I reach Grace Potter by phone somewhere in south Alabama, relaxing in the back of Lil' Wayne's old tour bus. Well, technically, it's Potter's tour bus now, but the signs of its former owner are all over.
"There's seven flat-screen TVs here in the bedroom. It's like Samsung wallpaper," she said. "I don't actually watch much TV, so I'm not sure exactly what I'm going to do with them. Watch seven things at once, I guess?"
She anticipates my next question, "Yes, this bus is the one that got shot up," she said referring to the July 2015 drive-by shooting against Wayne, allegedly planned by long-time manager Birdman and disciple Young Thug. "I heard from The Avett Brothers that there was some sort of pistol stash compartment somewhere, but I haven't found it yet," she adds.
Beyond even the obvious reasons, there's something deeply weird about Grace Potter — the roots rock singer from Vermont — rolling around the country in Weezy's old bus. But the image might be as good a metaphor as any in describing the strange turn Potter's career has taken over the past several months.
As Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, the singer and her band spent a decade on the road building a following the old-fashioned way: proving themselves as one of the most impressive roots-rock outfits on the circuit and riding Potter's stadium-sized voice and considerable songwriting chops to national notice. Then in August of last year, she threw a curveball. Midnight, her first major label release without the Nocturnals, saw the singer trading in Americana for a more polished pop sound.
"I've always been drawn to Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Eurythmics, all the music from childhood that my mom used to play when we were cleaning the house or driving out to the lake," she explained. "I wanted [Midnight] to have a fun, effervescent spirit. I didn't want it to be some seething rock mystery."
Midnight, with its shimmering pop sound, liberal use of synths and studio-glossed hooks, has given Potter new opportunities to showcase her vocal prowess and versatility. However, the stylistic turn took many fans of her work with the Nocturnals off guard, a reaction Potter anticipated.
"People get upset when people don't do what they think you're supposed to do," she said, explaining her decision to release and tour without the Nocturnals name. "If I wanna take a risk, I wanna own that risk. I'm not shrugging it off on a random collective at large."
The material from Midnight is by no means recent; Potter wrote "Biggest Fan," the album's ninth track, back in 2009. However, when she pitched it to her bandmates, they "just didn't jive with it."
"Anything that sounded more like the Talking Heads, B52s, Madonna, the guys didn't really like it," she said. "I didn't want to let all those freak flags fly within the context of this whiskey-soaked roots-rock band."
When she did commit to embracing the new sound, it released a rush of pent-up creative energy. "All these other ideas just came pouring out in this sort of flash flood. I was just writing like a madwoman," she said.
While the singer has grown in both confidence and ambition through her recordings, it's in concert where she's always made her most immediate mark. The challenge then came in how to present this new side of her musical personality live.
"I was ready for it to be a hot mess. How do you tack these sounds together?" she said. Potter had just one week to put a band together for her first solo show (an opening for the Rolling Stones, no less.) "I pulled half the material from Midnight, half from the Nocturnals, and they just fit together beautifully," she explains. "After all, the same brain wrote it all, and if I'm writing it and singing it, then I'm the thread between the two."
The ability to flaunt all sides of her musical personality has been a source of liberation throughout this tour, as has the expansion of her band beyond the Nocturnals' set five-piece format.
"The live show hasn't gotten different, but it's gained muscle tone and dynamic, with new players giving it a bigger feel," she said.
Potter leaves no doubt that she takes her craft incredibly seriously. Even then, she talks about life on the road with the giddiness of a college spring breaker. She shares with me her dream of building a multi-level treehouse-style tour bus on which she can travel the world (the Weezy-mobile will do for now.) And she talks of the connection she seeks to forge with each town through which she and her band pass.
"Getting off the bus and exploring is what makes you a human when touring. You can easily sleep in until 3 p.m. everyday, but for me it's about understanding what about each town makes it special. The set list and how we play each night is all informed by that."
Texas, she points out, holds a particularly important place on her tour itinerary.
"People always think I'm from Texas, I don't know exactly why. Maybe I just have a sort of connection with it," she said. "So this will be a sort of metaphorical homecoming for me."