“None of us have the luxury of being complete snobs anymore when it comes to listening to music.”
Grace Potter, the reigning queen of roots rock, doesn’t like sitting still. On her first full-fledged solo album Midnight, out now on Hollywood Records via various formats, Our Lady of Grace steps out of her classic-sound comfort zone usually found within the Grace Potter and The Nocturnals cocoon to push new aural buttons, from the gospel stomp of Empty Heart to the Chic-funkgasm of Delirious to the “gotta crossover” mantra slamfest of Instigators. “It’s almost like Midnight was this thread waiting to be woven through the whole thing all along,” Potter observes. “It’s been there under the surface.”
Bringing Midnight to the surface meant making some hard creative choices. “A lot of that comes down to Eric Valentine, the producer, and I talking about what the attitude or sonic landscape of each song needs,” Potter explains. “This record had many different opportunities to go in many different directions. Eric and I made some choices where we tried to focus it a little bit more to keep it not closest to center, but keep it out into the weirder hallways.”
Digital Trends got on the phone with Potter during a recent solo tour stop to discuss the depth of those sonic choices, writing songs while driving around, and what she listens to at home when she’s trying to relax. After Midnight, she’s letting it all hang out.
Digital Trends: I think the two words that best describe Midnight are “sonically adventurous.”
Grace Potter: Ooooh, I love that! Sonically adventurous — that is exactly what we were gunning for.
As an artist, you want to keep growing from album to album. How did you decide this was going to be a “Grace” record and not a “Nocturnals” record?
You know, you’d be surprised — it wasn’t that easy. I don’t know if I decided that, or if the album made up its own mind. It was not intentional. I wish it was. When I look at certain artists’ careers, I think there’s a board of directors in a room somewhere going, “What’s the next right thing to do? This kind of radio station does this, and we need to do this, this, and this. OK, so the next record is going to sound like this.”
It seems like that formula would, should, or could have been applied to me, but fortunately it wasn’t. I don’t do that. (laughs) I think that opportunity presented itself to me, but I didn’t realize it. It wasn’t this moment of, “I’m going to go make a solo record. That’s what’s gonna happen.”
What happened was, I worked my ass off at making music hopefully everyone is going to want to play and will love, and when I sent it to the band, it just didn’t take. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but the band probably knew that before I did.
I worked really hard to try to fit these two worlds together, for a while. But ultimately, about halfway through the production, I became aware that I didn’t want to sacrifice any more of the musicality and the drive within myself in order to make this a compelling record. I was going to have to go all the way there and really dive in the deep end with, as you said, the adventurous sonic movement. So I kind of bit off the head of the tiger there. (laughs)
That’s the mark of an artist. And as you’ve said before, you never want two songs to sound the same. What we get here is an evolution of your sound, with the funk of Live Tonight and the emotionality of Low.
Exactly. Absolutely. This record has a heartbeat to it, but there’s such a diversity between each song. The messages are moving in a direction that makes me feel clearly like more of an individual.
Being sonically adventurous is where my head was at when I was writing this album.
We didn’t mean to be exclusive, but there certainly was a sound to The Nocturnals that, if you liked it, you really loved it. It’s that nostalgic sound that’s of course a big part of me, and the fabric of what inspires me.
That can be exclusive for certain people, but I’ve met so many people with this record that have finally turned the corner — the Grace Potter corner: “I really didn’t think I liked you, until I heard this one. And now I’m going back to the other Nocturnals records.”
How did you decide the way to present your vocals on each song? Sometimes you use an echo effect or reverb, and sometimes it’s more naked and raw like it is on Let You Go.
Well, Let You Go, that’s a great example of a song that needed to be completely bare bones, raw, just stripped all the way down to this transparent, completely emotionally vulnerable place. You can’t glaze over that. The feeling of that song cannot be polished. It needs to be very raw.
And then you’ve got a song like The Miner, which has that kind of John Lennon feel to it.
Yeah, The Miner kind of feels like [The Beatles’] Don’t Let Me Down.
Totally. Of course, I didn’t think of that until later, when it was pointed out to me: “You realize that melody is pretty much Don’t Let Me Down?” “WHAT?? What are you talkin’ about?” (laughs)
Lennon’s and George Harrison’s solo work in particular have always been extremely influential for me. And Paul [McCartney] too, but in a different way.
But for this record, as you said, sonically adventurous is exactly where our heads were at, and that’s where my head was at when I was writing the album. And Eric Valentine can take any sonic road I want to go down. He’s a masterful engineer, and he creates his own sound equipment so he can get those sounds. He builds his own consoles! He’s a madman! (laughs)
Tell me more about the gear you used. Was there something completely new you’d never worked with before?
