Grace Potter & the Nocturnals’ self-made 2005 debut album, Nothing but the Water revealed a musically sophisticated young band inspired by the music of the late ’60s/early ’70s and fronted by a then-21-year-old dynamo whose nuanced singing, organ playing and songwriting belied her age. The follow-up, 2007’s This Is Somewhere, confirmed that the band had no interest in following trends but was instead in pursuit of timeless expression as it forged its identity. On 2010’s self-titled third album, GPN, toughened by a half decade of nonstop roadwork, flexed their rock ’n’ roll muscles and confirmed that they were in it for the long haul.
Now, seven years after hitting the radar, GPN take an exponential leap with the widescreen opus The Lion The Beast The Beat (Hollywood, June 12, 2012). With this musically combustible and conceptually dazzling work, the Vermont-based band forcefully takes its place alongside the best of its peers while building on the rich legacy of its inspirations. During this a la carte age, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals have boldly pushed against the current, making a bona fide album that demands to be heard in its entirety . . . not that its 11 songs don’t utterly beguile on their own. “This album is really a different animal than our previous records—no pun intended,” says Potter.
“I think what people love about us is the energy we generate playing together and feeding off each other,” says guitarist Scott Tournet. “There’s a lot of drive in our band, and we managed to capture that on this record. We love the music that we cut our teeth on and it’ll always be part of us, but we’ve reached the point where we’re consciously trying to push things forward.”
The Lion The Beast The Beat was produced by Potter and veteran producer Jim Scott (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Wilco, the Tedeschi Trucks Band). Adding to the firepower of the project is Dan Auerbach who produced and co-wrote the track “Loneliest Soul” and also produced and co-wrote the band’s first single “Never Go Back,” and “Runaway,” both of which were co-produced by Scott. David Campbell (Beck, My Morning Jacket, Jackson Browne) arranged and conducted the strings on the album. The LP was mixed by fellow Vermonter and Grammy award winner Rich Costey (Foo Fighters, TV on the Radio, Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball). Alongside the band’s original guitarist/songwriter Scott Tournet, drummer/band co-founder Matt Burr, guitarist Benny Yurco (who joined in 2009), Potter commenced recording the album in October, 2011. They later invited multi-instrumentalist Michael Libramento (from Floating Action) to join them on the sessions.
The band tracked the majority of the record live off the floor at PLYRZ, Scott’s studio in Santa Clarita, 30 miles northeast of L.A. “When I first met Jim, I knew I wanted to make this record with him,” says Grace. “He totally gets us. He brought the perfect balance of sonic integrity and laid-back finesse.” The feeling is mutual. “Grace is a rock ’n’ roll superhero,” says Scott. “She can really bring it. She’s full of ideas, she never misses a note and the band is badass.”
Last November, while Potter was in Nashville for the CMA Awards, she and Auerbach got together in his studio. “It was a concentrated environment,” Grace says of the breakneck Nashville sessions. “Dan and I were writing lyrics together, singing melodies and trading off ideas, while Benny, Scott and Matt were working up the tracks with us. I love the way Dan’s mind works, because it’s so out there, but he balanced it really well by stepping back and behaving like a producer/writer.” At the end of the three days, they had the spines of “Never Go Back” (the throbbing first single) and “Runaway,” while nailing the madcap “Loneliest Soul.”
“In late November, as the song list continued expanding, I felt the priorities starting to shift,” Grace recalls. “I began to look at the whole project through new eyes. I realized then that making this record wasn’t about just putting a bunch of great songs together; it needed to be a cohesive piece of work with connections between the songs.”
Not long after the band returned to Scott’s studio, Potter surprised everyone by abruptly calling the project to a halt, despite the fact that the band was playing better than ever, Scott was capturing the performances in all their eruptive immediacy and the record company was excited by the quality of the tracks that were being delivered. Potter, for whom everything musical had always come so easily, had hit the wall for the first time in her life as an artist. “I knew within a few weeks of being in the studio that something didn’t feel right. At first I was in total denial, and we just kept chugging along like we always do – but deep down, I just didn’t love the direction the music was going in,” Grace recalls. “It wasn’t the band or Jim, it was me. There was an unsettling voice in my head telling me to pull back and look at the bigger picture. I realized that I had no idea what kind of record we were making until we were already two months deep.”
