On October 25, Grace Potter will deliver her second solo LP, Daylight, following four years of tectonic changes brought on by the release of her debut solo album, Midnight. At one point, she says, she considered leaving the music world entirely, but as a result, the new work is her most revealing and daring to date. The album was produced, engineered, mixed and mastered by Potter’s husband, Eric Valentine at his Barefoot Recording studios in Hollywood.
Potter is described by Spin magazine as “one of the greatest living voices in rock today,” and she has not only played every major music festival from Coachella and Lollapalooza to Bonnaroo and Rock in Rio, she’s created her own exuberant music festival, “Grand Point North,” in her former hometown of Burlington, Vt. Still, a few years back, the mojo started to disappear.
“I had gone through a period of thinking I wasn’t going to make music anymore because it had stopped being fun,” Potter explains. “I found myself in a band and touring when I wasn’t sure if that was really what I wanted. And then 13 years later, I find myself making a record with this guy Eric Valentine, and subsequently fell hopelessly in love.
“It was about being as honest as I possibly could be with myself in showing the dark corners of my life through music,” she continues, referring to Daylight. “It’s very scary to reveal all these feelings. When I started writing the album, it wasn’t for anyone else. It was for me. These were essentially songs that were meant to be therapeutic, like journal entries. As it opened up into an album project with Eric, the real honesty had to come into play because I hadn’t thought about it as something I would share. And then I had to figure out how to be at peace with the truth.”
Daylight first took shape in the Topanga Canyon home (with studio) that Potter and Valentine had recently settled into. Without a record contract, she slowly developed ideas and the two began laying down tracks. Moving to Valentine’s Hollywood studio, the songs came to life with the help of longtime Potter collaborators, including guitarist Benny Yurco and drummer Matt Musty, friends Benmont Tench and Larry Goldings on keys, and evocative vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of the indie band Lucius.
On the album’s first track and lead single, “Love Is Love,” Potter belts her heart out as her voice shifts from delicate to roaring. It was the first track written and proved so jarring that it temporarily halted the project. “’Love Is Love’ is so confessional, it was terrifying,” she reveals. “After we recorded the demo, I had no desire to keep on writing because the feelings were still too raw. I was scared to dig any deeper.”
But perseverance won out in the form of a song that has a deep spiritual core. “Gospel music has always inspired me,” Potter says. “Through my whole career there was a spirituality and an essence in those chords that always pulled me in. It’s not surprising when you listen to a singer like Al Green and then find out he’s still down there preaching and singing in church. The human heart finds a center through those amazing gospel chords.”
Essentially, Daylight moved from a private home studio experiment to a full-on live band recording at Barefoot. Valentine explains, “We decided, let’s just re-record the whole record live with a band and see what happens.”
Potter adds, “When you’re live and there are all these incredible musicians around and everybody is moving in the same direction, that momentum carries me and helps me turn up the dial an extra five or six notches. I think I’m kind of a pain in the ass for Eric to record.”
How does Valentine rope in the wildly dynamic vocal on “Love Is Love”? “Grace starts singing very softly in a low register,” he explains. “So it’s extremely quiet, and by the end of the song, she’s singing absolutely full volume, just blasting as loud as she can. The difference in volume between those two is gigantic. I haven’t actually measured it, but I’m sure it’s probably about a 40dB difference. So getting all of that captured on two-inch tape is challenging. You have to bring those levels, that dynamic range, closer together so the quiet stuff isn’t buried in tape hiss and the loud stuff isn’t totally distorted.
“We used Barefoot’s original vintage Telefunken 251 to record the vocals,” he continues. “Then I used an UnderToneAudio mic preamp, which has a huge dynamic range and has really beautiful harmonic color in it. When she does start singing really hard, the harmonic distortion that’s introduced becomes very musical. And then I had to put two compressors in series to manage all of the level that she puts down. The first one is a custom model made by Decca Studios in England. That would do the initial round of trying to even things out. After that I put the UTA UnFairchild compressor as the final stage of compression, which also adds some really beautiful color and helps marry the elements together. I wanted the levels to all show up at the same place because ultimately she needs to sit in front of the band for the whole track. If she’s 40 dB quieter in the beginning, I’d be chasing that level with faders all over the place. So that was the magic combo, and I ended up using it for all of the vocals on the whole record. Everything was sung with that mic through that chain of processors.”
