Potter, Nocturnals had false start before finding path forward

Thursday, August 15, 2013
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Grace Potter performs with her band The Nocturnals during the 2012 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Grace Potter performs with her band The Nocturnals during the 2012 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Grace Potter & The Nocturnals’ fourth studio album, “The Lion the Beast the Beat,” didn’t come as easily to the band’s namesake singer as the previous three.

The Vermont rock group’s third album, 2010’s self-titled release, was a slick, produced affair that sanded down some of the band’s rougher edges and introduced them to a more mainstream audience. In the aftermath of the album’s release, Potter contributed a song to the TV show “One Tree Hill” and also collaborated with country star Kenny Chesney on his 2010 song “You and Tequila.”

When it came time for the Nocturnals to record again, Potter found herself wanting to create something different. People around the band at the time thought she should pursue a country direction, like the collaboration with Chesney.

Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, with Josh Ritter

When: 7 p.m. Monday

Where: Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood, Lenox, Mass.

How Much: $52.50-$23.50

More Info: (888) 266-1200, www.bso.org

“Everybody around me was saying, ‘You’ve gotta make a country album now,’ ” Potter said recently from the New York coast, while on a brief break from touring. The band will be at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass., on Monday night.

“Just in general, the public thought it would be an easy transition — ‘She should just do that and make gobs and gobs of money; why wouldn’t she do that? The band is probably capable of that.’ I’m not forsaking what happened with Kenny, which was very pure and not something I felt we should be cashing in on. It happened because the song was amazing, and I wanted to let that lie, let it be what it was.”

Potter and the rest of the band, which at the time included longtime drummer Matt Burr and guitarist Scott Tournet, along with 2009 addition guitarist Benny Yurco, entered the studio in October of 2011 with producer Jim Scott. Things were moving along — Potter had entered the sessions with about 35 songs already written, and the band collaborated with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach on three new songs. But in December, Potter abandoned the recording sessions and spent the next month on the road, to the surprise of her bandmates and producer.

“That’s never happened before, and I don’t want it to happen again — it wasn’t fun, it was really scary,” Potter said. “I’ve always moved forward very confidently; my career has always been — everything always seems to lay out very cleanly. When we jump in, everything seems to fall into place, so for this to not be a success right away — I was really struggling to fall in love with the music we were making.”

Starting over

When Potter returned to the studio the next year, she ended up scrapping most of the material the band had been working on, although a few songs survived (“Keepsake,” lead single “Stars” and the Auerbach collaborations “Never Go Back,” “Loneliest Soul” and “Runaway”).

New bassist and keyboardist Michael Libramento also came on board, allowing the band to record live in the studio — in the prior sessions, Burr and Tournet switched off on bass due to the departure of Catherine Popper in 2011. Together, the group began working on a new batch of rawer songs that eschewed the “dancey pop” sounds of the material from the 2011 sessions.

“A lot of the songs felt very commonplace, very catchy and pop-friendly, radio-friendly,” Potter said. “It was what it was supposed to be to sell records, but it was not what I wanted, not what I wanted for the band. Maybe someone else could sing these really well and kill it and become successful with this music, but in carving out that path of what I wanted, versus what would have been done by others in the same position, I kind of felt that pull. I felt that at this time in my life, I wanted to protect this pure thing we really had — and Michael joining perpetuated that and allowed us to bring it to fruition.”

Upon her return, Potter also had a better idea of the album’s underlying theme and the transistions between songs. The 11 songs on “The Lion the Beast the Beat,” released in June of last year, were essentially recorded in the order that they appear on the album, according to Potter. Also, for the first time the band utilized a string section on a number of songs.

The band has been touring behind the record essentially non-stop since its release in both headlining and opening capacities — earlier in the year, the band supported Robert Plant and his band Sensational Space Shifters in California, and in September the band will support The Allman Brothers Band for five eastern U.S. dates.

“We love watching the songs on the album come to life over the last few months of touring,” Potter said.

“There’s a part of me that’s selfish, that likes watching the audience now because they know the words and stuff, they know kind of how the songs go,” Potter said. “But really that initial contact with fans after you’ve made an album is most exciting — they don’t know what to expect, you don’t know what to expect. That giving and receiving of astonishment is a very exciting time in the process.”

Pieces of the past

For its summer shows, the band has also invited fans to submit setlist requests via Twitter to @gracepotter, using the hashtag #GPNsetlists along with the city the show is in. The requests have been from all phases of the band’s career and have included one-off songs improvised live once and never performed again, versions of songs with alternate lyrics and older material from the band’s first album, “Original Soul,” released in 2004 under Potter’s name only.

“There’s some songs that, not that we haven’t been able to play them, but we haven’t wanted to — songs from ‘Original Soul’ that aren’t really realized,” Potter said. “Listening to that record is like looking through your eighth-grade yearbook — as charming, cute and adorable as it is, it’s completely amateur-sounding. Not that I don’t agree — I have the same warm, melts-my-heart feeling listening to music that bands don’t want to play again, too. But to me, no — I want to slap me in the face and tell me to stop writing stupid lyrics. That’s the still-adolescent side that I can’t embrace.”

There is one piece of the Nocturnals’ recorded history that Potter wouldn’t mind revisiting. Before working with producer Mark Batson on the 2010 self-titled album, Potter recorded an album with famed roots producer T-Bone Burnett that was scrapped at record label Hollywood’s behest.

“It’s a really cool project, and I actually just ran into T-Bone after not having seen him for years and years,” Potter said. “I ran into him on a golf course while with friends on a mini-vacation after our little stint with Robert Plant. We didn’t discuss what to do with it, but there is certainly a vision. There’s a reason it didn’t come out — when we made it, for some reason it wasn’t the right time or setting. But it’s music that needs to be heard, and I’d love to see it get shared. I don’t know if you can call the head of the record company about that.”

Reach Gazette reporter Brian McElhiney at 395-3111 or mcelhiney@dailygazette.net.

 

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