Grace Potter Serves Up a Solo Album. Also, French Toast | Music Feature | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Grace Potter Serves Up a Solo Album. Also, French Toast

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MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen

Grace Potter is an eyeful. In other breaking news that few Vermonters need to be told, Sen. Bernie Sanders is running for president, Lake Champlain has an algae problem and the Red Sox suck at baseball.

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Still, as I'm seated across from Potter in the cozy, sun-dappled breakfast nook of her parents' Waitsfield home, she unwittingly assumes a striking pose that stops me mid-chew.

Potter is leaning over the well-worn, handmade wooden table tucked in a tall-windowed bay in the corner of a pleasantly cluttered kitchen. As she reaches toward a hanging plant, the multicolored sundress she's wearing drapes loosely on her lithe frame. Late-morning sun filters through the sheer cloth, casting a silhouette of her bare body underneath. For a moment, I am dumbstruck.

I realize this sounds like the start of a sleazy romance novel or creepy fan fiction. And I don't mean to sexualize the 32-year-old rock star. She'll happily be the first to tell you she can do that just fine on her own, thank you.

What I'm experiencing in the Potters' kitchen is more sensual — and multisensory — than sexual. The sweet, smoky musk of maple-cured bacon hangs in the air. I savor a rich, crumbly mush of griddled French toast, butter and syrup on my tongue. A chipper big-band ditty by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, played softly on a turntable somewhere in the background, teases my ears. And then there's Potter: Golden streaks of her tousled blond hair shimmer in a ray of sunlight that seems to sprinkle her with fairy dust.

In short, Potter is a vision of serenity. That's partly because I've caught her in a rare genuinely relaxed moment. And it's partly because, as I soon learn, she's more comfortable in her own skin these days than she's ever been in her life.

It's not like the famously boisterous Potter was ever especially shy. But, as I discover during our morning visit, her newfound sense of self ties directly into the recent release of her new solo record, Midnight. It has proved to be a decisive — and divisive — career development, both for what it contains and what it lacks: her longtime backing band, the Nocturnals. Those who haven't yet heard the record will get a taste when Potter headlines the Grand Point North music festival this weekend at Burlington's Waterfront Park.

On the day of our interview, Potter is nearing the end of a whirlwind 36-hour Vermont visit. She has already squeezed in multiple radio interviews and a photo shoot for Seven Days. She signed copies of Midnight at Pure Pop Records in Burlington and chatted at length with every adoring fan who waited in the blocks-long line to see her. This afternoon, she'll stop by her brother Lee's 30th birthday party, then catch a plane to Las Vegas to connect with her husband and drummer, Matt Burr.

Presently, Potter is voluntarily making brunch for a music journalist who, over the years, hasn't always been kind about her music. Furthermore, I want to talk about that new, defiantly pop-centric record, which alienated many of her longtime fans even before its August release.

That might have made for an uneasy trip back to Vermont. But, cooking in her childhood home, dressed casually and listening to old records, Grace Potter appears to be having a moment of Zen — interloping reporters be damned. Her laid-back manner is contagious.

For the first hour of my visit, we talk of anything but solo records and jilted fans. We riff on the brilliance of Sturgill Simpson's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and the bizarro Bacharach-ian charms of Father John Misty. We talk about our families and about parties we may or may not have attended over the years. Potter asks me about, of all things, music that I've made. It's a relaxed, comfortable conversation. Maybe too comfortable.

"If I'm home and not expecting anyone, I'm pretty much always naked," Potter mentions candidly, flipping a fresh batch of French toast in a cast-iron skillet.

"Hey, don't let me stop you," I joke with a familiarity I feel but haven't really earned. I'm so at ease that it doesn't occur to me how pervy that quip might sound until the words have escaped my mouth.

As my career flashes before my eyes — "Seven Days music editor fired for hitting on local rock star! Details at 11." — Potter defuses my creeping horror with a laugh. I feel myself blushing.

So, uh, how about that new record?

Grace Potter got an earful. Or at least she would have if she had bothered to pay attention to the backlash from fans in April following the release of Midnight's first single, "Alive Tonight."

"I try not to listen to anything that people say about me," Potter tells me over breakfast.

