Interview: Grace Potter’s magic

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Florida Times-Union — If the name Grace Potter and the Nocturnals sounds familiar, maybe it’s because you caught the band opening for Robert Cray on Thursday night at the Florida Theatre. Or opening for Soulive a few weeks back at Freebird. Or opening for Cray last year. Or on the bill for this year’s Springing the Blues festival.

They call what the New England-based performer is doing “market saturation.” They also call it still a really good way to get people to remember your name.

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• Grace Potter and the Nocturnals – Nothing But The Water (1).mp3

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All of 22 with an infectious giggle, Grace is out to make herself the world’s most famous Potter since that magician kid, gig by gig.

Reached en route to a New Orleans show on what sounds like a beast of a van ride (“We’re not a tour bus band yet,” she says with a laugh), Potter lets on that it’s a big night. She even bought herself a present for the occasion: a 1957 Gibson she picked up in Austin, Texas, a day prior.

“I only pay money in towns that I like,” she said. “I’m a Gibson girl, so I went in for a vintage one. I love it. It’s a really sexy little thing.”

Potter played guitar when she started about a year ago, but she spends most of her time these days behind the Hammond organ, which, not counting a crazy good a cappella performance of Nothing But the Water, is the main thing you take away from one of the band’s shows.

“According to the guys in the band,” she laughs, “there are no chicks in the country that knew how to play it. They said, ‘Come on, it’ll set you apart from all the sad girls with pianos.’ So it’s sort of become the centerpiece of the band.”

Potter gets compared to Norah Jones, but where Jones’ supple voice tends to quietly kiss her notes, Potter goes full steam ahead with her funky blues/rock, hence slots opening for Dave Matthews, Trey Anastasio and Derek Trucks. The production speaks to that, as well – she and the guys (guitarist Scott Tournet, drummer Matthew Burr and bassist Bryan Dondero) recorded their most recent, Nothing But the Water, in a New England barn. The work is a mix of gospel and funk and rock and plenty of the blues that helped secure her place in the Springing the Blues festival this weekend.

Jacksonville enjoys a special place in Potter’s heart. It was here that her band first opened for the relentlessly touring Cray last year, a performance that, by most accounts, brought down the house.

“[The 2005 Cray concert] was one of the most big-deal shows we ever had,” she says. “We were such a baby little band, and he called us up and said, ‘Hey, here’s a random opportunity to play in front of 2,000 people.’ ”

Until that show, Potter says, the band stuck mainly around its northeastern base. They formed at St. Lawrence University in New York, when they all met regularly to do what music people do when it’s too cold: plunder whatever vinyl shops they can find and sit around and play records.

Potter was into Joni Mitchell and Patty Griffin (“Total chick music” she says), but she already knew that wasn’t her direction. When she met “the boys,” she found her heart was in something a little more rocking.

“We all got into the same sounds, late ’60s and early ’70s rock that nobody, for whatever reason, was paying attention to anymore,” Potter said.

And once the band started picking up, she quickly pulled the plug on school – “I’d always planned on not going for the full four years,” she jokes – and the band relocated to its native Vermont, where it still makes its base.

“If we’re not touring, we all kind of sit around there. And if there’s no money to buy groceries, we have my mom make us up some catfish soup.”

There’s a little more money now. The band recently signed to Hollywood Records, which will re-release a spiffed-up version of Water on May 2.

“It’s not really a big-shot deal, but it’s a great opportunity for us to open up creatively and brush off this record that was recorded two years ago to see if there’s something about it that’s worth putting out again.”

Plus, it’s a pretty great prologue to a summer that’ll include a stop on Bonnaroo and more touring. World domination is still a ways away for the muggle Potter. But at least maybe her mom can take a break from whipping up the catfish soup.

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About Jeff Vrabel

My writing has appeared in GQ, Men’s Health, Success, the Washington Post, the official BruceSpringsteen.net, Indianapolis Monthly, Billboard, Modern Bride and more. View all posts by Jeff Vrabel

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