On August 14th, American rock and roll goddess Grace Potter will release her debut solo record Midnight. Ahead of her show in Toronto tonight at The Danforth Music Hall, AMBY gave Potter a call to discuss pawn shop guitars, opening for her heroes, recording in an airplane bathroom, and wild flowers.
AMBY: Welcome to AMBY and thank you for taking the time to speak with us today!
Grace Potter: Absolutely! Pleasure. I’m loving the name of your site by the way.
AMBY: Thank you very much. To kick things off, you will soon release your debut solo record Midnight which was done at Eric Valentine’s studio in Hollywood. Was creating the album a breezy process? Tell us a bit about that.
Grace Potter: Nothing is ever breezy with me [laughs]. It tends to be, especially when I get to the studio, it feels like brain surgery. But Eric and his studio created an environment that really unraveled all the energy that I put into albums is usually very tense at the beginning then it never stops for it to happen. Almost instantaneously when I started working with him and sharing the music and writing and rewriting and trying to make the choruses sound better or trying to boil down the lyrics, I felt none of that protective energy of like, “Don’t mess with me. Don’t challenge me. Don’t question me.” I’m very very protective of my song writing so it was really interesting to watch my guard come down in the process. It took some time for me to recognize that it really was a solo record because initially when the band was in there with me; it was a little bit pulling teeth to try to make sounds that made sense with the band. They were very much two different things. The guys were such good players and they are so much a part of my life. They did contribute on that album along with a lot of other sessions. It added some fluidity to the process even though it wasn’t always the easiest thing; but, I kind of shook of my denial after the first few months. The collaboration with Eric Valentine was undeniable. It was definitely a break through for me as far as working with a producer that I could really put my face into and say, “Alright, this guy knows what he is doing. I better catch up and get my shit straight.”
AMBY: When writing a record, which did you actually find easier – creating something solo or writing music with The Nocturnals? Was it unusual for you to create something without them?
Grace Potter: No, because I always write the songs without them and then bring the songs to them. So that’s not such a big change. Then when we run them, a couple things might change here or there and we might make a couple tweaks to augment it to The Nocturnals sound a little bit. Overall, I present them with what the album is going to be. So it was really interesting to do that and to go through my usual process and find the results so vastly different from what I usually turn out that there was an obvious key-change in me, somebody sort of flipped a switch. I couldn’t write music with five people in mind anymore, I had to write it for myself, from my perspective. This was a big change… A big leap, honestly.
AMBY: There’s a song called Empty Heart on the album which you actually wrote on a busted pawn shop guitar at a casino somewhere. Could you tell us a bit more about this?
Grace Potter: It’s a sunny story actually. We played a casino somewhere in the mid-west on our last tour. The tour buses had all of our instruments so without the bus, I had no instruments. So I actually took to the street in Omaha, I think it was, and I went down to a pawn shop to find a guitar, but it only had two strings. I was tuning it and it sounded kind of cool, and I broke another string, so there were only four strings! [laughs] I took it back to the hotel room with me and started writing and I actually liked the way it sounded. It had this great kind of jangly sound. As I’m writing it in this casino, it’s probably two in the morning at this point, the people right next to me in the hotel room started pumping Usher as loud as they could! It was really funny. So there was this crazy club beat happening from the room next door and I have my tumble weed guitar and it really lead to what the song is! I started playing along to the beat next door and I couldn’t control the beat and I was recording and you can hear the drums loud and clear in all the voice memos I was taking. I just decided to play along to it and that was actually the beat of the song, that crazy club beat.
AMBY: As we both mentioned, that was written at a casino. Where’s one of the most unconventional places you’ve recorded or written your music?
Grace Potter: Oh, I would say the weirdest place I’ve ever recorded was in an airplane bathroom in midair flying from Arizona to San Francisco. I had a track I was doing for a Tim Burton movie a couple years ago and my pal from The Flaming Lips texted me as we were taking off. Wayne was like “Oh, get me the demo! Get me the music, let’s do this!” since I asked him if he wanted to collaborate on it. I knew I had to get the demo done and we had a show that and there was no time for me to do this, so I was going to do it right now. So I went into the airplane bathroom and sang the vocals and that is actually the vocals that you hear on the track.
AMBY and Grace Potter: [laughs]
AMBY: Wow! Well you took a more pop rock influence during the creation of this record. Did that almost start off with Empty Heart and hearing Usher? Did that have an influence on the direction of this record?
Grace Potter: In some ways yes because that was one of the earlier songs that I wrote, and Alive Tonight as well. But really, it started from the fact that it was really rainy in Vermont when I started writing the album, and this would have been almost two years ago. It was sort of that cloudy gray time when music really does keep your home fires burning, it keeps you inspired. Initially when I was writing a lot of it sounded boring, I was so uninspired. It sounds like I’m sitting in a cabin somewhere and it is raining outside. I don’t want that! How do I capture this? How do I find a way to unveil a part of my personality people aren’t aware of yet? So that’s when I went through my Mom’s record collection. From when I was about five, six, or seven years old she called it house cleaning and she would make these mix tapes of music that was all for keeping the energy up and staying inspired while you’re cleaning the house and doing chores. It was some of my favourite music from when I was a kid; I still listen to those mix tapes! They make me really happy, with Lionel Ritchie, Blondie, Tom Tom Club, The Cars, and Eurythmics. There is just such an incredible collection of music that my Mom had on these mix tapes. That really did get me excited about the possibility of going in this more boogie direction. Benny, my guitarist, he calls it “solar boogie”.
