SARAH POTENZA // INTERVIEW
INTERVIEW BY: Emily May
Nashville singer-songwriter Sarah Potenza caught most people’s attention in 2015 during her appearance on Season 8 of The Voice where she made it to the Top 20. Prior to her solo career, she spent 7 years in Chicago fronting the band Sarah and the Tall Boys, releasing several albums with the band before deciding she was ready to change course musically and embark on a solo career. After leaving The Voice, she and her husband (and writing partner) Ian Crossman headed to Nashville, a city they now call home. She became an integral part of the local music scene, performing regularly at the iconic Bluebird Cafe and the Music City Roots Program. In 2016 Potenza released her debut album Monster, which quickly climbed the Americana Radio chart and received rave reviews from NPR and Rolling Stone Magazine. A roots/rock/soul artist with powerhouse vocals, Potenza has drawn comparisons to artists such as Adele, with it being said that “Potenza is the the blues what Adele is to Pop: a colossal-voiced singer who merges her old-school influences with a modernistic sound”. Potenza will be releasing her latest album, Road To Rome on March 8th, which happens to be International Women’s Day. Potenza co-wrote the album with Justin Wiseman, a piano player from Austin, TX, as well as with Crossman, and worked with producer Jordan Brooke Hamiln (Indigo Girls/Lucy Wainwright Roche) and a strong female cast of collaborators. It seems fitting that Potenza would be releasing her new album on International Women’s Day, as the album is filled with empowering messages of self-worth, determination and drive-her own declaration of independence in a sense! With plenty of R&B, swaggering soul and contemporary blues, the album shows Potenza’s growth as an artist and songwriter over the years. She recently released the first single from the album, “I Work For Me”, which you can hear below. You can follow Sarah Potenza and stay up-to-date with all album news and upcoming tour dates via the following links.
Prior to your solo career, you spent 7 years fronting your band Sarah and The Tall Boys. What led to the decision by you and your husband Ian to move to Nashville? Being a city that is so rich in music history and that has a vibrant music scene, do you find it easy to find inspiration? What led you to pursue a solo career?
Chicago was great, and Sarah & the Tall Boys was an amazing chapter in my life, but it was just done for me. I wasn’t inspired by that type of music anymore and it was time to move on. I choose Nashville cause at the time it was affordable, and there was a lot of rad music coming out of east Nashville. As far as going solo, I wanted to be the boss. I don’t think that compromise is the best thing when it comes to art. I had a desire to follow my own vision without asking anyone else what they think.
You received a phone call in 2015 from The Voice to appear on the show and decided to take the challenge. In what ways do you feel that the show helped your career as an artist?
The Voice helped me to grow in many ways. It pushed me out of my comfort zone and showed me what I can achieve if I practice. I took a lot of my talent for granted, and when I was on The Voice, I had to work harder than I ever had, and it showed me that there’s more to singing then just showing up and winging it. I also got a lot of new fans and friends. To this day I perform with one of my fellow voice contestants, Tonya Boyd-Cannon. In fact she did all the vocal harmonies on my album. I never would have met her if I wasn’t on that show.
You already had a plan in place for your music career after The Voice. You had an album that you had written that you wanted to get out into the world! What kind-of advantage do you feel that this gave you, having a post-show plan in place, rather then being left to wonder what to do next?
Huge advantage. I was able to hit the ground running, and that matters when you have your 15 mins of fame. Gotta make hay while the sun shines.
You have said that, with regards to moving to Chicago in your 20s, you thought you could wait tables in blues clubs and be like Bonnie Raitt and sneak onstage and then become famous. How did you adjust to the fact that that wasn’t the reality of how things worked? What have learned about being an artist over the years?
Well nothing is ever exactly what you think it’s gonna be. And I was young and foolish. Looking back I lacked focus. But I did have a good time rocking those clubs. Being an artist is not about imitation, or giving people what you think they want. Sure I can sing blues. But being an artist is about having something to say.
You are known for your reflective, original songwriting. What inspires your lyrics? What do you feel goes into writing a good song?
Aww thanks. I am inspired by my own experiences, and by helping others to love themselves. At least that’s what I am into right now. To write a good song, you can’t think about the audience, because you will be tempted to make your song into something you think they want to hear or something they will buy and when you do that you underestimate them. Just tell the truth, and fuck the rules.
You have said that you often feel like an outsider in the Americana community because you have such a big personality and enjoy wearing fun costumes, whereas many of the artists in the genre are more serious. Have you ever felt pressure to compromise your natural tendencies as an artist in order to “fit in”?
