Wednesday, August 03, 2005
A conversation with . . .
Grace Potter and her band of retro-heads
tour with a turntable, kick it old-school
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Grace Potter and the Nocturnals play on Saturday at Steppin' Out, in Blacksburg.
Since she played her first paying gig at the age of 18, 22-year-old Grace Potter has been on the rise. Currently touring the country with her band The Nocturnals in support of their new album, "Nothing But the Water," the singer-songwriter and pianist is happy these days. Based out of Vermont, Grace and the boys are bringing their bluesy roots-rock to Blacksburg’s Steppin’ Out festival on Saturday night. Grace Potter took a few moments to talk about life on the road, self-promotion, being successful and young and a band love — vinyl records — that might offer an insight into Potter’s old-school influences and style.
You’ve made a lot happen for yourselves in the last few years. Can you tell me about how you got things going?
Grace Potter: I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that … we were all raised to think that if you get something handed to you on a platter it wasn’t worth it and you shouldn’t take it anyway. It takes the effort and legwork on your own to really accomplish something and feel good about it. This was one mission that we were all committed to. Particularly Matt. He’s our drummer, and he was kind of the spearheader initially because I was sort of folky, doing my thing in coffee shops … doing Celtic music, oddly enough. He’s really the guy who got me rolling into the world of funk and blues. … Matt also, by the way, on a managerial level goes by Cado [Burr]. Especially early on in our booking career, trying to get gigs in bigger venues, a lot of venues wouldn’t take us seriously with the drummer being the guy who was booking us. So he took on a pseudonym, which is actually a name that is inspired by the avocado. And so ever since then, we’ve gotten better gigs. One more prime example of how self-promotion can be very difficult. But we’re holding out on letting other people do things for us, because I think we enjoy it. We enjoy the fight.
You’re just turning 22 and you guys are playing constantly. You’re doing what a lot of people would love to do. So what’s it like?
GP: It’s great, I’m totally in heaven. … It’s really challenging, especially because we have a tour manager but he’s also a good friend and … a colleague on many levels, so it’s not like we’ve got some big label that’s telling us where to go and pointing us in a direction and we’re going there. We’re definitely still doing it ourselves and we’ve definitely hit a few bumps in the road. Quite literally. Our first tour bus completely broke down. So it’s a challenging and yet a very inspiring place to be, and I feel extremely lucky, especially at such a young age, to be able to really be living out my dream of being in a band and just cruising. How long have you been playing?
GP: I was 19 when I started playing professionally. I was probably more like 18 when I got my first paying gig. But really 19 was the year when I said, "this is it, I’m not going back to school, this is what I want to be doing." And before that, obviously, I had played piano for years. And singing was a preternatural instinct of mine. I think I was singing before I was talking. … Obviously one year isn’t a long amount of time, but to a 19- or 20- or 21-year-old it seems like a very long time. So it does feel like it’s been a bit of a long time coming, but in a good way, because I’m glad I wasn’t 17 when I started touring around. I think that’s not the right way to get out there, because at that point you’re just being considered a phenom, and you’re not necessarily being appreciated for the truth of what you’re doing, and the craft. It’s all just about, "I can’t believe she’s only 16, or 18 or whatever." Now I feel like being in my 20s at least gives me a little bit of cred, a little tiny bit more credibility.
So you have a taste for older music, classic rock and blues … there’s definitely an older record collection on Grace Potter’s turntable.
GP: And it is a turntable, I’ll have you know. We are traveling with a record player.
Are you really?
GP: Yeah, because we are album fanatics. CDs, who knows how long they last or if they even last. After 30 years maybe they all disintegrate. And we know that vinyl stays around, and the sound is incomparable.
So you’ve put a lot of CDs out there too, right? What’s the process in doing that?
GP: We’re very impatient people. And I think we were constantly craving new material. The minute our new demo came out we already had another 12 songs we wanted to record. And within eight months we had a new record. Whatever money we made off the demo we put right back into the second CD, and whatever money we made off the second CD we put right into recording the third CD. … We found a way to financially continue to record our stuff even if it’s just somebody sticking a RCA cable into the sound board at a gig somewhere and us putting out a live CD. It’s enough for us to know that we’re sharing our music and getting the new stuff out there for people to listen to.
Are you still selling the majority of your CDs at shows?
GP: Definitely. It’s a lot of shows. … We don’t have a distribution company or a label putting our CDs in stores across the country with a big promotional push. We’re just doing it from the back of our car, quite literally. … It changes from night to night. A lot of nights we only sell like four CDs, and then we sold 68 CDs playing at the Nissan Arena. But that’s still peanuts compared to the Rascal Flatts of the world. We pulled into the Nissan Arena to spend the night there before the show, and Rascal Flatts and Brooks and Dunn had been playing. Our merch girl talked to their merch guy, and he was like, "Yeah, it was a pretty good night, we had about 25,000 people come in and only about $100,000 in merchandise."
And you’re like, "We made 50 bucks!"
GP: Yeah but 60 CDs is great. That’s enough money to get us back home to Vermont tonight. And that’s what’s it’s about. That’s what we’re going for out here.
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals will perform at 8 Saturday night on Henderson Lawn as part of Steppin’ Out.