Grace Potter squeals midway through her last interview of the day. The mention of Donna Summer’s street opera Bad Girls hits a nerve, and the queen of the jam band nation can’t help herself.
“That is so crazy,” she gushes. “Bad Girls was one of those records! Donna Summer was such a genius. I mean, the vinyl master of ‘Delirious’ sounds so much like ‘Bad Girls.’ I love that about it.”
When the news broke that Potter’s next album would be without her muscular collective the Nocturnals, a massive howl went through their fan base and the festival crowd. The hippie glam diva seemed a lifer as a band chick, moving between her Flying V and B-3 organ.
“The limitations and parameters of a band is something I’ve always enjoyed: so many creative people coming together and raising the music to places we’d never get on our own,” she says. “In a lot of ways, the Nocturnals are a safety net and a beautiful, beautiful blanket. All the life and music we’ve woven makes it so much more than a name on a marquee. But I realized the Nocturnals aren’t me, but a part of me…so it’s natural to want to grow.”
Potter is in the bath. She’s running behind, and trying to keep up. Life at the speed of sound sometimes requires multi-tasking. If that means discussing Midnight, her first solo album in 13 years, so be it.
After all, the tour must go on—and soundcheck waits for no one.
Always open to new adventures—whether working with the Flaming Lips or recording Grammy-nominated songs with Kenny Chesney—Potter now stands on the precipice of the pop/dance glory of Beyonce. “Delirious” is a whirling popper of euphoria, while “Instigators” channels Daft Punk with Joan Jett driving when it kicks it in. The Chic-evoking “Your Girl” turns the tables on cheating dynamics, and the synth-baroque “Hot To The Touch” offers the erotic twist of Madonna, as does the glistening sheen of “Alive Tonight,” Midnight’s lead track.
“Driving up to Colchester on a Sunday afternoon, these were all the things I’d hear on my mother’s mix tapes growing up—the soundtrack of her life: Lionel Richie, Talking Heads, a lot, lot of Rod Stewart, Tom Tom Club,” Potter says. “My dad turned me onto Led Zeppelin, the Stones and the Who, but Madonna and pop music came from my mom.”
It’s not quite breathless, the way our lady of the hardcore downstroke lets the information tumble. But as her words pick up speed, you can hear the water splashing for emphasis: “Madonna and Bowie are two of my greatest influences in life. Madonna never settled on one thing; she didn’t want to be defined by one thing and wanted the freedom to try on different coats, different personalities.”
For Madonna, like Bowie—and Potter herself—sexuality figures prominently. Potter laughs when this Bermuda triangle of creative spark is pointed out.
“One of my greatest experiences in life is sex,” she says. “I can be very feminine and sweet and warm, but there’s also this really masculine energy that’s aggressive. That makes Bowie and Jagger interesting: androgyny or being asexual becomes hypersexual because you bring both sides into it.”
The woman who hit with the grinding “Paris (Ooh La La)” knows of what she speaks. During sessions for Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, they brought strippers into the studio to amp up the vibe. “It was all supersexual, a completely hedonistic experience, but that was a collective sexual experience and part of the creative process,” Potter says.
“[Midnight] is more understanding sex from a committed relationship and that intensity. It was also trying to find different perspectives, like ‘Your Girlfriend.’ That’s all sex, alluding to the angle of attraction and exploring a whole other dynamic.”
Potter is no shrinking violet. In the studio for Midnight, she often found herself shedding clothes during vocal takes. “Eric [Valentine, the producer] and his engineer would cover their eyes until the vocal take was done,” she says, laughing. “They made me feel safe, because it was part of the creative process of getting the vocal.
“I felt I had to double, triple, quadruple down on the passion—to really express and explore it. It needed to be kinetic on a physical level.”
Also, there was the matter of writing from a solo perspective. If you want to talk about “naked,” this is where Potter felt most exposed. “It leaves me buck ass naked,” she admits. “Writing was scarier because suddenly I was in uncharted waters. I had no outside perspectives to take into account. It was all me, only from my point of view—and that was powerful. But the music really did the work for me. If the record sounded different, it’d be a Grace Potter and the Nocturnals record.”
It always comes back to the Nocturnals, who live in the songwriter’s soul. For Potter, it was a hard decision (“One even the band saw, but I was in total denial, I was still trying to drag the house across the ice.”), if not uncharted territory.
In 2009, Potter wrote the band a letter because she wanted to—and did—make an album with T-Bone Burnett. That album never saw the light of day. “You ask yourself, ‘Is what you’ve built more powerful than what you don’t know?’ I was scared, and faced with my first critical and musical roadblock. I always wanted everybody to be happy, and it was just so much,” she says.
“In the end, we made a great record, and went on to have seven great years. It wasn’t time. This time, I spent a week in a cabin with no music or internet, and really got clear on the implications of that decision of the ‘we,’ because everybody—every human on this planet—wants to matter.
“But when do I myself matter? On my own?”
Grace Potter falls quiet. The truth, though, is sometimes bigger than what we want in our hearts. Finally she says, “By removing the boundary of trying to be the pied piper, leading all these people along for the collective experience, I came to terms with a lot of music inside me that was unexpressed.
“It’s not very honest to not acknowledge those things. Suddenly, there was Eric who could get the sounds in my head that used to feel like brain surgery. He’s so proficient, it’s just, ‘Oh, you want that?’ In a couple minutes, there it was—and that opens you up, too.”
Midnight, for all its sheen, is still a showcase for Potter’s thrust and transparency. Hippie in places, slinky in others, the beats and synths are merely drapes in a house of raw desire, hooks she hopes captures “something true about me that’s also true to you.”
As she hits the road with a seven-piece band that includes three keyboard players, it’s a new world. “I’m excited about this whole other way, having rehearsals and figuring out this stuff,” she says. “In some ways, there’s a real shift, but this is for now.”
She pauses again, knowing she’s gotta get in the van; knowing, too, the obvious elephant-in-the-room question is lying there.
“When the Nocturnals get back together, it’ll be because I want to, not because I’m afraid of what people think or because I’m afraid of being without them. That’s not the reason to do that.”