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A Conversation with Grace Potter

By Brennen Matthews

Photographs courtesy of Grace Potter

There are a lot of very talented singer-songwriters in the world but how many of them have a deep connection to Route 66 and are passionate about the Great American road trip? Grace Potter first introduced her music to the world in 2002 with Red Shoes Rebel, and now has five studio albums to her credit, with her latest, Mother Road, being released in August 2023. In this conversation with ROUTE Magazine, Potter waxes poetic about her musical journey, her time along America’s most famous highway and the inspiration for her new album.

What is your backstory with how you came to be connected to Route 66?

I was introduced to Route 66 by my maternal grandparents, Madre & Padre as we called them. They lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Southwest was their geographical love affair. Padre was a scientist at Bell Labs until he took on a new position at Sandia Labs and moved the family there in the late 60s. My grandmother didn’t like flying, so the road trips became a ritual. When my mother settled in Vermont and my aunt in California, they made an art form of the road trip; always driving across the country for visits. My uncle, Morgan, who is a wonderful documentarian, would often travel with them, and the photos and stories they shared with me as a kid were deeply inspiring and fueled my wanderlust. My grandfather famously called Madre “Lead-foot Bette” because she loved a good cruise. He had nicknames for everyone. He called me “Gracie Gander” because I just sat quietly, gazing at the world as a young child. I loved watching the pleasure Madre took in reading a map & routing the day; deciding what side trips to take. Watching Madre with a map was a delectable experience, it was like doing a crossword puzzle for her.

I spent a lot of time in Albuquerque, especially the winters. My siblings and I were home-schooled when we were living there; and because Route 66 goes through Albuquerque, every day there’d be a new Route 66 story and/or just something that Madre or Padre would pull out of a paper or book and say, “Let’s go see that. There’s a picture of it here, let’s go find it.” That wayfinding experience of, almost like a treasure map, using the highways and byways of America and discovering America… the roads, the desert, the culture baked into the landscape - it felt mysterious and beautiful - like I was on another planet. Those excursions helped me discover a much broader America than I’d ever imagined.

That wanderlust expanded for me as I grew up, got my license, and hit the road as a late teen/early 20s, then I started touring with my band. When we headed west, we’d always swing through New Mexico and crash with Madre and Padre at their place in Four Hills. Madre would mix up killer margaritas and totally kick us to the curb in the morning, but she could party with the best of them. So, those road trips, I really looked at them as an opportunity to expand on which directions I hadn’t gone in yet, what roads I had not taken. That’s really where my touring life and my personal life connected, and it’s been that way ever since, and Route 66 has always felt like the glue that holds some of my favorite places together.

Have you done the entire route, Chicago to LA?

I have, yes. All the way.

I started, actually, beyond Chicago. I’m from Vermont, so I took a few circuitous routes to get to Chicago, and then took that route. In Mother Road, I mentioned a town called Romeoville which again, it’s not really a thing, you get there and you’re like, “This is it. Here we are.” But that’s what I love about Route 66.

I’ve done it in both directions, LA to Chicago and Chicago to LA, by myself. But when I was coming from LA, because that’s where I had my son, that’s where I got married, and that was sort of home base at the beginning of this album, which changed in the middle of the album and home base ended up in Vermont. We bought a farm in the midst of the pandemic.

But I met a guy who was at this Route 66 historic society kiosk on the Santa Monica pier, and I bought this book from him, EZ 66 Guide for Travelers. The trip was slow going, but that’s what you do when you take Route 66, you’re not trying to get somewhere fast.

What have been some of your favorite places on Route 66?

I really love Amboy. I didn’t know that the crater existed. The book took me down this crazy road which ended up being a circuitous route off of an exit that said there was a bridge. There was no bridge, it was washed out. So, I took my Volkswagen Atlas and went off-roading.

