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New Groove

Published: 2005/11/12
by Randy Ray

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals

The comparisons between Grace Potter and so many other singers seem fairly obvious. Inevitably, it would be too easy and lazy just to tag her as a Bonnie Raitt singer with a Lucinda Williams and Sheryl Crow modern twist for good measure. No, Potter has quite a different gift. What that gift represents unfolds during _Nothing But The Water_as fine a sophomore effort as can be expected. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals present a story that things aren’t always what they seem behind the doors of ease and comfort. Potter gets most of the credit on the CD as she either wrote or co-wrote every song. Her lyrics are laced with romantic bite while you can almost see her shadow in the dark by the microphone stand while a dozen white candles line the floor. However, the band is quite good, too. Potter plays the legendary Hammond B-3, piano, Wurtlizer, Resonator bass and tambourine, Matt Burr handles drums, percussion and trash can, Bryan Dondero plays upright, electric and resonator bass guitars, Scott Tournet strums an acoustic guitar, electric guitar, resonator guitar and shares backing vocals.

Goddard College was the home of three-fourths of Vermont’s most famous quartet, Phish, back in the 1980s. Recently, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals took a unique challenge, as they conjured up some of the spirits of that legendary college. The band recorded an album at the 150 year-old Haybarn Theatre while staying in a nearby dorm during the lengthy recording process. Echoes of the college’s past float throughout the nearly vacant school as the band found themselves recording a great record of timeless Americana rock. The result, Nothing But the Water, is a triumph of artist and venueboth parties forming a bond to create something with a spirit all its own. sits down with singer/songwriter/keyboardist/designer/producer Grace Potter to explore her Vermont roots and discuss a wide variety of topics from hobbits to bag pipes to Guinness to Goddard and, yes, Phish. Potter and the Nocturnals were recently named Best Band in Vermont by a local publicationa heady trip after the slot had been filled for a decade by Anastasio and Co. Indeed. After this interview, Potter’s band would be booked to open for the former Phish frontman for several dates in October and Novemberinitially opening for the band during its lone date sandwiched between two Rolling Stones’s gigs. They also had a series of dates in the northeast with the North Mississippi All-Stars. Potter is an engagingly warm person who is quite aware that she has some decent pipes. However, she acknowledges, in candid and witty detail, how her gift developed and doesn’t forget that the mysterious hand of fate played a role.

RR: How does it feel to be the band that de-throned the Beatles in Vermont? [in reference to the recent Best Band in Vermont Award after the decade-long hold on the crown by the neighboring Phish.]

GP: (laughs) The Beatles! It feels pretty incredible. I have to say we had a champagne toast with our road manager and financial manager because the day we found out that news, we were playing a show and we were pretty much reaching rock bottom in terms of morale for the tour. It was really well timed.

RR: I saw you on the side of the stage during Trey Anastasio’s set at the 10,000 Lakes Festival and I was hoping that Trey would have you sit-in.

GP: It took us 45 minutes to get up on stage. I’ve never met Trey and we live only about four towns away from each other. His barn (literally The Barn,’ Anastasio’s recording studio) is right near where we live. It was really bizarre to be there (at 10kLF) because I know everyone in his band including Tony Hall, his bass player, from New Orleans. I know everyone even if they’re not from Vermont; I’ve met them before or toured with them. It was really bizarre to be backstage and see him and, sort of, not ever have an opportunity to go up and talk with him and also not know him. Our engineer [Chuck Eller] who has recorded all of our records opened up a studio with Trey. He rigged Trey’s entire barn for the recordings so, it was pretty wild to be there, have so many different connections with him and I don’t think he has any idea who I am.

RR: That’ll change. Your new album is like the answer record to Robert Johnsonhis work focused on male angst and you come in with your own point of view.

