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Live & Direct: Grace Potter

Grace Potter stopped by for a Live & Direct at WYEP on Jan. 17, 2024. She spoke with WYEP's Rosemary Welsch!

Grace Potter is pure rock ‘n’ roll. Yes, there is an element of soul and funk to her songs, but this lady could be the poster child for what it means to live a rock and roll life. She made her way out of Vermont with her first band Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. Branded a jam band, they toured festivals throughout the country, scratching out a place on alternative radio playlists.

Potter eventually landed in Laurel Canyon, fairyland of 1960s and ‘70s rockers, where it appears she picked up on some of those laid-back vibes. The road is where rock lives and Potter is out there again with an album that pays homage to Route 66 and her many siblings. As a solo artist, Potter’s range has broadened to incorporate various influences; her voice and lyrics reflect the wisdom gleaned from 20-plus years as a working musician.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Rosemary Welsch: It's a thrill to have Grace Potter in the studios. And something we've wanted to do for a long, long time. And I feel like, you know, it's perfect right now because in my humble opinion, I think this is your best work.

Grace Potter: Thank you so much. I agree with you. I think all musicians think they're pretty great, right, when they come up with an idea. But this one's kind of stuck because I actually wrote it and, and made this record in 2021 and it sat with me and the concept and the universe and the soul and the storytelling just kept growing. And it's the only record I've ever actually casually been in the car being like, “I think I'm going to listen to this about my own music,” which is just very weird.

Welsch: You know, it's a little bit like being handed a ticket to get on the bus with you and taking a ride. I mean, that's the way that it felt to me.

Potter: Oh, yeah. You're all my hitchhikers today, for sure. That's exactly how I want it to feel. And I think every time I've been out on the road as a touring musician, I've had the experience of, well, everyone's obligated to show up because they've already bought a ticket. But when you're alone on the road, which is what happened while I was writing this record, you need to ingratiate yourself to people. They mostly thought I was a troubled woman on the run because some people were very put off by the fact that I was a woman driving across the country alone and everybody I met, they didn't care who I was. They're like, “You, musician? Okay, great.”

No, I was really interested in the storytelling that comes from people who live in small towns that are used to transient folks coming and going. So they eyed me carefully. And I think it really made a whole new perspective, and a whole new offering for my songwriting, where I'm still earning my way in the door and I'm still being eyed suspiciously even once I'm inside. And I think that's what makes a great, a great song and a great album.

Welsch: It's also, I feel, a very female-centered album in that so many of the characters that we're meeting in this, they're women. Even the road.

Potter: The road herself. She may be the villain. In fact, I'm actually developing this into a film. So I've been and I've been in meetings all week about it. This morning I was almost going to be late to get here because I was so deep in our pitch deck that I was like, “No, no, no, Juliette Lewis, no, no, you know, Patricia Arquette.” And suddenly you realize that all of the people that, became empowering for me as a child tended to be female figures that were playing masculine roles, or that were embodying something that transcended a sexuality at all. Mick Jagger, David Bowie, for example, two of my favorites. And I think there's something about that, that power in the sort of plowing through the barriers that get in the way, as a songwriter and also as a character creator of whether it would be female or male, I wasn't thinking about it that way. Most of them were based on imaginary friends that I had when I was about nine or 10 years old.

A lot of these characters are little girl versions of myself or teenage or troubled 21, 20-something versions of myself. But they all bring to mind the essence of the characters that I always looked up to. And yeah, they just happen to be completely awesome females.

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Welsch: I'm not surprised that you brought up the whole idea of making a movie, because one of the things that I thought about when I was listening to this is that it's very cinematic. There's all these little details that pop up that aren't necessarily in the lyrics of the song. There's a song in which a tinny-sounding radio is playing a song that sounds like Patti Page. Or there's the big spaghetti Western-kind of sound. That sounds like a Tarantino film. So you must have had a blast putting this together. But were you not just hearing the music but seeing it?

