Grace Potter: Lady Vagabond Rides Again

Dean Budnick on October 6, 2023
Grace Potter: Lady Vagabond Rides Again

Early in her career, Grace Potter received counsel from a music executive that continues to rankle her.

“He told me not to write road songs,” Potter recalls. “I was saying that I really connect with Willie Nelson because of his road songs, and he was like, ‘That’s because you’re an old soul and you want to sound old and used up. You already write songs that make you sound old and used up, so just quit it with the road songs.’ From the perspective he was coming from, he was trying to get me to not be Willie Nelson. But why wouldn’t I want to be Willie Nelson and why wouldn’t I want to write road songs?

“At the time, I was doing demos to send out and get signed,” Potter adds. “I grew up in Vermont, made my way to LA and was very aware of what it had taken to get there and be in the position I was in. The road was so exciting to me and it was a complete mind-blow that anybody wouldn’t want to build their entire mythology around being a vagabond.”

Two decades after receiving that misguided advice, then challenging its wisdom in fits and starts, Potter’s new album, Mother Road is a full-on bold and boisterous travelogue. Named after John Steinbeck’s characterization of Route 66 in The Grapes of Wrath, the narrative not only spans geography, but it also traverses time, connecting present-day Potter with her 9-year-old storyteller self.

“The intention was to be completely unapologetic about the person I’ve become based on all of my swashbuckling years out there on the road,” she says of the record, which was recorded at RCA’s Studio A in Nashville and produced by her husband, Eric Valentine.

The couple relocated from Topanga, Calif. back to Potter’s home state with their young son Sagan during the pandemic. This move helped to spark the stories of Mother Road, as she notes, “I’m lucky enough to be bicoastal. Our place in Topanga is always going to be where I planted my roots as a human because I gave birth to my kid in the bathtub in that house. I’m never going to think of anywhere else as having that level of domestic bliss and the oxytocin that comes from that experience. But it doesn’t change the fact that the wanderer in me is also the creator in me, and that creativity tends to come from not stagnating.”

Potter also points out that there’s more to come. “Originally, there were 16 songs, but I have plans for this theme and this story to continue beyond what you’re hearing now,” she says. “There were songs that I recorded where the label was like, ‘Wait, you’re not going to put that song on there? Why?’ That’s because it’s not the end of the sentence, it’s a different piece of the evolution of the character that I am, the person that I have become, and also the person I’m still becoming.

“I’ve always wanted to conceptualize something like this, but I think this record really is a culmination of every record I’ve made up until now. That’s why it couldn’t just be a one-and-done thing. I want people to know that I’m nowhere near done with this particular story or this particular journey.”

At what point in the process did you realize that this album was going to be a collection of road songs?

In July of 2021, I flew out to Topanga, where we had bought a car right before the pandemic hit. I don’t know if you remember, but this was a time when you could not rent a car anywhere. You could reserve a car but when you’d get to the desk with your $675 receipt, they’d tell you: “Sorry, we don’t have any cars. Everybody’s got the cars, and they’re not giving them back.”

So it seemed like a perfect excuse to go get the car, drive it home and have a little solo road trip.

I was unaware of how much I needed that road trip and how much I needed to be alone and dive all the way into my memory bank, along with my hurt and my pain and all the roads I had driven with these different characters. Some are real stories from my life on tour, but others are the imagined places that I wanted to go when I was a 15, 17, 19 year old and couldn’t wait to meet all those characters on the road.

The way I initially envisioned it was: “I’m going to make a movie and then I’m going to make an original motion picture soundtrack called Mother Road.” That’s what came together in my head on that first cross-country trip down Route 66 in the summer of 2021.

 So I dove into my storyteller self all the way because as I was constructing the songs, I was also constructing a movie. I’ve seen movies in my music from the day I started writing songs. I’ll pick a location and have the wardrobe worked out. I know exactly who I would cast as the characters and how I would shoot it.

I realized that, for this stage of my career, if I didn’t go back to that cinematic quality, then the songs wouldn’t vibrate the way they needed to. So as I was writing these songs, and the movie in my mind was formulating, I was also actually writing a movie. So it was perfect.

I was able to mix the mediums together, knowing that each one has to be able to stand on its own. It’s really important to me that I am engaging people, but I have to engage myself. I was very much alone on the road. It was just me solo, so it had to be a good story. Otherwise, I was bored with myself. I had to find the most entertaining resources, and they came in the form of all of my imaginary friends, all these characters that have been living inside me forever.