GP: The criticism is that we wear our influences on our sleeve. If we’re going to do a Neil Young and Crazy Horse song or something like it or, if I’ve written a song where we just feel like rockin’ it out there’s going to be no question. People will listen and say: “Wowthis sounds like Crazy Horse.” That’s the argument. There is no more thievery in the world. There is a communal well of material and, I’m sorry, but if the music is so good as it was, especially in the late 1960s and early 70s where we drudge a lot of our material up, especially the British Invasion and the way that the blues were re-born, you can’t ignore that. I think it’s disrespectful not to at least try to emulate what those guys were doing so you can walk in their shoes and kind of feel that vibe.

RR: Some people have musical talent but never move to that next level to actually perform in public. What steps did you take to get to do this for a living?

GP: It is a weird process because a lot of times you get to that point, as a musician, where you’ve found the type of music that you like or think you like and you get to a point where you say, “this is my style.” I think the moment when this really started affecting me was when I stopped trying to have a stylewhen I gave up on all of that, not image- related but genre-related stuff because I think that it can be really damaging to a musician to try to put yourself into a genre. When I was starting out as a young musician listening to records.

I was always a musician, let’s start with that. My mom said that I was singing before I was talking. Apparently, I would make up fake words when I was about one. It was a long time coming and my singing was the first thing and I guess that came from both sides of the family. My parents are artists. My mom paints bowls and my dad is a sign maker. It was just a weird way to grow up because they were so inherently musical as people but neither pursued it. I remember waking up in the morning to my mom singing fake opera. It was like comedic opera to the animals; we had dogs, cats, all of these creatures and her call to the animals for dinner time or breakfast or whatever was to sing this ridiculous, over-the-top, fat mama opera.

In terms of a record collection, my parents ran a business called Dream On Productions. It was a company that was a precursor to MTVa company that went around the country photographing events and, then, putting it to music and showing it at a bar that night. For instance, they were hired by the 1980 Winter Olympics to do all of the documentation so they would go through and take photos and click-click-click and then throw them into a crazy multi-media show and show it that night at a bar. They got paid big bucks. I mean they got paid better than we get paid now to do what they did. They did cruises and that whole corny thing. Anyway, that gave them a great excuse to write off as many records as they could buy because it was for the soundtrack for these things. So, if you come into my house, Hobbitville, in Waitsville [Vermont]

RR: Hobbitville?

GP: (Laughs) If you met my dad, you’d understand. He’s about 4’11”. He’s a hobbit; yet an athletic hobbit who had to bike 40 miles a daythat kind of thing.

RR: You’re pretty tall.

GP: I’m tall but no one in my family is tall. I am about six inches taller than the tallest person in my family and, therefore, I have to bend over to walk through some of the doors in my house. It was built for small people, let’s just put it that way.

RR: Which is why you play the keyboards.

GP: (Laughs) Exactly, because I always have to sit down. No.

RR: So, you walk in the house and there’s the record collection. You open the doorwell, you can’t even open the door.

GP: It’s a whole wall. My dad was a carpenter and he built these shelves specifically to fit records and there are all of these perfect square cubbies exactly to fit records with little markers everywhere where they wanted to put this record onto this slide show from 1973. It’s just crazyobviously, every rock album ever from 1950 on. I think there’s something like 5,000 records and as a young kid I didn’t even understand what that was. We didn’t listen to CDs or tapes because we had all of these records. There was no reason to go out buying CDs; so, I was sort of stuck in my vinyl phase until I was around 16 or 17everything from Jethro Tull to Celtic music, essentially, to Janis Joplin to Jimi Hendrix and all the greats. It was a pretty crazy time for me as a kid growing up just sort of re-discovering what was considered music for that time.

RR: Did anyone sing? You have this musical gift that I assume is part genetics.

GP: Aside from my mom’s opera, no. My father did chorus; he was a choirboy when he went to college and mom said that that was when she fell in love with himhearing him sing. It was one of those things. She went to see him and he was in a barbershop quartet kind of thing. She heard him sing “In the Pines.” Apparently, that’s what made her fall in love with him. He does have a beautiful voice but he never pursued it. He’s the only personvocally speakingthat I can remember.