Potter: Oh, first I saw it first. And that's, I think, what the driving did for me, driving across the country. And for those of you who maybe don't, you don't need to know the backstory. But what's interesting about it is, during the pandemic, I drove back and forth across the country via Route 66 four times, three times by myself. In the fourth time, after the record was done with my whole family and a big old trailer full of my house and that really changed things for me because I didn't want to write an album. I wanted to write a movie. So I set out to make it an original motion picture soundtrack. And that's really what this is. It's. I'm just doing it backwards. Cart before the horse. Just like I always do, you know?

Welsch: Well, since you also mentioned movies, you were just telling me a little bit before we came out here that there is some interaction with your music and movies.

Potter: Yeah, I mean, I love music in movies, and I've always felt that the films that I love the most, like The Graduate, Simon and Garfunkel is there, you know; Harold and Maude, we've got Cat Stevens. You know, Aimee Mann did the whole soundtrack to Magnolia, and I think there's a time in which the music industry and the film industry weren't quite so at odds, and it's usually around the time that I was watching films. I was not born in the 70s, but I wished I was. So I love, I love soundtracks and movies to play nice together. And I've found that there's been a disconnect in modern film for me. I went to film school before I became a songwriter. So it all started kind of naturally progressing in this direction.

But yeah, the development of this film isn't so much about the album or promoting the album as it's just coincidentally my favorite music I've ever made. But also, there you go. All I needed to do was fool myself into thinking I was making a movie the whole time, and I would have had a lot of hit records.

Welsch: Well, we're here with Grace Potter, and the album is called “Mother Road.” And I know you're going to do a couple more songs, and you did mention that there's a song that Disney has picked up.

Potter: That's right. Yes. So, more recently, some of you may have even seen it and not known what was happening, but there's, a song I did 12 years ago for the movie “Tangled” about Rapunzel, and I'm the song that comes in at the end. So for those of you who have kids, or for those of you who used to be kids and remember that movie as children, who've now grown up and had your own kids somewhere in there. This song has permeated the zeitgeist and has become a TikTok sensation. And there's like this whole weird thing where there's a dance thing with a scene from a Melissa McCarthy movie called “Tammy,” where she's holding up a store, she's got a bag over her head, and she sort of dances in the midst of holding up the store.

So now people are reenacting that scene, but using my song and this little 15 second clip of the lyrics as like what they're saying in the act. I don't understand TikTok, but that is the deepest donut hole I've ever submerged into. But what's interesting about it is that it's brought the song back to life, and it made me reconsider the song, in a new way and wonder, “Wait, is it not just a like, you know, shiny cotton candy Disney song, is there something there?” So I've reapproached it and, would you guys like to hear my, my re approach?

I'm gonna do my most faithful version of completely messing up a song that I wrote for Disney. Oh, yeah. I need my capo for this guy. And the other thing is, Mark Wahlberg is in a movie, called “The Family Plan,” in which another song ended up there, and that's also got a TikTok thing happening. And the more it comes to me, the more it feels like I'm in the Twilight Zone of like a fever dream where, like, if TikTok had just existed when I started writing songs as an 18 year old, I would be in space right now. It's a song called “Something That I Want.”

Welsch: There's no question you're having fun on this record and apparently on this tour as well.

Potter: Very much so. I'm happy to be back. You know, it's been a little break here. And I was so worried that I was going to have another stall-out at the beginning of the tour. Pittsburgh was where we were supposed to begin our tour last year. And this rescheduling means the world to me. I was devastated at the thought that the snow might, impinge our ability to to bring on the rock and soul and healing. And, you know, I'm just happy to be here.

Welsch: We're with Grace Potter. The new album, “Mother Road” at Stage AE tonight. So, last year was a big year for you — turning, a new decade is always a big deal. But 40 is a pretty big year for most people. It's like, it's where you can't fool yourself anymore. It's like, “Okay, I'm an adult.”

Potter: I think it's like having a cape on finally being kept like James Brown. Like, you get your 40 cape, you know? Yeah, I don't know. I loved turning 40. The 30s were such a grind and for emotional reasons, but also just the feeling of the uphill climb. It's not even remotely close to done yet, and a four looks kind of like a mountain. And now what I like to think about with the four is like that little leg it's holding up. It's a ladder that you get a sneaky, sneaky climb up the four leg and then get up to the top of the mountain faster. So that's what 40 feels like for me.

