This month, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals began their headlining tour across North America, already performing to several sold out venues and generating buzz from Potter’s rockstar stage presence.
The band’s most recent album, The Lion The Beast The Beat, was released earlier this year and features several standout tracks and a few collaborations. Paste got a chance to catch up with Potter about songwriting, life on the road and the science of picking the perfect performance outfit.
Paste: This summer you were on Kenny Chesney’s massive Brothers of the Sun tour, but you played some dates in between as well. What was an average week like for you?
Grace Potter: When we’re out on the road, we just try to sort of maximize our passion for everything possible. I mean we got into this business to play music, so the most uncomfortable times on the road are those awkward days off. Once we’re on the bus we just want to go for the glory. So I would say we ended up doing at least three shows in between each of the Brothers of the Sun shows on average. Sometimes, we would go full-throttle and just play straight through every night until the next weekend. We were also promoting the record so we were really flying around, doing TV in the middle of it, and lots of other stuff. But it was a wild summer. We definitely kept busy.
Paste: How was this touring experience different from touring in the past?
Potter: I’m not used to stadiums. I played a few of them last summer, just sitting in with Kenny for the one song, but never had I experienced my band on a stage doing what we do in front of a crowd like that before. It’s really exceptional. It’s an experience that I wasn’t prepared for, but now that I’ve done it I’m so glad. It makes me want to get back out there and do it again.
Paste: One song that really stands out in your live performances is “Stars.” You can tell there’s a lot of emotion behind that one. What’s the story there?
Potter: Basically, I started writing it as if it was a break-up song, not recognizing the fact that I was actually grieving for the loss of a friend. She had passed away about a half year before I started writing the song, and every time I came home to Vermont the feelings would come rushing back. I was writing for the new record and I was kind of tinkering around with some new lyrics and I had this lyric, “I lit a fire with the love you left behind,” in initially what I thought was a break-up song. I moved into the writing of the song thinking I was telling that story, and then unbeknownst to me about halfway through that first verse I realized there was something deeper going on and that there was a lot of grief that I hadn’t really addressed yet. It just kind of grew from there.
Paste: Kenny Chesney asked to collaborate with you on “Stars” after it was written, but you’ve collaborated with several different artists spanning all sorts of genres: Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, Wayne Coyne, withthe Flaming Lips. How does collaboration affect the creative process for you?
Potter: Well, you’re bringing a new energy into something that you’re comfortable in. Any time you write a song, you kind of know what you want from it. You know what you’re getting from it. I know I like to write thinking about my band and my band’s situation. So it’s a surprise, and usually a pleasant surprise, to see what other artists do with your work once they get their hands on it. It gets turned on its head in a really cool way. I’ve always really enjoyed that piece of the puzzle. I’ll continue to collaborate with other people and mess around with that, probably forever.
Paste: You can also see how wide your taste in music must be by the covers you play in your live show. Whether it’s Heart, Joan Jett, even Beyonce, you’re always covering new artists. What makes a song a good one to cover?
Potter: We do some weird cover songs. We’ve actually been brainstorming for Halloween and we have some cool ideas, taking it to Bowie-land and Blondie and the Kinks. There’s a lot of music that inspires us that you wouldn’t guess inspires us. We did “The Knife” with Marco Benevento and Joe Russo when we were on tour with them one time. We all of a sudden broke into a full-on electronic dance beat, and everyone was like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ It was great! Cover songs are fun and you should own them and interpret them in whatever way you want.
Paste: You have a signature Gibson Flying V, how did you get started with that?
Potter: My drummer, Matt, actually surprised me for my birthday. We all went to this place in Cincinnati and I became obsessed with this guitar. I had never played a Flying V before, mainly because I associated it with the hair-metal era. I knew Albert King played one, and I knew there was a lot of blues history in the Flying V, but my association with that guitar was a Whitesnake kind of thing.
What I was drawn to the most about the Flying V was the weight distribution with the way I move on stage. The V just swings perfectly. It’s a great way to stay balanced, because I like to dance and I’m a bit of a flail-er. The guitar centers me, and for me it’s a really good balance.
The Gibson collaboration happened later because I think they noticed me playing the guitar a lot. I guess it was a little over a year ago was when I first went to the factory in Nashville and started talking with them about designing my own flying V, which is huge. There’s only one other woman who’s ever had a signature electric guitar and that was Joan Jett. Pretty awesome company to keep.
Paste: Speaking of women in music, your fashion has become another thing you’re known for on stage. What makes a good outfit for a performance—How do you pick out what you wear on stage?
Potter: I recently looked through my wardrobe and realized that I have just a plethora of options. I have capes. I have sparkle shorts. I have shirts. Some nights I’m in more of a mood to go kind of Keith-Richards-Tom-Petty and other nights I’m in the mood to go full-on Tina Turner. There’s definitely a place for all of it, and sometimes I even just look at the setlist and think, ‘Okay well what’s this music tonight, what is the thesis of the night?’ Does it feel like one of those crazy, hot-summer-night kind of things where I completely lose it and by the end of the night I’m in nothing but a leotard and a dance belt? Or, is this one of these chill, take-your-time nights: enjoying the whole experience, really calmly bringing them into your madness?
It’s a little bit of everything; definitely a lot of capes recently. I mean it’s just fun to explore that world and I’m lucky enough to be in a business where I am literally allowed to play dress up like I’m a three-year-old kid every single night, so it’s pretty awesome.
Paste: Tell me a little bit about how you met the guys in the band.
**Potter: **I mean, they’re my family. We’ve been together a very long time. In band years, I mean even The Beatles broke up at this point. The longevity of a band is really contingent on loving the people that you’re making music with and being able to get along in the long run. It’s just like being married, except you’re married to more than one person! It’s all full of love. The band has really evolved musically and personally into what it is because… well, we’re stubborn. And we’re not going anywhere.