My great great uncle, Spiegel Wilcox, was a Dixieland trombone player. He played with Tommy Dorsey and met Louis Armstrong and did the whole Big Band kind of thing. He played a lot of Dixieland and old-timey music. He was the only professional musician who ever made it in my family and he definitely carried the torch in terms of being a professional musician. He was always down at Jazz Fest in New Orleans and, for some reason, he was always getting flown to Holland. I think he had a big following there so, he was internationally known in a small niche market of Big Band fans and he was one of the few living legends who played the trombone from that era. He actually took me under his wing when I was about 15 and I went to see all of his big shows that he would play. He got a Lifetime Achievement Award and he died just a day before another gig; he was just on the road all of the time and he passed away around four years ago with his [award] medal around his neck. He was an incredible person and he taught meor hinted in the directionthat you can actually make it as a musician and don’t let anyone in the family tell you otherwise. Don’t let them judge you; you can do this, if you want. Actually, it was right around the time that he took me under his wing that I started writing songs and playing more pianoinstrumentally try to develop as a musician, not just a vocalist.

RR: How old are you22? You’ve been getting it together for only seven years and you’ve already hit your first peak?

GP: (laughs) I wasn’t even getting it together, then. I recorded my first official demo when I was 17 and I was trying to get into college. Of course, I spent $500 on this demo and it was going to be great, blah blah blah, and nobody accepted me. I could not get into college. It was that [second] baby boom era when everybody was trying to get in and I just couldn’t get in. I only got accepted to the one college that my parents went and that’s where metSt. Lawrence’s University [in upstate New York]. I swore I wouldn’t go there but, I ended up going there and that’s how I met the band [the Nocturnals].

RR: You go to college and you run into these guys and they all promise you the world and you said, “yeah sure, next?”

GP: No. Oddly enough, I always say it took two years [to get the band together] because Matt Burr, the drummer and I started with another bass player, Courtright Beard, as a trio. I actually went to high school with him and he transferred to St. Lawrence and that was the birth of the band. It was a trio, and this was embarrassing, but we actually played a Norah Jones song in a live show. We were completely jazzsmooth, adult contemporary, completely mellow. We played every song with brushes on the drum set and played to the dinner crowd and/or a brunch crowd as the situation arose.

RR: Cowboy Junkies vibe?

GP: Worsenot even. The Cowboy Junkies were hip compared to what we were doing. We were so mellow it was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde compared to now. It was definitely an interesting beginning. A year into the band we started collaborating with our guitarist, Scott Tournet, and he brought in a whole new element but, we were still pulling towards (or at least I was) a more mellow sound. I wanted my parents to be able to listen to itthat sort of thing. Scott came in after one year and our bass player [Beard] decided to continue his college education when I said I was going to drop out [and head back home to Vermont] and he said: “O.K. See you guys, later.” We got Bryan Dondero to play bass so, it’s three years with the drummer, two years with the lead guitarist and one year with the bass player so, it all averages to about two years. Bryan didn’t go to St. Lawrence and we met him through a friend of Scott Tournet’sour guitaristwho we did this crazy Radiohead side project called User Shorty Patent Company. We toured around with that in the summer of 2004 and that really kindled the new version of our banda harder Nothing But the Water sound. We really made the most bizarre transition of my career. Actually, when I started music, I took bagpipe lessons. I was a Celtic musician when I was 15 and talking with my great great uncle about his niche market and I said: “Well, here’s another niche market.” I grew up listening to Celtic music and there’s a band called Steeleye Span that my dad loved. It was rock n’ roll but Celtic rock n’ roll. I just thought it was totally quirky and weird.

RR: Had did the March 2004 Ireland tour happen?

