Feature /// Sarah Potenza on being a ‘Monster.’

Whatever you do, don’t do Sarah Potenza the disservice of comparing her to Janis Joplin.

Yes, she is a blues singer. Sure, she’s got a hell of a lot of soul. But for goodness sake, whatever you do, don’t confine her to the ascription of “New Age Janis Joplin,” because that just won’t jive. Its old hat for Potenza, who’s been hearing that comparison since her formative years in Rhode Island – Every show I have ever played, like since I was 14 years old, everyone has been like, “Are you going to do Janis Joplin!?” Because I have this gravely voice, and I’m white, and I’m a woman.

Don’t miscontrue, Janis Joplin is great, and all, but are people really lack that much imagination to not let Potenza become her own entity? Potenza’s husband, Ian Crossman says the increasingly familiar comparison is a product of market scarcity – I [sic] think that’s indicative of the fact there aren’t many people who do what she can. You know? Think of a band like that. And if there’s anyone that would know such a fact better than Potenza, it would be Crossman, as the two have fostered such an innate understanding that on every level of their relationship, even bleeding into Sarah’s music – Its like the passing of a baton, I’m like singing, and I’m like “I can’t fucking mean this anymore!!!!” and then I pass it to him, and he tells the people things through his guitar. And so where my voice can’t go, his guitar takes over, and he just passes it back to me. So we have a conversation on stage, every night – where its like we’re singing about whatever the song needs, and something will happen like “Shit man, there’s only like 18 people at this show and the vans making a funny noise, and we need this fixed,” or we get this email, like this shitty email where we get passed up. And we just take heartache and that pain, and we just play it out.

And heartache is something Potenza and Crossman know all too well, having made it through the trials and tribulations of gigging in Chicago at blues clubs for tourists, to an apocalyptic end to their touring act, Sarah and the Tall Boys (fantastic band name, by the way) – “It was up near Yellowstone National Park – the festival – and we get up to Salt Lake City and call in to line up weed for everyone in the band, and so we were calling up our friends like “whatever, you can get, we’ll have everything you need, if it happens.” And we were like “If it happens, what do you mean?” Then they say “You didn’t hear about the forest fire?” and so we whip out our laptop in a Whole Foods to see that this giant ring of fire headed toward the festival grounds. And so, at that time, it was already kind of the end [of the Tall Boys] and the original band had already broken up, and it was one of those things like “That’s the anchor date,” that’s how we’re going to pay for everything else, and all the other shows will be gravy. And that day, we sat there for like eight hours or something, and then they cancelled it. So we had to drive all the way back from Salt Lake City to Nashville.”

So suddenly, it was back to the drawing board for Potenza and Crossman, as they began to cut their teeth in Nashville, just the two of them, to get Potenza’s story out into the ether. There were continued struggles – both career and non career – for sure, “Coming from Rhode Island, it took a while to get used to all the fucking spiders. We think we’re going to die because we’ve got brown recluse spiders in our place,” quipped Potenza, but they began to ingratiate themselves into the Nashville scene. They began heading out to house shows at Nikki Lane’s spot, where Ian described a scene of local stalwarts just hanging out,” I think it was the first week that we were in Nashville that a friend of ours from Rhode Island, named Joe Fletcher – he just posted that he was playing a house party, everyone was welcome to come. So we were like, “Okay, let’s go there” and the party happened to be at Nikki Lane’s house, and Patrick Sweeny was there, the Wild Feathers were there,to which Potenza adds, “And they were all so nice!”

In an instant, Nashville became much more manageable in a way, as it began to give Potenza and more discerning ear and ultimate edge in all music – so when I was down in Texas to do this show – and I’m not going to name names or anything like that, but all I can say is, things that I had once thought were mind blowing when I would see people do them, I’d be like “Are they for real? Because in Nashville… this shit would be tight! They would have guitar pedal on a pedal board; this would be crazy!” You know? I guess you just don’t really realize how much you’ve grown until you go away and come back and its like “I thought they were good? That guitar sound sucked.”

