In the title track of Sarah Potenza’s new album, Monster, she sings, “I am a monster; I am not like you.” Reading that, it might seem like a cry of self-loathing, but backed by a screaming electric guitar and belted out by Potenza’s powerhouse punch of a voice, those nine words are a shattering declaration of confidence, self-awareness, and stern reality. Irony is part of that mix too, especially when you realize Potenza found those words of self-expression while appearing in the decidedly unreal world of the glitz factory talent show, The Voice.
“Most of the girls on the show were 18 years old or younger and a size 2,” Potenza says. “Wardrobe was a huge room full of all the clothes you would ever want to wear, but they had maybe a half a rack of stuff in XL, and I wear a XXL, so there was nothing for me. I had to change in front of this one girl who was so young that when I told her she looked like Cindy Crawford she said, ‘Who’s that?’ Later on, though, she came to my hotel room and was crying. She said, ‘You don’t know what it’s like for me. I know the only reason I’m here is because of what I look like, and you’re here because you can sing.’ Physically, I felt like I was a monster, but all of a sudden, sitting next to her, it hit me. I am a monster, but in a totally different way from the way I had felt most of my life. Because I know I can sing my ass off, I’m confident about who I am, and I don’t give a shit about which side of my face is the good side.
“That gave me the idea for the song,” she continues. “But the idea seemed like something very abstract, and I didn’t know how I could express it properly. I was excited, but also super intimidated about writing it. But I got it done, it became the title track, and it’s very special to me. It was something very personal about me and my identity, and I was able to put it into words.”
That desire to express herself as a singer and songwriter has been a goal that Potenza has been chasing throughout her career. It’s a journey that began long before her personal road wound through hard nights, open mics, and the surreal world of reality television. And one that began with another epiphany over 15 years ago.
Although Potenza can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to be a singer, throughout her high school years and into college, the Rhode Island native’s focus was on formal voice training and musical theater. She saw herself as an interpreter and a performer of other people’s stories, but that all changed in a moment of musical clarity.
“I was working at Applebee’s, and I won a $50 gift certificate to Best Buy,” Potenza recalls. “I was looking for something to buy, and I saw this DVD, and the woman on the cover looked like a younger version of my mom. It was Lucinda Williams, who I didn’t even know about at the time. I bought it on a whim, and when I watched it, I was stunned. I just sat there thinking, ‘I’m not supposed to go on stage and be somebody else. I’m supposed to tell my story!’ ”
Although Potenza had discovered her career destination, negotiating the path to get her there proved to be a challenge. Within two years she was living in Chicago, belting out covers of “Piece of My Heart” for tourists as a Janis Joplin impersonator at Chicago’s House of Blues and taking stabs at songwriting on the side. That’s when she reconnected with an old friend from junior high, guitarist and her eventual husband,
“First day I was in Chicago, Sarah asked me to come see her band and tell her what I thought,” Crossman says. “I told her to fire everybody.”
Although Potenza had set out to discover the path to expressing herself, she had ended up in the blues-rock equivalent of musical theater. Crossman brought valuable advice through his experiences as a musician with a background in country, blues, and the punk and indie rock scene. Working together, the pair formed the band Sarah and the Tall Boys and immersed themselves in Chicago’s lively retro-alt-country scene, recording three albums with songs primarily written by Potenza and Crossman. Although they achieved a measure of success, they also found themselves stranded in the DIY Americana trailer park. A change was clearly in order.
“In 2008, we took a one-year wedding anniversary road trip to Nashville and Memphis,” Potenza says. “I loved Nashville and never forgot the vibe. By 2012, I wanted to come down here to do a country throwback thing, but when we arrived, we immediately got schooled. We played The 5 Spot and everyone was like, ‘So what?’ Everyone here is just so good, what I really needed to do was be me.”
