Don’t Call Her a Gypsy: The Grace Potter Interview

Though she battles constant comparisons to Janis Joplin and other gravelly-voiced female vocalists, Grace Potter is reinventing the blues-rock hybrid by letting other influences bleed into her energetic music. Known for her dynamic concerts with her band the Nocturnals (named for their propensity to get late-night slots at concerts), Potter promises to surprise at every turn. Take her recent album, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, which begins with a saucy sexpot number (“Paris (Ooh La La)”) and moves quickly into the rhythmic, reggae-infused “Oasis”.

Potter never wants to stay still, musically, and who can blame her? The young siren from Vermont continues to learn the ropes of making music and recording. Though a few hurdles remain, Potter gushes about her band’s rapid maturity since their previous record, This is Somewhere.

This Is Somewhere took a lot longer because we were so young. This record, we banged it out so quickly and it was so easy and natural and effortless because the energy was there. When we were recording This is Somewhere we were still super green, super from Vermont, super not knowing what to do. This time around we had a trust and a faith in Mark Batson, our producer, ’cause I’d been writing songs with him before the record. So it was really a natural transition to just get in the studio and start recording because that’s what we’d been doing anyway since we were writing songs together. […] I think last time we were really finicky and just spent a lot of time picking over the layers, adding a lot of layers, and This Is Somewhere was a really well-balanced record. I think this one is more psychotic in a good way.

Which isn’t to say that the process wasn’t still a labor of love for Potter and her colleagues. The opening track, “Paris (Ooh La La),” was written in 2007 and recorded 11 different times. Potter then found herself spending much of 2008 building up her catalogue of songs with the help of Batson and her bandmates. While Potter used to write on the road, especially during soundcheck, the space between tours has become fertile ground for her songwriting. “Now it’s easier for me to go home, get my head around what the next project is going to be, and wrap my talons around it and commit to it fully, as opposed to just writing a song here and a song there,” Potter says, adding that her whole life “has been one big compilation, [a] greatest hits tape.” Writing has been especially challenging at moments for Potter, who always starts with lyrics first and lets the music follow.

I’m really into poetry. I had a great English teacher, Mrs. Stahl. She was unorthodox in her expectations of tenth-graders. But she introduced a lot of incredible poetry. One day she came in with a David Gray album, and she had us listen to some of his lyrics. I realized right then that I wanted to be a lyricist, that lyrics were my main thing. The music is great on that David Gray album — White Ladder — I still love it; I listen to it all the time — he started with the lyrics and wrote the music later. If I do have a song, maybe the music comes with the words, but the music never comes first. I think that’s why it was so hard for me to write “Medicine” [the title track] because the music was already there for me. I’m very much a word-centric writer, and that comes from the literature and the reading that I did as kid and also the films and mythology and stories. Every single song I write has to feel like it has a beginning, middle, and end, like a movie or a short story.

The lyrics on Grace Potter and the Nocturnals seem effortless as they soar and growl through the music. The album opens with a daring “You’ve got me down on the floor / so what’d you bring me down here for / If I was a man I’d make my move / if I was a blade I’d shave you smooth.” From there, the album flows easily into “Oasis,” which opens with the caveat to “not let the sun beat you down /steal your crown.” Still other songs are full of imagery. “Colors” details the changing light of day as a metaphor for the changing form of hope. “Hot Summer Night” contrasts snowy weather with the warmth of a lover while “Only Love” begins with Potter moaning, “I wake up with my hair on fire.” “Medicine” features a mysterious character known only as “Policy Woman:”

The music for the song was written by Matt Burr and Scott Tournet and the demo was sent to me months and months before I actually wrote the words to the song. It was a really compelling musical part and it almost felt like an instrumental, and they did it kind of J.J. Cale, sort of tribal, jungle-beat kind of thing, with just a really simple looping guitar part. I really loved it, and I meditated on it for a long time. I kept getting images of a gypsy-type character. But I didn’t want to use the lyric “gypsy woman” as the main thing because every motherfucker writes a song about a gypsy. “Policy woman” just came out of my not wanting to say “gypsy.”

Potter adds that she also chose the word for its many associations.

