Grace Potter grew up in Vermont, a land of dogged pioneers, full of spark and spunk with a song on her lips from the first moment she spoke. It seems no accident to find her and her band, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, on the brink of pop ascendancy.
You could argue Potter's already there. Certainly, her Grammy-nominated duet with Kenny Chesney, "You and Tequila," was a huge crossover success. Though each of the Nocturnals' last two albums broke the Top 20, both stopped short of being a bona fide smash. Just as they never got trapped in the jam circuit where they first found their fanbase, they've sidestepped mainstream's middle-of-the-road appeal.
Potter and company came close with their 2010 eponymous album, but that was as far as they'd go. So it's no surprise that with last year's The Lion the Beast the Beat — produced by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach — the band decided to take another approach. The Lion the Beast the Beat is a grimier, less polished, classic-rock soul-and-blues exploration that benefits from a roomy, lived-in sound.
No doubt, Auerbach was a key to the new approach. "What gets you great success in your career is nurturing the voice of the artist, and he did that with us," Potter says, explaining how Auerbach pushed her out of her comfort zone. "It was a great breakthrough for me but also kind of led to the change and shift in attitude toward the album and where I wanted it to go.
"I realized then that I didn't really want to make a record full of hit songs. I wanted to make a record with a couple of really, really great songs that if we're lucky enough to have them get played on the radio, then so be it, and if not, fuck it," she adds. "It's enough I knew I'd be happy playing those songs the next two years."
In truth, Potter's never really lacked for confidence. A free-spirited, outgoing woman, she's quick-witted and inquisitive. She took in that Vermont spirit of entrepreneurial determination, and it's driven the band's success.
"People in Vermont are really taught to do things for themselves. Nobody is going to hand you the answers," she says. "People always envisioned moving to Vermont to a commune and everything happens for you, but it's really a hard-working, dirt-under-your-nails place."
Potter adds, "If you work somewhere, it's usually a family-owned business or a company that's been established by a family that's grown into a larger business. That's a very hard thing to find and per capita success level is rare, but in Vermont it seems to run rampant."
The band formed around Potter, drummer Matthew Burr, and guitarist Scott Tournet in 2002. They self-released their debut, Nothing But Water, which was picked up by Hollywood Records and re-released in 2006, followed a year later by This is Somewhere. They toured with the Black Crowes and Dave Matthews, cementing a connection to the roots-jam crowd.
When bassist Bryan Dondero left in 2009, Potter saw it as an opportunity to create something new, demonstrating a real artist's desire to keep moving. They brought in hip-hop producer Mark Batson (Jay-Z, Maroon 5) and wound up with a more rhythmic, poppy album. She describes it as a "defibrillator album" because it pumped new life into the band.
"We had so much fun making that record because he created a musical playground for us. I'm not just talking cool gear and lots of weed smoking. He would invite these inspiring people over, and there was always a new character in the building. Throngs of women of course, but also really talented men — performers, rappers, writers, and actors," she says. "It sparked and fueled a new regeneration of our inspiration, because Batson was writing songs with me that I would never have thought to write on my own and inspiring in me a much freer sense of self."
That freer self was accompanied by a sartorial switch-up. Joined by Dondero's replacement, bassist Catherine Popper (replaced last year by Michael Libramento), Potter embraced her girliness in sheer, sexy dresses and other colorful, revealing garb.
"I thought the only way to appear confident was to dress like a dude, and that was the opposite of what my mind wanted to do. My mind wanted to be a wild princess peacock," she says. "I didn't understand why you were either a serious musician in a T-shirt and jeans or you were this girl in a flapper dress that had no quality or charisma. Cat too had been kind of a dude musician her whole life. We both said fuck it and went shopping and had a ball becoming women to the chagrin of expectations."
That sense of self-possession carried over to the new album, and was amplified by Auerbach. He helped them discover the fine line "between being super professional and keeping that edge."
"The edge is what keeps people coming back, so you don't want to lose that. We've gone too far with that edge before and we've had our era of saying fuck you to the man and not listening to anyone and really kind of shooting ourselves in the foot in a lot of ways by going too far over that edge," Potter says. "But I think we finally found that balance and found a pitch-perfect place for us as a band and found songs we're happy to perform."
Potter adds, "When you're out here for months — three, five, whatever fucking month this is — I don't know how long we've been touring, but when you're this deep in touring a record and you're still not sick of the songs, that's a really good sign."
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals play a sold-out show at the Music Farm on Thurs. Feb. 14.