Grace Potter didn't set out to make a solo record. For more than a decade, the Vermont-based singer/songwriter has fronted the Nocturnals, a classic rock-minded outfit that has frequently been saddled with the task of saving rock 'n' roll. The group got its start on the jam band circuit and won rave reviews for their fiery live shows and the charismatic stage presence of Potter, whose buoyant energy, powerhouse vocals, and ability to sashay from organ and piano to electric guitar on top of blues made her seem tailor-made for savior status.
As the band evolved, though, they never quite became the Allman Brothers redux that they had been pegged as. Instead, Potter wrote songs that delved into pop, soul, and funk, while the band itself was just as likely to dive into a sumptuous groove or a psychedelic detour as it was to spin out raunchy guitar licks.
Even given the group's relatively eclectic output, though, something different happened when Potter started writing songs for what would become Midnight, the first record to bear her name alone.
"I started thinking this would be a Nocturnals record, and when I was writing these songs, they felt true to me. But when I sent the music to the band, there was a very interesting reaction, which was radio silence," Potter recalls now. Although she's quick to point out that her bandmates have always been supportive, and they all play on much of the album and will tour behind it with her, their initial response was the first indication that Potter might need to go solo.
"I think something shifted both within me and with the collective energy [of the group]. It wasn't negative, it was just 'so what is this, what can we do with this?'" she explains. "The radio silence was based on them trying to figure out where their voices belonged ... They almost knew before I did it was going to be a solo record."
Freed from whatever constraints a Nocturnals record put on her, Potter partnered up with producer Eric Valentine (Queens of the Stone Age, Third Eye Blind) to make a groove-heavy smorgasbord pop album that used dashes of Motown and Stax soul and throbbing dance rhythms to take Potter's fledgling pop-rock acumen to new heights.
"I think when he signed up for the record he thought he was making a great edgy rock record, but then we end up making crazy soul-disco, cosmic-boogie music," Potter laughs.
It's both a natural extension of some of the Nocturnals' biggest hits — like the power ballad "Stars" from 2012's Lion the Beast the Beat and the hip-shaking "Paris (Oh La La)" from the 2010 self-titled effort. Lead single "Empty Heart" ably swings by with an R&B deftness and a gospel-infused chorus, while "Your Girl" rides a strutting bass that recalls some of the Stones' disco dabblings and a tinge of Bruno Mars swagger. And tunes like "Delirious" owe more to synth-heavy dance productions than squalling blues guitars.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the artistic shift of the band led to some mixed critical reception, particularly from long-time supporters of the Nocturnals.
"I was definitely expecting [that]," Potter says. "It goes with the territory of making an artistic shift. Pretty much every record means that somebody is going to fall off the wagon, you know, every once in a while. The only responsibility an artist has when they do make these kinds of transitions is to uphold quality. I can't promise that I'm going to be this country bumpkin that's making cool three-dimensional roots-rock Americana music for the rest of my life, but I can promise that everything I put out comes from the heart."
Potter talks insightfully about that shift from a fan's perspective.
"You become whatever your fans need you to be at a certain point as an artist," she explains. "I know for me Led Zeppelin II is my happy place. I get to listen and live in an imaginary fantasy world. When I put that album on, Robert Plant is a certain thing for me, John Paul Jones is a certain thing for me, John Bonham plays the drums for me, Jimmy Page solos for me. It doesn't have anything to do with the people who are actually Jimmy Page and Robert Plant and John Bonham and John Paul Jones. It's not the people, it's just the music they recorded and allowed out into the world for us to free associate with for the rest of our lives. You're making the decision to put stuff out there, and it's going to become whatever it's going to become when it goes out."
Even with all of the fresh ground, the album is also still unmistakably shot through with Potter's huge voice and persona, bringing her rock 'n' roll revival fervor into each new territory. This isn't a Taylor Swift, 1989-style reinvention as much as a genuine musical journey.
"I'm a free-wheeling person when I write songs," Potter says. "I'm just chasing after whatever my heart is feeling at the moment, and a lot of times that's not consistent with my 'brand,' quote unquote. If you want to go there, I think that's the biggest issue that I've had as far as not cracking through [more commercially]. Taylor Swift has the opposite problem — she always cracks through with everything she does. She has exactly what the formula is — she's a wise and savvy mogul who can morph and chameleon into anything she wants. But the risk is, to what end? Where does her identity live within that at all? At a certain point, those artistic shifts start to feel something other than artistic."
Given this semi-reinvention, where is Potter going next?
"I have a few ideas, most of them are in the soul direction, but really it's kind of like getting ready to go out dancing and talking about what I'm going to eat for breakfast the next day," she laughs. "I'm still in the throes of it. I kind of feel like this was my [David Bowie's] Young Americans, and I can go anywhere from here."