Grace Potter & The Nocturnals
Article by: Amanda Hensel, Photos by: Adrien Broom | Posted: 05/19/2011
Grace Potter calls me while riding shotgun in a car darting through LA. She’s bustling between recording and an appearance on Conan, and she’s trying to keep her eyes on the road and keep her boyfriend, the band's drummer Matt Burr, out of oncoming traffic.
"Enjoying a little sunshine in LA,” she says, pointing out that the past week had been sadly rainy while the band was working on a benefit for the Alzheimer’s Association. “I thought I’d be coming into like some massive sunshine, but not so much.”
Potter is the lead of Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, a firecracker burning straight out of 1960s rock ‘n’ roll. The sexy, female-driven rock group with roots in Vermont is quickly becoming a music industry marvel, with their infectious energy and their sheer musical prowess.
The Nocturnals have made appearances on shows hosted by names like DeGeneres, O’Brien, Letterman, Leno, Lopez, Kimmel and Daly, as well as on “Good Morning America.” They’ve garnered kind words from Spin, Rolling Stone, Nylon, Billboard and VH1 and sold out virtually every venue they’ve recently played. Yet, speaking to the raw, edgy female rocker for the first time is like chatting with an old friend for the thousandth.
"We're like a litter of puppies. We just love each other," Potter gushes about the band. With a laugh, she adds, "Certainly there's a brother and a sisterhood to what we do, and also, we're just really loud, opinionated people. We're very much like a Greek family—a lot of yelling and hand gestures. But yeah, I'm definitely the mama."
Potter is grounded but driven, a wild child with a light-hearted nature, a self-described country bumpkin-turned citizen of the world. Despite the band's undeniable growth, the Nocturnals manage to stay connected to their dedicated fans (now more than 90,000 on Facebook alone) and are legitimately and undeniably homegrown.
Potter relishes in the fact that the band is a close-knit group and that she is the mother hen to her four chicks: Burr, lead guitarist Scott Tournet, rhythm guitarist Benny Yurco and bassist Catherine Popper. Potter herself is the lead vocalist and pianist, known for her signature Hammond B-3 organ.
The band spends most of their time tearing up the road playing more than 200 shows a year. Potter, who shares a deep bond with her blood family back in Waitsfield, Vermont, admits to missing home, and she says the Nocturnals do too.
"It's very much a part of who we are as a band. We came from a low overhead and sort of built ourselves from the ground up, because we managed to convince my parents that this was our dream and that we wanted to do it," she says, revealing that the whole band lived with her parents for a spell in a complex of wooden sheds and barns.
Potter’s parents have always been creative role models—her dad, a sign maker, and her mom, a bowl painter. "My folks are the biggest piece of the puzzle for sure. They raised me and my sister and my brother to be insanely creative and have a reverence for art, so they really brought me into the fold as a creative force, even from a young age," she says.
She relays how her mom would go to the farmer’s market—“which is, you know, sort of the local artist’s showcase”—every single weekend. Her mom’s bowls always did well, but one client in particular impacted young Potter.
“Whoopi Goldberg ordered a whole bunch of them, and my mom had to inscribe them to everybody,” she remembers. “So she's inscribing bowls to like Steven Spielberg. I mean, as a kid in Vermont, that was about as far from reality as possible."
Potter dishes that, while her artistic influence was strong, she developed a passion for music in a roundabout way since she wasn't allowed to watch television as a kid.
"The only reason I would be able to watch TV was if I was somehow selling it as a music project," she explains. "So, I would sit at the piano, and I'd watch TV, and I'd play along to the shows at the piano, so my parents couldn't yell at me for watching TV. I'd be like, 'Mom and Dad, it's music videos! I'm learning something here!’ I got smart, and that was my trick."
With an innate talent and a shiny pair of spitfire wings, Potter left home to attend St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. It was there that the Nocturnals got both their start and their name. The band came together in a popular barn on campus that was used for everything from classes to poetry slams to an Irish musician night. At first it was impossible for them to reserve a rehearsal slot there … except at 2 a.m.
"We started out as a relatively quiet band. Not acoustic, but we were pretty quiet. We used amplification, but we weren't smashing them over the head with The Who songs yet. That came later," Potter says. "So we would rehearse from like 2 a.m. to four or five in the morning and just go home, do our homework and stay up and go to class the next day.” In the end, the Nocturnal name stuck, as did the lifestyle.
“Our sleeping schedule is just out of control,” she admits.
After two years at St. Lawrence, Potter was ready to move on from school, though her parents weren’t immediately keen on the idea. "They didn't want me to leave college after two years, but I did," she says. “They supported it in the end because they knew there was something really fun that was cooking with the band. They were just experiencing empty nest syndrome, and I jumped back into the house and brought four people with me!"
With the band so often on the road, Potter fills her maternal niche to the extreme, even whipping up rich pasta dishes for the group and serving them out of their tour bus sink.