I took it down through a wash and up and through onto these back dirt roads that took me about fifteen miles into the middle of nowhere, and it was so beautiful. It was so peaceful, but there was definitely a moment as it was starting to get dark where I realized that there’s probably people out here that live around here, and they’re going to come out and really start wondering what’s going on. And I was low on gas! So, I found a lot of song inspiration from that moment of fear and the reality check of what I was doing and like what was I thinking?

Another place that I absolutely love is Tucumcari. That town really dug into my heart and ended up lyrically playing a huge role in my storytelling. When you go and talk to the person who’s sitting on their porch, who seems extremely interested in your car, or whatever… striking up conversations in towns like Gallup and Kingman… we went to the Route 66 museum in Kingman, and that was awesome. It was a deep dive into the road of flight, into so many of the stories and fables, and to really see some of it as it is now, but also to listen to Peter Fonda make this hilariously dated Route 66 homage/tribute documentary… and it’s really silly and sweet and lovely.

What I’ve done a lot is collect stories from other peoples’ adventures. I don’t necessarily go out to recreate them, but when I see a place, especially old, abandoned gas stations and homes that used to be soup kitchens or bakeries… just going and finding and sitting in those spaces and reimagining life, recognizing how different things are now from what they were in these images, even from the 1990s, and how much has changed and how much has actually not changed.

Have you had any interesting things happen to you when on the road?

Yes, very much. It surprised me to discover how a woman driving solo on the road still raises eyebrows - but it can lead to very interesting conversations. I met a character outside a fuel station near Winslow; they were dressed like a combo of Captain Jack Sparrow and a hobo person from a David Lynch film. It was a very interesting person and they seemed really worried about me. At first, I thought they were a homeless person and that they wanted to get money; they kept circling back when I was repacking the back of the car, which I love doing. I love organizing the pack. I had a few things laid out and this person came up and said, “So, you don’t have a hammer?” And I just… couldn’t understand what was going on. But this person said, “Well you’ve gotta have a weapon of some kind. You’re out here by yourself.” Then I started to get really freaked out. Was this a threat? I think I was right near Winslow, but not quite in town yet…and it was getting dark and then, with a big, toothy smile, they gave me a hammer and walked away. And that was it. I was like, “What? You’re giving me a hammer?” I’d like to think it was an act of kindness, but they went about it in the creepiest way, so I think they were getting off on it or something.

After that, based on a recommendation, I ended up going to La Posada in Winslow. There, I met the owner, Tina Mion, and she suggested that I go up to Las Vegas, New Mexico, and stay at their sister property, La Plaza. I had a friend who was actually shooting a show up there, so it seemed like a good time, and then I get there and I’m getting out and the hammer is sitting on my driver side, and he sees me, he’s like, “I’m glad you brought some protection this time, somebody finally knocked some sense into you.” (Laughs)

I still travel with that hammer. (Laughs)

You’ve been working on a movie for some time now. When do you think it’ll be released?

Who knows! I’ve been developing the concept since 2021, and I can see it coming together over the course of the next year or two. It turns out that filmmaking takes far more patience, preparation and money than Rock & Roll.

When I embarked on the touring life, I gave up college - where I’d just declared my major in film. Since then, I’ve longed to complete that thought. So much of this album (Mother Road) and the video (first track release) and what will become the film, is essentially me finally tethering myself back to my original passion, which started out as storytelling and found its way through song sooner than it did through film. But I want those two pieces of my life to be married again and to meet somewhere on the Mother Road.

Road trips and the great American road trip down Route 66 specifically is having a resurgence at this time. What do you think is drawing people back to the old road?

I think it’s all based on storytelling and people being enchanted, or disenchanted, by their own lives, and being curious to see and feel something different. I know that experiential stuff is really coming back. Ultimately, we cannot live our lives behind a screen. We will not thrive. We will fail if we just simply stare at screens, or in the case of the song Good Time, which is the next single that’s going to be coming out, there’s this lyric, “Why’s there always gotta be a window between me and everything and everyone I want to see?” And that really is the feeling I think the whole world experienced literally, with plate glass being put up at cash registers everywhere during COVID, and this sense that we are not connected anymore, that we need to be separated. It makes you want to plunge deeper into, “Well, what was society like before? What could society be like if it was different? How would my life be different if I had lived in Kentucky instead of Vermont? Or If I’d grown up in the Midwest, if my job was to be baling the hay that I drive by every day on my way to my tech company job?”

