Since becoming a bona fide rock star, Grace Potter has embodied the happy-go-lucky life-of-the-party presence of a passionate singer-songwriter, knockout performer and seductive enchantress who wooed audiences as a full-fledged member of the Girls-Who-Wanna-Have-Fun Club.
That still may be true for this Natural Show-Woman with a dazzling smile, vivacious personality, hellacious Gibson Flying V guitar and Hammond B3 organ in her instrumental arsenal, and the moves, grooves and charisma to get fannies out of their seats. But there’s new life after the afterparty for Potter, as much a rebirth for this bicoastal shapeshifter as it is the birth of her first child — Sagan Potter Valentine.
Embracing the role of Baby Mama, Potter has enjoyed taking a break from music that’s lasted almost two years while embarking on the next stage of her career as a parent/performer alongside husband and record producer Eric Valentine, a former drummer in the band T-Ride.
“It’s incredible. It’s better than I expected,” Potter said of motherhood during nearly an hourlong phone interview on July 2 from her Los Angeles-area home, where her son was napping upstairs after earlier rising with the sun.
“I’m not one to really speak a lot about my private life,” a gracious Grace said, nonetheless sharing incredible insights about the transformation she has experienced after achieving success with and without the Nocturnals, the band she formed in 2002 before the age of 20 with ex-drummer and ex-husband Matt Burr. “It’s something that I have to touch on because of how many changes have happened and the fact that there’s now a baby in my life. But it’s just been a profound shift in the way that I see the world and the way that I want to spend my time and it’s actually, really encouraged me back towards music.
“Having a kid and bringing a life into this world, it was the first time I wanted to sing again. It was the first time I wanted to write again and really felt compelled from inside myself. Not from outer forces or like, ‘When are you gonna make a new record?’ or ‘When are you gonna go back on tour?’ You know, ‘We miss you up in Saskatchewan,’ or whatever. It needed to come from this place that when you stare at this little soul with these big eyes, that’s like, ‘What’s the world all about?’ I’m like, ‘Aw, I want to show you what it’s all about and what your mom can do.’ It makes me want to be the best version of myself, and music definitely brings that out in me.”
Those lifestyle changes were basically reflected in two phone calls almost seven years to the day (and hour) apart. Beginning our first interview before noon Pacific Time on June 29, 2011, Potter was sitting in bed in a Las Vegas hotel room with a cup of coffee, saying, “Don’t worry, I’m by myself. I’m not having a Coyote Ugly moment right here,” during a working vacation that included taking in the Sin City’s sights and sounds.
Seven years later, Potter is making her own coffee several hours after Sagan began what she called her “mom schedule”, which included a mid-morning workout. Planned for the afternoon was the start to rehearsals for her first tour dates of the year that include a stop at the Ride Festival in Telluride, Colorado, on July 15. Band members who were part of the Magical Midnight Roadshow in 2015-16, including longtime Nocturnals guitarist Benny Yurco, Matt Musty (drums) and Eliza Hardy Jones (keyboard/background vocals), were in the process of arriving that day to stay at Potter’s place and rehearse at what she called “a funky old venue” in Topanga Canyon.
Saying “start the engines”, Potter is excited about taking Sagan on tour, particularly the Telluride stop for a number of reasons, and doesn’t expect a major shift in her plans, though she wants more family days and fewer tour dates to make it easier on everyone.
“So there always will be adjustments and I can’t … there’s so many things I can’t foresee,” said Potter, a down-to-earth Vermont native who found peace and tranquility in her new home about a year ago after basking in the Hollywood glow for 11 years. “That’s one thing about motherhood that I’ve learned is that you just never know what’s gonna happen. (laughs) But I do think it’s gonna be OK. I’m pretty natural on the road and Eric’s an amazing dad and we’ve got a lot of support with family and friends and crew and band and everybody that’s out with us. It’s gonna be a really new version of what I’ve already come to know as my family. Because that’s really what the road has to be for you. It needs to be a nurturing environment. I’ve always really gone above and beyond to make sure that everybody feels like they have a home and that they’re just not, like, gritting their teeth and trying to get through it. So the same will be the case. And there’ll just be a few more diapers.”
During this entertaining conversation, Potter goes deep to reveal more about family life with Sagan, the pluses and minuses of dealing with a career breakthrough and how she fits in among the Women Who Rock, the theme of this year’s Ride Festival.
