The Vermont singer-songwriter moved to Topanga Canyon to escape music, unlike Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Mick Fleetwood and other stars
But Vermont-bred singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and band leader Grace Potter is one of the few who moved to the mountain-lined Los Angeles County community specifically to get away from music, after a succession of soul-sapping upheavals. Following her messy divorce, a miscarriage and parting ways with her longtime record label, she predicted she would never make another album.
“Nobody in Topanga knew I was a musician for the (first) two years I was there,” said the San Diego-bound Potter, who is now on her first tour in four years. “I was a lady who gardened a lot, went to yoga classes and spent time cooking and making friends, which both Eric and I had never done in our personal lives. It was always work, work, work.”
“Eric” is her husband, Eric Valentine. He produced Potter’s 2015 album, “Midnight,” and its intensely personal 2019 follow-up, “Daylight,” whose 11 songs were all written by Potter and Valentine. She began to fall for him while recording “Midnight,” which was made while Potter was still married to her first husband, drummer Matt Burr. She and Burr had co-founded the band Grace Potter and The Nocturnals in 2002 with guitarist Scott Tournet, who is now a San Diego resident.
Her profile rose considerably in 2011, when she sang with Kenny Chesney on his Grammy-nominated hit, “You and Tequila,” and co-starred with him in its video. The Burlington-based Nocturnals had disbanded by the time Potter performed — with Burr still on drums — at the debut edition of the KAABOO Del Mar festival in the fall of 2015. The couple subsequently separated. In the fall of 2017, Potter announced they had divorced, that she was engaged to Valentine and that they were expecting their first child.
Sagan Potter Valentine was born Jan. 12, 2018. He is now on the road with his mom, who performs in San Diego next Wednesday, March 18, at Observatory North Park, and his dad, whose other production credits range from Gwen Stefani and Queens of The Stone Age to San Diego’s Nickel Creek.
“We’re in Nashville, getting ready to check out of our hotel, so you’ll hear a lot of toys,” Potter said from a recent tour stop. “Sagan has been given the duty of packing his own stuff, and he’s not very good at it.”
How is her 2-year-old son faring on his first-ever concert tour?
“It’s been incredible, and I wasn’t sure if it would be,” Potter replied. “I thought: ‘This could be a disaster.’ But it’s been amazing. And it’s taught me how to be on the road better, because Sagan is actually better at it than me.
“His sleeping patterns are tuned into where we are and what we’re doing. A baby lets you know how life is supposed to be. They might need a little more sleep than we do, but most humans don’t get enough sleep. So I’m spending time with Sagan, waking up earlier, and not sleeping until 2 p.m., like I used to. And I get to see more of the cities on this tour.”
‘Lost and found and lost again’
Figuring out how life is supposed to be is also the impetus for Potter’s new album. Or, as she sings on “Daylight’s” alternately bluesy and hard-rocking title track: I’ve been lost and found and lost again, so many times, I can’t remember if I ever knew my way at all.
That her marriage and her band both began to erode in 2015, at almost exactly the same time, may have been a coincidence.
Either way, Potter’s emotional turmoil was heightened by public criticism on social media. Filled with resentment and doubt, she grew increasingly embittered. Her emotional roller-coaster is underscored by simply scanning such “Daylight” song titles as “Desire,” “Release,” “Repossession” and “Shout It Out.”
“I thought: ‘I don’t want to be this person. I don’t want to be this angry and hold on to blame, shame, anger and frustration,” Potter recalled. “At the same time, there was the transition from being somebody who was part of a band to somebody who wasn’t.”
Turning away from music to focus on her new love and, then, her first child, was cathartic. It also gave her the time to find her way back to writing and performing. She now has a new appreciation for her songs as a vehicle for communication and transformation.
“That means I can breathe and be a musician, and have ownership over it,” Potter said. “It means I don’t have to hold my breath and wonder what will happen next, or what people are thinking. I don’t care anymore. It’s so amazing, when you’re not trying to please people, how fully you embody where you are and what your voice is trying to say.”
Is it too simplistic to invoke Emily Dickinson’s pithy observation — “The heart wants what it wants, or else it does not care?” — to summarize Potter’s new album?
“No, and I love that!” she replied. “It’s totally reasonable and a very accurate description of what happened. We all find ourselves in these situations. And, I know, as a writer myself, I like to boil it down to: ‘What are you really trying to say here?’ You might say it’s simplistic, but it turns out it’s true.”
Where her 2015 album, “Midnight,” found her adapting glossy pop production touches, on “Daylight” Potter embraces her love of classic-rock, Americana and jam-band-inspired flights of fancy with new devotion and vigor. She also proudly wears her influences on her sleeve.
The rollicking “On My Way” makes nods to both The Beatles’ “Daytripper” and the Rolling Stones, circa 1972’s “Exile on Main Street.” Potter’s “Every Heartbeat” and “Please” feature George Harrison-flavored slide guitar filigrees. “Desire” finds her channeling Janis Joplin and Patsy Cline, along with the galvanizing vocal groups LaBelle and the Pointer Sisters. There are also tips of the hat to the timeless soul albums that Al Green and Ann Peebles made at Royal Studios in Memphis for Hi Records.
Are these conscious musical homages by Potter and her album-producer husband? Or are they ingrained in her musical DNA and just come out naturally?
“I think it’s more the latter,” replied Potter, who held her own singing “Gimme Shelter” with Mick Jagger at the Rolling Stones’ 2015 concert in Minneapolis. “It comes out in an interesting way, though, because it has to do with the music I was listening to at the time. So everything subconsciously comes to the center — the Pointer Sisters, Ann Peebles and all of the records (producer) Willie Mitchell cut with Al Green.
“The Stones definitely have been in my bloodstream from the beginning. And The Beatles’ ‘Daytripper’ is interesting; no one has said that. But yes, I can totally see how the hook on ‘On My Way’ sounds like ‘Daytripper,’ although I didn’t intend it. My husband is here right now, next to me, and he’s saying: ‘Oh, yeah, I can hear that’.”
Potter is already making plans for her next album. Meanwhile, she makes no apologies for having retreated from music for several years before “Daylight” emerged.
“Some of the music speaks for itself,” she said. “But a lot of fans who have been in my life, publicly or privately, know the challenges I faced came from within and also from the outside world, with a lot of judgment, nasty internet stuff, threats and real-life scary things that made me go internal and want to hide my head and be a private citizen.
“I don’t owe anybody anything, and it’s my choice to make music, or not. If I’m putting myself and the people I love into an uncomfortable place, then forget it. I really blamed music for a long time, until I realized it’s easier to take that pain and transpose it into a tool for dealing with things — a very, very powerful tool. And, ultimately, I came to a peaceful place.”
Grace Potter, with Bailen
When: Postponed from March 18; no new date has been announced as yet
Where: Observatory North Park, 2891 University Ave., North Park
Tickets: $40 (advance), $43 (day of show)