Two years ago, Grace Potter decided some changes were in order. Although she and her band, The Nocturnals, had carved out a comfortable niche on the jam-band circuit, the Burlington, Vermont, native felt driven toward something with more pizzazz. Fitted with a new bass player in Catherine Popper, and fleshed out with an additional guitarist in Benny Yurco, she and the group set out to amp up their approach.
To say they succeeded in that effort is an understatement. Ditching her hippie-chick image and embracing her fiery, charismatic “rock” side, Potter led the charge as the group gained notice as one of rock’s most promising “new” bands. Most importantly, she and the group backed up the acclaim with sharp songs and a well-deserved reputation as one of America’s best live acts.
The band’s latest album, The Lion The Beast The Beat, drives home that ambition as never before. As main songwriter, Potter was determined to create a cohesive work – not merely a collection of songs. With help from co-producers Jim Scott (who had previously produced the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Revelator) and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, she and the group achieved just that, making an epic, conceptually taut album with a cinematic sweep.
“I wanted to add energy and put more flame into the fire that was already there,” Potter says, of the band’s beefed-up sound. Recently, from the road, she spoke about the new album, her rhythm guitar style and why having a good producer is so important.
In what ways did the dynamic of the band change, when Benny and Catherine came on-board?
Our sound got bigger. And of course we felt bigger, literally, going from a four-piece to a five-piece. When our bass player left in 2009, I didn’t really want to replace him. I wanted to recreate the band a bit. Benny was already a friend, who had collaborated with us on a lot of projects. We had known him since 2006 or 2007, so when he joined, he was already like a fifth Beatle. Cat, on the other hand, was actually looking for a gig. She heard we were looking for a bass player.
Everything acquired a bit more gravity. And visually, things became more exciting. Until then, we were like every other band that comes up through the jam scene [in terms of our how we looked]. Our  self-titled album – Grace Potter & the Nocturnals – was a spicy record, and I wanted our wardrobe and our visuals to reflect that.
How did you settle on Jim Scott as co-producer of the new album?
Jim has a great overall perspective on life. He’s laidback, and he doesn’t have that obsessive personality that some producers have. As I was talking with the record company about who I wanted to produce, I decided I wanted to be a part of the production. Jim Scott produced, I produced, and Dan Auerbach produced this album. Working on those three songs with Dan – who’s the heavyweight garage rock champion of the world right now – was great. A lot of people gave of themselves, without demanding egotistical credit.
Early during the making of the album you had to stop and re-think how you were approaching it. Can you talk about that?
We started out doing three songs at a time, recording in batches that were then being pre-approved by the record company. We had never made records like that before, the reason being that I usually had a stellar song-list beforehand. Usually, on previous albums, we were eliminating songs from the process, as opposed to trying to add them. I was still writing music, as we were recording, and that was the problem. I always thought that would be a great way to make a record. I had talked with other musicians who had done that, and I admired that ability. It’s exciting, and it captures a moment in time. And I thought I could do that. I’m usually good at juggling lots of different things, without it fazing me.
What was the trouble?
I didn’t like that it was being compartmentalized, or done in sections. The problem with the songs not being glued together was rooted in the lyrics. I don’t usually obsess over lyrics, but on this album, I wanted to create lyrical connections. The music was all cool – the band always makes everything sound real and truthful – but the lyrics and the story needed to be woven together. So I just left and drove, and spent several weeks wandering around. That turned into a lyrical journey, where I created connections between these songs.
So you designed the recently released Grace Potter Signature Flying V?
I grew up around wood; my father is a sign maker and woodworker so I was thrilled to come to the Gibson factory and find that they took such pride in the quality of wood, color and craftsmanship. I chose the color and pickguard style based on an amalgamation of guitars I already owned – kind of creating my dream guitar. The pickguard is actually based on a cocktail napkin that I loved that I found somewhere on the road.
What drew you to the Flying V?
I’ve always loved flying Vs first and foremost because of the weight distribution – I need a guitar that can swing around just so and the V balances out my movement on stage. I play a kind of a ratty, Ray Davies rhythm guitar vibe and the humbucker, single-coil pickups create the perfect tone for my style of playing.
In addition to your Flying V, you sometimes play a Les Paul Standard?
Yes! I usually play the Les Paul in the studio. It’s great. I play hard, and I like heavy gauge strings on my guitars, and the Les Paul sounds great with heavy gauge strings. The guys – Scotty [Tournet] and Benny – play them beautifully, and there’s much more subtlety to their playing. I love playing rhythm guitar, and I think the heavy gauge strings on a Les Paul creates a great sound. It also compliments what I do on-stage, which isn’t nuanced in any way.
How about acoustic guitars?
A lot of the songs on the new album were written on acoustic guitar. I have a Dove and a Hummingbird, as well as a beautiful Gibson 12-string. Many of the songs I play on piano, on-stage, were born on an acoustic guitar.
I give everyone a lot of credit for being patient with me. At the moment I pulled back, most producers would have engaged harder, and pushed and panicked. Jim didn’t do that. He showed grace and reserve during that time. I also credit the band for the same thing. The music sounded great from the start, really wonderful. It’s just that I recognized that if I wanted to make an important album, I was going to have to suffer a little bit for it.