Grace Potter is a rock star. She has been for a long time, but it has taken awhile for the Waitsfield, Vermont-born tomboy to really own it. Now the 32-year old Potter has shed her band and followed the thematic thread from Grace Potter and The Nocturnals' self-titled 2010 release to Potter's more pop-minded solo debut, Midnight (Hollywood Records).
Midnight bustles with dance rhythms, trilling synths and high-impact hooks, and Potter's gritty soulful vocals are center stage, showcasing both her pipes and sultry swagger.
The seductive pop crush she and her college jam band toyed with on the 2010 album goes the full Monty on Midnight. From sugary R&B come-on "Hot to the Touch," to the bubbly new wave-inflected bounce of "Delirious" and the gospel-rock cheater's lament "Your Girl," it's a record that fully embraces the spotlight and all that comes with it.
"I've figured out something about myself: I'm just way, way, way stronger than I thought I was, and I'm way more tuned in to what the truth is," Potter said. "I understand things that I didn't necessarily know I understood ... all along. I just wasn't listening."
When Catherine Popper joined the Nocturnals prior to that 2010 album, she helped catalyze Potter's new self-awareness. Where before she had dressed in denim, trying to look like one of the guys, Popper was a co-conspirator in Potter's fashion break-out as she embraced a racier look.
Yet even as Potter was forging her own path, she was struggling with the responsibilities of being in a band and, after years of deferring, Potter wanted to do things her way.
"A lot of my life I tried to facilitate a sound that would make everybody happy," Potter said. "It doesn't mean I didn't love those sounds. It just meant I was very much trying to please everyone, trying to make everyone feel loved and valued and like they have some part to contribute."
It's a fine line between taking one for the team and self-sacrifice that stands in the way of artistic growth or experimentation. Potter may have wanted to play with other musicians, but it might not have gone over well with her bandmates, which is why, in part, an offer eight years ago from T-Bone Burnett to record an album without the Nocturnals never turned into a proper album.
"At a certain point, it's like these aren't my children, they aren't my family," Potter said. "I don't owe them anything and not every song needs a 10-minute guitar solo. My intuitions were driving the ship but I was constantly shucking it off on other people or other situations or other creative opportunities, or it just felt better to not take it all on my shoulders ... that's what this year has really been about."
Everything changed for Potter after "You and Tequila," her duet with Kenny Chesney. Not only was it a huge commercial breakthrough, it showcased Potter's versatility and was an eye opener for her, as well. She realized she could inhabit a great many roles—she didn't have to be just one thing.
"There was this really important message in hearing your voice in a stadium of people with Kenny Chesney singing a beautiful song that is totally not my character. 'You & Tequila' is an elegant, beautiful, romantic song," Potter said. "I'm a salty, crass, mean motherfucker, but I'm also very soft and romantic, and there is an interesting balance there that I get to explore."
This past year brought even more changes for Potter, including opening for the Rolling Stones. While it could have been nerve-racking singing "Gimme Shelter" alongside Mick Jagger, Potter maintained her poise.
"It wasn't scary, it was weird. It was very surreal," Potter says. "I don't ever want to come off as if I don't appreciate how big of a deal it is... [but] I know how to get up there and do my thing, and I wouldn't have been invited if I didn't know what I was doing. I had to tell myself that and assure myself, 'This is an amazing opportunity and a lot of people and a lot of things had to happen in order for this to happen and I'm not going to spend it being freaked out.'"
It's been quite the experience for Potter, but she's come to realize there's more to be gained by venturing blindly than laying back scared.
"I've grown up and I've really learned a lot through having a big mouth. Once you put your foot in your mouth enough times you start to figure it out," she said, laughing. "I've had to learn the hard way how to navigate those choppy waters. It's interesting I created uncomfortable situations because I was finally comfortable in my own skin."
Potter relates it to the scene in American Beauty where Annette Bening slaps her daughter and tells the girl the sad truth of the world: "You can't count on anyone except yourself."
"It's kind of sad and depressing thing and the way she said it is so beat down and so completely devastated by everything in her own life," Potter said. "But in a different way, in a different tone of voice and a different context, I think one of the most uplifting things is to take responsibility for yourself, take charge and enjoy your adulthood. That's really what this whole thing is about—growing up and finally not wanting to be a teenager that started her teenager-off-at-college band anymore."
It's time for Potter to embrace the hopefulness of Midnight—a day dawns as another ends—and the new skin she's in.
"At this point I'm in the driver's seat, but I'm also the passenger, as well—allowing things to unfold how they will and being more patient," Potter said. "We don't know what's going to happen next and that's part of the joy for the audience coming to see these shows. They're seeing something truly spontaneous, truly unbridled, because I have never felt this way before. I never felt like I could just own it and I have to say, it makes me wonder what took me so long."