Grace Potter: “The guitar is inherent to my sound, and when I get onstage I can’t help it: I have to get to 11”

Grace Potter
(Image credit: Emily Butler)

As Grace Potter tells it, she didn’t know if she ever wanted to make music again, and so making her sophomore solo album, Daylight, was a process of gentle acceleration. It was all about starting out slow, recording ideas on her phone, playing electric guitar through a Vox MINI practice amp so as not to drown out her voice. Then things started to make sense again.

These early ideas were coming together as she was trying to put some distance between herself and “a pretty salty couple of years” that saw the break-up of her band, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, and her marriage. Those are the sorts of life experiences that take some shifting. It’s a lot to process.

“A lot!” nods Potter. “I had this kind of anger and I blamed it on music. There was this part of me that was like, ‘If I hadn’t been in music none of this would have happened. Nobody would have gotten hurt and I could have been happily painting houses and minding my own business.’”

But it’s uncanny how lifers such as Potter find a way to work music back into their lives. Potter says it was through melodies, talking through everything in song. Having remarried to the producer Eric Valentine (Slash, QOTSA) and with a young son, Potter kept at it. After all, there was no deadline.

“I needed to love it, and if I didn’t love it it wasn’t worth it,” she says. Soon enough she and Valentine knew that however it might turn out there was no doubt it was going to be a guitar album. 

“The guitar thing was very intentional,” says Potter. “Eric had spent enough time with me and watching my live show to recognize that the guitar is inherent to my sound, and when I get out onstage I can’t help it: I have to get to 11. My show has always had this undeniable rock element, and that kind of simmering intensity showed through every single song.” 

The key was not overworking the songs. Citing the Small Faces and Led Zeppelin as influences, she wanted Daylight to be an album that you could boil down and reduce to a riff.

We actually recorded the whole record and rerecorded everything once we knew what the songs were, which took two and a half years

“At the end of the day the guitar was the last man standing in so many of the songs where it is just like, if you remove everything that doesn’t matter from the song, you still need that riff,” she laughs. “In Daylight, it’s that der-ner-ner-ner-ner-ner-nah! You gotta have it. I love riff rock!”

Potter tracked the demos at her home in Topanga, recorded everything, then decamped to Valentine’s studio in Hollywood, Barefoot Recording, formerly Crystal Industries Recording Studio where Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life was recorded.

“That space lent itself to certain songs but we saved it until the end,” explains Potter. “We actually recorded the whole record and rerecorded everything once we knew what the songs were, which took two-and-a-half years.”

Guitar-wise, Potter has always been a Gibson endorsee. She is sitting in Gibson’s London HQ, surrounded by Les Pauls, but it’s the Flying V that Potter has always been associated with. Finished in Nocturnal Brown, her signature V is one of the coolest, and sadly out of production. 

It has a slim soft-V profile neck measuring 0.8-inches at the first fret, thickening out to 0.85-inches at the 12th. The fretboard is chechen, a sustainable rosewood alternative that Gibson used on the SmartWood series, and is equipped with a pair of wax-potted BurstBucker Pro Alnico V humbuckers. But, as she explains, the Les Paul is very much a part of this album.

We are surrounded by Gibson guitars so let’s start with them. What drew you to the Flying V?

The way I move onstage I need something that is going to behave like a pendulum

“I think it had to do with the shape of it. The first time I ever played one I was in Cincinnati. We were on tour with Derek Trucks. He was messing around with the V and so, of course, I am just watching him playing it going ‘OK, so now I cannot play a V!’ Because once you hear Derek Trucks do anything…”

…He ruins it for us mortals!

“Yeah! But the second he put it down and showed interest in another guitar I just kinda snuck over to it and it just felt right, the balance of it. The way I move onstage I need something that is going to behave like a pendulum. I love the sound of a Les Paul but it just felt very compact and like all the weight, it’s like your head is really heavy, and you need that weight to be more broadly distributed.”

The guitar has to work with your back and your hips if you want to move at all onstage.

“Exactly! It just felt better. When I started playing a V it was actually a white V that was gifted to me by a gentleman by the name of John Zonars, who used to play in the band for Saturday Night Live. Then I guess the visual of that got to Gibson, and Gibson saw some pictures of me with the V and thought, ‘This is cool. This is an interesting opportunity to revitalize and bring to life a new perspective on the Flying V.’ And so they offered me the opportunity to design my own.”

Grace Potter

(Image credit: Emily Butler)

And it has that nice midrange…

“We started chasing the guitar sounds that we loved and it turned out that A) they were all midrange [sounding] guitars and B) that the amplifiers tended to be a strange clash, so the amp that it was playing through was either way, way, way smaller than it sounded, so you have these huge sounds out of this tiny, tiny amp.

"Like I played through a Vox AC30 and that, to me, is a mid-sized amp; it can go in any number of directions. But I don’t think many people would pair the V with that, and I don’t know how I arrived at that.”

Was the V through a Vox the Kinks influence?

“Honestly? It was because Vox reached out to us and said, ‘Are you interested in an amp?’ [Laughs]”

That makes sense! Weren’t you using a Deluxe?

“Sometimes I play through the Deluxe. I play through two amps. There is one part of the show where I play some slide and I have a little bit of a solo moment - it’s not a solo per se but I do this little blues riff. Depending on how big the venue is, we will put it through two amps so I have some control. One amp is much closer to me, and that is the Deluxe.”

Do you find the Deluxe more forgiving when up close?

“Yes, softer feedback, but it still gives me the resonance that I need. Because the guitar is not a hollowbody so you can’t get it to resonate with you. When we are in a smaller venue I just put [the guitar] way high through the monitor and it will still give me that feedback. It is just a bit edgier.

