by Bill Simmon
Looking at Grace Potter, you’d never know that such enormous sound could come out of such a tiny frame—a frame that packs the same ferocious vocal punch as the likes of Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, and Heart’s Ann Wilson. As lead singer and songwriter for her band, the Nocturnals, her powerful voice forms the forefront of her music. However, she’s unique among rock’s femmes fatales in not just playing the living daylights out of Hammond B-3, but putting it front and center onstage.
The Nocturnals’ star is rising fast, from winning a Jammy award in 2006 for “Best New Groove,” to routinely selling out large venues, to appearing on almost all the late-night talk shows, to the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, to recording a yet-to-be-released album with legendary producer T Bone Burnett. Potter took some time out before a sold-out show in her native Vermont to talk about her influences, her beloved B-3, songwriting, accidental onstage electrocutions, and that one time she manhandled Robert Plant.
Was there a particular moment when a light bulb went on about keyboards—when you knew you wanted to play them?
I’d say Dr. John was a light bulb for piano. As a kid wanting to become a pianist, it was really about whether it was going to be classical or this rock ’n’ roll thing, and I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know what rock ’n’ roll piano was. I just knew that I loved it. Even listening to a Black Crowes record—I think it was Southern Harmony and Musical Companion that had some great keyboards on it—it was a great recording and it was a great sound for the keyboard, from the B-3 to the piano. I don’t think there was one particular moment. If there was anything, it was probably a Billy Preston solo on a Rolling Stones tune that really got me into the B-3. But I was sold on the piano when I was six years old.
What B-3 players influenced you?
When the idea of the band first started, it was because we were playing a Little Feat record, so Billy Payne from Little Feat inspired me a lot. And Billy Preston. He’s more of a soloist, and I think he created a sound that I really loved and tried to emulate, but of course couldn’t. So I just did it my way with that inspiration behind me. Also, Aretha Franklin is a killer keyboardist, and every once in a while I caught some photos of her playing a B-3. It sort of gets lost in the mix, because she’s such an incredible vocalist that people sort of forget what a great keyboard player she is.
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Do you use other keyboards on tour, such as a Wurly or a Rhodes?
I used to tour with a Rhodes, and then it got thrashed. Then I toured with a Wurlitzer, and that got thrashed even faster because Wurlitzers just can’t live on the road—they just can’t deal. Then we had a Clav that sat on top of the B-3, but my problem was that I was turning into that geek with 65 keyboards, and it was turning into this sort of wall, and I couldn’t do my whole frontwoman thing behind the wall of keyboards. So I figured, if I pared it down and had one keyboard that could create a lot of the noises that a Wurlitzer, a Rhodes, and a Clav make . . . with percussion and with the right understanding of the intonation, you can make a B-3 sound like a lot of different instruments. So I decided I’d rather learn how to manipulate the B-3 and have fewer pieces of gear onstage than have it all and play each thing once a night. That’s how it used to be, you know? I’d bring out all these keyboards, and I’m playing, like, two notes on each one. So until the day comes when I’m just the keyboardist in a band—and I don’t sing and I don’t get out front and dance and shake it and play guitar and do my other stuff—I think I’ll just stick to the B-3.
Tell us about your B-3 rig, then.
I can geek out for hours about this. I’ve got this cherry 1961 Hammond B-3 that I procured from my organ guy, Keith, who I’ve been working with for almost ten years now. Keith is sort of my maestro. He rigged this thing specifically to have that grinding kind of Traffic vibe to it. So these are intentionally very old, dirty, cranky tubes, which need to be fussed with quite a bit. We really go for the growl with this organ. Obviously I’m a drawbar girl, so if I want to create a cleaner sound I can get one, but at the core of this organ, it’s meant for nothing but growling.
Do you have any drawbar settings you’d like to share?
I always just manipulate the drawbars [in real time]. At the beginning of a song like “Oasis,” from the new record [Grace Potter and the Nocturnals], I’ve got my percussion on, and it’s barely anything. It’s got that sort of tropical-reggae vibe to it. But over the course of a song, if you watch my hand, I’m moving the drawbars the whole time. I’m standing up, so to work the volume pedal is a lot harder than me just using my hand for most of the volume control.
Can you talk about your Leslie? It says, “Custom for Grace Potter.”