I think that curiosity is beginning to peak in our society, just the zeitgeist of culture, especially with young people who want to put the pieces together and don’t quite get what the thing is about. Then they go, and even if it is a side trip to Marfa, you’re seeing all these young kids doing their road trips and accidentally stumbling into the magic and nostalgia that you and I have obviously have been aware of for many decades now.

This has been a passion of mine, based on my grandparents, my connection to them, and obviously in my case, it’s because they were alive in that time, so the nostalgia is real, but for young people who don’t have those connections or a way to connect the dots, I think there’s a longing, there’s almost a sense of emptiness. Living in an apartment building or living your life behind a computer screen. “Alright, that’s it. I’m putting away the computer, I’m renting a car, and me and my three best friends are just going to do it.” I’m hearing a lot more of that.

I’m a fan of a lot of your music, but my favorites are the slower stuff like Stars or Falling or Flying, the love songs, but the new album doesn’t really have anything that’s slower. Was that intentional?

Mother Road (the album) is my unapologetic tantrum – it’s the sound of my truth – created and delivered directly from my soul. Since the break from the live show due to the pandemic, I’ve not had the stage as my outlet. There’s been no place for me to shake off the trauma and roar with glee, so when I finally got into the studio, it was not the time for subtle, sweet restraint. Nope. My whole body needed to vibrate and swing. I wrote these songs to help drive me onward, not past the pain, but through it.

You’ll hear the voyeuristic British Invasion vibe, which also tied back to Route 66, because when the Rolling Stones came to the U.S., it seemed like they really wanted to feel the dirt under their fingernails. They wanted to get dust on their boots, they wanted to “kick the sh*t off their shoes” as they said in the song Sweet Virginia, and I think that I really just enjoyed tapping into a memory bank that wasn’t necessarily only mine, but more of a collective. And again, as I was writing this album, the film was also taking place in my mind, and every time I closed my eyes and started singing these songs, I was seeing so much more in my head than I was able to convey through the lyrics, so it became clear that I needed to express much more of these stories. So, I was immediately like, “Okay, it’s not a songwriting road trip, it’s a location scout. I am location scouting for my film.” And you know, four trips back and forth across Route 66 later, I had myself a very aggressive record. Y’know, it could just be that I was just drinking all that coffee, you know? (Laughs) I just felt it.

You have another track that I really enjoy, that was a collaboration with Jackson Browne and a few others: Eachother. How did that collaboration with Jackson and the others come together to write the song?

Well, I wrote this song by myself during the pandemic. I was missing my friends. Jackson and I had just played at my festival up in Vermont… he has a deep connection to Vermont. His dear friend Warren Zevon’s daughter, Ariel, lives here in Vermont and is also a musician up here. So, when he came and played at my festival, I think he was really inspired. He pulled me aside, he said, “Grace, I started writing a song this weekend - so far the lyrics are ‘I came looking for answers, I came looking for grace...’”

Oh, I love that song. A Little Soon to Say.

Yeah! He began that song writing at Grand Point North! It’s a beautiful sentiment. It's wisdom incarnate. He’s just always been a longtime friend of mine and a dear soul, so that’s how that collaboration happened. And then everybody else, I just kind of texted all of my friends, like everyone, and said, “I wrote this song. I miss you. I hope you’re good. Do you want to sing a verse of it?” We edited it all together and put it out. But it was really my way of trying to reconnect with everybody. I don’t know how to reconnect with people. I don’t love phone calls as much as I love being in person and being with the people I care about. I’m always at my best and most present when I’m there in person. And this was the closest that we could get.

