The distinction that Midnight was a solo record was an important one for Grace Potter, but it wasn’t an earth-shattering transition. It’s been a long time since she released any music without her band, the Nocturnals, but years of what she dubs “heavy lifting” left her well equipped to take the plunge into solo territory.
“I made the mistake of spending a whole lot of time really trying to not take the credit, because it felt uncomfortable,” Potter says. “As a young woman coming up in a scene where there were just so many women fluffing their peacock feathers, I wanted to be the exception to the rule. I wanted to be the cool girl that could stick with her band.”
Recording Midnight with the explicit distinction of “solo record” was less about taking the credit and more about taking responsibility. After a decade of cultivating a vintage rock vibe with the Nocturnals, the poppier inspiration for Midnight didn’t fit the legacy the band had built.
“It wasn’t really a decision as much as a necessity,” says Potter of the band’s hiatus. After all, she had gone into the writing process with every intention of making another Nocturnals record. “I think they probably realized [it was a solo record] before I did. When I sent the demos I had been working on, everybody who heard it was like, ‘What the fuck is this? This is totally different.’ ”
For Midnight, Potter worked with Los Angeles–based producer Eric Valentine, whose previous work ranges from Nickel Creek to Third Eye Blind and mirrors Potter’s own eclectic history of collaborators. She also took cues from previous albums’ producers like Mark Batson and Dan Auerbach, starting with the beat and building songs up from there.
“[It’s] very hip-hop, and a totally different approach, but I think it’s one that has been really successful — especially in the last fifteen years or so in recorded music,” she says. “You hear a beat, and that’s the thing that’s gonna make people jump up and down and feel alive. That’s what I wanted. I wanted my record to sound like fun.”
Fun is par for the course outside the studio, where Potter has developed an unwavering reputation for jumping and howling her way across any stage she graces. While she’s tirelessly fronted the Nocturnals for years, she’s been developing her identity as a solo performer for almost as long — she credits collaborations with helping her find a voice outside the band. As the Nocturnals made their way up through the jam band scene, Potter was making guest appearances at festivals with folks like Warren Haynes, even performing on the Jammy Awards stage with Joe Satriani. She’s written theme songs and added her powerhouse vocals to country hits, too.
“I’m just somebody who loves to say yes to crazy ideas. If it’s not risky — if it sounds exactly like something I would probably do — I’m just going to be what we call a PP, which is a polite pass,” she says. “I would say, ‘Nope. Can’t do it. Not available.’ I just don’t find myself drawn to same-old, same-old. I find that I’m constantly grasping to understand the world of music and art and performance in a new capacity.”
Midnight does take a turn stylistically, but it comes from an authentic place for Potter, who dived into her record collection to figure out what made her turn to the same albums time and time again. Prioritizing her live show over her own records had become a habit, but this time she was going in with the intention of switching things up.
“I think, in the process of writing the record, it sort of started to dawn on me that I’ve never really made records I want to listen to,” Potter says. She laughs after the thought comes out of her mouth. “My view of making music was always a little bit ass-backwards, because it always started from the live component. With this record, everything changed.”
Artists ranging from Stevie Wonder to the Talking Heads to Madonna come up when she’s asked about the records that inspired her renewed zest for songwriting. She describes herself as a “youngish” artist, quick to point out that while she’s been performing regularly since the Nocs were just a hard-touring college trio, recording music was mostly a means to an end.
“Recording was always an afterthought, just an attempt to capture the live experience,” she says. “It was never the other way around….As proud as I am about what I’ve made, it’s always just a happy accident when [the records] sound good. I wanted to take the reins on that.”
Taking charge in the studio only allowed her more confidence and control in the live setting, where performances have evolved into a place where the old Nocs numbers feel right and the new music fits, too.
“I was prepared for the show to change as much as I thought that the record had shifted. But actually, it’s been seamless,” says Potter. “That has been really interesting, because it’s made me realize how much of the show was really running on the fuel of the songs.”
Her own enthusiasm on the road is now matched by a revolving cast of friends and collaborators backing her in the band, which makes for an opportunity to evolve that Potter relishes. “It’s kind of an amazing palette to be able to paint with, because I’m able to really expand on the show,” she says. “It’s not like we’re starting over — it’s just an extension of me.”
She says the Nocturnals aren’t over forever, but that stepping out to try something new has been a therapeutic way of taking a look around at the way they got to where they are.
“It’s nice to take account of life,” she says. “And you can’t really take account of life when you’re in the tornado, you know?”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 30, 2015