A Family Space Odyssey
“Yeah, it’s a major change, and one that, I think was very welcome in my life at that point,” Potter said about the arrival of Sagan, who was born in the home of his parents at 10:47 p.m. on Jan. 12, 2018. “Because rock ‘n’ roll is not necessarily a sustainable lifestyle all the time. And I just hit maximum capacity at a certain point and, you know, my soul was like, ‘I need something else.’ I was sort of reaching out for a sense of home after being on the road for 14 years of my life pretty much. And I started talking about that, started planning for having a kid. Having met the love of my life, it felt like the right time and place to start a family.”
The idea to have a baby was conceived in the second half of 2016, shortly after Potter wrapped up a long year on the road with a September date at Red Rocks Amphitheater west of Denver. Potter had extensively toured behind the 2015 release of the Valentine-produced Midnight, her first major album as a solo artist.
By then, most of her longtime band members in the Nocturnals had departed, which coincided with the separation and eventual divorce from Burr. It was time, Potter thought, to process what had happened and step back from what she called the feedback.
“I really cleared the docket and decided that this was something that we wanted to pursue more than music, more than anything else,” added Potter. “Because the world when you’re out on the road making music and releasing music and that’s just the cycle you’re in, it just becomes this big mirror. And you sort of get a warped view of yourself if you don’t step away from it for a second and just look at yourself and really assess. …
“I had this kind of skewed version of my life and it just didn’t feel like mine. It didn’t feel like I had any ownership over it at all. It was an amazing life and a blessed life and I had incredible friends and people around me that were so supportive and incredible but again, like I said, it’s not sustainable from the ground up unless you’re really coming from a solid place, though. … That was biology doing that work for me.” (laughs)
Potter, comparing the growth of families to oak or eucalyptus trees, wants to have more children, saying, “I could see another baby coming along. I’m not pregnant now. (laughs) Can’t do both things at once. Definitely need to carve out that time and really give it to yourself. It’s one of my greatest gifts I’ve ever given to myself is the time to really work at becoming a mother because it took about a year of preparing and sort of giving my body a break from the touring life in order to be able to have a kid.”
Now Potter has found “my absolute happy place” on plenty of hikes through the Santa Monica Mountains with Sagan, who also enjoys his version of nighttime lullabies, which — like his mother — really know how to rock. His favorite right now is the middle passage of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which Potter demonstrated over the phone, starting with the line: I see a little silhouetto of a man.
“We get all the way through to the (singing again) ‘For me, for me, for me-eee-eee,’ and hit the high note, and then he just bursts into giggles,” Potter said. “And I never get to the second part of the song.” (laughs)
While in labor, Potter was informed through a long text chain started by her Uncle Steve that there would be another family addition. Steve and his brother Richard “Sparky” Potter (Grace’s father) found out through ancestry.com that their dad unknowingly fathered a girl in Okinawa during World War II, and the mother put her daughter up for adoption. Grace’s Aunt Pam now lives in Boulder, Colorado, and plans to meet her rock ‘n’ roll niece for the first time this weekend during a family reunion in Telluride that will include Sparky and Grace’s mom Peggy.
That’s certainly far out, but also consider this Space Odyssey — Sagan is named for Carl Sagan, the late astronomer and author whose Pale Blue Dot is one of Potter’s favorite works.
Sagan’s namesake “had a huge influence on my life and on Eric’s life,” said Potter, who recently spent time with Carl’s son Nick (“a very, very profound kind of full-circle experience for us”) in Washington, D.C., where she performed with the National Symphony Orchestra at an event for NASA.
Potter admits she was never much of a student at Harwood Union High School in Duxbury, Vermont, among the Mad River Valley towns that include her birthplace (Waitsfield) and elementary school (Fayston). But an “image-based” child filled with wonder and imagination was enthralled with Carl Sagan’s Cosmos television series, and she credits him for being “the first person to really engage the human mind in an entertaining way and introduce science, and especially space and astronomy.”
On a recent hike, she reconnected with one of her former Harwood Union science teachers, John Carrigan, who told Potter she showed a lot of aptitude for the subject but didn’t have the discipline for studying the textbooks. “But he eked me by with a
C-minus, I’m pretty sure,” laughed Potter, who said she is “legally blind,” which made it impossible to ready the type that got tinier as she got older. “He saw that I cared. I think he knew that I wasn’t just phoning it in.”
Ooh La La Land
In 2010, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals — with Yurco and bassist Catherine Popper in the lineup that already included Burr and lead guitarist Scott Tournet — made the grade and answered the call to stardom with the release of their eponymous album.
