Interview | Grace Potter on Neil Young, Her New Solo Album, ‘Midnight,’ and Psychedelics with Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips


Feature interview by Jason Gonulsen

UPDATE: Grace Potter will perform at The Pageant in St. Louis on Saturday, October 17th. Rayland Baxter will open the show. Tickets are still available here.

It’s shaping up to be a banner year for Grace Potter.

She will release her debut solo album, Midnight, on August 14th via Hollywood Records (listen to “Alive Tonight” and “Look What We’ve Become“), and she recently opened a few shows for the Rolling Stones — even performing a duet of “Gimme Shelter” with Mick Jagger. Let’s actually re-live that now.

Potter has a full slate of shows coming up, including appearances at Red Rocks with Galactic, Floyd Fest, and Radio City Music Hall in New York City. And to top it all off, she will be closing this year’s Summerfest on Sunday, July 5th, in Milwaukee, opening for Neil Young.

I recently had the chance to speak with Potter over the phone, and our conversation was all over the place — we talked about Neil Young, her new solo album, her music festival, Grand Point North, and collaborating (psychedelically) with Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips. Enjoy.

So Grace, the last time I saw you, you were crawling on the floor in St. Louis…

(laughing) Yeah, I’ve been known to do things where whether I’m drinking or not people just assume I am. (laughs) And it definitely works to my advantage because when I do get really drunk, people just say, “oh, she’s just being her normal self!” (laughs) So, what was I doing? When was I crawling on the floor…was it during the show, or was it…something else. (laughs)

No, it was during the show.

Okay, good.

I think it was during that song “2:22.”

Yeah, yeah. Oh my God, you are a solid memory man. That’s exactly…I remember that, actually, very well.

I think I remember that because the thing I have come to expect from you is to not really expect anything — you’re so unpredictable. I like “Paris,” but I also like something psychedelic like “The Divide,” and then even a solo version of “Stars.” How do you channel all that creativity for a live show?

It’s a good question, and it changes for me depending on the show and the crowd, you know? A lot of times I ‘m seeking out something…I don’t ever want two songs to sound the same, and I don’t ever want a show to feel the same. I don’t want anybody who comes to a show to feel like, “I’ve seen her do this before, she does this every time.”

And there’s a lot of artists who do that, but it’s like, I’m not a fucking Ferris wheel; I’m not even the Aerosmith ride at Disneyworld. (laughs) I’m like something else that changes every time, and for me, music should be that way. I don’t like music that is the same. I don’t like artists who make the same record over and over again. And I definitely get mostly pissed off when I go see a live show, and I pay for a ticket, and I park my car miles away, and I walk…you know, all the effort you go through to get to a live show…to see the same show twice? You can’t trust a band that puts on the same show twice.

I agree, and that’s what I love about live music.

That’s why we got into this thing. It’s like we all fell in love with the same idea that the visceral experience of music — the thing that you can’t capture on your cell phone or on YouTube or on a music video or on a record, even, is that live experience. And no matter how many times I’ve listened to the tape back or have watched the YouTube, I’m like, “yeah, it wasn’t like that at all!” (laughs)

Well I’m going to be up in Milwaukee to see you on July 5th. And speaking of artists who don’t make the same record, you’re going to be opening for someone who pretty much never makes the same record…

I know. My man!

I’m really excited to see how that night goes. Can you talk a little bit about Neil Young, and that show and what it means to be opening for him.

Absolutely. I’m happy to do that. He’s been one of the sources of inspiration for me and for my band since the beginning. You know, my parents played a lot of Neil as a kid, and my mom always used to say — she loved his music and she loved his records — but she’s like, “he doesn’t really have a very good voice!” (laughs) Which is so…at this point, I fully disagree.