As with her earlier musical epiphany, knowing the destination didn’t mean she had the roadmap to get there. While both Potenza and Crossman struggled with musical cartography, forces were at work that would transform everything for the couple. On a whim, Potenza auditioned for the TV show The Voice before leaving Chicago and then again at Nashville auditions in February of 2014. Although she initially was turned down both times, in April of that year, The Voice called her. The producers had spotted a video online of her performance on Music City Roots and liked her look and attitude. A private audition in Memphis and an offer to join the show for its eighth season quickly followed.
“When I got the offer, Ian and I immediately had the debate: Should I do this?” Potenza says. “The idea of appearing on TV seemed so unhip, and at first I was like, ‘Uhhhhh.’ ”
As the couple discussed the proposal, both were realistic about the chances of Potenza winning, but they began to see the show as an opportunity to gain national exposure and finance a solo record made on their own terms. After signing on, it quickly became apparent that Potenza was undeniably the square peg in the round hole of Reality TV.
“When I first joined the show,” she says, “I said I was from East Nashville and that I sang Americana. They said both of those weren’t real things and I needed to pick a genre that’s on the list. I was like, ‘Oh, no!’ ”
What followed was a wild, seven-month ride through the altered reality of national television (as chronicled in Holly Gleason’s cover story in the May-June 2015 issue of The East Nashvillian). When her journey on the show ended in April of 2015 with Potenza’s elimination during the final “Live Playoff” episodes, she found herself with a fan base eager to support her plans for her first solo album.
“It was unbelievable,” Potenza says. “Ian put the Kickstarter online right when I went onstage during the finale of The Voice. That night alone we raised $6,000 of our $25,000 goal. We ended up with almost $42,000.”
While still maintaining an independent attitude and DIY approach to her music, starting with that amount of money totally changed the playing field. “It was really exciting for us to have the money and means to hire Joe McMahan to make this record because I love his work, and he’s my dream producer,” Potenza says. “We had the money to hire the musicians we really wanted, to hire a particular photographer, and make a music video. We made our first record in the basement of some dude’s house for $15 an hour. He had eight dogs and it smelled really bad. We were used to that. So we always wondered what would happen if you had the money to really make a go of it, and I guess we’re going to find out.”
There’s a punk brilliance and undeniable coolness to the fact that Potenza was able to enter the dark catacombs of the Pop Music Dragon and escape with loot, but more importantly, and ironically, her experience on The Voice provided the final markers on the road to find her voice.
“Going into it my whole thing was to hang on as long as I could, have the Kickstarter ready, and make the money to make the record,” Potenza says. “That’s exactly what happened, and it changed everything, but not just in terms of money. Being on TV pushed me to the limit and had me out there doing stuff that was out of my comfort zone. It was do or die in front of 20 million people. They would mic me up and ask about all kinds of personal shit. I had to make a choice to present myself as who I thought people would like or just be myself. So I just started letting it fly.”
Staying true to herself in a world of artificiality and glamour, the experience opened a door to her earlier showbiz aspirations of stage lights and booming voices. The worlds of Liza Minnelli and Lucinda Williams do not have to be mutually exclusive, not when they are fused by a sassy and determined woman with a voice as big as Broadway and as gritty as a gravel road.
“The thing that was hard to learn was that my voice is really big and sometimes that eclipses my songwriting in the Americana world,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Whoa, that’s flashy! We don’t do flashy here.’ I love how Americana has fused so many genres, but I wish it could be more inclusive of the flashiness that James Brown and Tina Turner brought to their music. Being on The Voice drove that home for me. Here are my big white glasses. Here are my crazy clothes. I want to go on stage and give people the whole package and their money’s worth.”
By embracing the “monster” within, Potenza has found the sweet spot between being both an artist and performer. It’s been a long road, and although the original quest has been fulfilled, the real journey is just beginning.
“I’ve finally found my own voice,” she says. “This is the record that I was trying to make for years. I was finally able to say it in my own words and in my own way. This is the first time I’ve written with the idea of telling stories of my life and experiences straight from my heart and not trying to make them something more or less than what they are. Being a weirdo, being an other-than, having something about you that makes you feel like you don’t fit in, something that makes you feel like a monster is really the most powerful and best part of you, and it’s the thing that people will really love you for.”