GP: Some amazing fan that saw us play in the summer of 2003 flipped out and said, “I’ll bring you to Ireland.” He got us a string of amazing shows including the most prestigious venue I know of in Dublin called Whelan’s, which is where the Cranberry Fest started and U2 has played. The tour was completely poorly timed, obviously, because we had no distribution and we were not really even a band, yet. Scott had just started playing guitar with us and he couldn’t come because he couldn’t get his passport in time. We went back to our trio days and played to crowds of 200 to 300 people St. Paddy’s Day week. It’s funny you mentioned Ireland because the guy who hooked us up with all of these gigs is a real estate agent named John Lombard who happened to be vacationing with his family at Martha’s Vineyard [an island off of Cape Cod, Massachusetts] and that’s where he saw us play.

RR: Did somebody fund this trip for you?

GP: (Laughs) We spent all of our own money. We had been working all year and saving.

RR: “I’m 21, what the hell?”

GP: Actually, I was still 20!

RR: Were you drinkin’ like a Shriner?

GP: Are you kidding me? It was so great. We still get e-mails from our Irish friends.

RR: Your debut album, Original Soul, came out around that time.

GP: We wanted that to be the first launch pad for the band even though if you look at the CD it just says Grace Potter’ on the cover because we hadn’t decided how to identify ourselves, yet. It was still solo woman’ with two guys backing her up. We had all of this different music that I had been writing and we just decided that it was time to make a record. I pulled out the money that I had made from my first two demos that I had sold and sunk it into this record with a great engineer, Chuck Eller, who is sort of the prime engineer in Vermont and the man who helped Trey setup his studio. It took nine months to record and, of course, the day it came out we were already recording our new record.

RR: You feel that you’ve moved on quite a ways since then.

GP: Very much so. We still play three or four songs off of that record but even that, is sort of stretching things for us. Genres have changed and the songs that have lived on are very timeless and genre-less with a rootsy, Americana vibe. Yes, we’ve definitely changed.

RR: The new album, Nothing But the Water, harkens back to the days when people valued the whole work instead of just individual songs. A great album should feature the room it was recorded in almost like another member of the band. Did you feel the presence of the 150 year-old Haybarn Theatre, at Goddard College in Vermont, when you were recording?

GP: Sure, of course. There is some crazy spirits in that barn, too. There’s a life there and I said that in the paragraph [on the inner CD sleeve]. Scott, our guitarist, went to Goddard and he knew about the history and knew about what it meant to him but that was very different from our experiences. I always knew Goddard as the place where Phish went and they all met there [except Gordo, of course] and there were lots of festivals and lots of hippies and lots of drugs. It was really a different scene when we came back and did a radio show benefit for Goddard. We talked with a buddy who was doing sound for the show and we said that we should do a show here. In October 2004, we did do a show and we invited people in and Jon Fishman was supposed to come. It was sort of this half-alumni/half-show kind of event where we tried to pull in some people who went there, get some support and breathe life back into the barn. At that time, it had fallen into disrepair and the campus is, actually, shut down. It’s not being used right now, except for private students who want to come onto the campus. It’s not open to the public. The barn and the campus just needed some new energy and some revitalization. When we decided to record there, it was mainly because we had so many connections to the schoolnot to mention the fact that we live 20 minutes away. It was just a worthy cause and a beautiful space and they offered it up and said that we could live on the campus while we recorded the new album. We were really alone and there was definitely some spirits going on. We stayed in Hollister Dorm, where Scott had stayed when he went to Goddard, and the barn was across from thatlaid down our rugs and lit the candles.

RR: The college didn’t fear an onslaught of bands would want to record there?

GP: I think that was something that they almost wanted. [Goddard] is known as a liberal campus and we’re not a very well known band outside of Vermont. (laughs) We’re not kidding anybody. In their minds, it could do nothing but good. If Phish didn’t create somewhat of an onslaught, then we aren’t about towe all felt that, singularly, this was a worthy cause and let’s put our energy into this and see what comes of it.

RR: The band’s name comes from the vampiresque habits of musicians. Was there a lot of “let’s run across to the barn and record” during the middle of the night?