When you were younger did you anticipate that these characters might resurface in some manner?

It’s evolved, starting with a hunger for the spotlight that was tailor-made in the womb. I didn’t have a lot of stages to perform on in Vermont. I found every single one I could, and I went to every Grace Potter place I could make a stage, even if it was in our backyard. I just found an amazing photo where we painted an entire set and put on a performance of The Frog Prince that was written and directed by me and my sister in front of our pond. We cast our crew of cousins and our little brother as a frog, obviously.

But the stage and the nature of the performance has transformed and transformed again. It started with going out and seeing Phish concerts and the Ben & Jerry’s music festival up at Sugarbush, and then wandering outward to Bonnaroo and beyond. The festival circuit was my first big shift from traditional stages and the idea of playing in theaters and/ or being a Broadway musical theater performer versus being a rock-and-roll musician.

The next big shift came when I discovered how much I love doing TV—all the late-night shows and Austin City Limits. I love the process of taping and capturing performances with the lightning-bolt sensation—that moment where it will never be the same twice. I also love the blocking and knowing that you are performing to a camera—not just an audience but this imaginary audience that you have to project yourself into.

Then the next transformation was a combination of the two: the livestreaming during COVID. The Monday Night Twilight Hour that I did changed everything. I think it finally revealed the truest version of me that people have ever seen—the a-hole and the stooge. [Laughs.]

Even without knowing the backstory, songs like “Lady Vagabond” on Mother Road feel like spaghetti westerns tailor-made for Sergio Leone or Quentin Tarantino. Can you talk about how you envisioned that one as you were writing it?

That is my homage to a proxy, surrogate me from another lifetime and from another world altogether, who I invented when I was nine years old. When I ran away from home, I invented this character so if anybody found me and was like, “You don’t have anybody with you,” I could say, “No, I do. Her name is Lady Vagabond. She watches out for me, and she’s really good at riding horseback. She also knows how to drive a motorcycle and a train. She’s here, she’s just not here right now, so don’t worry. I’m fine. I’ve got a caretaker with me.”

Of course, she didn’t exist, and no one ever did ask me what I was doing as a runaway because I never actually went all the way down that road. I got as far as my best friend’s house about a mile away. Her parents took me in and followed along with my stories and engaged me as best they could. But Lady Vagabond is a character who has been inside me forever and somebody who I’ve always connected with.

I later started putting the dots together and reverse engineering it, after finding some of my family photos and old footage that was sitting around in a storage unit on our property. There were all these pictures of a matador that my mom and dad had taken when they had a production company and a photography company back in the ‘70s called Dream On Productions. They would put photos to music and that’s also where their amazing record collection came from.

My dad and mom had gone down to Mexico City and captured the experience of this one Mexican bullfighter. All these amazing original photos from that bullfight were spread throughout this storage unit that I used to play in when I was a kid. It was like my tree fort. I hadn’t gone in there in so long that I forgot that they were there, but it was wild because I realized, “That’s why she’s looking for her matador grandfather in Mexico.” All these things that I sort of approximated in my head as a 9-year-old kid probably did come from some real life stuff too.

The propulsion engine that has driven me—the engine that has the wanderlust and the wily creature inside me that always knew there was something around the next bend—has always beckoned. But I’ve always wanted to know that if I did go down that road, I would be safe. Of course, this sort of quantum vigilante horseback-riding protector that I invented in my head is also me.

Do you think that the stories you were telling on Mother Road tended to manifest themselves in particular genres, in a way that form followed function?

For me, the shadow of the American dream sounds like what I think I’m capturing on this record.

I didn’t really know, until I calcified it into recorded music, how much it was just pulsating through my bloodstream. This approach to songwriting and storytelling is a little more like “The Big Rock Candy Mountains.” It’s fantasy, it’s truth, it’s hope, it’s the dream that what comes next is better. There is a sound to that—a blustery, Appalachian influence for sure.

You can first hear that in the songs of the radio in the 1940s, which feel familiar, yet there’s a longing and it’s slightly trampy. [Laughs.] There’s also a sense of the rogue who wonders, “I don’t have it yet and maybe I don’t even deserve it.” I think that later wandered into what we now refer to as outlaw country.

But beyond that, it felt like RCA in Nashville was the perfect place to explore genre for the sake of the song or for the story, which is the song. I felt it was the time to drive it home that genre does not concern me. I want to do it all. So on a genre level, this record really did tick all the boxes that I have not ever had a chance to cover before, and I pulled no punches.