That's probably for the best. People can be assholes.

"Alive Tonight" was a pop-rock Trojan horse that concealed not one but two bold surprises. The first was a dramatic shift in style away from the sound that defined Potter's career for more than a decade. In place of the Nocturnals' signature rootsy, riff-heavy blues-rock, the song features glitzy dance-pop hooks that have more in common with Sia or Taylor Swift than with Grace Slick, Janis Joplin or Stevie Nicks. Loyal listeners were caught off guard.

Said the New York Times of the song's anthemic, dance-y jangle, "It almost sounds like a soul song Fatboy Slim would have chopped to blaring pieces 15 years ago."

The second surprise was subtler but no less jarring. Midnight is Potter's first "solo" record since her oft-overlooked 2004 debut, Original Soul. Each of the four records in between was released as a full-band effort under the banner of Grace Potter & the Nocturnals.

Like Original Soul, Midnight does make use of the Nocturnals. All of the Nocs except guitarist Scott Tournet still perform with Potter live. They'll be part of her eight-member band when she headlines Grand Point North this weekend.

MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen

But Eric Valentine's high-gloss production treats the band's contributions to the record as chrome accessories — not the rumbling engine of the muscle car that is the Nocturnals' sound on the earlier records. Potter's longtime bandmates are essentially reduced to interchangeable session players.

The one-two punch of rebranding herself as a solo act and reshaping her sound was more than many fans could bear. Even positive reviews from the likes of National Public Radio, SPIN and the Times did little to dampen the accusations that Potter had sold out for pop stardom.

And, while Potter may distance herself from outside criticism, she's not deaf. She understands your confusion, jilted Potterheads. She just doesn't particularly care what you think.

"People put upon me a lot of their own wants and desires and needs," she says. "So whatever they need me to be, I become for them. But then, when I go away from what I've become in their mind, it's a bummer. It's a possession thing, especially being from Vermont."

Just because she's "made in Vermont" doesn't mean Potter is some rustic artisanal product. That she ever had designs on anything but superstardom is a fiction believed by those who still think of her as "li'l Gracie Potter from Waitsfield." She hasn't been that person for a long time.

"There's a thing that where you're from makes you who you are, and that's true," Potter says. "But why can't this also be true? Why can't your career and the choices you make be another home? I don't think that because I'm from Vermont means I'm required to make the same thing over and over again."

Indeed. And, if you subscribe to the time-honored local aphorism "I'm from Vermont, so I do what I want," Midnight might actually be Potter's most Vermont record yet.

And here's another thing about calling her a sellout: She agrees.

"I've never wanted to be a tiny indie band that never did anything," Potter says. "I actually said in an interview when I was, like, 20, that I wanted to be the first band to play on the moon. It's kind of still my ambition."

Potter rejects the idea that she needs to be a static figure, like a china doll in cutoff blue jeans.

"I'm not gonna be this fucking 1973 binkie for you for the rest of your life, making you feel like you're still 30 at a concert," she says. "You're fucking 55, and I'm not the sex-kitten girl you think I am. I'm gonna get old, too."

Potter says she expected and even welcomed some degree of backlash against the wholesale changes evident on her album, but the intensity of the reactions still surprised her.

"People were emotional on a level that I didn't know," she admits. "I didn't realize what a big deal it was to take the Nocturnals name away."

Still, she rejects the outside perception that she cavalierly ditched her band.

"I'm not interested in people's impressions of me," Potter says. "I'm interested in making the impression."

Grace Potter has a mouthful. And with good reason: It turns out she's a heck of a cook. She fries her thick-cut bacon crispy, just to the point of charring, so it snaps and then melts in your mouth. Her French toast is gooey in the middle with a crunchy, buttery crust. Potter eats hers like a sandwich: two slices with bacon, syrup and butter in the middle, a pinch of hibiscus salt sprinkled on top.

"So, I'm having a really good year," she says, abruptly changing topics. We've been talking about her recent experience touring with the Rolling Stones. But then...

"I mean, I totally quit meth and heroin ... well, almost," she says earnestly, a wry smirk crossing her lips. "And I think I've only gotten pregnant like, three, maybe four times."

"Very funny, Grace," says a bemused Peggy Potter.