Your music has been on One Tree Hill, Grey’s Anatomy, and Tangled and a few other things.  Did you see a huge impact in the interest in your music after appearing in TV and film projects?

You can never underestimate the power and the emotional gravity that a visual can have on the way a song is absorbed. And you can never take the genie back into the bottle after that seeing and hearing experience, and that’s really what I’m trying to get to the heart of by diving back into filmmaking, because I feel very much like I wish I could just be the music supervisor to people’s lives. And at least with Mother Road and every record I’ve made before this, that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to make road trip music. I want to be the original motion picture soundtrack to everybody’s life, because that’s more interesting anyways. It’s a beautiful opportunity to share and to be discovered.

And yes, to answer your question, absolutely. Those gigs and those placements in those shows was the scaffolding of a whole separate tier of my career that really got knocked out of the park by Grey’s Anatomy, for sure. And then once that happened, it just continued from there. I love, love, love collaborating with writers and filmmakers, and even if it is a song that already exists, just seeing what creative ways can really get into the heart of the song.

I think that it’s really about understanding and connecting people to my music in as many ways as possible, while maintaining the integrity and the heart of what my intention was when I wrote this song. You gotta let them (songs) go, gotta let them fly. It’s been nothing but wonderful for me.

You are turning 40 this month?


And you’re a mom to an active five-year-old!

I can’t believe that he’s five, but he’s very five too. Just such a wonderful soul, and just the trippiest experience of my life, y’know? Watching what was just this concept, this twinkle in our eye, turned into a really, really passionate and powerful entity in our home and in the world at large… We just had the band at our house and watching him kind of holding court and hosting everybody, just watching this amazing little person that definitely is a reflection of me and a reflection of my husband, but who is also so much his own person. I really am pretty amazed at it. It’s a humbling experience, for sure.

Do you take him on tour with you?

I did on the last tour with Daylight. He was still enough of a baby that we could fit him into a little trundle bed. We were actually on Casey Musgraves’ tour bus which was unbelievably beautiful. Beautiful design and exquisite curation of living space. And again, that’s another thing we could get into - road life, car life, all the inner workings of our vehicles that we know and love… but he’s getting too big. He needs his own bunk. And he also wakes up very early and is extremely loud, so what was kind of just a cute, chubby baby and the cute family bus with lots of sweet family time and lots of quiet and naps has turned into this gaping, rockstar, death metal, screamo band kid cacophony of sound. (Laughs) And I don’t think I can do that to the band, so until we are on at least two buses, I won’t be able to bring him on tour.

He was on one of my Route 66 drives, though. He came with me on the very last one before we finally closed the book on mixing and mastering with Mother Road, the album, in March of last year. We drove as a family; it was the only time I did the trip not by myself, actually. And it was just the most delicious trip. He’s such a good little roadie. He knows how to do Route 66.

He’s obsessed with trains, and now I’m obsessed with trains! A huge piece of Route 66 and its history is really about the industry that was suddenly available and suddenly moving westward and trying to get all of these oil tycoons and all these different industrial factories going and all these salesman that would be trudging along from one town to the next trying to peddle whatever they had to offer the world, because there was this commerce and this big old steel-railed industrial machine moving our world much faster than it was before. So, it’s certainly not lost on me, but also if he weren’t obsessed with trains, he still would’ve been on this road trip with us, but I think it changed my perspective. I wasn’t so train centric when I was driving by myself, but just having that passenger in the car who literally, if we saw a train, we had to pull over, we had to stop everything. (Laughs)

It was such a good trip. We actually ended up getting on the train and I did a little deadhead drive so that they could take a little jaunt. It was kind of a logistical nightmare, but it was still totally worth it. We lost a day there, but it was completely worth it… that’s what those road trips are for. Losing days.

Grace Potter’s fifth solo studio album “Mother Road” will be released on August 18, 2023. Make sure you check it out!


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