Grace Potter’s fame is inexorably tied to the thrill of her live performances. A powerhouse vocalist with a knack for writing big, stirring melodies, she mostly wins fans by wowing them on the road.
Which put her in an interesting position during the COVID-19 lockdown.
The group that broke her onto the national stage, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, dissolved concurrently with her 2017 divorce from bandmate Matt Burr. She released one solo album — 2015's "Midnight," which swerved from bluesy folk-rock to biting electro-pop — following what would be the Nocturnals' final LP in 2012. But she retreated from public performance and recording in 2017, unsure if she’d return.
But return she did, blasting back with hugely emotive Americana on 2019’s “Daylight.” But just as she got back into the swing of touring, COVID-19 sent everybody home.
She kept busy — performing weekly Twilight Hour live-streams from her living room; issuing the single “Eachother,” touching on the wrenching isolation of quarantine with help from Jackson Browne, Lucius and South Carolina’s own Marcus King. On that song, she observes that “Streets are all empty / Shelves are all bare / The world is holding its breath / Like it’s running out of air,” as she and her collaborators play with the rousing looseness of an impromptu onstage jam.
“We've got each other / And for now, that's enough,” they repeat in the choruses, desperate to replicate the community of live performance.
Free Times asked Potter about getting back on the road post-pandemic ahead of her performances this week at the Firefly Distillery in North Charleston and the Columbia Speedway Entertainment Center. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Free Times: You’re in the middle of a full day of interviews. How does it feel getting back to that?
Grace Potter: It's crazy. There's a feeling of transformation happening here where we have to take off our sweatpants and actually get back out on the road and do stuff. So the interviews, it's an important transition because I am still wearing sweatpants.
How’s the last year been for you?
In a weird way, I had this experience in my career. I sort of COVID-ed myself for a few years there before COVID actually happened. I went into hiding. So it didn't feel that crazy different in my life because I had already sort of insulated myself and took myself out of the live music and touring equation for so long.
The only real jarring experience I had was just that I had finally made that transition back into getting out on tour. And I was really, really excited. And the "Daylight" album was a huge, you know, marker in my career. And I had really hyped myself up for that tour. The band was playing so well, and the concerts were off-the-charts awesome. And then suddenly to have that get cut short was the worst case of rock ‘n’ roll blue balls I've ever had.
Did live-streams help you maintain some of that momentum?
Absolutely. Like so many musicians, we turned to live-streaming and really enjoyed that experience. There seems to be a lot of opportunity there to connect with fans who maybe don't like live music or haven't been invested in the live music experience the way that my fans generally have been. So there was a lot of outreach
The other really miraculous thing that happened was that at the beginning of COVID, when a lockdown occurred, right before that, I had decided to invite my front-of-house sound guy to come back to California and stay with us for a couple of weeks. He and my nanny had fallen in love on tour. And so when COVID sort of shut things down on the touring front, I still was like, “Well, you guys were planning to be together, you know, all spring and summer, and now you're going to have to be going separate ways. Why doesn't he just come back with us?”
And then lockdown happened, and he was stuck with us for five months. So it was pretty wild. But I really enjoyed that time. And that sort of community, even though it was a small community, we still had all these incredibly talented people on our property hanging out with us. So it really allowed us to reach out and have more of a sort of a social sensation, you know, taco Tuesdays and Monday night Twilight Hours and pizza Fridays.
The single “Eachother” seems to address the past year directly. Tell me about where that song came from.
It was all in that first week (of lockdown). That song really just sort of fell out of me because I was really missing the whole band and missing the tour and missing the crowds. And the folks that had bought tickets. There was so much heartache, it really just felt like there was a sort of collective aching that was going on in the world.
I was just sitting there strumming along and the words and music and everything just fell out. That chorus was very powerful for me. And it's what I needed to hear at the time, you know, and then I just reached out to some musician friends. I sent it around to basically everybody who I thought would appreciate it because I think many, many people just needed some healing. And started inviting friends to add to it however they wanted to.
You played live a decent amount last fall when things opened up a bit, yeah?
I played every single socially distant show I could find on the Eastern seaboard. I was happy to be a guinea pig. Although I didn't actually know I was the guinea pig. I thought some of these venues had done a little bit of music. But I was the first in many of these places to just kind of test the waters and see what people were willing to do in the name of live music.
I didn't want to risk putting anybody else in peril. And I think that was a huge consideration in booking shows was that it needed to really be a group effort. And everybody who came to the concert also needed to be invested in that public safety consideration. And, you know, public safety and rock 'n 'roll don't really go together very well, they never have. So this was sort of a maturing of the entire industry. And I think it shined a light on how much people are willing to do to experience the medicine of music in person.
What was it like playing under those altered circumstances?
Yeah, altered circumstances is the best description possible. I mean, it wasn't not live music. But it was like Bizarro world. I'm seeing these fans, and a lot of the folks, I recognize their faces, but I've never seen them separated. I can see them as clearly as they can see me, and, yes, my voice is being amplified, but when I'm done with a song, they have to make the choice to amplify their voices in this way that is so not the same. It's easy to sort of scream and shout and clap and woo-hoo-hoo when there's a bunch of people right in your ear doing the same thing. But not having other people doing that within a close proximity to you, it makes everybody a little bit shy, and a little more self aware.
So that's why the drive-ins were fun. Everybody can beat their horns. Nobody was shy about that. I just had to get used to hearing the horns beeping at me being a positive thing as opposed to a negative thing.
You founded the Grand Point North festival in Vermont, which had to postpone like so many others last year. What’s your current outlook, both as a musician and a festival organizer, on what music’s new normal will look like?
When Peter Welch, congressman from Vermont, put together the Save Our Stages act, it was a huge turning point. We were all not just devastated, but beyond, completely crippled. Devastated is like, “Oh, what a bummer. But what are we going to do now?” But there was no “What are we going to do now?” in the music industry. Live music was the very first thing to shut down and it will be the very last thing to reopen in this pandemic. I cannot overstate how crippling it has been for this industry, and sadly, I think many, many of these venues are not going to be able to reopen.
I just was on Instagram, and my friend posted a picture of one of my favorite venues in Nashville; one of the very first venues that I played, the Exit/In, is for sale. And I'm seeing that everywhere. Especially independently owned venues and places that really placed an importance on local support and people just walking by and buying a ticket, it's all but disappeared because now people have to plan ahead.
And I think the new normal is going to include that for a long time. I think we're going to see a lot more planning ahead, which is hard because I think the spontaneity and joy of music is cruising out on the street hitting the strip somewhere and saying, “Do we feel like going to a punk rock concert or seeing jazz and smoking cigarettes on the patio?” We used to have this sort of a la carte attitude towards it. But unfortunately, I think we're going to all be required to really reframe how we consume live music and put more thought into it.
And with that, I think there needs to be a lot of energy put towards when we come back, really (focusing) on those smaller venues. And if there is an opportunity to go to a smaller, independently owned venue and see a smaller local act or even a larger act that's just playing down into a smaller room or space, really invest in that. If you love live music, invest in the smaller places, because they're the ones that have really struggled the most through this.
April 28. 8 p.m. Firefly Distillery. 4201 Spruill Ave., North Charleston. $62.50 (must buy at least four tickets). gracepotter.com.
April 29. 7:30 P.M. Columbia Speedway Entertainment Center. 2001 Charleston Hwy. $40-$100 (must buy at least four tickets). colaconcerts.com.