The policy wheel is basically the Murphy’s Law of gambling. So the policy wheel is a traditional way of realizing it’s all in the numbers and there’s no way of winning every single time. So the policy woman, it seemed like she was a gambling type of woman, and there was a gypsy part I wanted to capture. I did choose that word because it could be read into so many different ways. If people wanted to take it as a Condoleeza Rice character, they could. If they wanted to take it in a gambling context, they could, and then other people probably think I’m saying ‘Miss Lippy’ because some people don’t even know that I’m saying ‘policy woman.’

Similarly, “Oasis” was a difficult track to create at first: “It’s a real departure for us, especially because of that reggae beat. If you heard the first version, the demo that Mark and I did last March, it’s shocking. I remember walking into the studio with him and I heard the drumbeat, and I thought, ‘This is not going to work. How can I write a song around this?’” After meditating on that drumbeat for a while, Potter suddenly broke through a barrier she’d constructed with her own songwriting. “It’s not your typical songwriting formula, so that allowed me to really let go of my expectations about what kind of song I needed to write or what kind of songwriter I needed to be,” Potter says. “I wrote the lyrics and Mark wrote the chord changes and I wrote the vocal melody and we flipped it around because the chorus is supposed to be the verse and the verse is supposed to be the chorus. The list that you get, the oasis, it doesn’t resolve itself, it just kind of floats away, and I love that. It just floats off into the mist.[…] We all learned the parts and within fifteen minutes we were recording it. I think it’s the second take you hear on the record.”

Though the band is sharp and inventive enough to master songs and recording so easily, Potter still credits their newness with their noteworthy concerts. Their shows are known for their incredible variety of songs, all of which feed a performance that flows like a rushing river.

We’re really dynamic. This band does not do one thing — we do a lot of things. Some people may walk in and hear a song and think, ‘Oh God, I hate this song,’ and the next song that they hear can be their favorite song and change their life forever. It’s really interesting how much we change from song to song. That comes from our band [being] new and still honing our musical sound together. But also there’s a stream-of-consciousness thing with our concerts, I don’t like to stop very much, I don’t like empty space at all. I’m very much into the flow of a show. A show needs to feel like something that doesn’t stop. A lull might happen before a song and it might sound like we’re taking a break, but really, if you listen closely, there’s a drone on the organ and I’m building up an intro into the next song. It’s very dynamic. We’ll thrash you over the head with some crazy Ramones-type song and the next second play a soulful ballad that takes it to a completely different place and time. So it’s a journey. I like to write the set like it’s a movie, same as a song. It has to have a beginning, middle, and end. People should leave the show feeling like they saw Iron Man. The first one, the good one.

The concerts put out some heavy wattage that’s real; what’s not is Potter’s reputation for being a neuter earth goddess rather than a sexy female performer. “I was misconstrued as a completely different person. I always wore the cowboy boots and jeans and plaid just to keep up with the guys, and I didn’t think I’d be taken seriously in a mini-dress. The truth is if you look at video footage of me from [when I was] three years old, I was pushing my boobs out, wagging my ass, wearing my mom’s heels, flipping around in her pearls, and digging in her closet,” Potter laughs. Though she’s often proclaimed her dislike of divas, Potter is proud of her gender: “I wanted to be a woman from day one. So [“Paris (Ooh La La)”] might have been the first time I actually realized it in a song. I think people thought I was this earth mother type, but if you look at video footage of me dancing to Paula Abdul when I was ten, you’ll know what was going on.”

The fact that Potter hasn’t been noted for her sex appeal comes, in part from her devout environmentalism. She points to other musicians both as inspirations and as perpetrators of environmental harm: “I use Neil Young and Willie Nelson as inspirations because we’re musicians and this is the world we live in. I mean, getting everybody’s tour bus running on biodiesel or even a more efficient source of fuel would be an incredibly huge step.” As for all consumers, she adds that “it’s easy to shake your fist at the big companies, but they’re just a bigger version of what everybody else is doing.” She advocates anything that reduces the number of plastic bottles that are thrown away, suggesting consumers instead use a permanent water bottle or buy water in larger quantities. This is especially important in areas like Arizona or Florida that have had issues with water quality, Potter says.

Being environmentally conscious is never easy. Neither is being a touring musician and songwriter. Neither is being a woman. But Potter embraces all three roles. And, like her songwriting, it seems so effortless for this refreshingly natural conversationalist with a wicked laugh. Just don’t call her a gypsy.