It is custom. It’s just very loud, and again, we wanted this grinding low end that really creates texture underneath. We’ve got two guitarists in the band plus a bass player, so what I’m doing is essentially a pad—almost a choir of sound. I don’t do organ solos per se, except maybe once or twice a show, so this thing is really set up for bottom end. It’s a really nice crunchy, gritty sound. Actually right now, as you can see, it’s not turned all the way up, and that’s potentially because you’re here, ’cause they didn’t want to blow your ears out. [Laughs.] But by the end of the night, if we’re going for a big “Hey Jude” kind of ending, I’ll go right for the top end. I’ve had this [Leslie] for about two years, maybe three. Before that I had a model 770 that was mean, and it was loud, but it was just a little too clean for me, so we went smaller. The 122 just breaks up sooner, and I like that.
What draws you to the B-3 aesthetically?
Great question. When I first started playing keyboards it was always the piano, and I think there were so many singer-songwriters—especially female ones—at the piano that it felt really clichéd, and it just didn’t feel like something that I wanted to be. I loved keyboards, and I’d sort of mastered the craft of writing a song on the keyboards, so I didn’t want to lose that, but actually it was the Nocturnals who pointed out that I’m a loud, powerful singer, and I should probably have a keyboard that complements that—you know, something that can back me up and actually put its money where my mouth is on the keys. The B-3 is such an underappreciated instrument live. In the studio, it’s everywhere—I mean everybody has them, but it’s hard to find a good B-3 band—a band that can actually bring it out.
You’ve got to lug them around.
You gotta lug ’em around, I’ll tell ya! We have a crew now, but when push comes to shove, and it’s a question of needing one more hand, or of making the space, I’m always there to help lift this B-3. It’s worth it.
When you write songs, is it lyrics or music that comes first? Are you playing keyboards or guitar?
I get ideas from the keyboards especially. There’s this one thing I’ve been working on. [She begins playing.] I don’t know what it is yet. That’s the thing where if the idea comes, and then maybe something gets sung over it, we’ll be at sound check, and that will just be “the idea.” Then the band kind of pulls in around it. Sometimes a song comes from it. That was the most recent one we did at a sound check, where I was just playing that, and the band comes in around it, and the melody comes after that.
But usually as a songwriter, I start with a lyric, which is weird. Most people start with music, and then write the lyrics over the top. That’s rarer for me. It’s harder for me to write a line of music and then feel like I can come up with a lyric that’s worth singing over it because usually the music is just better. [Laughs.] So I try to get a great lyric first as a crutch. But I haven’t really hit on a formula. Whatever comes, comes. Songwriting is like having a baby crying in the other room. It doesn’t matter what time of night it is or when it hits you or how it hits you, or whether it’s music or lyrics. You just have to get up and go to it.
Does the writing happen more on the road or at home?
I wish I had an answer for that. At home, I do this Nick Cave thing where I treat it like a day at work, where I’ll sit at the piano, and it’s like going to the office. Nick Cave does that. He actually has an office space where he goes to write songs. He sits in his cubicle, and he has to treat it like a day job. Otherwise he won’t get anything done. So when I’m home I try to do that, but really, like I said, songs come at you. Songs don’t respect what you’re doing in the middle of the day. They’ve got no respect for that. They want to get written! So I’ve been getting better at just letting the song come when its going to come and not trying to control the environment in which I’m writing. If I’m on the back of the bus and the engine’s running and people are screaming . . . listen, we’re loud when we are on the bus. So Benny and Scott can be fighting and having crazy times in the galley with the bunks, and then someone else is trying to sleep, and I’m in the back with a keyboard and a guitar, just going nuts. That’s when you’ve got to do it. It comes when it comes.
Have you had any gear-related nightmares?
Oh God, I have a million. I’ve been electrocuted a million times. That’s an “oh shit” moment, when you’re in front of an audience of 20,000 people at a music festival getting electrocuted, which seems to always happen. The bigger the crowd and the weirder the setting of the festival, the more likely you are to get electrocuted. So I’ve been electrocuted . . . 35 times? And it’s not just like you get it here [shows her fingers]; it’s like, I’ll be holding my knee here because sometimes I’ll have to change the Leslie switch, and if I don’t have a foot switch, I do it with my knee a lot. Then I’ll have my hand here [points to the keys], I’ll have my face on the microphone, and I’ll have a finger on the drawbars. And everything’s electrified. Everything. I’ve managed to make it look like I’m not getting shocked. I’ve watched video of myself, and I know I’m getting electrocuted but hopefully, the crowd doesn’t.