I think Neil has an incredibly expressive, range of emotion through the squalor — the squalor, which is what we call it. The squalor of the man himself. And I think he has a command over the audience because he is so irreverent, and I think as an artist he gains back the trust of the audience every single time, and that’s really very hard to do when you change all the time, and I struggle with that. I’m not going to say it’s an easy ride; it can be very bumpy when you want to challenge your fans to transcend with you and to change with you. A lot of fans don’t want to, and they want to hang on to that one record.

And for him I imagine things like Harvest and a lot of those early records he did with Crazy Horse are what fans want to hear, and so every night — it’s not like he’s going to be swatting them away like flies, but he’s embracing every end of himself. I think it’s really hard to take on that role… (laughs) … and own it, and so defiantly. He’s a defiant motherfucker, you know? (laughs) He just doesn’t care.

But he doesn’t care because he cares so much in the creative process and every step he took to make the decisions to make the music he’s making; you know that he’s put so much thought and so much care and so much time into it, even if it was impulsive, even if it was in one of his tempestuous rants, that it was for a reason.

And my love of any artist, and Neil most especially — he’s willing to take risks to evoke the feelings that humans are capable of, that we don’t sometimes realize we’re capable of until it’s sometimes presented in front of us. “Ohio”…you know… “Ohio” is a great example. It’s just one of those songs when I think about what the world was going through when he threw that out at people and said, “hey, we tracked this in a session and gave it to radio and what do you think about this, world?” It evokes feelings that you really can’t…you really can’t accomplish that if you’re not willing to take risks, and I think it’s really admirable as a musician.

And he’s still doing it, too. His new album (The Monsanto Years) is talking about the GMO labeling, which I’m sure you have an opinion about being from Vermont.

Oh, of course. I’m hoping that maybe he’ll have a little summer house in Vermont. I’m hoping he’ll decide to do that, because he definitely has a lot of love for the Vermont politics. And I’m a proud Vermonter. (laughs)

You’ve covered “Cortez the Killer” before. And I know you’ve been asked many questions about your recent live version of “Gimme Shelter” with Mick Jagger, but how does something like that come about? Would there be a chance that you would do “Cortez” with Neil?

Oh my God, if he would ask me, I would just die. Just die. I doubt… I mean, as we always say, “Cortez” is an emotional commitment that you have to be ready for. And it really depends on the night when I try to jump from one genre to the other and try different things from song to song — and I write different set lists every night.

I’m going to be on his train when I’m opening for him. I’m there to set up the crowd, I’m not there to own it. It’s Neil’s night, and people are there to see Neil, so I’m not going to put any pressure on it. But if he asks me … (laughing) … I could at least assure him that I know that chords to that song. (laughing)


That’s awesome. Well, let’s talk about the upcoming solo record (Midnight). I read something where — and you can correct me if I get this wrong — where you were working on some other songs that sounded different but you were led in this new direction of a more pop rock influence…

Yeah, yeah…that’s accurate.

Can you take me through the process or maybe the moment where you realized this is what you wanted to do?

Yeah, and actually it’s been an interesting process talking about it because it took so long. I mean, I’ve never taken this much time on a record, it was crazy how long it took. And most of that was because I was having a war with my mind. I was definitely…this was not an easy record to make, this was not, you know, cookies and cream. And part of the reasons why is because we had, as a band, you know, half of a record done. And then I realized as I was listening to this record, I’m like, “this is not the Nocturnals, man.” And it’s not like I meant for it to be that way. They were following me as best they could down a road that was so obviously not the Nocturnals. And nobody could say it but me. I had to be the one to be like, “alright, this is fucked.” (laughs)

And by the way, by saying “fucked,” I mean this is exactly what I wanted. I was really following my heart, and maybe for the first time ever. I just wasn’t writing music because I wanted to keep the four or five people on stage happy with me, it was about keeping myself happy, and acknowledging that I have stories to tell, I have songs to write that are very specific narratives that are an extension of me, just like the Nocturnals are an extension of me, just like playing “Love for Leon” playing “I Shall Be Released” just with me and Matty and Don Was, that’s an extension of me.