This shocking realization led to a round of intensive soul searching. “It was a scary moment for me, because stopping is not really in my genetic makeup,” she says. “Pulling out was a real bummer for everyone else because the band was just hitting its stride—but I wasn’t hitting mine. So I called the record company and said I needed a month to work on the existing songs and write some new ones from scratch, plus another week with the band away from the studio to just play music together. Then I jumped in my car and disappeared. I needed to refocus my intentions for this record without any distractions or outside opinion.”
Potter pointed her car north and drove. “I did the thing I always wanted to do: the real fantasy road trip. For years we’d be traveling through beautiful country in the tour bus, and I would look out the window and see all these long dirt roads that look like they go nowhere – so this time I decided to drive down them.” Potter’s journey took her up the west coast until she reached the rocky coastline and redwood forests of Big Sur. By the time she arrived, Grace had begun to unlock the riddle of the album. After a week in the California wilderness, she flew back home to Vermont, where she tramped the snow-covered hills, invigorated by the winter air—“and the music came pouring out of me,” she says. “I wrote four new songs in Vermont. Then I traveled again to a quiet place by the ocean, holed up in a hotel room and finished some songs I’d written over a year earlier that just needed a second chance. I had no guidelines, which was part of the problem at the beginning, but also part of the breakthrough at the end.”
Potter’s soul journey unlocked the thematic riddle, yielding, among other things, a pair of new linchpin songs in “Timekeeper” and “The Divide,” while also completing the title track, “The Lion The Beast The Beat.” With these key pieces in place, the tracks they’d cut prior to the break, including the stomping rocker “Keepsake,” the yearning “Parachute Heart” and the three Auerbach collaborations, now snapped right into place, conceptually and dynamically. “Once I found what I’d been looking for,” she says, “the floodgates opened, and we cut the rest of the album in two weeks.” With the help of her eager and talented band and co-producer, Potter had achieved what she’d set out to do: to create a musically audacious and thematically unified Big Statement.
Less a concept album than a panoramic sonic terrain across which various thematic vectors collide and combine, The Lion The Beast The Beat “plays on the duality of human nature—the fact that we all have our demons and we all have the ability to be good.” Grace explains. “More than ever, I think outside perception affects how we view ourselves… I started thinking about these archetypes: everyone perceives a lion as a powerful, glorious animal and a beast as a flawed, scary, unpleasant creature…but that’s just on the outside. You only have to read a few children’s fables to see those themes: the ‘Cowardly Lion’ from The Wizard of Oz, the Beast from Beauty and the Beast – I’m fascinated by the idea that we all hold such a broad spectrum of impulses and how we choose to act on them makes us who we are.”
“’The Lion The Beast The Beat’ is a big part of what made this record what it is,” Grace says of the title song. “It had to be absolutely undeniable, and I think that song lays it all out on the table. It’s a dynamic journey, taking the listener on a series of emotional twists and turns. It took a long time to take shape, but when it did, it became a pillar of the album.”
The dark, sinuous “Timekeeper,” which opens with the ticking of a clock, provides the thematic bridge between the album’s epic bookends, while also serving to “transition between the two stages of making the record,” says Grace. “It was a reckoning – a breaking point. I wrote the song while I was in the thick of it. It’s a manifestation of a lot of fears, not just around the making of the album, but around life. This really sums up The Beat… – the beat of a heart, the turn of a page, the tick of a clock…the inevitable reality that time will pass.”
The other pillar is the progressively building showstopper “The Divide.” Just as “The Lion The Beast The Beat” demanded to be the opening track, “The Divide” could only be the closer. The album’s denouement is unlocked in the latter song’s recurring passage, “The lines are blurring/I can’t tell the lion from the beast.” “’The Divide’ really presents a question rather than making a declaration,” Potter explains. “The search continues. The end of this album takes you right back to the beginning again. It’s an ellipsis.”
“It’s been a journey, but Grace really stepped up to the plate,” says Tournet. “She had a vision and she stuck with it. When I listened to the mixed album, I was blown away by how slammin’ and ballsy it turned out. We went way deeper on this one, and it’s gonna be incredible to play live.”
The Lion The Beast The Beat represents a rite of passage for a band that is knocking on the door of greatness. “This process was more painstaking than on any other record we’ve made; a complete labor of love and hate. I credit the Nocturnals for courageously jumping off that cliff with me,” Potter acknowledges. “We all took a risk and I hope that resonates when people hear the album.”