Singer/Songwriter and pianist Greg Potter is set to release a collection of songs as part of an album titled "Night Hymns." Potter has previously been known around the Tori Amos fan community as one-half of the duo that brought the Tori Amos Tribute Show to NYC as part of Tori's 50th birthday celebration in August of 2013. He was kind enough to answer some questions about his new album, a haunting and beautiful journey through admiration, devotion, loss and the complexities of human emotions.
1. What inspires you and how would you describe the music you make?
I began writing music around the age 15, and I’ve always been focused on trying to create a good melody or hook. I first started writing music on the guitar, but I would call my current music piano-based, melodic, alternative/pop songs. I’m not inspired by love as much as I am by personal struggle and self-worth. It’s not that hard to go on a date or to break up with someone, but it is pretty hard to be happy with yourself. My music is about a journey and a story that we all want to be part of. I think love can only be achieved if you’re truly happy with yourself and what you can offer. Maybe if I get to that point I’ll start writing love songs.
2. What is your musical background?
I’ve been listening to music and playing instruments ever since I was a little boy. I started piano lessons around 7, and saxophone lessons around 10, and kept those going until I was about 13. My piano teacher was an older, church-going woman who had no interest in contemporary or popular music, and really wasn’t the most fun person for a young boy to spending his Tuesday evenings with. Around that time, I decided I wanted a guitar. My brother Scott had been playing guitar for a few years by then, and thanks to him and MTV, I became very interested in big rock bands; bands like Aerosmith, The Rolling Stones, The Smashing Pumpkins, U2, etc. These were big rock bands that not only had great guitar players, but also had a lot of good songs.
At that point, and even now to an extent, I never really understood why someone’s favorite musical artist would be someone who only had one good album, or just a couple good songs. I really admired these artists because you could start with one album, and spend months on end hearing new songs, listening to how they grew as an artist and how they could maintain writing good material. Of course I loved newer artists as well, but it was these classic artists that really struck a chord with me as to what a musical artist should be striving for, that you are capable of writing lots of good songs and not just a handful. As a teenager, I realized that my main focus regarding music should be to learn how to write a good song. I could be the best singer in town, or the best guitar player in school, but none of that would really matter as much as creating a good song.
I was never able to start a band in high school. I really wanted to start a rock band, more alternative than rock probably, but I went to a very small school and the few people that could have done it were already in bands. Also, ska and pop punk was very big at that time and I wasn’t feeling that.
I wanted to start a band in college, but that proved to be tricky. I went to Ohio University in Athens, OH. Around 20,000 kids went to that school, but I didn’t know how to go about making a band happen. Most kids I met wanted to be in jam bands, and I wanted to play my own 4 minute originals. I also realized that playing the acoustic guitar in Athens, OH was about as original an activity as kicking around a hacky sack or drinking beer, so I started to play the piano again. A few years later, I moved to New York City, and started playing gigs on the piano around town, and now here I am.
3. Talk about a couple of the songs- what inspired their composition?
Most of my songs are not directly about me, or about my experiences. And most of them certainly are not love songs. I tend to write about scenarios that other people may come across in their lives, or imaginary stories based on my own self-doubt.
The first single off the EP is “Evelyn.” Many of my friends joke that it’s a song about my grandmothers, but it’s just inspired by them. Both of my grandmothers are named Evelyn. I’m not sure how to say this, as only one is living, but they are/were both strong, intelligent, talented women that I believe may have led more artistically and professionally gratifying lives had they been born in a different time. Now, I’m not saying they didn’t lead happy lives, I’m saying perhaps they would have wished they had the same opportunities that young men had when they were becoming women. It really breaks my heart to think that an entire society would put women into a certain role and not let them grow and show what they’re truly capable of achieving. That’s what Evelyn is about; it’s not about my affection for my grandmothers.
I believe the second single will be “Gypsy by Candlelight.” Musically, the song is strongly influenced by Elton John. Elton is solely responsible for getting me over my fear of writing songs in flat key signatures (guitar players don’t really do that). Lyrically, the song is about my own self doubt in the New York City music scene. I’ve played many shows in NYC; some to 5 people, some to 205 people. It’s a weird thing playing in NYC. Some days you feel like you’re on the verge of making it, and some days you wonder why you’re doing this. “Gypsy by Candlelight” is about the struggle a musician and songwriter faces while they’re trying to make the leap from a “no one” to a “someone.”
4. Are there any musicians you look up to?
Definitely Tori Amos. And the older I get, even more so Tori Amos. As a piano player, and as a songwriter, she’s never let me down, and I doubt she ever will. She’s classy, she’s honest and she’s not full of crap. She says things no one else will say and I really strive to be in that world of honest songwriting. She definitely has bigger balls than I do. And she’s frankly probably the best piano player out of anyone playing the piano in popular music today.
I also really admire the songwriting and musician ship of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. I know it sounds silly, but I think Mick Jagger is one of the most underrated songwriters in music. People view Mick as this bigger than life rock star, which he is, but really he’s a fantastic songwriter who crosses many genres and continues to write solid material (that of course no one will hear because today’s radio listener only gets to hear about 10 songs ever 4 months or so). Also, after a recent Enid Ellen performance this past November at La Mama here in NYC, a nice older gentleman came up to me and gave me one of the nicest compliments I’ve gotten in a while. He said that I play the piano like he does; like a percussion instrument (which it is). What he was getting to was that I play it like I mean it. I don’t play super light and gentle like most trained pianists do; I play heavy and loud. And I think I get that from my admiration for Keith Richards. He’s not the most accurate player all the time, but he plays those riffs like he means it.
And of course I admire lots of great songwriters like Elton John, David Bowie, Annie Lennox, Ryan Adams, Tim Rice-Oxley (Keane) and many, many others. I think Aqualung is a very underrated songwriter as well. If you can sit down and play an instrument and a song that you wrote, then I’ll have big respect for you.
5. What are you listening to?
Lots of music. I’ve been listening to the new Arcade Fire album a lot. I’m always listening to Bat for Lashes, Florence and the Machine, Regina Spektor, Joshua James, Kodaline and more. David Bowie’s latest album “The Next Day” is probably my favorite record of 2013. My producer’s band Suturee has a good album out called “Skim The Surface” that is a great listen for a nice New York at night time walk.
6. Any plans to to another Tori tribute show?
Yes definitely. David and I are sorting out the date right now. We did the first one to celebrate Tori’s 50th birthday which is in mid/late August, so we’re going to try to keep it around that time each year. Last year’s Tori tribute had a full house and we were able to raise a good amount of money for RAINN. I’d like to do the same this year, and for years to come!
Greg will be at Sidewalk Cafe in New York City on Sunday April 20th at 9pm.
The video for Evelyn can be found on YouTube by clicking here.
Adrienne Trier-Bieniek, PhD is the author of Sing us a Song, Piano Woman: Female Fans and the Music of Tori Amos (Scarecrow 2013). She is currently a professor of sociology at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida and studies connections between pop culture and gender. She has been featured on NPR-WGVU, the Orlando Sentinel and can be found at www.adriennetrier-bieniek.com.