A sartorial singer-songwriter

By Ernest Suarez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 13, 2009

"Ever since I was a little girl, I loved dressing up," Grace Potter says. "I would wear a tutu to school with jeans under [it]. I had a pair of red shoes that I would never take off."

Potter, a 26-year-old Vermont native, laughs easily and radiates good-natured vitality. Her looks, charismatic stage presence and potent voice -- think of a cross between Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt -- have earned her an ever-increasing legion of fans, many of whom swoon openly, professing their amor on the band's Facebook and MySpace pages.

"What I'm wearing changes everything about how the show goes," she proclaims. "If I'm wearing blue jeans and flannel, it's going to be a country show and I'm going to get my twang on. But if I'm wearing a flapper dress, fringe or sequins, I'm rocking out, Tina Turner style."

Potter vivaciously embraces her sex appeal and candidly comments on how the Nocturnals' new, expanded configuration -- guitarist Benny Yurco has joined the band, and bassist Catherine Popper has replaced Brian Dondero -- allows her to spend more time out in front of the crowd, shaking it. But behind the intoxicating air and superlative voice resides a savvy musician and compelling, prolific songwriter, determined to control her destiny and hone her art.

Potter and drummer Matt Burr met as undergraduates at St. Lawrence University in Upstate New York. "He talked me into it. . . . He convinced me that there needs to be music behind the music. You can't just be a girl tinkling away on a piano, singing cry-your-heart-out songs in a cafe," Potter says. "He said, 'You should have more than that, your voice is more powerful than that, and your songs are stronger than that.' He played me James Brown and showed me the 'The Last Waltz.' . . . Finally, I buckled and joined a band with him, and seven years later we're still GPN."

Potter and her band mates have displayed an independent streak, declining deals in order to control their musical direction. "Original Soul" (2004) and the remarkable "Nothing but the Water" (2005) are self-produced, blues-based albums with a circa-1970 sound. Manager Justin Goldberg has said the band "told me my first job was to call Universal Records and tell them that they're not ready to sign a deal. They told me to say that the band appreciates their really sharp ability to see the band's potential so early, but they want the leverage of a year and 20,000 records sold. Now we're here, and we have our pick."

After building its fan base through relentless touring, the band eventually signed with Hollywood Records and in 2006 won a Jammy award for the re-release of "Nothing but the Water." Its next album, "This Is Somewhere" (2007), debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Heatseekers Albums chart and sparked appearances on NBC's "The Tonight Show," ABC's "Good Morning America" and CBS's "The Late Show With David Letterman."

When not performing, Potter stays close to home, living with her parents in "Pottersville," the sprawling spread of land she grew up on outside Waitsfield, Vt. "My mom was a piano teacher," she says. "It turned into something of a competition between me and her students. . . . I liked the idea that I needed to be better than everybody else."

In her early teens, Potter would take poetry she'd written in English class and recite it at the piano, gradually working the words into a song. Soon she began "understanding song structure in a different way. Basically, I started building from the bottom up without any sense of what a bridge or a chorus is, or should sound like.

"I had a great English teacher, Gretchen Stahl," she says. "She got me into Pablo Neruda. I started thinking of poetry and music in the same vein. . . . It felt like exactly what music should be."

Potter's willingness to experiment with verse techniques is apparent. "Apologies," from "This Is Somewhere," segues from a series of six-line stanzas into a final, powerful 14-line near-sonnet that closes with a cascading, multi-syllabic, end-stopped triplet: "And now it's too late for a soliloquy/It's way too late for dignity/It's time for apologies."

Another song, "Big White Gate," is a dramatic monologue in which Potter considers death from the perspective of an 84-year-old woman. The album "Nothing But the Water" climaxes with an imaginative gospel sequence that opens with a haunting instrumental segment, "Below the Beams"; fades into the a cappella "Nothing but the Water (I)"; then swells into "Nothing but the Water (II)," a torrential, soulful rocker featuring lead guitarist Scott Tournet's rousing licks and Potter's throbbing B3 Hammond organ.

It's no wonder Rolling Stone magazine's David Fricke has declared that GPN "is poised for bigger things." A new record, produced by the renowned T-Bone Burnett, is scheduled for release in the spring.

"We've recorded lots of new music," Potter says, "but we're still figuring out what will go on the album."

Suarez is a freelance writer.

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals Tuesday at the 9:30 club, 814 V St. NW. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets: $25. 202-265-0930; http://www.930.com. The Download: For a sampling of this artist's music, check out: From "Nothing but the Water" "Toothbrush and My Table" "Below the Beams" From "This Is Somewhere" "Ah Mary" "Apologies" Grace Potter

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