Grace Potter: Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong (Relix Revisited)
This piece on Grace Potter and the Nocturnals originally appeared in a special digital editon of Relix in October 2007
If the recording process seems glamorous to outsiders, any seasoned musician will tell you that for each moment of bottled magic, a relative eternity of boredom must be endured redoing guitar solos, tweaking percussion tracks, overdubbing vocals or just sitting there, doing nothing. There’s a lot of that. It’s a lesson Grace Potter and The Nocturnals are learning over and over again here in this lavish Burbank recording studio, where months ago they began cutting tracks for their major-label debut.
That monotony considered, when you’re hunkering down in a studio making a play at the big time—or at least the bigger time, as Potter and the band are doing—you learn to savor the little things, like the arrival of lunch. And on this drizzly day in January 2007, all of those present (band, producer, engineers, yours truly) have been blessed with grub from local institution Chili John’s, whose spicy beef bowl could be the best in Southern California. And from the looks of it, Chili John’s has triggered at least a glimmer of inspiration in the couch-laden kitchenette outside of the control room.
As she and guitarist Scott Tournet breakdown how the band has evolved over the past few months, Potter’s eyes light up and she blurts out, “We’re like that girl in seventh grade who leaves for the summer and comes back and she’s like, hot. She grew boobs, got contact lenses and got her braces off.
“We’ve been challenging ourselves,” the grinning Potter continues, proud of her metaphor, and palming her bowl of chili. “We don’t want to box ourselves in.”
Since forming five years ago at a tiny liberal-arts college in upstate New York, near the Canadian border, the band that began life as Nocturnal Grace has honed a convincing amalgam of some of its favorite records and artists—The Band, Little Feat, The Layla Sessions —a vintage, ‘70s-rooted blend of rock and soul that has earned it, and especially the young, big-voiced Potter, a reputation as one of America’s best underground talents.
The elixir has proven so potent and the buzz on the band for its fiery live shows eventually grew so strong that music-biz heavyweights like Virgin/EMI chief Jason Flom and U2/Peter Gabriel producer/Sony talent scout Steve Lillywhite recently came knocking. Even in these days of chew-‘em-up-and-spit-‘em-out, bottom-line thinking at major labels—where artist development is a concept remembered only by dropped bands and former execs—they saw in Potter the rare combination of cool and crossover potential (i.e. she’s hot, talented and good).
After lunch, she slips into the vocal booth and flashes both that potential and an example of the band’s creative urges of late, while delivering what will be the final vocal on “Apologies,” a sweeping, piano-driven breakup song with the goods to slingshot the band into the mainstream.
If the 23-year-old Potter has drawn praise for a voice that sounds older than hers should, and for words more experienced than hers could possibly be—for climbing into the mind of an older woman—when she sings over the mournful strains of “Apologies” it’s almost as if we’re hearing the real Potter for the first time. She’s young and vulnerable in her words, but strong in voice: “My love is like a blanket/Gets a little too warm sometimes/I wanna wrap somebody in it/Who can hold me in his arms/’Cause when it got a little too hot in there/He was always stepping out for air/And he froze.”
Over the muffled whirl of her B-3 and the tempered playing from the normally raucous band—Tournet, drummer Matt Burr and bassist Bryan Dondero—Potter shakes off the post-heartbreak blues and in a self-empowering, lung-emptying chorus demands that an early love make things right before taking a hike: “It’s too late for a soliloquy/Way too late for dignity/It’s time… for apologies.”
Her performance is so grand, that it’s obvious that here in the shadow of Hollywood, Potter and The Nocturnals are quietly putting an end to the band’s life as a scrappy, fledgling outfit that could excitedly barrel off the tracks live. Well, they’re still that, but they’re something else, too. There’s an excitement in the air. And you can feel it.
From the start, the band has been fiercely independent and stubborn, weary of taking its next step too soon and intent on doing things on its own terms. In contrast to most hungry, young bands, it kept A&R men at bay for months before eventually signing with the Disney-backed Hollywood Records. When meeting Lilywhite in Boston, the ballsy Potter even poured on the attitude; if fans and industry types alike hold him in high regard, she told him flat-out, “I have nothing to prove to you.” He disagreed of course, and when he mentioned that he thought the band was better than its performance that night, Potter’s blood boiled, even if she knew the show was a dud. In lieu of telling him to “fuck off,” she at one point called the British producer “Simon Cowell” to his face, the memory of which sends her and Burr into fits of laughter.
“It was some of the first criticism I’ve ever had thrown in my face, and I had an answer for everything at that point—and I still do; I don’t think anything has changed,” she says, matter-of-factly. “If someone tells me they hated the show, I’m like, ‘Well, fuck you!’”
When Hollywood chief Bob Cavallo showed up to an East Coast North Mississippi Allstars gig, where Potter and The Nocturnals were supporting, he was nearly blown off, too. “She was completely unimpressed and uninterested,” he remembers with a chuckle. “I met her in the lobby after their set, and said, ‘I’ve got a limo outside and I’d like to take you and your band for sushi.’ She said, ‘Nah. The Allstars want me to sit in with them and I’d rather do that. We’re not that interested anyway.’ So I finally said, ‘Look, I flew across the country’—which was a slight exaggeration—and then told her every artist I ever managed: Lovin’ Spoonful, Weather Report, Earth Wind & Fire, Little Feat, Green Day, Prince, for ten years. I gave this whole list, and when I stopped talking she looked at me and said, ‘You managed Little Feat? Wait until Scott hears that!’”
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