Potter adds, “When we got evacuated from our home during the Woolsey Fire last year, the only thing from the home studio that Eric brought was that microphone.
“This album is our story,” she continues. “It’s a story of what happens when you fall helplessly in love, and everything gets completely fucked up and blown out of the water. And then how you rebuild. And so that song was a central part of our story, the reckless abandon of love and how amazing it feels, how exhilarating it is when you finally just let the feeling completely flood in.”
Benmont Tench simultaneously plays Wurlitzer, piano and organ on Daylight. “There are some musicians that are so good that you don’t have to rehearse, and he’s one of them,” says Valentine. “In fact, Benmont is just off the charts, gifted and musical in ways that you very rarely encounter. For the specific type of music that Grace is making on this record, he ended up having the perfect instincts.
“We knew on the demo that we had both piano and organ, and maybe Wurlitzer in one section,” he adds. “We wanted him to play all three, and I just assumed we’d overdub, but Benmont said that usually he just plays all three at the same time. So we set up the organ, piano, and Wurlie so he could reach everything. He even does this trick with the B3 where he uses weights, actually little padlocks. They’re the perfect width for the key on a keyboard, and he’ll drop one so it’ll hold down a note for the sustain.”
One song, “On My Way,” seems reminiscent of early Aerosmith, a notion not lost on Potter and Valentine. “I love Aerosmith,” Valentine says. “It’s from that era, late Sixties, early Seventies. Just cool, raunchy rock and roll that has a swagger to it. That’s what we were hoping to capture with that song.”
Drummer Matt Musty adds an indelible foundation to the album, Valentine says: “Incredible drummer. He’s been playing live with Grace for a few years leading up to this, and so he had really learned what works with Grace’s music. When we started working on a song, I really wouldn’t have to give much direction. He just already knew what feels right for her music.”
Potter elaborates: “The way that he came into my life is pretty incredible—you couldn’t write it into a fiction book. It’s just such a beautiful path. He was opening for me in another band. When I suddenly found myself in need of a drummer, Musty stepped in without any rehearsal at all. He’d been watching my performances from side-stage and already knew my songs by heart. So he is the drummer on the new record. He just joined in, and since then has become a very integral and wonderful part of our life. He’s actually our son Sagan’s godfather.”
“He’s just an amazing drummer,” Valentine interjects. “This is Matt’s time to be discovered. So I brought him into play on a Keith Urban song, and he played amazing and Keith loved it. And he played on the Gwen Stefani record, and on and on. I just recommend him to everybody because I know people are going to fall in love with him and his drumming.”
“Desire,” one of the standout songs on the album, begins with a haunting instrumental intro. “Isn’t that the weirdest, creepiest, coolest thing ever?” Potter asks. Valentine explains that it is a Guitalele, a miniature guitar that was a gift for their son, Sagan. The song quickly develops into a passionate exploration of making love. “We have some really great footage in the studio of me and Lucius singing that one. We even have some dance moves that are pretty suggestive. Jess and Holly are a big presence on this record because I wanted strong female voices. They don’t just hold their own, they elevate the music and lyrics in every way.”
Does marriage get in the way of making a record? “Not at all,” says Potter.
“Being married to Eric has made it an incredible journey. There’s a precipice that we crossed where he realized that the things that he does are pretty far away from the things that I do, but that if both of us got out of our own way, we could make something really incredible together.”
Valentine adds, “The golden rule for this record was making sure that anything and everything that was done fits with Grace’s voice, basically, where her voice is really going to resonate and open up.
“On this record, the arrangements are simple and straightforward, with the traditional sounds of bass, electric and acoustic guitar, piano, organ, and drums. When Grace tours, it will be a faithful re-creation of the album.”
Potter adds, “For our last tour we used tracks and keyboard triggers for all kinds of sound effects because there were so many other-worldly sound effects and wild soundscapes that just couldn’t be recreated live. For the songs on Daylight, we kept everything very simple and honest—even a bit naked. And we like being naked.”