Festival.

RR: Are you also doing the set design for the festival with your dad?

GP: I am, yeah, yeah. My dad’s a sign maker [Sparky Potter] and he’s collaborated with Russ Bennett for Phish concerts and Bonnaroo and lots of festivals. He’s already had experience in that world of working with the vendors and he understands how festivals are meant to be laid out. We came out to Red Rocks with my mom, and they came to see our shows when we played a couple nights at Red Rocks. We stayed at this hotel, and it completely inspired the entire festival experience. When you looked at the walls, there were all these beautiful pictures of classic American boardwalks. I hate to use the [Martin] Scorsese reference, but the show Boardwalk Empire has a set design that is so exceptional. It conjures the faded glory of the classic American boardwalk for me.

[My father] and I just sat down and started drawing. We knew that we wanted to have wings and I wanted the whole scene to match the logo. I had this crazy idea when I named the festival Grand Point North that it was like a compass, which is spinning, but it has wings, and the wings keep coming into play. We had a ball looking through old art deco books and beautiful pictures of the old fashioned boardwalks, and a 1920s carnival vibe, and drawing back and forth with each other. Now, my dad has figured out how to text message so he’s very excited about that.

RR: Which is probably a lot for a normal person, but being Grace Potter, you’ve got to be thinking, “O.K., Dad, I get like 300 messages a day.”

GP: Oh, dude, totally, yeah. He hasn’t stopped either: “How ‘bout this one?” He has this incredible team of sign makers at his shop, so they can, literally, whip something up in fifteen minutes with paint and a piece of plywood and do a mock up of what it’s going to look like. He sent me four different mock ups yesterday and, meanwhile, he’s got these people running around doing it, while he’s waiting for me to respond. That’s pretty amazing. He’s a hard working dude, and I’m just so excited that he gets to be a part of this, and, you know, he always does every year.

This is a continuation of what we are doing as a band anyway. We re-enact a movie every New Year’s Eve. We always play New Year’s Eve, and half way through the show we always come out in costume, but the set pieces have become more and more extravagant as the years have gone on because my sister will bring up all her crazy friends, and they’ll all start painting. With a sign shop at your disposal, Lord knows what we’re capable of. (laughs) This is basically just a continuation of that—that energy that we’ve always had as a band and as a family, to be constantly creating and bringing it down to the wire, not planning out anything in too specific or particular way, but more letting things happen as they will.

It’s been interesting to deal with the land because it’s such an incredible property itself. Like being at the waterfront, if you’re there, you don’t want to do too much to the space. You don’t want to manipulate the space, or tell people what direction to walk in, or encourage them to walk one way or the other because every direction you look in is exceptional. That freed us up in a lot of ways, but it also limited us because we didn’t want to go too hog wild with anything because it’s too beautiful to over decorate.

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