I have never felt any pressure to fit in, but have just felt that I didn’t fit in. I used to think it was because I was not good enough, but now I see that I was just barking up the wrong tree. I don’t make that kind of music. Americana is great, it’s just not what I do, and that’s fine. I love so many of those artists. I just don’t belong in that arena. Because that scene is so much more manageable then other genres, it’s a bummer, cause if it was what I did, I think I would have an easier time, but it’s just not, and that’s that.
You’ve mentioned that it took you a while to figure out how to use your voice to tell your story and to use your damaged vocal chords as a strength rather than a weakness. What has that journey been like for you?
Well they are not damaged. I have a thyroid nodule and it makes my voice sound horse when it’s not. So it’s sort of a gift. People love that husky sound. It took me a while to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em. There’s a push/pull to dynamics and you can’t be on 11 all the time. And also, it’s harder to learn the song, learn the melody and you have to do that before you can improv on it. I think that’s a huge part of vocal maturity.
Your sophomore album ‘Road To Rome’ will be released on March 8th, which is International Woman’s Day! With the album being written for all artists, especially women who remain the minority within the male dominated industry, did you specifically set out to make the release coincide with this day? What kind of progress do you feel women in the industry have made throughout the years that you have been a part of the industry?
I plan to release Road to Rome on International Women’s Day! I think it’s the perfect day for this album to make its debut. At the center of the album’s theme is womanhood. Women are not given the same opportunities that men are. I cannot tell you how many of the same white boy band I have seen playing festival after festival, and there seems to be just be an endless amount of space for them on the roster, as well as an endless amount of space for their music on playlists, and so they have more fans. Women don’t sell the same amount of albums as men. period. and we don’t get the same amount of advertising dollars. those are facts. So I want to encourage the fans who are saying we want to hear more women to buy our merch, call and request us.
How do you feel the writing and recording of ‘Road To Rome’ compares to your first album ‘Monster’. Do you feel that who you are now as an artist changed the way you approached this album?
Huge difference between these two albums. Huge. First of all, Monster was sort of a compilation of songs I had written over the years. There was no central theme. And at that time in my life I thought that the answers were within someone else’s hands. I didn’t know that I had the power to make the choices I wanted, and that just because I didn’t know how to play the drums doesn’t mean I didn’t know what I wanted to hear, and that I wasn’t worthy of getting what I really wanted. I thought that others knew better. I was wrong. Road to Rome is mine, I made all the choices, and I didn’t listen to what anyone else said. I finally got exactly what I wanted. Working with Jordan was a huge part of that. She respected me as an artist, not just a singer. She protected me from others opinions and my own self-doubt. She changed the game for me. She changed my life.
For your new album, you were involved in writing sessions and began writing songs with Justin Wiseman, a piano player from Austin, TX. In the past your husband Ian has been your sole writing partner. What was it like to write with someone different and how did his writing style compare to yours? What was it about the piano that allowed you to re-discover your voice and make a soul album that was entirely your own?
Writing with Justin was so freeing. I was able to tell him what I wanted and he would create it for me. He’s a wiz with garage band. And I think that he respects my vision in a way that Ian couldn’t at the time. The music I was making with Justin was so over the top diva. Ian doesn’t love that kind of music. He loves Bill Frisell, Wilco, Nels Cline, Father John Misty. I love Lady Ga Ga, Pink, Aretha, Etta James… I love big huge voices. Ian is also very subtle, I am not. So for me this was a huge revelation. I was able to do what I wanted and be the boss and not ask for permission to be over the top. because I was not sharing the driver’s seat. Ian contributed a great deal to the album, but I was the one who chose what ideas of his we took and what we left. And he respected that. Which meant more to me then you can ever imagine. I hope that Ian makes an album of his own, because his such a wacked out creative guitar player.
Your song “I Work For Me” has been released as a preview of the new album and is an anthem about self-love and self-sufficiency and is dedicated to those who told you that you weren’t good enough. What inspired you to keep going despite the criticisms? How do you feel that your music has helped you to build up your confidence over the years?
I thrive on adversity. Nothing inspires me quite like being the underdog.
You will be heading out on tour soon and, in addition to venue shows, will be playing some house shows. What inspired that decision? What do you like about playing more intimate hour shows versus regular venue shows?
I like to play for a listening room, and house shows give me the chance to tell the people where my songs come from, who I am, and they really listen.
You will also be performing on the Melissa Ethridge Cruise on March 31st-April 7th and have performed on other cruises in the past. What do you enjoy about performing on cruises and what are you looking forward to the most with the upcoming cruise? What else do you have coming up this year?
I love Melissa!!!! So I am pretty excited to be a part of this one. Working on the cruises has been one of the greatest blessings of my career. They are all sort of these pop up mini cites where everyone’s family. And the fans really support. Every place I play I see someone from one of the ships. It’s really amazing. I am looking forward to playing more full band shows this year. We really rock out and it’s so amazing to have a full band supporting this album.