SARAH POTENZA

A voice beyond The Voice

  • Back fat.
    Sarah Potenza talks about back fat. A lot. It keeps coming up when the 35-year old soul/roots vocalist speaks in that voice that twists through emotion like a cigarette being ground out with purpose. To look at her — robust, abundant, classically Italian — it’s hard to imagine what her obsessive referencing is fueled by. Certainly it’s not a discussion of cooking soul food or an impending Victoria’s Secret ad campaign. But every three or four exchanges, the phrase rises up and hangs there like drapes that don’t match.
         Sarah Potenza, recently eliminated from The Voice, was the hipster contestant on the singing talent contest — subdivided into teams to add dimension — that’s as much cult of personality as actual talent. As an East Nashvillian, she is seemingly an enemy of the enterprise; as a struggling rock/Americana songwriter, she was merely looking to get heard as her window of opportunity was narrowing.
         If you can name any winner from the show — beyond team captains Blake Shelton and Adam Levine, and to a lesser extent Christina Aguilera and newest host Pharrell Williams — you’re invested. Committed viewers have an involvement with story lines, host/mentor relationships, and the zeal sports enthusiasts have for their favorite team.
         Here’s a reality: None of The Voice winners have gone on to have the impact of the American Idol trifecta: Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, and Jennifer Hudson. The Voice, in spite of ratings dominance, has yet to produce a star with the trajectory, let alone the critical acclaim/awards velocity, of Nashville Star alums — not even winners — Miranda Lambert and Kasey Musgraves.
         The winners tend to be archetypes. Pretty enough, perky enough, talented enough. Often some young ’un in a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney trope, who America falls for. Or someone like Taylor Hicks or Ruben Stoddard who is a polemic: “the old guy,” “the fat one.”
         But it doesn’t matter. These shows rarely launch real careers.
         USA TODAY’s senior music writer Brian Mansfield, who’s covered Idol for seven seasons, admits, “When you come off one of these shows, you’ve got one round to shop a deal. Then you’re damaged goods. The ones who go away, take the tools they’ve learned, figure out what they want to do artistically, then come back. The ones like Miranda and Kacey, who went away, they’re the ones who seem to have the better chance.”
         Which brings us to Potenza, back fat and a dream fought for, clawed for, and workedtwo- jobs for before The Voice came calling. Less than two weeks after elimination, she and her husband/bandmate Ian Crossman are in a local restaurant, considering the path, the consequences, and yes, the role of back fat in how fairy tales play out and — perhaps — unravel.

    “I had a plan,” Potenza says, laughing, her voice as husky as it is earthy. “I thought about it a lot. But you don’t think you’re gonna get four chairs turning around — you don’t realize how much pressure there is. Time’s passing, and I get thirsty when I’m nervous — I was thirstier than Todd Snider after he smokes a great big bowl. Everyone was waiting for a decision, and I’m going back and forth, and the celebrities are saying all these things.”
         Sarah Potenza had a plan. First, however, she had a failed audition.
         Feb. 2, 2014. Raining, cold, 6 a.m. on the sidewalk outside the Nashville Convention Center. One more face in the crowd, hoping for a break. One more cattle in the call. Nothing happened. That was that.
         Until the phone rang. It was now April.
         Her audition had been a bust, but a Music City Roots video on YouTube caught the attention of one of the show’s producers. No matter how much fairy dust they sprinkle on random auditions, many contestants are ringers.
         The person on the other end of the phone was very interested in Sarah. They knew she’d auditioned, but the YouTube performance outweighed whatever hadn’t scanned. Come to Memphis; try out again.
         This time, she wouldn’t have to get in line before daybreak, fight the cold, hope for the best. She’d be walked in, sing three songs, see what happens. Clearly, the show had developed an interest in the Rhode Island native who’d gone to Chicago to stake her claim; the songwriter- singer who started the blues/country Sarah & the Tall Boys, logging upwards of 250 dates a year in a van with no real manager, agent, or publicist; the woman who’d come to East Nashville after American Songwriter painted a picture of a creative zone that mirrored her notion of what her music could be.
         For the bespectacled two-jobber-workingon- a-dream, the call looked like an opportunity to finally get seen in a meaningful way. To Crossman, it triggered concern. The initial rejection weighed heavily on his wife, but more importantly, he says, “I come from a punk/DIY background. I didn’t want to lose artistic integrity. My dad, who was a blues musician, used to say, ‘Integrity, that’s what you’ve got. People come because you’re the real deal.’”