As the last vestiges of Sarah McLachlan’s Lilith Fair — with artists such as Sheryl Crow, Natalie Merchant and Emmylou Harris leading “a celebration of women in music” — withered and died, Potter’s roots in blues rock were rejuvenated. Cultivated into a brand with broader appeal, her makeover involved more makeup, shorter skirts and longer hair that turned on the glamour and turned up the heat with pulsating songs like “Paris (Ooh La La)” and “Hot Summer Night”.
“And it really, I think, disappointed a lot of people,” Potter admitted. “And it was like the happiest I’d ever been. I finally got to play with the makeup and the jewelry and all this stuff that was like (laughs) what, as a little girl, I pictured being a rock star was gonna be like. And so it was confusing to me because it was inherent to my nature. It wasn’t something I was doing for anybody but myself.”
Yet Potter had trouble understanding what was wrong with increasing the Sex Factor in an industry that produced Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson, Joan Jett and Stevie Nicks, predecessors she admires and credits for forging the path for her.
“And I have become more and more appreciative of that, especially in the recent years where I’m realizing just how rare it is to have a sustainable career and to not have to, you know, give in to some of the other pressures that come with being a woman while also embodying what you want to embody,” Potter said.
Not that she needed to defend herself like a human Jessica “I’m just drawn this way” Rabbit, but Potter devoted extra time to eloquently state her case while presenting some points that make perfect sense.
“And for me, it has always been this sort of sexualization, which is just part of me. I’m inherently a very sexual, sensual performer, and it’s a huge part of my music. It’s woven into my lyrics. It just seeps through all of rock ‘n’ roll, right? And I never really thought there was any difference between Robert Plant strutting around in a woman’s blouse and twisting his pelvis around or Mick Jagger in a leotard with his hands on his hips making kissy faces at all the girls in the front row. … But I think I’ve started to understand the objectification a little more and understand sort of where the challenges have been with women being sexual and being present all at once and embodying sort of the human sexuality. Not just this female-branded ‘You gotta look hot; your butt has to stick out this way; you have to do your hair like this or like that.’
“I think I’ve really enjoyed both sides of it, if that makes any sense. I love getting dressed up. And I love doing my hair and makeup. And I love wearing short skirts. And it’s a part of who I am. But it was a battle to really stake my claim as an artist and say, ‘Look, I can do that and I also can make good music.’ And they should all be part and parcel. It’s not one thing or the other. Like if I wear lipstick, it doesn’t mean I’m a bad musician. Or if I enjoy standing out onstage and playing a five-minute guitar solo and making a mess and sweating and dripping all over it, that doesn’t make me one of the guys. It just means that I’m making music. And I happen to be a female who happens to love and enjoy embodying everything that it means to be up there onstage presenting myself.”
“So it’s been hard for me because I’ve caught a lot of flak in the past for the way that I dress and I’m over-sexualizing things and that’s just what Hollywood did to me. You know, they took me and packaged me into this Barbie doll and all that stuff. That would have been an easier narrative if it was true, but the truth is, it’s just all kind of part of who I am and the type of performer that I always have been. And it’s been just an amazing journey, especially as I get older, looking back on it all and seeing where I had my finger on the pulse and where I didn’t, and how many women had to make those mistakes, including myself, in order for it to be OK. In order for an audience to really be able to understand what’s going on here with females in rock ‘n’ roll.”
With more success came more criticism, which this Grace Under Pressure was able to handle up to a certain point. But when she was slammed by other female musicians — including ones “I really love and admire,” Potter was crushed.
While not wanting to name names, Potter said, one in particular — “as big of an artist as you can possibly get” — confronted her as the career took off. There were rave reviews (“Can Grace Potter get any hotter?” opened my Huffington Post article after seeing her for the first time, in February 2011 at Denver’s Ogden Theatre), sellout headlining shows, national TV appearances and cred-earning collaborations with Gov’t Mule and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach.
Potter recalled this woman “I absolutely adore” telling her: “You’re never gonna make it if you keep on wearing short skirts. You’re never gonna make it if you’re trying to just look good for the audience. You’re such a good singer, you’re such a good musician. You should really stop all that bullshit and just put on your jeans and just do it this way because it’s the only way you’re gonna be taken seriously.”
Asked what her initial reaction was, Potter said, “I think I cried,” following that comment with a laugh. “Yeah, I was super-bummed out. It was hard to hear because, again, you think this person is so wise. … This artist who’s been sort of speaking the truth through music for so many years suddenly saying something to you. It just makes you kind of stop and really take a gasp and go, ‘Oh my God, she doesn’t like me.’ That’s awful. That’s the worst thing ever.”