GP: Absolutely. “Left Behind” was recorded in the studio after cooking dinner at around midnight in the dorm. Scott had just got this great Resonator guitar, I was humming over the top of it and Matt was sort of pounding on the chair with a fork and Bryan was tapping his foot. All of sudden, this song came out of it. We were so driven and, that song just sort of spilled out from being in the space so, we immediately woke up Chuck [Eller, engineer] who slept on his tour bus, which he parked in the parking lot right next to the barn. We just knocked on the door and said, “Chuck, we have something for you.” That was the exact reason we wanted to record therethat inspiration and immediacy. The other tune we did live on the spot from just sheer tiredness of the songs we were recording was “Below the Beams.” We were going to call it “Hollister Ghosts” but we didn’t want to actually reference the dorm and get people all freaked out. [Realizing I may have inadvertently let the ghost out of the bag, I insert a writer’s caveat: rememberthere’s no such thing as ghosts so no worries about Hollister, eh?]

“Below the Beams” was sort of an homage to the spirits in the room. Scott had this old guitar, I think from around 1954, and you could almost see the bridge of the guitar was going to snapit was so close to breaking. He started playing this very eerie slide kind of vibe and we all started just coming around it and Chuck, without telling us, pressed RECORD and captured this incredible take that, for us, we just needed to throw in at some point. We were going to include it as a hidden track but we felt it had a water-type feel to it and it segued quite nicely into “Nothing But the Water.” [two completely different but brilliant takes close this sublime recordone version is performed a cappela,’ which can be heard during most of the band’s recent live sets].

RR: I like what you wrote in the liner notes: “Sometimes we even forgot we were being recorded. We hope it sounds like that.” It’s a great summary of art, too.

GP: There’s such a self-effacing kind of awareness when you sit down to recordprobably the most self-conscious you can be, aside from making movies with a camera in your face. It’s very unnerving, bizarre and totally unnatural. If you think about the process of recording, it’s something that musicians aren’t meant to do. Musicians, by nature, are spontaneous people who get inspiration and, whether a microphone is there or not, they’re going to throw it out thereat least in the ideal version of a musician and I like to think of myself as one of those. It’s definitely not a normal process and is very sterile. We just needed to be in a space where we had created our own situation where there was no overbearing “the clocks are ticking, kids, get going” type of vibe. That’s why we wanted to live there so, we would have the ability to completely lose ourselves from take to take. Forget that there are takes and just play. Stop in the middle of songs and completely re-invent. “Some Kind of Ride,” for example, we completely re-wrote the end and that’s the only one where we did that kind of Motown thing at the end. All of the other takes were just something elsea fade out or some other vamp on something, a moment where we stopped and said, “Nope. That’s no fun. Let’s do something new.”

RR: You write some very heavy lyrics filled with a lifetime of hard experiences.

GP: I’m just a sponge. (Laughs) Half of those songs aren’t even about methey’re completely non-autobiographical. I hate to burst your bubble.

RR: No, the oppositeI’m relieved. I thought, “who’d want to break her heart?”

GP: I’ve definitely had my heart broken but I’ve never written, especially a sad breakup song, about specific people because I don’t like the idea of bundling an entire real life experience into one song. I feel that romanticizes it more than it needs to be. I take all of that sadness and anger from experiences and I like to put them into other people’s characters. I don’t like the idea of remembering an entire part of my real life through a song. It seems like you’re just making it too easy for yourself by doing that.

RR: How is it too easy?

GP: You’re limited to 400 words or less in finding words to fit a particular situation. I wrote one song, “Apologies,” when I was 18 and, it might be on the next record but the problem was that I lumped a part of my real life into a song that I didn’t think did it justice. Plus, I made myself out to be the good guy’ and I probably wasn’t. I might need to re-think that one. Songs shouldn’t be used as my own therapy. I’d much rather write songs that apply to my own life and take my real experiences and immortalize them where there’s sort of a universal understanding between me and the audience.

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