I didn't see Potter's mom sneak into the kitchen behind us. Clearly, her daughter did and couldn't pass up a chance to tease her. If you're looking for the real Grace Potter, this is where you're most likely to find her: in the kitchen, messing around with her mom.

In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Potter explains that the genesis of Midnight can be traced back to her days as a schoolgirl, belting Tina Turner songs with her mother in the kitchen and wearing a mop on her head like a wig. While some say Potter's abandoned her rootsy roots, the truth is that pop music influenced her long before the likes of Neil Young did.

"The Nocturnals is about my roots. But those aren't my only roots," Potter insists. "I fucking love Madonna and the Bangles. I wanna hang out and talk about Donna Summer and the Ronettes. The influence that Phil Spector and pop music had on me as a kid was the dream state I lived in in my formative years."

If you listen closely to earlier GPN records, you can hear that pop influence embedded in Potter's melodic structures. It's subtle and sometimes buried under layers of roaring guitars and swirling organ. But it's there.

"You can hear it in the Nocturnals music," she says. "I'm constantly trying to get my Cyndi Lauper on."

When she began writing Midnight last year, Potter says, she had every intention of making it a Nocturnals record. But as her pop inclinations emerged, it became clear that the changes in her writing style were leading her in a different direction.

"I was digging into the influences that made me who I am," she says, citing the likes of the Pointer Sisters, Lauper and even the swooning melodic style of the big-band era. Potter simply couldn't find room to indulge those overt pop influences within the framework of the Nocturnals.

"I was making assumptions based on the fact that every record we've ever put out is different," she says. "There's always been stylistic shifts, and I wanted to put this in the same box. But I was in denial." Potter pauses. Then: "This wasn't just a different box. It was a different fucking storage unit."

Still, she says the decision to rebrand as a solo artist, while it now seems inevitable to her and everyone around her — the Nocturnals included — did not come easily.

"I was bringing fully formed songs to the table, and [the Nocturnals] couldn't hear new parts, because everything was already there," Potter says of the early writing sessions for Midnight. It dawned on her that she was writing a solo record. "And I didn't want that to be true," Potter continues. "But at a certain point, it became obvious to everybody but me that that was what was happening."

Potter says this past year, most of which she spent living and writing in California, was "the most transformative of [her] life." The key lesson she's learned is that, when the muse calls, you follow.

"I'm only going to be this age and in this particular cosmic situation for so long, that people even care what the fuck I'm doing," Potter says. "If I have even a tiny modicum of people's attention, why not do it to the fullest?

"Why not engage in the conversation of pop music?" she continues. "Because that's what this is. People are like, 'This is, um, kinda poppy?' And I'm like, 'No, it's a pop record. It's pop music. I want it to be on the radio. I want it to sound like it belongs on the radio.'"

And it does. Valentine, a versatile and acclaimed producer who has worked with a range of acts from Nickel Creek to Good Charlotte, made sure of that. But, beneath the sheen, Midnight is also the most personal record of Potter's career to date. Her writing is expository and confessional — a tendency she generally avoided with the Nocturnals.

"This was one of the healthiest songwriting experiences I've ever had," she says. "I was trying to take the most archetypal pull-on-your-heartstrings kind of melodies and apply a deeper truth than I usually do. And most of it was super personal. More pain and honesty were coming to the surface."

Potter is adamant that Midnight doesn't mean the clock has struck 12 on the Nocturnals.

"I have absolutely every intention of bringing the Nocturnals back," she says. But she cautions that, when she does, the band most likely won't be the same.

"Just like any time Benny [Yurco] or Scott or Matt would go do their solo projects — which they've all done, by the way — our music would change," Potter explains. "We would listen to each other's individual creative impulses, and we'd incorporate that.

"And when the Nocturnals get back together, this [direction] will be part of it, too," she adds. "So take it for what it is. I'm not gonna coddle everybody or purple-nurple them into submission."

That doesn't mean Potter is insensitive to the feelings of her fans. But, reinvigorated and reassured, she's not apt to pander to their expectations, either.

"The intention was never to pull the rug out from anybody, especially not the fans," she says. "But I did. And I'm glad I did."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Nocturnal Omission"

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