Grace Potter talks sex appeal, stadium shows and spike heels
On the night of the Grammy Awards, as the rest of the music industry was busy fawning over itself in Los Angeles, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals were 2,800 miles away in Canton, N.Y., marking their 10th anniversary at St. Lawrence University, the college where the band got its start.
It seemed like a perfectly planned kiss-off to the industry. But Potter insists it was just a coincidence.
“There’s gonna be a time when it’s time to invest in that world,” said Potter, a former Grammy nominee herself. “Now is not that time. Now is the time to be thankful for the past 10 years.”
Besides, she laughed, “There’s no Grammy for touring. If there was, we would totally win.”
Over the past 10 years, the Vermont-based Nocturnals have evolved from coffeehouse jam band into one of America’s slickest original rock 'n’ soul dynamos. Potter herself has led the charge: She emerged from behind her treasured Hammond B3, dyed her chestnut locks blonde and traded her sensible denim and flannnel for short skirts and sky-high stilettoes.
And while the Nocturnals can still crank out a 10-minute hootenanny or two, Potter’s bewitching wail and sex appeal have made her something of a modern-day Tina Turner. She’s never been in greater demand for TV appearances and A-list collaborations, such as You and Tequila, her smash duet with Kenny Chesney; and new album The Lion The Beast The Beat, which features three songs co-written by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach.
Potter and the Nocturnals will bring their electric stage show to Jannus Live in St. Petersburg on Friday. Potter called us recently to talk about style, sex appeal and selling out. She was calling from a hotel room in Baltimore, where the Nocturnals were playing a show on the day after the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII.
“You should have heard the streets last night,” she said. “People are insane. There were fireworks at 5:30 in the morning right outside my hotel room window.”
Give me your review of Beyonce’s performance.
I really loved it. A lot of people on Twitter got mad because I was complimenting her, and people were responding like, “Are you crazy? That was awful!” What was awful about it? She’s iconic. She’s one of the only women out there performing in a way that, to me, is both compelling sexually and also musically. There’s a fearless female energy that you can’t deny, but also, I think if she was a man doing exactly what she was doing, I would love it just as much. She transcends gender and genre and everything else.
“Compelling sexually” — that’s a pretty interesting phrase. Is that a spirit you try to embody onstage?
I don’t try to. People think it’s this intentional thing, but it’s really not. You’re kind of genetically given what you’re given. You watch videos of me as a kid, and I was doing it when I was 3 — it just wasn’t sexy. It’s one of the larger issues of my career, is people thinking that I’m intentionally trying to sell it, or make it more commercial, or make it sexy. But what I feel about (Beyonce) — and I don’t necessarily see it in myself — is that the sexuality just comes through because that’s what the music is begging for. It’s not about, “I’m gonna pull all these come-hither looks and blow people’s minds and make them want to go buy my record.” It’s more, “I can’t help but move this way when the music does what it does.” It’s a hard thing to explain, especially being a woman who likes to not wear pants and likes to flip her hair around. It almost just seems ridiculous to try to defend it. You just have to be that thing and let it be.
Has wearing spike heels ever gotten you in trouble on stage?
No! In fact, it saved me. I went to an orthopedist recently. I had pulled my groin, which sounds like an old-man injury, but he said the solution would be for me to actually keep the heels on, because it controls your movement and keeps you from injuring yourself when you are teetering on the brink of physical health. I don’t think I’m invincible, but I’m certainly a tank. I’m not a fragile little bird. So when I did hurt myself, I was freaked, and it turns out that when I took my shoes off, I actually did the most damage. So, lesson learned: Heels can actually help.
You’ve played football stadiums before, opening for Kenny Chesney. Did you take anything away from that experience that you’ve since applied to your own headlining shows?
They’re pretty different. Good question, though. No one’s ever asked me that. There’s a science to a stadium show — the way that you create intimacy is by playing to the Megatron TV screen, and being aware of where the cameras are, because otherwise, the people in the nosebleeds aren’t going to see what’s going on. Which makes sense to me, but also is just so disingenuous to what we do on stage. I’m not even aware of where I am, let alone where the camera is. (laughs) It was almost like going to a master class in how to control massive audiences with very, very subtle movements — less of the grandeur that you get at smaller clubs and theaters, and actually more subtlety, more facial expressions, more large, spanning statements, like, “HOW Y’ALL DOIN’ OUT THERE!?”