Playing “Cortez the Killer,” which was, by the way, not with the Nocturnals, all those years ago that video of me playing, it was just me doing my thing, it wasn’t my band, it was just me.  And I think after many many moons of addressing that with myself I had to recognize that it’s not fair to the fans to be holding an orange and an apple in your hand and to switch the labels on people. Why would I call an apple an orange? Fans are too smart, they would see right through that anyways. So, in having to really recognize and respect the legacy that I had built with the Nocturnals over the last 12 years, I had to protect it, I had a responsibility to protect it, and in protecting it — it doesn’t mean that this music is any less pure, it just means that I had to call it like it is.

Oh yeah. And even…is it hard knowing that fans are going to wonder about the future of the Nocturnals?

Oh sure. But it’s not hard. It’s not hard. Because I know that nobody knows what is going to happen next, at least of all me, and I’m the first one to admit that. That’s why our music has changed so much over the years. Every time someone thinks they have me pegged that’s the second I’m like, “no, fuck you, I have a fucking rocket ship over here, I’m going to go put on a spacesuit, motherfuckers!”

It’s like Bowie, you know, all the artists that I love. Neil. Nina Simone, you know? She was like, “guess what, I’m going to be a fucking political protest singer now, I’m not going to play any of my cute songs anymore.” That for me is what a true artist is all about — defiantly challenging people’s perceptions. You know, especially being a woman, not that that’s a thing — it’s not my cross to bear. The generations before me of females in rock ‘n’ roll fought the hard fight that I now get to enjoy. But there is a little bit of sense of possession over women, and the feeling of, “well, who is she? What am I going to be without my band?” Am I just going to turn into one of these divas, you know, kind of the Gwen Stefani sort of prototype. And so it’s easy to fall into that assumption. And I don’t really care if people do because when I get out on the stage and do my thing, I’m definitely not Gwen Setfani! (laughs)

And that’s why I love you. So don’t change.

Yeah. And really, in other words, don’t change, but change every single time you make an album. (laughing)

That’s sort of what I meant. (laughing)

Yeah, I know, and I appreciate it. And I can tell that you mean it. And I have felt a lot of love from many different people. I’m not worried about what people think of me the way that I was when I was a younger artist forming, trying to fit into this shoegazer, singer-songwriter spectrum where I thought in order to be taken seriously I had to wear cowboy boots and plaid and jeans and really make sure I don’t break out of this of “cool,” you know? Like, play it cool. I’m not fucking cool, I’m a huge goddamned geek! There’s nothing cool about me. I’m just me. I’m loud as fuck and I don’t like wearing shoes, but when I do they better be sparkly and really, really tall. And then I’ll kick them off, you know?

It’s always been inside of me, but I’ve grown into my own skin so much more, especially in the last five years being an artist and recognizing the things that matter to me the most, and not caring whatever the fuck people think.

One more question for you. Grand Point North, your music festival in Vermont is still going strong with a great lineup this year.

I know, I’m so excited!

Shakey Graves. The Flaming Lips. What happens when you and Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips get together? Do you eat mushrooms or what?

(laughing) I’m not sure if I have ever taken psychedelics with him, I’ve been on psychedelics when I’ve hung out with him, but never with him. Usually one or the other — we kind of tag team. Wayne is such a — we’ve done a lot of creative projects together and we’ll continue to do so because we’re definitely kindred spirits in that prolific side of things. He’s just constantly creating and he’s so innovative. And again, I think there is a defiance in his solidarity, and I love that about him. They have just been going strong like a fucking war tank — they just don’t stop. But yeah, maybe we will gobble some mushrooms together, I’ve never done it with him, so that could be fun. (laughing)

And doing it in Vermont would be the perfect time, right?

Yeah, right? (laughs) It’s not like I’m running a festival or anything. (laughing)

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