Yeah! One of the interesting things about this record is that some of those vocals were done through kick-drum mikes. For Hot to the Touch, the opening track, I was singing through [a Shure] SM 58 that was micing the room. It was just supposed to be a bleed mic for the cymbal or something, and that’s actually the vocal.
You can’t have a record player on a tour bus. It’s going to skip.
And we compressed it and put it really up in the front — this really hot, heavy, gritty distorted sound — and that’s just because it sounded way cooler than anything else we were trying to do. It’s not like we were “chasing” it — it was just there, at the ready.
In Empty Heart, there’s this kind of tweaky dwwooooo noise — that’s actually my voice, a guitar, and a harpsichord, slowed down and played backwards through a J37 tape machine.
Very cool. To me, that’s your rap-meets-gospel track.
Exactly, exactly, yeah. That song has been fun to play live. It’s been great to see the audience embrace each song individually. I like seeing the crowd reacting to them: “Oh, that’s the song they’ve been telling me about!” It feels so satisfying to see people really connecting with this album.
What’s the best way to listen to this album? Are you OK with somebody pulling up Midnight in the Spotify universe, or should they go hi-res audio, or vinyl? What’s your favorite?
None of us have the luxury of being complete snobs anymore when it comes to listening to music. I have a lot of vinyl, and that’s my preferred mode still for listening to music. But I’m on a tour bus a lot, where you just can’t have a record player going, do you know what I mean? The record player is going to skip.
So a lot of times, I end up doing a lot of listening through car speakers, cranked all the way the fuck up. It’s not the best way to listen to this record, but it’s the most satisfying way for me because when I wrote the album, I was in the car a lot of the time, driving around and getting inspiration by listening to incredible mix tapes. I would make all these crazy mixes and go out and make all these playlists. There’s one called Desert Drive, Psych Soul Emission, and a lot of surf music. There’s a lot of California road-trip feeling to the record, because that’s exactly what I was doing the whole time. I was roadtripping around California. It’s definitely a wild ride! (laughs) It was a wild ride making it, I’m not going to lie.
What was the first album that hit you as a kid, or one that’s a favorite you put on again and again?
Oooh, that’s a good question. Man, I think [Led] Zeppelin II — that’s definitely my jam. No matter what, you can’t kick the classic rock out of me. [David] Bowie’s Young Americans is one of my favorites too. What else have I been listening to lately? You’d be surprised what I put on when I’m at home just cooking, or whatever.
Go ahead, surprise me.
I listen to a lot of Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington — I’m way into big band, swing, and early jazz.
That’s actually really cool to hear. Do you feel that kind of music relaxes you, or puts you in a different headspace?
That’s the thing. Music is very much a crutch for processing things. It lends a hand in allowing your mind to relax into a mode you otherwise can’t be in. For me, sometimes listening to pop music or modern music stresses me out, because it’s close to what I do. So when I get home, I listen to more non-pop music.
Getting back to the idea of taking unexpected turns brings me to a track like Delirious. After hearing that, I think you could join Chic tomorrow. I bet Nile Rodgers would be up for it.
Music is very much a crutch for processing things.
(laughs heartily) Yeah, I wanted that, I wanted that! That song, particularly for me, informed the rest of the album and became somewhat of a bridge from the first half of the record to the second half of the record. It’s very specifically in that place on the record, where it is. It’s that moment where you thought you knew what you were getting into, and then when that moment happens, it’s like, “No no no no — get ready. This is not over.”
And I think that’s one of the most satisfying artistic choices on the record — that really unexpected moment at the end of Delirious.
I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but it totally takes you to a different place at that point. That seems to be a perfect end to Side A for vinyl too.
Exactly! If I was Tom Petty, I’d come on and say (intones in deeper voice), “This is the exact moment where you take the record and flip it over.” Yeah, Delirious is definitely the point where you’ve reached the end of Side A.
Every record I’ve made, I always think about the track order. But when we put this record to vinyl, there had to be sides, and it was really hard. I didn’t want to switch anything around or change anything. Timing-wise, when you’re taking it to vinyl, you have to make sure it all makes sense and flows together properly.
The bottom line is, if you have a great artist, a great vibe, and great songs, they stick with you inside. Kind of like the way Midnight does.
Oh, I’m so honored. I really hope that is the case. I want every opportunity I have to take another unexpected turn that sticks with people so it’s not just something like, “Oh, she’s being weird for weird’s sake. It’s kind of a forgettable thing.”
As long as there’s true intention and quality thought and purpose being put into the music, the fans will always come back. Even if you lose a few when you make the choice to go in one direction or another — “I don’t like this heavy shit she’s doing; I like it when she does more country,” or whatever the fuck it is — no matter which way you go, as long as you’re putting that intention into it, you know you believe in it, and the quality and the heart are there and you’re telling the truth not just to your fans, but to yourself, then it’s all good. Amen, brotha. Amen.