Can you talk about your big-break moment?
People ask me that a lot. There is no big-break moment. A lot of musicians get into this business waiting for their “a-ha!” moment, when they think, “This is happening. I’m really making it now.” I thought I was making it when I was at a bar in front of 15 people. There’s lots of little stepping-stones to a career. There’s so much more effort that has to go into it than I can even explain. Sometimes those huge moments pass by so quickly that you don’t even realize that they happened. Playing The Tonight Show with Jay Leno was a big milestone, and just last week we played The Late Show with David Letterman. Probably one of the bigger things was this past December , when we played for the troops for VH1. It was this special called VH1 Divas Salute the Troops. It was alongside some huge pop stars, and I was the only rocker chick on the bill, with the band. So that was a really great opportunity for us, and it really garnered quite a bit more exposure than we’d ever had. But again, success is only defined by how much you’re enjoying yourself, and I’ve been enjoying myself all along.
If you could assemble a dream band of famous musicians you’ve never played with before, who would they be?
Oh, shit! I feel bad because the Nocturnals are my dream band. John Bonham would be on drums. I think I’d have Billy Preston on the organ, because . . . he’s Billy Preston. I’ll be out front doing my thing. No one I’ve played with before? Okay, that’s tricky. John Stirratt from Wilco will play bass. Yeah, because John Stirratt and Bonham would really lock in nice— that’d be good. So, we’ll have Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead playing the crazy pedals and guitar. Aretha Franklin and I would sing a duet together. Yeah. That’s how it would be.
What was touring with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings like?
Oh my God, those guys are great. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have been sort of in our trajectory mainly because we keep passing each other at festivals. We’ve been digging on each other for years, and it was only this last year that we actually had a chance to get on the road together. It was perfect. It was a nice conglomeration of rock ’n’ roll and soul because they rock—they really do. The Dap- Kings are very soul-oriented, and they’re very well trained and traditional in their approach to soul music. Then when they let it rip, they really go there, and they’re not afraid. But my favorite thing that they do is the dancing. Because every single one of the horn guys, everybody out onstage, nobody stops—they’re dancing the whole time. And Sharon—she’s such a spitfire. She’s amazing. She’s an inspiration to me.
What’s the status of the record you recorded with T Bone Burnett?
It’s in purgatory, but that project is certainly one of my favorite experiences of my life. Working with T Bone is like a master class, you know? You can’t learn the things that he does. You can’t even watch him and know what he’s doing. He’s a magician. All I can say is that I absorbed so much experience from him, and I take it with me. I can’t wait for that record to hit, because it’s going to be really special. The world hasn’t seen the last of Grace Potter and T Bone Burnett collaborations if I have anything to do with it. [Laughs.]
Knowing what you know now, what are the top three dos and don’ts that you’d tell a younger, greener version of yourself?
I’ll do the don’ts first. Don’t get drunk backstage the first night that you’re playing with a band that you’re really excited to meet, and then go talk to them. Don’t do that.
Is there a story there?
Yeah. [Laughs.] Don’t manhandle Robert Plant when you meet him. I don’t know what part of his body I touched, but I just couldn’t stop touching him, so that was bad. I just turned into a groupie. What are you gonna do when you meet Robert Plant? You gotta just . . . yeah, anyway.
Don’t lose hope.
Don’t spend all your own money. You’ve got to pool it together a little bit. You’ll only end up resenting the people you’re playing with if you lose your shirt, so you have to find a way to support yourself and continue doing what you love without completely destroying yourself.
Do find a great booking agent. You have to play. You can’t just sit in a room wondering, “When is my day going to come?” You can’t just post your videos on MySpace and expect someone to discover you and change your life. You have to go out and change your own life. So playing shows—playing live—is a major “do.” You just have to.
Do pace yourself. Set your expectations at a reasonable level, so if you are at a good point in your career, even if it’s not where you want to end up, you can enjoy it. Every step of the way is magic, and you have to appreciate what you’re doing because there are so many people in the audience who don’t get to do what you do. You have to value that and have respect for this amazing thing called music.