Gone Country

Grace Potter savors short, intense affair with the cowboy crowd

Despite her Vermont origins, Grace Potter has the talking voice of a California-bred Playboy surf bunny—husky, ditzy blondish, laced with innuendo. Her singing voice is just as sexy, but it’s also a powerful, wild instrument, Janis Joplin-like in the way it stirs a range of emotions.

Take, for instance, her R&B-edged rock hit with her band the Nocturnals, “Paris (Ooh La La),” in which she sounds at once empowered and vulnerable. When Potter sings, “If I was a man I’d make my move/If I was a blade I’d shave you smooth,” you get the feeling the razor in question might slice off something else should the character she inhabits be spurned.

Potter’s passionate vocals aside, it doesn’t hurt that the song’s music video imagines a Sin City burlesque crossed with hipster Texas. When talking to the directors, she was keen on playing up “a janky dive-cabaret vibe,” she says during a recent phone interview.

“We all like a smooth shave now and then, right?” she says, referring to the song’s lyrics. “When I recorded it, I pictured a sexy barber with an old-school blade and hot towels. I don’t know why, but I find that to be incredibly sexy.”

If anything, Potter’s music and the woman herself have grown sexier with each successive album. When she dropped her 2005 debut, Nothing But the Water, she was a barefooted hippie jam-band goddess singing and playing piano with a blues-rock band. Gradually, she traded in her Birkenstocks for high heels, her flower-power hair for that of an L.A. model. The music, too, is now sleeker, more polished. Despite the metamorphosis, her roots-rock following remains bigger than ever.

Another aesthetic detour is last year’s duet with mainstream country-music star Kenny Chesney, “Tequila and You,” a platinum-selling, Grammy-nodded smash that was nominated for two Country Music Awards: Song of the Year and Vocal Event of the Year. Chesney handpicked Potter after hearing her in a song that popped up on his iPod. But for Potter, who grew up listening to old-school country, it wasn’t a stretch.

“Listen closely to my records and you can tell I’ve absorbed plenty of George Jones, Gram Parsons and Merle Haggard,” she insists. “Country is just another crucial element of the overall tapestry of music that the Nocturnals and I adore.”

Although she admits becoming a county-music star “by accident,” she credits country fans for giving her a chance. “It’s amazing how they’ve embraced us. I love country fans, because, you know what, they love to rock. They’re happy, energetic people. On top of that, Kenny has the sexiest fans, male and female. Lots of eye candy there!”

Her indie cred is expanding, thanks to a forthcoming CD, The Lion The Beast The Beat, out June 12, featuring tracks co-written by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. “The music we made with Dan is something really different,” she says. “I recall great conversations about what stirs us as musicians. We kept sharing crazy stuff with each other—Ethiopian pop, underground rap. It was a true collaboration that caused us to step out of our comfort zones.”

Surprisingly, her increasingly diverse fan base doesn’t seem to be at odds. “Earlier in the millennium, the jam-band guys were against the hipsters and vice-versa. Country people were way over here. Why can’t we all get along? I love that people try to tag us, because it never works.”

Doesn’t she worry about how to focus-market herself? “God, I’m not a marketing manager. If I were, I’d have gotten myself together a long time ago. I have to follow my heart, follow where the music takes me.”

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