"We're devoted to never nailing down exactly what we are," says the namesake siren of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. Critics agree: Although they've called the Vermont-based classic rockers "big on the jam-band scene," and pegged lead singer-songwriter Potter as a "Dustier Springfield," that doesn't quite do the band's music justice. Fans don't seem to mind the ambiguity, however. Thanks to the steamy breakout single "Paris (Ooh La La)," the Nocturnals' bluesy retro rock — and the band's vivacious, long-limbed frontwoman — is flaring up in the public's consciousness. After Potter stole the show (alongside Heart!) on VH1's Divas Salute the Troops special, the band's 2010 self-titled album rocketed to the top spot on iTunes, beating out one of its biggest influences, the Beatles. The down-to-earth goddess in the sparkly mini-dress will heat up the Pageant as a headliner mere months after she and the band wowed as the opener for the Avett Brothers. B-Sides caught up with Potter and chatted about her hippiefied upbringing and learning music from Beavis and Butt-Head.
B-Sides: Before we talk about the huge year you've been having, I want to go all the way back. Can you tell me a little about how you grew up and how it has influenced where you are today?
Grace Potter: It's actually still where I live, so my childhood is melded into my adulthood in a lot of ways. It wasn't a commune, but my parents are artists, and every time they'd have a successful company started, they'd build a new building for the studio. So the house just sort of grew and grew into a little village. I could use all these great spaces my parents had made.
It was a lot of freedom and a lot of creativity. In that same regard, if we wanted to sit down and watch a movie or watch TV, we weren't really allowed to unless we were doing something, so there was no vegging on the couch. It was always, what can you do to create that day? The way I would get away with watching TV is that the piano in my house was right next to the TV, so I'd sit at the piano and play along to TV shows and movies. So if my dad came in, he'd think, "Oh, she's just playing along to the music." Which I was, and that's how I learned to play music by ear. I would watch Beavis and Butt-Head on videotape, and my dad would get mad at me because, you know, it's bad. Porno for Pyros, the Flaming Lips and Björk — all the crazy stuff that Beavis and Butt-Head would watch and make fun of, I was sitting at the piano playing along.
What is your songwriting process?
I can't read music — I'm very, very blind. Everything's by ear. When I hear something I like, I want to create it, but on behalf of the band. Usually it just starts with a single bud of an idea: three chords or one particular lyrical line.... Whatever that one thing is, I build the bed on that. I don't have a set formula — I wish I did; it would make songwriting a lot easier! Right now, it's just like shooting in the dark until something sounds beautiful.
What direction did you have in mind for this [self-titled] record?
I really wanted an uptempo record. I was toying with the idea of bringing in dance beats and really making a dance record. But it's just not realistic to take a band from singer-songwriter to dance band all at once. We really want to grow naturally and not shock our fans out of what we do. At the base of it all, it's about the songs, and just because people are dancing doesn't mean it's good music. We want to be careful not to overstep our boundaries with people who have fallen in love with us because of a certain thing that we do. Even the rock songs are emotional. There's a song from our previous record called "Stop the Bus" — it's a rocker, but it's very lyrically sentimental. That's what we were doing — straddling that line. Not quite a dance record and not quite a singer-songwriter record.