road trip with a rock star
Rocker Grace Potter talks nostalgia, Texas, and her SXSW film premiere
Grace Potter has always wanted to be someone specific and perhaps surprising: "a woman who drove an old truck and had a laundromat in Austin, Texas."
Well, we suppose there's still time for that. Before that dream is realized, she'll be a woman who plays Austin City Limits Live on February 16, then one who has executive produced a documentary premiering at South by Southwest (SXSW) on March 10, 2024. And that's nothing to scoff at.
Since the early aughts, Potter has become known as a real-deal rock musician — one who stands up to the old ideals of classic rock while embracing a more contemporary, versatile aesthetic. She's known for songs like "Paris (Ooh La La)" with her band, the Nocturnals, and "Something That I Want" as a solo project featured on the Tangled soundtrack.
Photo courtesy of Adrien Broom
Both of her most popular songs are overtly feminine on opposite sides of the spectrum — from gritty and rebellious to hopeful and bubbly — but neither trips over the benevolently limiting tropes strewn around for women musicians. She doesn't need a schtick; She's gained rock credence from her own artistic vision as well as projects with the Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers Band, Willie Nelson, and Neil Young.
"I think that coked-up white dudes from the '70s have been celebrated a lot," says Potter from her tour bus in Macon, Georgia (of course). "And I've been a part of a lot of that celebration... The entire generation of people that made music at that time seem to just touch on a blend of musicality in an era where music from all different corners of the earth started to gel together. I think there's a real ubermusical moment there."
Her SXSW project, Resynator, continues following the impactful-men-from-the-'70s thread through another feminine lens.
Director Alison Tavel, Potter's best friend and tour manager at the start of the film, has been collecting information for a decade about her musician father, Don Tavel, who died when she was only 10 weeks old. Don developed a synthesizer called The Resynator, which he himself called "the precursor to MIDI," but this particular synthesizer fell out of use, and it became his daughter's goal to revive it.
Money Mark and Alison TavelStill from Resynator
The film offers a tour through some of the music industry's greatest innovators and entertainers: Peter Gabriel, Fred Armisen, Gotye, Jon Anderson, Mike Gordon, and Potter's husband, producer Eric Valentine, among others. But between the star power and the electronic tinkering are more emotional, personal scenes with family. Alison's mother represents a level of complication in Don's image that was invisible to his daughter; Don's mother represents an origin for this complexity.
Potter, who appears briefly a few times, holds space for pivotal moments: the inception of the idea, the shift from fact-finding to traveling with The Resynator, and eventually, the posthumous resolution between father and daughter. Although she must have been a useful collaborator in parlaying with all these famous musicians, she is also one of the women forming the emotional core of the film.
"There were moments all along the way where [Alison] wanted to quit," says Potter. "Basically my job as EP was to get her in front of as many musicians as possible, [and to] create as many opportunities as possible for her to continue pushing through her vision and of course the occasional mental breakdown."
Family and nostalgia as art engines
A mother herself, Potter doesn't know why exactly she gravitates toward stories about family and images of nostalgia. She seems good at the common creative advice, write what you know.
She remembers as a child trying to dismantle the "female singers" section of her mother's record collection, yet now realizes its existence steered her to a strong appreciation of Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie, and Nina Simone. She doesn't seek out family projects, but her latest album, Mother Road, is a direct result of returning to her hometown with her husband and son, grieving a miscarriage, and becoming obsessed with long rental car drives.
"[The nostalgia is] very much always there. It's not something at the forefront of my mind," says Potter. "It's such an amazing thing to wake up ... and to feel like I was born into the wrong time, but I love this. And [we] have the shepherds of our family to bring us to influences and inspiration that allow our creativity to flow."
She continues, referring to the familial questions that drove Resynator, "It really brought in so much gratitude for me that I had the ability to come up in a world where I didn't have to ask those questions. But it also made me [think about] my kid — Sagan, he's 6 now — what kind of table am I setting for him to sit down at?"
Texas and South by Southwest
Whatever tables she sets, the nostalgia clearly inspires some wanderlust in Potter. Although the singer is from Vermont, she grew up spending the winters with her grandparents in Albuquerque. She often uses images of the Southwest, especially in Mother Road, and has plenty of admiration for Texas as part of it.
"I just remember it being so foreign at first, the terrain and the way that the hills roll, especially as you get through New Mexico and and start entering into Texas," she says. "There's that big-sky, wide-open-range, horizon-for-days experience. I was so cosseted in Vermont. I mean, every mountain around me felt like a hug. And as I grew up, I think that curiosity and that sort of headlong-into-the-howling-wind feeling ... was urgent, like on a cellular level. And it is the epitome, I think, [of] Texas."
Photo courtesy of Grace Potter
In a much more urban sense, South by Southwest represents a similar unknown in its potential for making creative encounters. (If you see her this year, ask her about Dr. Dog, Jack Antonoff, Phoenix, Robert Plant, and her hotel room party.) She's been going in various capacities since 2005, and always leaves room in her schedule for impromptu collaborations.
"There's so many things about the film industry and the music industry that I've always enjoyed, that cross over," Potter says. "And South by Southwest is one of the rare places where you can really actively see it happening. You can see and meet filmmakers who are inherently inspired by [music] — sometimes even their whole story starts with a song."
"It's been many years of me wanting to find my footing in both the film and music worlds ... and make some kind of a Trojan horse out of the whole thing," she concludes. "And it's finally starting to come together. It only took me 20 years."
Grace Potter's ACL Live show takes place Friday, February 16, at 8 pm. Tickets ($39.50-57.50) are available at acllive.com. Resynator is premiering at South by Southwest on Sunday, March 10, at 6 pm. Showtimes and more information are available at sxsw.com.