I was eager to explore it to the point where the song “All My Ghosts” was a difficult one for me to deconstruct from the form it was in when I wrote it with Hillary Lindsey and Meg McRee. It originally sounded a lot more like “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song.

But when I finally got into what the song was calling for, I felt this piano bar, Wild West vibe with Tom Waits wandering into a one-horse town—a former bank robber now looking for redemption. That was the feeling and the visual. It lit me on fire and got me so excited that I wouldn’t let the song be what we had initially wanted it to be, even though I’m sure that would’ve helped it get onto the radio or be a more approachable song in some capacity.

I didn’t care about that. In fact, I pushed against the urge to find a way to market this record—although, at first, I thought we were just making demos. That seems to be my best state of mind to be in, when the stakes are low. [Laughs.]

I was kind of on borrowed time because we were in Dave Cobb’s studio, Studio A at RCA in Nashville. It was my first time in there, but I only got the time because Eric, my husband, was doing preproduction for Nickel Creek.

It goes without saying that being in Nashville had a real impact—in particular being around creative people who think and rethink and imagine and then reimagine songs all day and can throw things away at the drop of a hat in honor of a story and in honor of the most heartfelt and truest form of the song.

So not only on “All My Ghosts” but also on “Rose Colored Rearview,” “Masterpiece,” “Ready Set Go” and all of the songs I ended up hyper-stylizing in one direction or another, turned out as they did because I tried them another way and this way just felt more honest.

The music on “All My Ghosts” harkens back to any number of songs written in prior generations, yet the lyrics reminded me of Sturgill Simpson singing about reptile aliens.

I think that’s exactly right. I was listening a lot to of the Louvin Brothers— “Are you ready for that great atomic power?” I was thinking about church and I was thinking about redemption. It is timeless, but what’s not timeless about it is the specific topic.

I was really diving into the darker and more embarrassing chasms of my truth, while also depicting it through the eyes of the way that I wish it looked, the way I wish it felt. It’s not that I want to change it, but it explores the sound of regret. What does regret really sound like? To me, it sounds like a crypt keeper’s parlor speakeasy.

That makes me laugh, but when my mom heard that one, she took it very seriously and was worried about me. I was like, “Mom, it’s a dark corner of my life that is all true and real for me.” She was like, “I know, but I like it when you play the happy stuff. I like it when you play the inspiring stuff.” I’m like, “Ma, I’ve got plenty of self-help book sounding songs with self-helpy themes.”

The thing is this is probably the rawest and most honest form of self-help. But I’m helping me and I’m helping the future me, which obviously goes into the next song, “Futureland.” When you dive into the topics that scare you the most, it’s not necessarily an itch you want to scratch, it’s an itch that must be scratched. I’ve always felt that music is the place I can do that best.

There’s a rather heavy ending to “Futureland” as well. [“I wanna do so many future things/ But I’m scared of what tomorrow brings/ I wanna jump ahead, but I don’t dare/ ‘Cause what if there’s nothing there?”]

I picture that the “nothing there” is where this whole thing begins again.

Everything about the construction of this record was about rebirth and taking regret, taking the promises you’ve made yourself that you couldn’t keep and placing them somewhere away from you. “Futureland” reminds me of the way that Hunter S. Thompson had his ashes shot out of a cannon into space. What I picture in that song is there’s some kind of a projectile of me. There’s that human instinct to want more and know that you’re never going to get it. Then you’re going to come to the end of your life or you’re going to come to the end of the world or you’re going to come to outer space and find out that what you had back on planet Earth was actually pretty awesome.

Then “Masterpiece” is there to bring me back down to sea level.

How would you describe the narrative arc that develops over the course of this record?

I wanted it to feel like a boomerang. It starts with “Mother Road,” which is a movie poster for what’s hiding beneath it. The lyrics in “Mother Road” sound different after you’ve heard the whole record. So I wanted to cycle through in a way where the lyrical experiences and the storytelling felt nourishing as you recycle through it. It’s like a movie you watch where there’s a big twist in it, like A Beautiful Mind, The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects, where you’re like, “Oh, my God, of course that’s what was going on the whole time!”

So the sequencing was there to tee up one type of swing and then to hit the ball in a really different direction each time you hear it. For many different reasons, depending on what mood you’re in or what the weather’s doing that day, or what road you’re driving down, those songs are going to hit you very differently, and the sequence is there very specifically for that reason.