So as Potenza began to realize what her sound actually would be, people outside of her circle began to take note, namely, former Luella and the Sun guitar man, Joe McMahon. The proverbial Sean Maguire to Potenza’s Will Hunting, McMahon managed to shepherd Potenza and Crossman along a path that would eventually culminate into Potenza’s upcoming LP, Monster. McMahon reached out to Potenza and Crossman after Potenza’s run on the television show The Voice, and it was an instant fit, as Potenza said McMahon’s past work was a huge deciding factor, “I just felt like Joe was the guy for the job. Like, we talked about it, the first time we moved to Nashville, I saw him in a venue to raise money because his house burned down and I saw that stuff, and then I was familiar with Kevin Gordon’s music, and I talked to Kevin and he was like “Oh, Joe is the guys who produced my record,” and Crossman added, “And actually, even the last Patrick Sweeny thing was really like a big deciding thing, because it was like a completely new approach for Pat. It was like toned down in a sort of way – it was like more Southern gospel sort of thing.” But despite the seamless collaborative fit, that didn’t mean Potenza wasn’t challenged at certain points in the recording process for Monster – “[Joe] helped me to really harness singing for an album and singing the melody with more connection and conviction, like with the lyrics and not having to have those throw down moments all the time. They’re on there, but every song is not going to be like “Now Sarah’s ripping your stereo apart.” – and ultimately strengthening the album as a whole – “…I’m so used to being like “I know how to give it to them…” So like now, its like when you really listen to this kind of stuff, its not like Otis Redding, isn’t screaming all the time. So really, holding that back was kind of… I don’t want to say it was hard, but I feel like the record turned out really, really great because of it, and we worked really hard to do that.

As McMahon and Crossman helped flesh out the musicality of Monster, Potenza worked to really envelope the spirit of the record in each of the songs. Stories of self-skepticism – “I always thought of myself as less than when compared to other women, because I would see them and think “Oh my god, what would it be like to have arms like that thin? Or to have legs like theirs?” I don’t know, I would just see women as different than me.” – paired with other moments of self-realization.

For a long time, Potenza believed her tom-boyish spirit (a product of growing up with all brothers) was a proverbial handicap, which was briefly perpetuated by her time on The Voice, but was ultimately shattered, as she learned that the “handicap” that she believed to make her a “monster,” actually made her a “monster” in a more positive light – “so one night, this girl from the show came to my hotel room and she was like – she was crying and she was really upset, young girl, like 19 – “I’m jealous of you.” And I was like, my mind was kind of blown, because to think this girl would be jealous of me? She was really incredibly beautiful, and she was like, “You don’t understand what its like for me, you just don’t know. You’ll never understand someone like me. I know the only reason I’m here is because of the way I look.” And it dawned on me that night, I was like, “Holy shit, this girl is heartbroken, and feels like she’s not good enough to be here, because she thinks that the only reason she’s here is because of how she looks.” I’ve never opened a door with my looks in my life – I never learned to do that. So I never relied on that. I never thought that was why I was getting a job. I was getting a job because I was smart or talented or funny.”

Instantly, Potenza realized her monstrous presence was of more definitive merit than she had ever believed – “So it became, all of a sudden, “Oh my god! I’m not the one with the handicap, YOU are! Oh!” And I felt like my whole life around these women – these tiny little women – I felt like a monster, and now, all of a sudden, I felt like a monster, but in a whole different way. Like I was a monster singer, and I just knew who I was, and I knew why I was there. It just kind of changed me in a way, and I felt like that was something I wanted to celebrate. So “Monster” and the album as a whole is really about that. Its about having that “aha!” moment and having that place where you realize like, look, I’m a size 12, I’ll never be a size 4, and that’s fine, because that’s no longer something to be jealous of. That’s no longer something that I would covet or think “Oh, I wish that I could be like that,” because what I have is something that somebody like that is jealous of. So its like “oh, okay.” So I really felt like that was kind of this big moment for me. So that was where like that whole thing came up.”

So don’t think that just because Potenza has a monster voice or infectiously vivacious personality, she’s incapable of having perspective. If anything, her entire life’s journey has been nothing but fostering and cultivating her perspective of taking Nashville and the world head on. So don’t do Sarah Potenza the disservice of comparing her to someone as tired as Janis Joplin, because she’s a monster in her own right.

Sarah Potenza’s LP, Monster, is out August 19th.

-Sean

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