    As a small girl, Potenza would beg her father to send tapes to Ed McMahon, hoping to be on Star Search. Forget that after years of crummy gigs barely getting by, she was waitressing at the Family Wash and working as Elizabeth Cook’s assistant, trying to earn the money to record on her terms.
         “It’s hard to be 35, singing rock & roll, and having back fat on that show,” Potenza allows. “But 50,000 people tried out, and I made it! I got that call. Every single thing I’ve worked for: Being a poor working class girl, who came to East Nashville to make this record; knocking on doors that didn’t open, then this?
         “I think I knew what it could do — being on TV in front of 20 million people. People would respond if I appealed to them as a human being, not a product, not a pop star, but a real person facing real challenges.
         “You’re gambling you don’t win,” she continues. “That you won’t get opted into their talent option — and you’re gambling your autonomy as an artist. I was willing to gamble. The odds were I wasn’t going to be marketable enough for them to sign me. Rock doesn’t sell. Women even less. Then I’m plus size on top of that.”
         But as Tug McGraw chanted on his way to the New York Mets ’73 World Series, “You gotta believe.”
         For the not-quite-as-young-as-they-usedto- be couple, it was hard. “Ian said if I do the show, it would destroy us — and I knew if I didn’t do the show, it would destroy us. I’d be onstage in East Chuckafuck, and I’d look over, see him playing guitar with all these people playing Keno, stuffing their faces with food, and it would … .” Potenza’s voice trails off. Nothing more needs to be said.
         Crossman offers, “It comes down to the Butthole Surfers: Regret what you do, not something you don’t do.”

    Take a moment to consider Sarah Potenza’s own music. Steeped in Lucinda Williams’ raw ache and willingness to descend into the worst of it, Potenza is not a gut-busting faux catharsisist. She knows who she is. While never one to flaunt her singing (“Audley Freed and Jen Gunderman were like, ‘Oh my God! Is that the waitress from the Family Wash?’”), she’s not afraid of her truth.
         Closer to Etta James, she sounds rough, raw, immersed in what she sings. Soulful, sweaty. Not coming at what it feels like, but taking feelings from the inside out. “My Turn,” the title track of her work in progress, takes Bob Seger’s “Beautiful Loser” and expands the notion.
         “I’d written all these songs about life, and unfairness, and struggle,” Potenza says. “About working so hard and never being in the right place, never getting the break. A lot of people see people getting lucky — it’s another part of the story — and it’s not them. We live in a day and age when being genuinely talented isn’t valued. That’s really hard. Really hard.
         “The record we’re trying to make is about the struggles, the triumphs, the joys, and shitty things we’ve been through.”
         Not that that was what The Voice was looking for. She knew that going in. “I was something they’d never encountered. They’ve had people who were a little more butch — but they were lesbians. I was a 35-year-old married woman who didn’t have children. But I felt if I could really be me, I was totally into working with the machine.
         “Playing the game was for me to be the anti- contestant.” She pauses. The trouble wasn’t the singing, the stage presence, the music.
         “The clothing was really hard,” she continues. “I felt pressure to wear high heels and a dress. If you look at the women who’re still on the show, the ones who’re left are really feminine. Elizabeth (Cook) helped me really get my look together, and I’ve never looked better. But I feel like, even with all that, they have a kind of formula.”
         With her glasses, her more rocker style, Potenza stood out. But she stood out even before the coaches knew what she looked like. To ignite Rod Stewart’s worn out “Stay With Me” — channeling its brash and unforgiving “fuck me and leave” brio — it takes grit, restraint, soul, and the kinetic notion of satisfaction missed.
         Watching Pharrell Williams smiling before he turns, then up and dancing after his turn, seeing Christina Aguilera studying Potenza’s technique, Shelton’s eyes twinkling as he listens — something’s going on.
         But it’s Levine, so serious, then so thrilled when he turns. The grown-ass woman, denim- clad, motorcycle jacket open and cowboy boots flew in the face of any expectation he might have had. Potenza was a rocker, something Levine knew a lot about.
         “It looks like two minutes, but really it was 20,” she explains. “People just wanted me to make the decision. Watching Adam and Pharrell ferociously fighting over me. At one point, Adam said something to me to that he wanted to make sure I could be the rocker that I am, that I felt like.
         “He’s the exact same age as me, grew up with the same ’90s rock things like STP [Stone Temple Pilots]. He seemed to want me more.” It was so obvious. Only Sarah Potenza had a plan. Go with Blake. With his easy humor, he reminded her of Ian. As the country guy, she’d likely be his only rocker.
         “Besides, Adam is the Sexiest Man Alive. How do I deal with that?”
         But it was more than dumpy girl gets hot guy nerves. Potenza, who’d fought so hard for so long, had thought this out. “I’ve made so many decisions with my heart, not my head. I’d studied the show, looked at the judges. I didn’t want to fuck this up, so I stuck with the plan.” The plan didn’t make sense to the people watching, but it seemed to work. She kept advancing. “Gimme Shelter” in the Battle Round hit her sweet spot, though Hannah Kirby, a purer singer, made a giant leap in aggression.
         Clearly Potenza’s Mary Clayton-channeling performance hit harder. When it was time, Blake picked every chunky middle-aged woman trying to make life work’s doppelganger.
         As Potenza already noted, there’s more to winning The Voice than singing.
         “I knew there was going to be a price to pay for the exposure,” she says. “I just didn’t know what it was.”