There were moments when Jerry Garcia would ask Robert Hunter about the wisdom behind some of Hunter’s more didactic lyrics and Hunter would reassure him that it was sound advice. “Ready Set Go” reminded me a little of that, with its final line. [“It’s that there’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘no’ but try a little bit of ‘yes.’”] As Mother Road came together, did you get caught up in how the songs might be received or the impact of the messaging?

You mean the effect that my bad advice might have on somebody who takes it the wrong way? [Laughs.] Yes, I’ve thought about it a lot. There’s a reason “Good Time” immediately follows “Ready Set Go.” There’s this cascade of a party that happens, ending with a police officer at the door looking for a missing girl. So that’s very real.

The catalyst is the conversations we have with ourselves—“Should I? Should I not? Can I? Can I not?” It’s that eternal permission-giver within me who asks myself: “Should I really be giving permission to myself or anybody at all?” I think exercising my ability to expand upon that after the song is an important piece of the puzzle.

The idea that people might hear it out of order was a little concerning to me, in particular because “Ready Set Go” was out before “Good Time.” Those two are bookends to the story of Little Hitchhiker, which is the story of me running away from home when I was nine. It’s also the story of this imaginary version of myself that grew up in Ecuador in the 1920s and moved to America in the ‘30s. I had this whole vision of my life when I was a little kid—that I was born in the wrong time and that I was trying to get back to the 1930s. I told that to anybody who would listen, and they started calling me Gertrude after Gertrude Stein. To this day, some people where I come from call me Trudy because I had this really old, impermeable membrane of a storyteller in me that felt like I was from another time. I had yarns to spin that were of elsewhere—another time, another place, another person.

So I do think about that, but I also think that the storytelling in the record puts up a bit of a badge, like, “This is part fairy tale, part truth, so take it with a grain of salt.”

I’m a mom now, so while there is this whimsical tramp wandering around in me, there’s also a mom that thinks about whether I would want my kid riding trains across America, running away at all or making up these stories. The truth is, I hope he does. I hope Sagan gets to go on all those journeys. Certainly I hope it’s not because of my parenting choices, but everybody finds their way into the sticky situations that they get in.

Now, if someone’s already looking for advice—and my lyric is the thing that’s going to tip the scale for them and bring them down whatever road they’re going to go down—I think they are probably somebody who is already going to do that, and they’re just looking for an excuse.

The name Mother Road references The Grapes of Wrath. Were there other books you read that informed the songs on the album?

Absolutely. For me, Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden and Travels with Charley were all intrinsic to my life as a kid growing up. I read those books a lot.

The literary references go deeper than that. For instance, Lupita Mañana was a book that I read when I was in seventh grade. It really touched me and set me on a journey to understand more about America and why and how certain things happen to people because of the way they look, because of their gender, because of these deeper topics that wind into the plasma of the American dream and really do cast a shadow.

I think of my record as the allegory of the cave. I built a pretty big fire in the cave because those long shadows are the parts of the American dream that I find the most compelling, the most disgusting, the most enthralling. Also they’re teachers and it’s hard to learn from history when the schoolhouse is on fire. At the beginning of making this record, the world felt like it was burning. I was feeling a keen sense of doom and I wanted to sit with it, not wrestle my way out of it, but to understand it for what it was.

In that moment, I felt like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill when she’s stuck in the box and she’s getting buried alive. That flashback sequence brings you through her training with Pai Mei and out the backside of it with this redemptive, unbelievable climb from the catacombs of her certain death. I really sat with that. Then I reread Steinbeck. I didn’t want to torture myself, but I was tortured. I didn’t mean to be tortured. I didn’t want to go through any of it.

I love the idea of driving, but it’s only romantic for the first hundred miles. It gets really weird right away when you’re by yourself and you’re traveling by choice down these roads alone and knowing that every turn you take is taking you farther and farther away from one version of you and closer and closer to the next version of you.

There are revelations to be had there, and they’re not all great ones, but the literary greats were my companions on it. I had all of the audio books that I could possibly conjure and download with Audible. Not that we’re making an Audible ad, but it saved me more than three times, I can promise you that. [Laughs.]

Since you mentioned Kill Bill, going back to the very beginning of this conversation, you described the film that you were making in your head. Is it possible that it might yet appear in some form?

I can’t really talk about it yet. [Potter spoke with Relix during the writers’ strike]. But, yes, absolutely. If I can live to tell the tale, I will. If I don’t make it, then at least it’s all written down somewhere. [Laughs.]