Grace Potter & the Nocturnals recently had the honor of being named one of Rolling Stone's seven "Best New Bands of 2010" — no small accomplishment for a group that released its first album six years ago.
Which begs the question: Was Potter even aware she's a new artist?
"You know, we formed in 2003, so it's actually going on eight years," says the leggy frontwoman who's both delighted and bemused by the honor. "I like being a new artist all over again. It's like when you're 30-something and people are still ID'ing you at the door. It's a compliment, and I'm going to take it as such."
Potter's still got a way to go before she reaches 30-something — her 27th birthday was just last week — but she's already managed to cover a lot of ground. The group's fourth studio album, adventurously titled Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, debuted at No. 20 on the Billboard Top 200 last month, buoyed in large part by its stunning breakthrough single, "Tiny Light."
The five-minute song — an ode to the glimmering hope that's all but extinguished in trying times — alternates between elegaic verses and uplifting choruses.
But three minutes in, the track turns into an extended instrumental outro that pits Scott Tournet's biting electric guitar against Potter's wordless wailing. Backed by bassist Catherine Popper, rhythm guitarist Benny Yurco and drummer Matthew Burr, Potter reaches a level of intensity that rivals Janis Joplin minus the whiskey damage.
When the band finished playing, Potter says everyone in the studio knew this was the take that would end up on the record, and no one considered adding overdubs or editing it down.
"It just felt so powerful. I mean, even the record company people who are paid to talk you out of doing things like that — everyone felt how special that outro is. And really, the song has two acts: Act one is the sort of soulful, listener-friendly pop song. And act two is the passion, the fear, and the fire that burns pretty heavy by the end of the song. So people were really respectful of it; I was really impressed."Organs of admittance
Over the last few years, Potter has established herself as one of today's most electrifying vocalists. When she wants to, she can hold a note longer than just about any American Idol contestant, but without all the melodramatic melisma that usually comes with it. "It's like some nights when you're really feeling it — and when the air is kind of heavy and everything is really sweaty — your voice is in that perfect place and you can do things like that."
Potter is also no lightweight when it comes to punishing a Hammond B-3, leaning into the console organ with an intensity that belies the more mannered approach that artists like Booker T and Jimmy Smith traditionally brought to the instrument.
"It was actually Matt my drummer and Scott my guitarist who in 2003 said, 'Grace, you really need to play an instrument that's as loud as your voice,'" Potter recalls with a laugh. "They said, 'Enough of this tinkering around on the piano,' and they actually got me a B-3 for my birthday by pooling money together with all our friends and family."
When asked about her B-3 role models, Potter cites a wide range: "Initially it was Billy Preston," she says. "And I love Ray Charles. You know, he doesn't play the B-3 very often, but I just like the way he plays. He made me want to be a keyboardist. And Aretha Franklin is an underappreciated pianist.
"And so my inspirations grew from there. You know, Billy Payne, who plays with Little Feat, and Benmont Tench from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. And I really like Danger Mouse. You know, the Gnarls Barkley project was one side of him, but when he did that Black Keys record that came out a couple years ago? That was some of the coolest organ playing I've heard in a long time."
Red Rocks return
Potter, who clearly shows the potential to live up to her influences, looks forward to what will be her fifth appearance at Red Rocks. (She opened three shows there for Dave Matthews and one for Big Head Todd & the Monsters.) "It's a place that makes you feel like you're really in the middle of nowhere," she says, "but also kind of at the center of the universe. And that's completely not egotistical, by the way. I'm not at the center of the universe."
Still, being onstage at Red Rocks is a bit different from what the rest of us get to experience. "It's so incredible. I always think it's unfair that the view from the stage is actually better than what the crowd gets to see."
This time through, the artist will be sharing the bill with the Coen Brothers' Raising Arizona as part of the venue's "Film on the Rocks" series. Which is only fitting, given that the group has made it an annual tradition to put on New Year's Eve shows back in Potter's native Vermont, during which they play along with a film as it's screened behind them.
"We play the entire soundtrack, dress up as the characters, and weave dialogue from the movie into our stage banter," says Potter, whose band has so far nocturnalized The Royal Tenenbaums, Dazed and Confused and Top Gun. "We just thought it would be fun. We're a kooky little band and we love doing different, unexpected things."
Although maybe not so little at this point. So will Potter be ready to pick up her Best New Artist Grammy in another eight years?
"I love that, that would be great!" she practically shouts. "I mean, think about Sheryl Crow. A lot of people would consider her to be a late bloomer, but she's created quite a career for herself. And theoretically we are new. We're not new to a lot of people who've been digging on our stuff, but, you know, there's a big world out there that doesn't know a thing about us."
There's also a smaller world that Potter has no intention of leaving behind. She owns one of seven outbuildings on her parents' "sprawling hippie compound," where her sister also lives.
"Our family's really tight," she says. "I like to think of it more as an Italian thing than a 'failure to launch' thing."
Just so long as it's not a Waco thing.
"I mean, we're not a cult or anything like that. But there's definitely an energy to the space that you come from. And I think that you lose yourself when you move too far away from home, especially because we're always away from home on the bus all the time.
"So that's how I center myself. I come home, and I sit there with my parents, and I'm still just little Gracie Potter from Waitsfield, Vermont."