Women on the Verge
Still, Potter refused to follow any of this unsolicited advice while never receiving an apology during “an ongoing thing” through the years, though it made her second-guess herself: “Oh my God, is she right? Am I doing it all wrong?”
After having the same conversation with herself many times “in order to find my own identity and create and carve out my own individual spirit and presence onstage,” Potter remained steadfast in pursuing her head-banging, hair-flipping career as she envisioned it. A carefree and barefoot Potter ran around the huge Red Rocks stage in July 2011 as GPN supported the Avett Brothers before eventually becoming a headliner there themselves. Two more records followed — one with the Nocturnals (2012’s The Lion the Beast the Beat) and one without (2015’s Midnight).
While reflecting, Potter decided she wanted to help other women help themselves.
It falls short of matching Lilith Fair’s worthy ideals, but the Ride Festival’s decision to celebrate “Women Who Rock” as this year’s theme is to be commended. Potter also is making a conscious effort to recognize female performers at her Grand Point North festival in Burlington, Vermont, this September, with established artists such as Ani DiFranco and rising acts including Caroline Rose and Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds.
“Not because we have to point it out and separate it into its own special category but because there’s that much good music and there’s that many talented females making music,” Potter explained. “And why wouldn’t you, do you know what I mean? It’s just an awareness that it takes some time to even realize that it’s still a thing to be fought for. And it’s still something that these women deserve to be heard and are equally, if not more qualified often, to just slay it.”
Potter applauds the advancement of women in the music industry, but believes there is still much work to be done.
“There’s just this outpouring right now of support and sort of this common strength for this feeling of joining together with so many women now, that there’s certainly a movement and a tidal wave of that energy, and I hope it reflects into music as much as it has through film and TV,” she said. “Because it’s weird to feel like you have an opponent in another female artist.”
Also, in a weird way, Potter believes that personal verbal attack ultimately did benefit her “because it just re-upped my own knowledge of who I was and my identity and found my place and my footing in the world,” she said. “Because I’m not just gonna wear miniskirts for the rest of my career. And there are gonna be times where I’m wanting to be taken more seriously and I’m gonna strip it all the way down and there won’t be a big light show and there won’t be glitter and confetti and it’s just gonna be me and a guitar speaking my truth. And all those things can happen in one human. It is possible for someone to be lots of different things in their life.”
As promising artists such as Larkin Poe and the New Respects join Potter and Sheryl Crow in the Telluride festival’s lineup, the new parent who just recently celebrated her 35th birthday has some sage motherly advice of her own to offer.
“I think the most important part of the message as far as ‘women who rock’ goes is that women are still learning how to rock and also support one another,” said Potter, who pointed out that her husband’s band T-Ride was initially called Telluride. “And for me, it’s definitely a new goal that I’m setting for myself because I think in rock ‘n’ roll, there’s still a bit of ‘every woman for herself.’ You know, [like], ‘Don’t come into the picture and take my job. It was hard enough for me to get here. I don’t want you coming in and stealing my thunder.’ I just, I really want to reframe my life — and my career — in a way that supports young musicians, especially females who have it and who, when you see it, you know it. And to not fear that.”
As serious as Potter can get, she still maintains a whip-smart sense of humor while recognizing the irony of a festival that is honoring women yet still giving the closing slots on both nights to String Cheese Incident, a Colorado band with six male members.
Asked if the leading ladies on Saturday (Crow) and Sunday (Potter) should actually be the headliners, Potter deftly dodged getting into a battle of the sexes while providing a reasonable defense for festival organizers.
After a loud laugh, Potter said, “Listen, I really understand and I feel privileged to be able to be anywhere near the top of the bill. … String Cheese has been around forever and people absolutely love them, and I get it. … I think you can’t put them on before anybody because that’s part of the deal with riding the waves at Telluride is that jamming is a big part of their show and it’s a really fun thing to experience and be a part of that fluidity that I love and I came up in.
“I certainly still love a good jam. Sometimes you need to put the band on at the end and know they might take it into a four-hour adventure, and I just can’t. I gotta go feed the baby.”
Still, just imagine what Potter, Crow and Co. could do for an encore.
Third in a PopMatters series previewing artists scheduled to play at the Ride Festival. The New Respects Head for Rarefied Air was published on June 29 followed by ZZ Ward Revs It Up on Way to ‘Little Piece of Heaven’ on July 5.
Michael Bialas is a journalist and photographer who enjoys writing about entertainment and sports for a number of online publications, including PopMatters and No Depression. Follow him on Twitter: @mjbialas