At the halfway point of recording "The Lion, the Beast, the Beat" — Grace Potter and the Nocturnals' fourth album, released last June — things seemed to be progressing smoothly.
The band's hybrid of blues, rock and folk sounded locked-in and tight, co-producer Jim Scott was capturing the group's live intensity on tape and executives at Hollywood Records were happy with early material.
So when Potter, the band's leader and primary songwriter, halted recording at the end of 2011, it was a major shock to everyone involved. Some called it writer's block, but the 29-year-old said recently that she hadn't given herself enough time to write a new record.
"The vibes were awesome, the band was psyched and the sounds were great," Potter, who performs at Rams Head Live on Saturday and Monday, said. "I was just in my own world, drifting away from the project."
As difficult as it was to stop everyone else's momentum, Potter knew she wasn't fully committed to the songs.
"Even the language we used to describe the songs felt stale," she said. "I wanted to chew into something harder with this record."
To fix the problem, Potter gave in to the drifting. With a guitar on her back, she rented a car and drove away from the Santa Clarita, Calif., recording studio, with the hopes of rediscovering the creative energy needed to write songs she loved.
Alone, she camped in Arizona, Nevada and Wyoming. Then Potter flew to the band's home state of Vermont to hike in the woods and "get back to what mattered to me as a child." The trip home wasn't enough, so Potter ended her excursion in the Caribbean. Self-imposed isolation is a well-worn rock 'n' roll cliche, but Potter took the time away seriously.
"It wasn't a vacation. It was a working journey," she said. "When I found a place that felt comfortable to sit and write, that's what I would do."
The cross-country adventure paid off, judging from the finished product. "The Lion, the Beast, the Beat" is the band's most accomplished album. There are soaring, anthemic highs (such as the opening title track) and smart insights on failed love ("Parachute Heart") and death ("Stars"), which could only come from valuable life experience.
The album's best highlight, "Timekeeper," justifies the comparisons Potter receives to Janis Joplin and Stevie Nicks. It's a sad song about wasting time and the helpless feelings that come with it ("I thought I'd have it right by now," Potter sings, sounding exhausted).
Naturally, the song was written on her soul-searching road trip.
"I was frustrated and felt a heaviness over me," Potter said. "Like, 'Why wasn't it working?'"
Looking back now, Potter seems most grateful she didn't take her anger out on her bandmates.
"It's better to wring your hands with a song instead of taking it out on the people around you," she said.
While the band formed more than decade ago, there's a sense that Grace Potter and the Nocturnals are on the verge of something bigger. On Kenny Chesney's 2011 hit duet, "You and Tequila," Potter played the role of Emmylou Harris, bringing a female voice and perspective to a heartbreaking country ballad.
If the band, and Potter in particular, are on the brink of a breakthrough, then "Tequila" deserves some credit for introducing her to a vast new audience.
"He saw something in me, that I'd be capable to cross over into that world far sooner than I did," Potter said of Chesney.
Whether Potter and her band eventually reach mainstream ubiquity or not, she says it's not what drives them. Recently, Potter was in Louisville, Ky., hanging out with My Morning Jacket's Jim James, another lead singer who has been at it for years. The discussion turned to "these flighty bands that take over the world for five months and are never heard from again," Potter said.
"We take pride in having the last laugh, and Jim and I were literally laughing about that," she said. "But it's safer to keep our blinders on and keep doing what we're doing, instead of focusing on world domination and possibly putting out mediocre music."
If you go
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals perform Saturday at Rams Head Live. The show is sold out. A second show at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place, will take place Monday. Houdsmouth will also perform at both shows. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $35 and $40. Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun