Grace Potter doesn’t claim to be some all-seeing Delphic oracle. But there’s one bit of wisdom she feels comfortable dispensing, culled from the recording of The Lion The Beast The Beat, her fourth studio set with her backing band The Nocturnals: “You can’t polish a turd, you know?” she states, flatly. And she’s not kidding.
Two months into the sessions, Mach One, the 50-plus tracks the Vermont-bred keyboardist/guitarist had initially penned for the follow-up to her eponymous 2010 breakthrough (with its omnipresent “Paris (Ooh La La)” single) suddenly started feeling lifeless, devoid of any continuity.
“I didn’t have any killer songs that I was excited about—it was just a bunch of material that sounded like Adele or Florence + The Machine ripoffs,” she says, catching herself before she tumbles too far down the self-disparaging rabbit hole. “I’m not saying that these songs were turds, exactly—let’s not say that. But I wouldn’t be able to be talking to you right now and be proud of the record I made if those were the songs that wound up on it. It would’ve felt slightly pandering.”
So Potter simply stopped polishing. Just like that. The solid meat-and-potatoes Lion she would eventually piece together—with its sweeping power ballads “Stars” and “The Divide,” funky R&B experiments “Runaway” and “Turntable,” a spooky, piano-prodded rocker, “Timekeeper,” and the New Wave-kitschy kickoff single “Never Go Back”—was still several months away when she scrapped the entire project, hopped in her tiny new Fiat she’d purchased for driving to and from the Los Angeles studio, and began driving up the California coast, leaving her label Hollywood Records—and The Nocturnals (drummer Matt Burr and co-guitarists/bassists Scott Tournet and Benny Yurco)—behind to wonder what was happening next.
Raised in an artistic family enclave called Potterville, this gal has always marched to her own rhythm. She painted, considered a career in fashion design, and ultimately went with music, but at her own pace. Even when she was playing local jam-band-ish barn concerts at 17, the then-flannel-shirted-and-cowboy-booted blonde had no designs on stardom, or its attendant glitzy imagery. “I always thought I’d already broken through,” recalls the singer, who turns 29 on June 20. “Because my parents taught me that there are comparable levels of notoriety that you can be at without destroying your personal life.”
These days, however, Potter has become the subject of much top-designer fuss; onstage, she’s been transformed by houses like All Saints into a mini-skirted, high-heeled sex kitten, and she enjoys the innate irony of it all. Because fashion is art, she says. “And I enjoy it from the purely selfish point of view of just being a girl who loves to get dressed up. But the bib overalls side of me is still there—in my private life, when I choose to be at home in Vermont, I’m not gonna walk around in Tom Ford at the farmer’s market in Waitsfield. And when I’m alone,” she adds, “I try not to walk around like a moving target.”
This was the guiding tenet of Potter’s two-week safari through California, Utah and Nevada. She jokingly dubs it a “walkabout, a self-inflicted adventure.” She thought nothing of heading out alone, behind the Coke-bottle-lensed glasses that she’s legally required to wear while driving, with no real itinerary except backroad exploration. With the blessing of her longtime beau, Burr, she threw a blanket, an acoustic guitar and a bag of mushrooms into the back seat, and headed North, while he went on his own jaunt down South. But it wasn’t anything like Janet Leigh, hunched nervously over the steering wheel in Psycho. Undaunted, she dined in truck stops, dropped by ghost towns, camped out in the Big Sur forest, visited Bodega Bay just because Hitchcock had filmed The Birds there, stayed in several Bates-style motels and slept in her car the other nights.
“I know it’s dangerous, but I like sleeping in my car,” giggles Potter, unfazed. “You cover yourself up with a blanket and nobody can tell. Especially when you’re in a Fiat—nobody’s gonna fuck with my Fiat. But you park out at the beach, you make friends with whoever else is sleeping in their cars, you make sure you can trust everybody around, and if you hear a truck pull in? You leave. Because they’re the ones that are usually looking for trouble.”
Oddly enough, the only time the artist was truly terrified was during her one-night stay at San Luis Obispo’s campy Madonna Inn, which she now believes to be haunted. Doors in her room would spontaneously open and shut. The switch-triggered fireplace went on and off by itself, all night. And to top it off, she says, “I hate sleeping in two beds when there’s only one person in the room, and this room had two beds. But they weren’t next to each other—they were facing each other, like battleships. So I would sit up, and each time I thought it was a mirror in front of me, but I couldn’t see myself in the mirror. It was just creepy.”
The exercise worked, though. New, more cohesive numbers started arriving. Then she flew home to Vermont, where more material beamed down, then to the Caribbean, where she stayed inside her room with an inspiring view of the water until the last music fell into place. With the help of The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach—who produced and co-wrote one song, “Loneliest Soul,” and co-wrote/co-produced two more, “Runaway” and “Never Go Back”—Lion Mach Two took shape at PLYRZ, Potter’s co-producer Jim Scott’s studio in Santa Clarita.
What does the title track signify? “It’s a mythology that I created around a study in human instincts,” explains Potter, who’s been working with everyone from Kenny Chesney (singing on his 2010 hit “You and Tequila”) to Champlain Chocolate (who have created a Grace Under Fire dark chocolate bar, with pistachios and red pepper flakes) to yes, even Disney (she had a song in the recent animated hit Tangled and did voiceover work on last year’s Christmas special Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice). “The last few years, I’ve made a study of us as humans, artists in particular, and the impulses we act on and the impulses we repress make us who we are.” The Beast follows his atavistic urges, she adds, while The Lion is all chest-pounding, image-obsessed show.
“And my song ‘Timekeeper’ wraps into The Beat quite well,” this vest-pocket philosopher says of the third concept in her triumvirate. “It’s not just the beat of a drum, but the beat of a heart and the inevitable passing of time. There’s a rhythm to how the world’s spinning, and how the days pass. So the beat is a bit of a grind, and sometimes it’s wonderful and sometimes it’s really scary, and you want it to stop.” She pauses for effect. “But it ain’t gonna stop. It’s The Beat!”
Ultimately, Potter is grateful that everyone trusted her enough to just let her disappear. And she’s learned to trust herself much more than she has in the past. “And that faith in yourself when you’re making a record is more important than anything else,” she swears. She’s also pleased that not one person recognized her casually attired self on her daring trek. “But now that people are reading these articles, they’re all gonna start figuring it out,” chuckles the vagabond. “That I was that crazy girl in the Fiat that had the fucking pinwheels for eyes, because she was on mushrooms!”