It’s like the difference between acting for film and TV and acting on a stage.
Exactly, you’re right. But at the same time, there’s a genuine energy that comes from a stadium. I’m not dogging on the stadium thing; I actually learned that to connect with the audience on that level, you really have to be among them. You can’t act like a superstar, which seems the opposite of what it should be. But watching Kenny, I learned a lot just from how genuine he is and how he doesn’t want people to think he’s larger than life. He wants to get down on his knees and come hang out with everybody in the pit. That’s something that I’ve always been a little bit afraid of, because I’m legally blind, and I don’t see very well, so I’m always afraid I’m going to fall into the pit. (laughs) I kind of gleaned from him that as long as you know where the edge of the stage is, you can get down and sing to a fan and change someone’s life. And they deserve that, because they’re the fans, and you wouldn’t be where you were if it wasn’t for them.
Have you been able to tell so far if your shows and duets with Kenny have actually done what crossover songs are supposed to do, which is broaden your fan base in a meaningful way?
I think so. We’ve been working at it for so long that it’s a combination of me and the Nocturnals’ hard work over 10 years of touring. But also, in these last two years, in the collaborations with Kenny, I see a bit of a 50-50 reaction. Half the people say, “Isn’t that the girl from the Kenny Chesney thing?” And half the people say, “Oh my god, you haven’t seen these guys play live? You haven’t seen these guys out at the festivals?” I think maybe the scales are tipped a little more in one direction than I realized, because I’m in the middle of it, but it seems pretty equal — half hard work and half fairy dust.
On the new album, you worked with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Did you know him before the Black Keys released Brothers?
I didn’t meet him until right after Magic Potion (2006). I met him at a festival somewhere; I don’t remember what year it was. But they were massive. In our minds, success isn’t measured with how many records are sold or when someone got their big hit. It’s whether they became an asshole or not. And the thing that I gleaned from Dan was that he’s always been basically the same guy, and he hasn’t changed in any way. That’s the only way I’ve been able to measure people’s success. Some people who become overnight sensations change quite drastically — it can be really scary. But other people don’t.
On the deluxe version of The Lion The Beast The Beat, two of the bonus tracks, Roulette and All Over You, are really good. It made me wonder why you left them off the album in the first place. And then it struck me — and I don’t mean this in a bad way — that they sound more polished than the other 11 tracks. Am I far off?
All Over You and Roulette represented a direction that I had been going in before turning the album in another direction. It was all feeling very commercial — not that that’s not a good thing; we shamelessly enjoy writing pop songs — but it was aiming for something that I didn’t want to land on. And there were about 10 more songs just like that, some of which were actually much more hit-sounding than All Over You and Roulette. They were very pop-sensitive and very emotional, and at the same time raw and energetic, but polished, certainly; the studio recordings came out very polished and sort of overthought. After recording those two — and I think there were three others — I couldn’t fathom suffering through another 10 tracks like that. I was so miserable. I really hated it. I felt completely disconnected from the songs, and really didn’t enjoy performing them or listening to the recordings. And then, obviously, as the project grew and the direction changed, I fell back in love with those songs, and I can see the merit in them, and I can see exactly what’s good about them, and why they had to make it onto at least the bonus tracks.
There have to be people in your life who said, “Grace, these are possible hit songs. Why would you shy away from doing more of this?”
Oh, yeah. (laughs) The record company was very confused. But it wasn’t time for that record. We sometimes refer to it as “fame management.” There’s a certain kind of famous that I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be Katy Perry. I have no interest in having to have security guards following me around everywhere. There’s a level of privacy in my life that I hope I’ll always be able to enjoy, and what songs you put out into the world can sometimes affect that. I’d rather have a medium-successful record and a happy life than a massively successful record and a bunch of f---ing security guards following me around.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photo: Williams Hirakawa.