Grace Potter found her voice and her passion at St. Lawrence University — potent ingredients for the singer who USA Today last summer called “the best female rock singer in the country.”
So her return to the Canton campus next Sunday, as leader of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, has special meaning for her.
“Having this be a part of our history and being able to pay tribute to such a big part of why we are, who we are and where we came from is a great way to round out our 10-year anniversary,” she said.
Miss Potter, a music major at SLU for two years, formed the band in the fall of 2002, her first year there, with drummer Matt Burr, a class of 2003 graduate. Also in the band were Jennifer E. Crowell and Courtright T. Beard, who were students at SLU, and Scott Tournet, a guitarist from Vermont. The band recorded its debut album, “Original Soul,” in 2003. That led to several gigs at SLU and in the Potsdam-Canton area. In 2004, after playing at a music festival in Ireland, the band went on a tour of New England, followed by a college tour.
Returning to Miss Potter’s home state of Vermont that year, the band gained and lost a few members, settling finally with Miss Potter, Mr. Buff, Mr. Tournet and Benny Yourco of Vermont on bass.
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals have since released four albums on Hollywood Records. The group’s latest, “The Lion, The Beast, The Beat” was released last year, debuting at No. 17 on Billboard’s Top 200 weekly chart, and No. 10 on Billboard’s Digital Album chart.
Miss Potter is credited with writing most of the band’s music but is assisted by Mr. Tournet and Mr. Burr on some tracks. Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach co-wrote three songs with the band on “The Lion, The Beast, The Beat.”
Miss Potter has been involved in other projects. A duet with Kenny Chesney, “You and Tequila,” was nominated for video of the year for the 2012 CMT Music Awards.
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals are on their “Roar Tour,” which has been selling out venues across the U.S. In March, they begin a European tour in support of the Avett Brothers. In late March, the band will perform at two festivals in Australia.
Miss Potter took time out late last month from a tour date in Fargo, N.D., where she noted, the temperature was 12 degrees below zero — nothing the 29-year-old Waitsfield, Vt., native couldn’t handle.
The last time Miss Potter and her band visited the north country was in August as part of moe.down 13 in Turin. The band was also at moe.down in 2006 and at the Norwood Village Green Concert Series that year.
Miss Potter is known for her energetic stage presence. She said it’s something she had lost, then rediscovered at SLU.
“From a young age, I loved the spotlight and performance art,” she said.
She would create “zany” characters and create dance routines and perform them in front of friends and family.
“Later, I became a shrinking violet,” she said. “I didn’t like sharing my music. I felt uncomfortable, especially in my late teens. It became kind of embarrassing to share my music with the world.”
She said it wasn’t until college, with the Nocturnals, that she broke out of her shell.
“They recognized that I had a loud voice and had a massive presence in my personal life, but when I got on stage, I would kind of wither,” she said.
Bandmates encouraged her to play organ instead of piano. When they turned up their amplifiers at concerts, she was forced to sing louder.
“That’s really how my stage presence grew,” she said. “The music and the energy just kind of collided and changed the course of what kind of music we were making.”
The music of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, known as GPN by fans, has been described as everything from blues rock to alternative rock. But concert-goers attending a “Roar Tour” show could hear a potpourri of pop. The band is compiling each night’s set list based on song requests sent to the band via Twitter at twitter.com/gracepotter.
“We’re a very dynamic band, especially now that we’re taking requests,” Miss Potter said. “Things come out of left field all the time. On some nights, we play 10 cover songs, and some nights we don’t play any.”
A fan favorite on the band’s latest album is the song “Stars.” But the tune almost didn’t see light of day.
“That song is a heartbreaker, but also one of the more inspiring pieces of music that I’ve ever written,” Miss Potter said. “It was just for me when I wrote it, to make me feel better. I had just lost a friend who was dear to me.”
She wasn’t sure she wanted to share her loss with the world.
“I didn’t want the family to feel I was capitalizing on her loss” Miss Potter said.
But she realized “Stars” could be about a variety of topics, not just about the death of a friend.
“A lot of people who come up to me to thank me for the song think it’s about a breakup,” she said.
Others have suggested it’s about the death of a dog or moving out of a house.
“There’s a lot of things to grieve over, I guess,” Miss Potter said. “I think I must have been narrow-minded thinking that everybody would assume that it’s about death. I’m grateful that people have found other things to be inspired by.”
Miss Potter’s musical inspiration came from her late great-great uncle, Spiegel Willcox of Cortland, who played trombone witih the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. She said he was the only musician in the family who made a profession of it.
“He was my hero,” Miss Potter said. “Big band and swing continued to be a big part of what inspired me. For me, that’s what music is; grabbing from the best of everything you’ve ever heard and creating your own melting pot.”
Miss Potter taught herself how to play piano and guitar.
“I wanted to take lessons, but every time I would look for the right teacher, it just felt uncomfortable,” she said. “I don’t like being told what to do, as many artists have found.”
Her parents, SLU alumni Richard “Sparky” and Peggy Potter, wouldn’t let their children watch television programs, only videos. Also, they had to be occupied by something else while watching, such as drawing or writing. Luckily, the Potters’ piano was next to the television.
“I’d put the TV on mute and make my own scores to the movies,” Miss Potter said.
She’s continuing that process on the “Roar Tour.”
“I like to write a set list like a movie, with an opening couple of scenes to set the tone, and then you start telling the stories,” she said.
Those “storied” concerts have high energy levels.
“We are a true rock ’n’ roll band,” Miss Potter said. “We can bring it home and we can burn the house down. But we can also take it down to a beautiful, minute solo acoustic moment that can be really stirring.”
WHAT: Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
WHEN/WHERE: 7 p.m. next Sunday, Feb. 10, in Leithead Field House at St. Lawrence University, Canton. Tickets designated for nonstudents are sold out. SLU students may attend the concert for $10 and may purchase tickets in advance at the Sullivan Student Center information desk and online at http://tinyurl.com/ay8h5ke.
OF NOTE: The SLU Soul/Funk Revue is the opening band.