"I sterilize the sink, and then I use it as a server,” she says. “That sounds disgusting, with everybody scooping pasta out of the sink, but you work with what you've got when you're out on the road.” She says it’s a lot like summer camp. “Food is what fuels us, so I take it upon myself to make whatever local food from the city we're going to. I'm really more a student of food than anything."
While it's public knowledge that Potter and the band's drummer are an item, Potter herself will tell you that she's married to her band. Around June 2010, when the self-titled album released with Hollywood Records, Potter started sporting a new ring on a significant finger, which drove her fans crazy speculating about whether she'd actually taken the plunge.
"They were like, 'Is she engaged? What's going to happen next?’” Potter says. “And what happened is the wedding was the band and the record release. The day we put out the record was the day I got married to my band.”
Potter lives out this belief, and she claims the band really is that tight. “It definitely makes it hard at times, because there's the brother/sister energy, but then there's a lot of sexual energy, and there's a lot of encouraging each other to take things beyond the comfort zone.”
Anyone who has seen Grace Potter playing live in one of her short sparkling dresses can attest to how she grabs her stunned audience, taking them captive by her sensual, danceable show. She and her band share a palpable chemistry, a tangible connection that invites the entranced audience to reach out and touch it.
"You have to get your sexual juices flowing!” Potter says. “Our show is very fiery, and if we're not feeling it that night, that's fine. I mean it's not a schtick. It's definitely very real."
The Nocturnals get amped up before shows on music documentaries, and Potter says they connect over James Brown, Iggy Pop and Led Zeppelin DVDs, to name a few.
"And we dance!” she says. “And we push each other around a lot. We grab each other by the shoulders and shake. You know, there's this whole thing about the show where you need to come in hot. Certainly the crowd needs to warm up to you and you need to warm up to the crowd, and there's a relationship there, but you have to come in full-speed ahead. So the way we do that is by dancing, moving, screaming, shaking—lots of that."
True rock ‘n’ roll. But perhaps the most 'shaking' thing for the band itself, Potter says, is that they've gone from playing 15-person pub crowds to sold-out venues packed with thousands of fans. “And you know, hopefully we can continue and it can grow and expand even beyond, because we really try to keep our fans happy,” she says.
In fact, the Nocturnals often book intentionally small rooms, not to gain the bragging rights of a sold-out venue but to give first access to the fans who have been there since the beginning. "We're trying to grow reasonably and slowly and respectfully without toppling everything that we built ourselves upon," Potter says.
With her face-forward nature, Potter has been compared to many greats, most often Bonnie Raitt, Lucinda Williams and Tina Turner. But in order for the Nocturnals to develop their own unique sound and stand on steady legs in the long run, the band has learned to push themselves to new and unexpected places.
“The way you blaze a trail is by making mistakes, or by trying things that are a little out of your comfort zone, and sort of monitoring how the crowd reacts to that and how the band reacts to that,” Potter says.
The band has honed their sound into something like soul with a twist. “A lot of our influences come from way edgier material than we're actually performing,” Potter claims, “but every once in a while we'll pull out a Radiohead cover. Or, you know, we did a Portishead song, much to the chagrin of many of our Deadhead fans. It was just really cool to take the crowd with us and do something that's completely out of our comfort zone.”
Rolling Stone recently named Grace Potter and the Nocturnals one of the best bands of 2010, a notable spark, but a spark Potter is ready to outlast. "I think this year will bring a more solid basis, because so many people feel like, ‘OK, there's this one year that a band is hot and then they kind of go away,’” she says. "We've been at it long enough to know that we're not going anywhere.”
Potter’s ‘motto to live by’ carries through to her band as well: "Be bold, be compassionate and love yourself," she says. "Then find something else to love beyond yourself."
For the Nocturnals, that something else is the music. The band has been chosen to headline the inaugural Bonnaroo Buzz Tour, beginning May 17, and they will be sharing the main stage at Bonnaroo with the likes of Arcade Fire, The Decemberists and My Morning Jacket. Potter herself will also be making a solo performance with Stevie Wonder and Janelle Monáe July 24 at the Hollywood Bowl.
As 27-year-old Potter looks toward the next stage of life, she says she’s going to take the next three years to go nuts. “Thirty, to me,” she begins, “thirty is when it’s really gonna take off. Plus, every woman I meet seems much more well-adjusted than girls in their twenties. So, I’m looking forward to the moment where I can just enjoy life and not be so ambitious and career-driven … I’m definitely holding out for the dirty thirties.”
With so much acclaim coming at the band from all angels, I ask Potter to explain the best part of the gig. "I love that moment when the show is over and you've kind of done your work for the night, and the crowd wants one more song,” she says. “That's just, like … I mean, that means you've given them their ticket's worth and they want more, and you have the opportunity to give it to them. That's special,” she declares. “That's the cherry on top."
Grace Potter & The Nocturnals - Paris (Ooh La La)