She’s only 32, but Grace Potter is a journeywoman. Along with her band the Nocturnals, the Vermont native has released five albums of blues-and-country-infused roots rock in the past decade and has become legendary for her live shows opening for acts including Robert Plant, The Rolling Stones, and Neil Young.
But now she’s ditching the sound that’s earned her a devoted following and a modest crossover hit (2010’s “Paris (Ooh La La)”). For her first solo record sans the Nocturnals, Potter is reinventing her aesthetic with modern pop in mind. “Music needs to move forward,” she says when she connects with EW to discuss Midnight, which drops Aug. 14. “You have to be a part of the conversation if you want to change the conversation. I think it’s the most entertaining record I’ve ever made.”
Potter shared how Tina Turner (and a mop!) inspired Midnight, secrets she learned on tour from Mick Jagger, and why it’s her job “to give expertly-crafted, well-oiled soul massages” onstage.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your past albums have been rooted in rock and soul, but Midnight has a more pop sound. What inspired that?
GRACE POTTER: It’s got to do with growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s. My mom would make playlists and clean the house. The mop would become Tina Turner’s wig, which would become my hair. I still love sweeping the floor and singing into the top of the mop. That part of my life reminds me of summer [and] the uplifting feelings I would get just hanging around, enjoying the heat and listening to some awesome old Panasonic boombox. This is my opportunity to express those influences that have always been inside me. Even though it’s not the same kind of throwback, there’s an element of throwback in what I’m doing. From Lionel Richie to the Cars to the Animals, it’s all in there—it’s just hiding.
You nail these pop songs. How do you think Midnight compares to your previous work?
Because I’ve built a career on being a songwriter and a singer, I’ve been able to carry the thread through my voice and my songwriting. I don’t think I would ever be confused with pop stars, but I also understand [its] elements. I admire pop stars and there’s parts of that world I’m glad I don’t have to go through. It takes a lot of work to do the things they do. The only thing I could say about the shift in sound is that this is music built for entertainment, for joy, for effervescent celebration.
You’ve cited James Brown and The Band as some of your influences. What were the touchstones you drew on while recording Midnight?
I thought this was going to be a Nocturnals record. I went through this incredible transformation over the year I was writing it where I had to address the fact that these influences were drawing from a different well—and not always a more modern one. I was listening to C&C Music Factory and the Byrds and Bruce Springsteen. When I was a kid, I listened to the Doors and the Eagles and bands like the Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, and Blondie. Those are influences that make themselves more apparent—but Tina Turner is still alive and well in my music. [laughs] I can’t really get away from her.
It’s very, very much a personal piece. I was born at midnight, so that’s why the record is called Midnight. This is all about coming to terms with being comfortable in my own skin, being a grown-ass woman that loves so many different corners of music, so much about pop music, so much about blues, so much about gospel, R&B, indie, everything in between. Weird recordings—I like to listen to field recordings Alan Lomax made. Those are incredible, and believe it or not there are elements of that in here, because I built a lot of these songs around the condition of the human experience.
Is your backing group the Nocturnals still together?
The Nocturnals are still alive and well within my touring act. I’ve got my husband Matt on the drums and my guitarist Benny so that fans don’t feel left in the dark about what’s going on. The live show is always the thing. I’ve never made an album like this and I hope people buy the record—but at the end of the day I am a performer, and I’m built to be out on stage.
You’ve opened for rockers like Robert Plant and The Rolling Stones. What did you learn from those gigs?
Between last summer and this summer it was Robert Plant, the Rolling Stones, and Neil Young. Some of my all-time heroes! I definitely absorbed knowledge about how to perform. As performers we become time-release capsules of energy and effervescence. I’m tuned in with people like Robert Plant and Mick Jagger, who are just full-on energy all day long.
How does Mick still do it?
He is such a finely tuned instrument [and] he really does take the time to warm himself up physically, mentally, and emotionally. A lot of work goes into it. I personally have not applied that work myself—I work hard at what I do, but in a different way.
Robert Plant is one person I relate to on so many levels, because of the sensuousness of his performance. I am a very sexual person. I can’t stop that part of myself, it exudes from every pore of my body. I am comfortable with my sexuality, with how I want it to translate through the music. That’s what music is there for in many ways, this erotic conversation between the audience and the performer. My job is to entertain, but if the audience can’t feel that same energy, it’s my job to pull it out of them, to give expertly-crafted, well-oiled soul massages.
And that reminds you of Robert Plant?
[Plant and Jagger] do that. [They’re] time-release capsules. You can’t throw it all out there at once. But Neil [Young] is like this volcano that is slowly and progressively growing to its eruption, and I think that that’s important as well. My heroes, like Mavis Staples, are engines that run all night long. No two performers do it alike, but the best performers all last together. They find a way to last and to maintain the integrity of the performance from night to night. The wear and tear that can have on somebody’s body, you would think Mick Jagger would be ready to go hang out in a rocking chair—but that dude is definitely not hanging out in a rocking chair. He’s definitely just rocking. I hope to do the same.
How do you think you are going to balance your old sound and Midnight’s pop sound when you go on tour?
Look at artists like Bowie and Tom Petty, who existed through so many eras of music and so many changes within the music industry. When I hear Bowie on the radio, I think it sounds like a lot of modern music. I want the same things that they wanted, but have to go about it in different ways. You have to acknowledge that the world has changed. As a live act I haven’t seen a huge discrepancy between our former sound and modern sound, because I know how to entangle the two. Again, my voice and the fact that I [wrote] the songs has kept the heartbeat in the same place. My message is the same, the only difference is that now I’m singing these songs to hopefully a wider audience.
Music needs to move forward. You have to be a part of the conversation if you want to change the conversation. When I hear songs on the radio I don’t like I can’t go “Wah wah wah, I don’t like this pop song, why are kids listening to this crap on the radio?” That’s a stupid waste of time! If you want to change the conversation, you need to be a part of it. I’m still young enough and I’m still ambitious enough to be a part of that conversation. It’s worth it to try. Definitely risky, but fun.