Welsch: It's also a time where, you know you have the opportunity to reflect, and I think that comes through in this record a lot. You mentioned a ghost in that one? And, there's one about a rear view mirror with its rose-colored rear view. There’s a lot of reflection in this record.

Potter: Yeah. There's questions and regrets. I think really at the heart of the record and the heart of my journey, driving across the country was wondering and retracing my steps and all along the way, sort of acknowledging, physically acknowledging exits that I chose not to take or exits that I took, that I wish I hadn't. And, examining regret through a lens, through a cinematic lens, as opposed to through that sort of cracking open of an egg that you can do to yourself and just never really get out of that feedback loop. I think by having the opportunity to turn it into a creative endeavor, it taught me things about every exit I didn't take in ways that I never realized were important to me until until I came out the other side with my favorite record I've ever made and with feelings and understand and less judgment and more forgiveness for myself.

Welsch: Is there anything anymore that intimidates you as far as writing songs, putting things in there, working with certain people?

Potter: I'm less I'm less afraid now, except for with the internet. That scares the crap out of me. I don't know what to do about that. I don't know what I have, like this weird fear of the immediacy of it. Because as a creative, everything that you come up with feels like the best idea you've ever had. And if we're all acting on those, impulses and not placing our intention and our focus into something that feels truly singular and from a singular perspective, then you get caught up in this flurry of, it's almost like jumping on the wrong train, and then you're on it, you know, like the TikTok situation.

And I think it's a really wonderful thing when the train just shows up at your station, like, we've been here all the time and you're full of fans, that's great. But I don't think it's something to chase. I think that the creative endeavors I've had, the patience I've learned in getting a little more mature have led to a far more focused and a far more honest version of my what I have to bring to the world, which is ultimately my purpose is joy through music and through storytelling.

Welsch: And just in time, because now you're a mom.

Potter: That's right. Six years ago. Can you believe it? Can you believe my child? I keep calling him a baby. And Butterbean is sort of what I used to call him when he was a kid. Little baby. He's not a butterbean anymore. He turned six on Friday.

Welsch: So what does he teach you about yourself?

Potter: That I'm silly? That I'm more of a kid than a parent? That I have wells of love inside me that he needs when he needs me and that I have. More integrity than I ever thought I did, that I don't need to just be the jokester or the cool mom, you know? There are so many deeper levels, too. I think understanding a person that you're watching lied to you, like when you see your kid lying. Because I used to think I could for my parents. It was only when I saw my kids start trying to lie to me that I was like, “Oh, oh no, she had my number the whole time.” I thought I was getting away with it. But yeah, you can tell when your kid's lying to you. He's quite a storyteller and he's a really good singer, too.

Welsch: Well, that brings me to my last question. You were raised in a really creative family. So is having a career that is creative was a reality for you because your family made it? When you look at your son, is there anything that you think: Should I tell him about this? Or do you just let it go?

Potter: I'm less coming from a place of fear right now. As a parent, I don't want to be worried or detract him from chasing down something magical. Like, right now, it's World War I submarines. I don't want him to go into a World War I submarine and go find out what happens. But I think there's something amazing about giving a human a chance to breathe and find their creativity. You know, your impulses and who you are. People say you come out who you are. And sometimes that's true and sometimes it's not. And this kid in particular doesn't feel like someone who needs a huge amount of nurturing. He's got a really great self-preservation button. But some kids don't. And I think I would have been a nervous wreck if I'd had a girl. I don't know why, but I think she would have really pushed all my buttons. This kid is, like, exactly the opposite of me. So he plays exactly to all my soft spots. He's a manipulator. He's amazing. It's so much fun to watch him work.

But no, I think that guidance is good. Being the “Mother Road” and creating a road for your child is actually a mistake. I think that only we know the road that we're on. And, to jump on somebody else's super highway is never going to serve the greater good. I think everybody's got to forge their own path.

Rosemary Welsch has been the Afternoon Host, Program Director, and Senior Producer for 91.3 WYEP. Welsch is the longest-tenured employee at WYEP, having just celebrated her 30th anniversary as a full-time employee. She began as a volunteer D.J. during the station’s salad years in 1981.