    Beyond how one looks, life at The Voice” isn’t what you think; meetings, fittings, consulting with your coach, working up songs, doing photo shoots and promotion, and no privacy. Everyone has a roommate. One can only leave for short walks. You must keep your cell phone on.
         There’s nowhere to hide. You have so many things to do you never get to decompress. There’s so much pent-up inside, and so much coming at you. What’s it like to have no control of your life at 35? “When Ian and my dad would come, I’d go to their room and sob,” she says.
         Before The Voice was a glimmer, the couple had listened to the audio book of Betheny Frankel’s A Place of Yes in their van. Frankel talked about doors opening and walking through them. She also said reality TV was the hardest thing she’d done in her life. For two true believers, who’d lived in Chicago’s Humboldt Park when “the gun shots were real and you’d see police in flak jackets out the back door,” this chance to break through the indifference was life proving Frankel right.
         “The importance that’s placed on each and every thing. You try not to think about [what other people think], but the stakes were so high. I tried to control the situation instead of letting it flow. I may’ve made some decisions based on fear, versus what I wanted to do. Maybe if I’d’ve done whatever I wanted instead … .
         “You pick a song, you know it could make or break you. The pressure is magnified by the pressure to stay on the show. You’re emailing back and forth with your coach — ideas for the songs, how to do them.”
         At one point, Shelton suggested “I Wanna Know What Love Is.” At another, Potenza wanted “You’re Not Alone,” the title track of Mavis Staples’ Jeff Tweedy-produced project. “They thought it was obscure. But I think they underestimated America. That line ‘Every tear on every face tastes the same.’ Me singing that on their show? People would understand; no, they’d feel that.”
         In spite of The Voice’s mainstreamity, Potenza has no complaints. She knows Jason Isbell drew down on it in Rolling Stone, but she found that experience — in spite of its intensity — made her better, stronger.
         “You have to commit to every note,” she says. “To do that live-or-die performance every time, you have to know that song, that melody, the emotion before you can even start to change it.
         “Singers don’t practice every day, or stretch beyond what they do. I’ve got a confidence now in my instrument ’cause I know I can do it. I know where to put my breath to hit that note.”

    So baby’s got back fat kept going. Until ... . Potenza survived the Knock Out and the Battle Rounds. For all her conviction, she knew what happens to girls like her. There are Cinderella moments, but there’s a midnight every day.
         She chose “Free Bird,” figuring the Southern rocker would strike a chord in people.
         “To get down on my knees and wail this song, to really deliver before I get kicked off the show? YES! It’s super-cliché, but being a person from the North, it’s not worn out to me. I’d had a gritty country/blues band in Chicago, so I wanted to slow it down, make it folkie almost. Think about the message: If I leave here tomorrow, will you still remember me?”
         Before taking the stage, she saw Blake and Pharrell talking; they pointed at Hannah. She got a feeling in the pit of her stomach. Then she walked out and saw her father and husband sitting in the audience.
         Whatever had happened, she’d gotten this far. She scorched the moth-eaten AOR classic. Inside, she knew. “It’s why I took my glasses off. I figured if I’m going to be on the show for two more minutes, I wanted America to see my face.”
         Tom Petty is right: the waiting is the hardest part. “I just wanted them to get it over with, to say it. The impact wasn’t nearly as bad as the bracing for the accident when you see it coming.”
         Then it was over. Shelton crossed the stage, hugged her, and whispered that he’d email his cell phone number. To date, he still hasn’t. Potenza packed her things, including some expensive show outfits she’d never buy and headed home.

    “Peter Fisher texted Elizabeth and asked if I could come play the Opry that night,” she marvels. She did, performing a Joplinchanneling “House of the Rising Sun.” There is a Kickstarter campaign picking up steam, music being made. My Turn may benefit from the experience. “There are all these emotions coming out.”
         Potenza and Crossman talk about working long days in Chicago, packing up gear, taking the bass amp on a dolly on the L. They remember driving all the way to Utah en route to the Strawberry Festival, suddenly cancelled for fires, and turning back home.
         It’s not an easy dream. Sarah Potenza and Ian Crossman don’t care.
         “I still have the first piece of paper from someone who requested one of our songs,” the guitarist explains. “You go back to that minute, to someone asking for ‘Who But A Fool’ — and it all makes sense.”
         “I just want to sing,” she picks up. “Sing your heart out to three people in a bar? Sure. But 20 million? That energy? When you’re wanting to sing, the joy is in pouring my heart out like that — because it proves something about what this music means.
         “I don’t own a house — or have kids. I drive a tour van I’ve put 300,000 miles on. At any time, I’ve got 300 dollars, 20,000 worth of debt from touring. I don’t have a 401(k), or any of those things people who say ‘Get a job’ have. But I am a singer — and I have this.
         “(The Voice) opened so many doors for me. But the truth is: I always had the keys, I just didn’t know how to use them. When you’re doing (the show), you’re on that level, a soul level — and there’s no room to fuck up, that’s when you learn this stuff.”