AMBY and Grace Potter: [laughs]
Grace Potter: I think that means sunshine, but I really like that because there is something cosmic about it! My influences are always going to run back to Led Zeppelin, The Who, Bob Dylan, and The Band. But that doesn’t exclude that there was some incredible music being made in the late seventies and early eighties and that not everything that came from the disco era was completely trash. So I really enjoyed that process, of kind of acknowledging another different side of me and this side of me that really loves music from all different places and eras.
AMBY: Something else that is really exciting is that you’ve kicked off your 2015 Summer Tour. When it comes to packing for tour, what are some quintessential items you must bring with you?
Grace Potter: Oh, good question! Such a good question, oh my god. I have this really great boombox and it’s this little portable Bose that’s just a little square with a flap of leather on it, I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s this portable awesome sound system. When I put it in the shower or bathtub of the room, it will fill the entire space and makes the room sound like it has a surround sound system. So I always try to make sure my dressing room has a shower or a tiny bathroom in it so I can play music and give the room a great vibe. I like to have flowers wherever I go, and I don’t mean Mariah Carey rose petals with candles waiting, it’s more I find the wild flowers of wherever I am outside, so I tend to take a run or a walk from venue to venue and I pick flowers and I take them back and have them in the room. It’s always a nice way to keep things bright. Must haves on the road for me, obviously, wardrobe is fun! So I have two suitcases. One of them is devoted entirely to my clothing and accessories and shoes. The other is devoted entirely to all my liquids, so I gotta pack, I’m a lady, and you can’t fly with liquids so I have to have my jet bag with all of my liquids in it. My must have, more than anything else on the road, is, and this is going to sound really geeky and nerdy, but, is this SPF 70 sunscreen that is a dry oil by this really wonderful French company. It smells amazing but it really has turned into my singular beauty product. I’m wearing a little less makeup these days and I’m focusing more on being comfortable in my own skin, but I can’t be comfortable in my own skin if I have skin cancer!
AMBY: [laughs] Very true. Speaking of shows, last month you opened for The Rolling Stones. What was that experience like? Were you super nervous?
Grace Potter: You know what? I wasn’t! I didn’t have time to be nervous! It happened so fast. We got the gig and we only had three weeks to prepare, and the band was still rehearsing, so it was three Nocturnals and four new members, so we were still trying to figure out the show. Literally our first public show was opening for The Rolling Stones. So imagine – there was no time, it was go mode! There was no time to doubt yourself or question what you’re doing, you just have to launch into it and be ready for the ride. But it was amazing! It was actually less nerve wracking than you would think. It was really comfortable because when you’re in their presence, I mean they’re The Rolling Stones, you’ve seen them everywhere, and us personally have grown up knowing what they look like, how they talk, their mannerisms, I’ve watched many documentaries of them, they’re part of my history. So it was kind of like I was just wandering into a movie for a couple of days, it was a wonderful experience.
AMBY: You also opened for Neil Young. I know you actually covered him before a few years ago. Rewinding back, if you told yourself ten years back that you were to one day open for these artists, would you have ever believed it?
Grace Potter: Oh yea, 100%! When I was three years old I could have told you that. This is just what I was built to do. Yes, there’s a sense that I’m humbled and constantly astounded that my three year old or four year old childhood dream had actually come true; but, at the same time, I also knew that I belonged on stage and that I was put on this planet to share music with people. It’s an undeniable feeling of completion, more than “I can’t believe this is happening”. I’m so glad that I’ve made it happen because it takes a lot of work, a lot of years, a lot of pain to ever be given the opportunity to do this stuff and obviously luck, and being in the right place at the right time. It’s a huge part of it. But nothing has ever happened in my career that has just been handed to me, and I think that’s given me the opportunity and the chance and the slow burn to really appreciate and soak up those moments when they happen. I feel like Canadians are better at understanding that than Americans, and I’m not sure why, but I just feel like in Canada you earn the right. Maybe it’s the weather! I live in Vermont, so I feel really Canadian a lot of the time [laughs]. It’s like we go through the entire winter to appreciate those four months of glorious summer. Now you really know what you’re getting and how to embrace it and love it and appreciate because it is so rare, and that is what you’ve worked for.
AMBY: Being from Toronto, I completely understand that [laughs]. You’ve done some great collaborations in the past. What’s one of the fondest moments you’ve had while working with an artist or musician and did you learn anything from that experience that you’ve put into your own music?
Grace Potter: I would say my time with one of my best friends Warren Haynes, I’ve done so many collaborations with him over the years. He’s just somebody who continues to warm my soul whenever I see him. He’s such a hard worker; he is really the godfather who I never had in the rock and roll world. He brought me into relevance in the rock and jam scene and I was able to really explore things about rock and roll and touring that I didn’t know about. He was the first band we ever opened for we had two tour buses and a tracker trailer, oh my god. All those things that go along with touring. He ushered me into that era of my life so I’ve always really loved him and admired him. Mavis Staples, opening for her was one of the greatest experiences of my life and since then we’ve had a lot of collaborations together and we’ve spent time on stage, and she really is the iconic female of my life. Females and males, I don’t have a who lot of female alliances so she is one who did that and I am changing my mind as far as the warmth she has showed me and the attention she gave me when we hang out and talk. It’s great.
AMBY: Lastly, what’s something about yourself that would surprise your fans?
Grace Potter: I am legally blind.
AMBY: That definitely works!
Grace Potter: I really am! I cannot see the crowd! When I say I see you out there I am actually full of shit.
AMBY and Grace Potter: [laughs]
Thank you Grace Potter, for giving us your answers!
Interview by Alicia Atout | @AliciaAtout