I can’t have the guitar swallowing a vocal performance, and I don’t want it to be so far away because otherwise it can sound very disembodied from one another

"I don’t really like that high-end. It just kinda scratches at you, and mainly because my vocals are coming out of that same speaker and it needs to be pristine. But the D.I. sound is just less gorgeous. I love, love playing off the amp. I love the feedback it gets because it is resonant but it is not uncontrollable. It is all about proximity. It is almost like a theremin.”

No matter which way you cut it you have an amazing voice. How do you leave the space for it in the mix with your guitar?

“It’s a conversation. It’s like being on a phone call. I have a friend [Jessica Meir] who is on the International Space Station right now - she is an astronaut - and so when we talk on the phone there is a little, tiny delay between everything you say, so you know that awkward space that you get sometimes when someone is really far away? And you say something and then they say something? ‘No, no, you go ahead.’ Y’know, all that? 

"I look at it that way because the space is important. I can’t have the guitar swallowing a vocal performance, and I don’t want it to be so far away, so distant that it is not touching the sound of the voice because otherwise it can sound very disembodied from one another, especially because the guitar can be very raspy, and sort of growling.”

So you have to be conscious of how your tone reacts to your voice?

“Sometimes if I want to get that Neil Young/Crazy Horse grindy sound it can be really a cantankerous energy, so in that moment I might choose to sing sweeter and sort of more expressive on top of it, and vulnerable even when I have a really dirty tone. 

"But for me the space is really more about allowing that moment in time, that tension of ‘What is the guitar going to do next? What is she going to sing next?’ It really feels very much like a conversation.”

You had the demos already. What were the studio sessions for Daylight like?

“We went back into the studio in January 2018, with a full five-piece band. Benmont Tench on keys, no big deal, just get a Heartbreaker in there… What he did with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, I had no idea that he was doing it all live until we were in the studio recording On My Way.

The whole record was more organic because we did not have time to do as many takes. There would be a crying baby over there

"Eric said we’d just overdub the organ later and Benmont was like, ‘Well why don’t I just do it all? I have to play the piano and the organ in the song. That’s how I did it with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, so if we’re going to tape I wanna do it all.’ And so Benmont played three fucking keyboards in one take! Which is just insane, but that’s the guy, that’s how he is.”

Who else sat in with you?

"Mat Musty on the drums, Benny Yurco on guitar. Then we had Kurtis Keber on bass for some of it, Greg Camp from Smash Mouth played bass as well. Who else? Dylan Day, he is another amazing guitar player - from Vermont, so I had a lot of homies in the studio with me. And then Lucius sang a lot of vocals. 

"Oh, and Tom Ayers, another insane guitar player, he also played on the record. You should look up his stuff because it is amazing."

And there was the baby, too. How old was he?

“He was only a year old, and actually Benmont had a baby that was the exact same age. the baby energy that was there in the studio, which was such a non-rock ’n’ roll energy, actually made the whole record even more organic because we did not have time to do as many takes. There would be a crying baby over there.”

You recorded it live to tape, right?

“All the mics were bleeding. There were occasionally two guitars in the room at the same time. There was so much bleed. If you listen through all the tracks you can tell. The amps were in the kitchen. We had the amps all in the kitchen, and that’s how Eric did it when he made the record with Slash.

We had studios looking at the watch, like ‘You’ve spent your hundred bucks three hours ago, get the heck out!’ It's that urgency, that desperation, that simmering, electric energy that's what rock ’n’ roll is

"There is a specific booth in there that’s called the Slash Box because he had his Marshall stack in there. But you could hear everything bleeding in every direction and that was part of the joy of it.

“That homegrown sound, that homespun approach, we didn’t have time to do it any other way, and I love that about my early work, too. We didn’t have a budget. We had studios looking at the watch, like ‘You’ve spent your hundred bucks three hours ago, why are you still here? Get the heck out!’ And so that urgency, I think, tends to lend itself to music, that desperation, that simmering, electric energy is what rock ’n’ roll is.”

What acoustics did you use?

“Right now I have this awesome Gibson J-45. A J-45 was actually the first guitar I ever bought, and I really needed a good pickup and Eric did a bunch of research on it and said an L.R. Baggs pickup would be the thing that would let my guitar sing onstage and not give it that tacky, awful D.I. sound.

"This is actually a ’93. The poor thing is cracked. But this guitar actually just sounds fucking great, way better than my first J-45. I do so much in open tunings. I’m in open E and this album has a lot of open G. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because I was just lazy and pregnant and couldn’t be bothered tuning it. But I am just going to get four more of these for the tour and have each in the tuning it needs to stay in.”

Were there any other guitars on the record?

“The Les Paul was also a big part of this record because Bennie had just gotten this gorgeous Goldtop. The riffs that we played on this record needed that resonance. There was a lot of it. 

"The stabby rhythms was always going to be my thing but there were some screaming riffs on this record that were really asking for it. And Les Paul was a big influence on this record as well because that Les Paul and Mary Ford stuff, I mean, the song Repossession, that’s like a full-on influence; I just listened to Smoke Rings over and over again and thought, ‘How do we do that? That drippy, beautiful sound.’”

Well… How did you do it?

“We just copied! [Laughs] We did some experimentation but Bennie’s little chord bend he does at the beginning is a Les Paul, a really delicate sound but the amp was turned up really high for that one. 

"That was one of the tracks where the bleed was everywhere and everyone was playing super soft. But the sound we wanted, and the reverb - I think we put it through a [Roland] Space Echo as well, a tape Space Echo - and there were all kinds of overtones that Eric really loved from the guitar. The harmonic range of a Les Paul gives you all these voices that hide. You pull them out with EQ and the tape echo.”

Grace Potter is on tour across the US. Dates and tickets are available now.

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Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to publications including Guitar World, MusicRadar and Total Guitar. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.