Q’s With: Raw and Joyous Grace Potter Reclaims Rightful Place As Rock ’N’ Roll Force

Grace Potter
Danielle Del Valle / Getty Images
– Grace Potter
belts one out during Live On The Green at Public Square Park in Nashville Aug. 31.

Palm trees bend, silhouetted against a full moon whose light shines back on the waves of the Atlantic. It’s no wonder Key West nights like this transfixed a literate demimonde of Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Thomas McGuane, Shel Silverstein and even Hunter S. Thompson, alongside bikers, smugglers, Cuban exiles and fishermen.

It’s a perfect setting for Grace Potter – certain she’d given up her performing days – to reclaim her place as a rock ‘n’ roll force. Equal parts Tina Turner (the steam and the sex), Stevie Nicks (the dancing, the cosmic desire), Joan Jett (the downstroke, the relentless musical attack) and – when she gets her gospel moan on at that B3 organ – Aretha Franklin (the soul), the Vermont songwriter blazes through an eclectic catalogue of American genres. 

Worn down from the dissolution of her longtime backing band the Nocturnals, marriage to drummer Matt Burr failing and her solo album Midnight faltering, Potter was exhausted, falling in love with producer Eric Valentine and pregnant. She felt it was time to leave the performing life behind.

Enlisted for vocal arrangements for Gwen Stefani’s Christmas album by friend and producer busbee, Potter realized music is how she breathes. Suddenly, the voice memos she’d been dumping into her iPhone to capture the musical bits floating around her head for baby Sagan might be something more.

Daylight emerged from Midnight’s shadow self, marking a return to very naked songs, minimalism building to fully realized production. Valentine, who’s worked with Queens of the Stone Age, the All-American Rejects, Nickel Creek and Good Charlotte, recognized dynamics matter, but sensed Potter needed to find her own way home.

Her arrival came through Little Town, Big Sound, the Muscle Shoals tribute featuring Steven Tyler & Nuno Bettencourt, Willie Nelson, Chris Stapleton & Lee Ann Womack, Keb’ Mo’ and Michael McDonald. Her muscular, smoky take on Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” set a spark that slow burned through her resistance.

Onstage at Sunset Green, Potter seamlessly swooped through intimate singer/songwriter songs, Nocturnal jam band favorites, her disco pop confections and straight-up rock. If she’d thought about walking away, it’s hard to imagine how she would’ve survived given her intensity onstage.
Pollstar: Muscle Shoals reignited your will to rock.
Grace Potter: Soulfulness was what I learned. Those Aretha records? I loved Aretha’s playing, the way it just flows out of her. It’s what comes naturally to me, all the way back to my first indie records. 

That gospel and soul of the ’50s and ’60s, I love that stuff. When they asked, I was pregnant and couldn’t travel, but I wasn’t afraid of this [recording] being a totally-out-of-control, get-lost-in-the-production thing. It was very specific; I knew exactly what they needed it to be. That was the wake-up call for me, because the truth is: I really didn’t want to make music anymore.
Was walking away that easy?
Once you’ve sung “Gimme Shelter” onstage with The Rolling Stones, what’s left? Mick came out and saw me in this silver dress some Russian Mafia lady, who literally had a gun on a garter, sold me. The woman said, “The day you wear this (dress), is the day you run the world.” 

Mick saw me, and went backstage and changed! He put on his shiniest silver jacket, and he put it out there. So it was us, these two super-shiny people on this huge stage in those spotlights. He really brought it, that pushed me. (laughter) What’s left?
Grace Potter
Stephen J. Cohen / Getty Images
– Grace Potter
at Bourbon & Beyond festival in Louisville, Ky., Sept. 21.
But you’re so good on that stage. You thought you could walk away?
So much had happened, with the band, my life. So much started to materialize with the Me Too/Harvey Weinstein stuff. My free-spirit/I don’t care attitude got me subjected to multiple men who took advantage. Like Jennifer Lawrence said, “I’m a guy’s guy.” I laughed stuff off so hard in places, I didn’t realize I was being wounded for a very long time. You think, “I need to laugh at this person instead of punching them in the face.” But by not revealing what really happened, I’m short-changing myself from the ability to deal with it for me.
That rock ‘n’ roll bravado, born of the machismo of the ‘70s? With a wink and a nudge, you can suggest there’s more going on than meets the eye, but it gets old. And I was pregnant, hormonal, in a really femme vibe. So with everything else, why would I want to go chase all that stuff?
Uh huh. And then…
I wrote “Apologies” (from This Is Somewhere) about one specific thing that happened, the guy who did me wrong said those specific words – and I wrote them into a narrative in my head, though he’s not that poetic a person. 

“Release,” from this record, came out of me, just in bits, in the bathtub. I’d created this fantasy bathroom with the money from the check Kenny (Chesney) cut me for “You & Tequila.” I was moving out of that house, I knew it was the last bath in that incredible tub. I was just singing those pieces into my phone, “I release you…”And I realized I wanted [son] Sagan to hear his Mama sing because she loved it, not because I needed to pay the bills. I needed things to be clear, to be at peace, so that’s what music could be.
A revelation.
I’m afraid of silence. Every track would be filled if it were up to me. Eric has taught me so much. I’ve learned things in a control room I would’ve never learned writing songs for 30 more years. In some ways, my life hadn’t been out of control like it was during that time since I was a baby, but from that I learned so much.
Like what? 
I wrote the Linda (Ronstadt) thing for your book “Woman Walk The Line.” I was so in the vocal place of what singing means to me, to see creativity take centerstage in someone’s life like that. Art is supposed to be a tool for learning, connecting, expressing what’s inside. It’s not supposed to be a way to make money to get back to being a shithead.
You and Eric came to some revolutionary conclusions.
We had to figure out a new way to do this, to be a family out here. We had a private show in Sioux Falls – and rented a beautiful old house. We set up the whole band, videoed and recorded live in this gorgeous chamber, pulling all the room vibe into it. It gives perspective in other ways.

In the fall of 2018, I rented a studio in Topanga for my piano. I didn’t know. Busbee was being blown up by Pink and Gwen, and I was just some pregnant lady without a record deal. Trying to get his attention, getting my friend to take me seriously lit a real fire under me.
And Fantasy Records heard what you were doing, as it was, and responded.
Daylight wasn’t supposed to see the light of day! (laughter) It was my own creativity and the truth in my life for the sake of Sagan.  What I’d done as a recording for my child, we sent it over to give a sense of where I was, to be honest about what the next record might be. But they were so excited. “Wait! We think this is the record,” which was crazy. It was so personal, because I was detached from making a record. But the chasm of that moment I was in, it allowed Eric to capture the perspective. It also gave me room to be in the songs in a larger way. Midnight had been a buffet, putting every single thing on a plate – and this was just “What does it need?” because the emotion was so strong.
And now you’re topping the Americana charts, touring…
Roots aren’t a genre, but a feeling. The depth and character you get from all the music, it’s familiar. But it has to elevate, or you’re just copying. I think here it’s so pure and direct, it takes us other places. It’s a blast to play these songs, be up there so naked and raw, but joyous. We still get to do “Paris,” “Stop The Bus,” “Alive Tonight” and “Hot To The Touch.”
Plus, the family’s out.
Today was Sagan’s second birthday. Eric’s here. My parents came here to be with us. 
Different, but it’s really good. And the band is rocking.