By Steve Houk livingonmusic.com
Vermont will always be Grace Potter‘s “home.” It’s where she was born, in the small town of Waitsfield in the Mad River Valley, it is where her soul took shape, and where her roots are. She is a child of the Green Mountain State for sure, and proud of that heritage.
But these days, about three dozen years after she was born, she seems to find herself most comfortable, most grounded, and most at peace at her home out west in southern California’s Topanga Canyon, where she lives with her husband, record producer Eric Valentine, and her two year-old son Sagan.
It is here in this beautiful Mountain Meets The Sea oasis, where the river frogs hum and the creek waters slowly wash by, that Potter has rediscovered herself, and has found what seems like the biggest joy of her life, all after the toughest four years of her life. And the renewal started with her brilliant latest album Daylight, which she has taken on the road in an extensive US tour that just began with the new year and will include festivals like Bonnaroo and other major gigs throughout 2020. She recently appeared on Jimmy Kimmel, The Today Show and others, and her star is shining brighter than ever.
But it’s this special place in the canyon, this oasis of her own, away from the limelight, that has given Potter a new and fresh outlook on a life that has seen and felt much in its three dozen years, not to mention the wildest last four.
“The reason (the record) is called Daylight is because when I wake up in the morning, there’s a window right there,” Potter told me as she was getting ready for her tour than kicked off January 8th in Charleston and hits DC’s Anthem — what she calls “a bucket list venue for me” — on January 25th. “The door to our bathroom is broken and always open because you can’t close the door anymore. So every morning when I wake up, I wake up to this view out my window to this field. The way the light hits it, the sun comes across the horizon and slowly grazes the grass first, before the ground. You can actually watch the light slowly cresting and hitting the dew and before anything on the ground is hit, you feel the sun is coming up, all before you know it. And I always wake up at that time because we have a baby and it’s super fucking early, and that’s what babies do. So when I named the album Daylight, I wanted to capture that feeling, this unbelievable instance of time in which the daylight sort of breaks and hits, and suddenly something is revealed that otherwise couldn’t be seen.”
The image of Potter gazing out the window watching the sunrise holding her baby is a spot-on metaphor for where this supremely talented, hugely dynamic and powerful mother and rock star finds herself these days, all after a tumultuous and life-altering period in her life. After releasing Midnight in 2015, an album that took her on a markedly different (and solo) tack than she had been on with her band The Nocturnals for ten years prior, Potter found herself questioning alot: her career, her marriage and her direction. But she found a new love, had a baby, and in Daylight, has used the tragedies and triumphs of this new chapter in her life to connect better than ever with herself and with her audience. How? Mainly by putting herself out there like never before.
“It’s really surreal to realize it’s been four years because it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long and yet so much has happened,” the sweet and thoughtful Potter said. “I’m truly the happiest I’ve ever been, but also I’m a person now, I’m not just like a vehicle for my music anymore. I think I’ve always wanted to have a personal connection with my fans, but when I speak with people now– maybe it’s motherhood, maybe it’s getting married and remarried, getting divorced and going through something so painful and so public — it has just made it so much easier for me to feel like what I’m saying is being understood, not just like I have to over explain myself. Telling the truth can be the scariest thing in the whole world, especially when you don’t invite something to happen and then it happens. And that shift is not an easy one to do in private, let alone in public.”
Potter realizes that creating Midnight was still critically important for her as an artist, while also making her stop and take major stock of where she was, and where she wanted to go.
“Honestly, I look at Midnight as my outburst because it had to happen that way, and yet that record is still, to me, my favorite thing to listen to because it’s learning something beyond my own musicality. But that album is not about me. It’s me falling in love with the sound and audio and recording and exploring. I was just coming up with reasons to hang out and make more music because I didn’t understand what was going on musically. You know? I had a lot to say, but I didn’t know how to express it.”
“With an album like Daylight, it was an emancipation. Being packaged and placed in any box is just always been the thing that makes my skin crawl the most. So when Daylight started, the formation of that album was not really for anybody else. I think at the end of the day, fans and music appreciators just want to feel the heart of an artist, want to feel what’s inside. And so, I thought, if I’m ever going to make music and share it with the world again, let’s do it in a way that really feels like a conversation between two real people sitting right next to each other. And Eric did that with an incredible amount of integrity and restraint by completely removing all the fun experimental ear candy that I was so excited about on Midnight.”
Potter cringes a little at how much she has opened up about herself and her life and her struggles and her achievements, but in the end, she knows it’s exactly what she needed to do to survive.
“I’m embarrassed about this record in that it makes my skin crawl to think that the world is going to hear it. It’s very, very intimate, very topical, very vulnerable stuff that is not always easy to process. But that’s why Daylight is so full of the real me. And when you say is this the real me, I would never have done that with the Nocturnals, because I would’ve been too insecure about what they would all say. You know, they’d all roll their eyes and be like, ‘Okay, great, when’s the guitar solo come in?’ So Daylight is a reflection, it’s a book end, it’s a piece of my history. It’s who I am.”
And as many women often feel, having a child has also opened up her eyes to not only how she wants to be as a person, but also as an artist.
“There’s no denying that (Sagan) was such a presence, and helped in bringing me back into music. Having lost my ground as a bandleader and someone who has moved through the world really just wanting to make other people happy, I think there’s nothing like motherhood to share and reveal to you the fact that women are way more than that. We are a force for good and we’re not just here to make other people happy. And that’s where it came from, I see my son and I see him looking out at the world looking for the version of the truth that then that will shape him into the person who is going to be. So if I’m able to find my happiness through music and he’s able to see that, then he’ll see that that’s what living your true life is. But there is no metaphor, there’s no words, there’s no song, there’s no nothing that can describe what it feels like to look down at this person that you’ve made and see them looking back at you. How this little person that’s farting and blowing bubbles of spit in his mouth, is someone I respect so much. He has inspired me.”
And yet even with all this swirling change and self-realization in her life happening at a fever pitch, Potter still deeply cherishes the moments from her past, and she will bring that back alive in whatever way moves her as she forges on.
“The Nocturnal stuff, I wrote those songs. So it’s all part of the story of me and I never want to pretend that that didn’t happen. It was some of the best times of my life. We kicked ass. We were fucking great. And I never once felt like, ‘Okay, I hate you all now and we’re never going to do this music again.’ It’s all been part of my narrative all along and I can’t wait to perform those songs on stage, in the new context of where I am now, and see how it takes shape. Because I think some of it might even take on more meaning now than it did when I wrote it.”
Grace Evelyn Potter has lived a helluva life, from her childhood in Vermont to her rock and roll journey to testing the limits of her soul. And after making it through from the uncertainty of midnight back out to the glimmering luminescence of daylight, she is looking forward more than ever to everything that life will bring.
“Eric and I have been referring to it all as a wormhole, ’cause it’s really hard, it’s hard to get through there. But something about my life and the experience that Eric and I are having in our now very real life with our two year old son, feels like we’re on the other side of that wormhole. And I can’t explain it any more than just saying that I’m so glad I had the audacity to take that crazy leap. I hope that it feels almost more like a debut, like this is the me that I would have loved to have been a long time ago.”
Grace Potter with special guest Devon Gilfillian performs Saturday January 25th 2020 at The Anthem, 901 Wharf Street SW, Washington DC, 20024. For tickets click here.