Song Writing

Sarah Potenza

by Amanda Flinner

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The Nashville blues belter on her anthem "I Work For Me," and why songwriting is a bit like kissing.

Fans of NBC's The Voice got to witness Sarah Potenza in all her glory on season 8 of the reality series, as the East Nashville singer-songwriter showed off her powerhouse vocals on rock staples like "Stay With Me" and "Gimme Shelter." Potenza's vibrant personality matches her colossal voice; she's loud, proud, and not afraid to tell it like it is. It's hard to believe the self-professed "fat fashionista," who made it to the Top 20, wasn't always this confident.

Before gaining a national following on The Voice, Potenza fronted the country-blues band Sarah and the Tall Boys, featuring her husband, Ian Crossman, on guitar. After the singing competition, she unleashed her acclaimed solo album Monster, but it's her follow-up, Road To Rome, that truly reflects her journey to self-acceptance.

"They said that I was too big. Damn straight, now I'm a giant," she proclaims on the boldly confident album opener, "I Work For Me."

It's a freeing statement for the modern blues belter who grew up being told she was too much. Too big, too loud, too everything. She spent her formative years in Providence, Rhode Island, trying to make herself acceptable to her shamers until she realized there was power in her excess. Now, she's on a mission to help others, especially women, embrace their identities.

"Whether people are skinny or fat, or whatever ethnicity or sexuality, there is something about them that they were ashamed of, and this is giving them permission to be themselves," she tells Rolling Stone of Road to Rome.

Shortly after the album's release on International Women's Day in March 2019, Potenza spoke with Songfacts about working with producer Jordan Brooke Hamlin (Indigo Girls, Lucy Wainwright Roche), covering Mary Gauthier, and the painful moment that helped shape "I Work For Me."
Amanda Flinner (Songfacts): When asked about the vibe of Monster, you've said, "It's as though Lucinda Williams wrote a bunch of songs and then Wilco played them, with Charles Bradley as the lead singer." Describe the vibe of Road To Rome.

Sarah Potenza: The vibe is fun and it's honest. It's music that I made for myself, to express my feelings. I was really shooting for a vibe that is me. I wanted to incorporate the music that I hear in my head, and let go of the idea that it had to be like or unlike anything. I grew up in the '80s and '90s so there's a lot of that R&B pop swirling around in my brain.

Songfacts: What were your go-to songs for inspiration while you were working on the album?

Potenza: I actually have a Spotify playlist of them.

Songfacts: What is your earliest musical memory?

Potenza: Ummm, I remember being 4 and telling my cousin that I was gonna be a singer. I remember seeing Bette Midler on TV and thinking, "I want to be her."

Songfacts: Jordan Brooke Hamlin has spoken about the process of working with an artist to discover the character of the songs: "Only then can we know what clothes to put on that character." What was your dynamic working with Jordan and how did you come up with your "character"?

Potenza: I adore Jordan, and we both work really hard, so there's a mutual respect there. Both of us go the distance, and we don't feel satisfied with achieving anything less. As far as coming up with my character, we didn't have to. I just had to get out of my own way and let myself walk through.

Songfacts: "I Work For Me" is a powerful anthem about rising above a lifetime of criticism and defying shamers. What particular moment stuck in your mind as you were writing/performing the song?

Potenza: So many moments. Wow. Just to pick a specific one. My freshman year of college I took voice. My very first voice class, the teacher looked at me with a sad face, and she said, "Is there something else you can major in? Trying to be a singer with your voice is gonna be a bit like trying to run a marathon with a broken leg."

I was devastated, but I turned that into art. My point I guess is, no one can stop you. There's a million reasons why what you want is impossible. So think outside the box and go get it. Why not me?

Songfacts: "Dickerson and Queen" alludes to your songwriting process ("I take my notes out and I testify about the things I've seen"). How do you sense when you have a really great song?

Potenza: It just feels right. Like when you go on a date, how do you know you are into the person? How does the kiss feel?

Songfacts: What song went through the biggest transformation from start to finish?

Potenza: "Happiness." It was like a totally different song. LOL.

Songfacts: Part of the album was written aboard a cruise ship in the Caribbean and the rest was written in Nashville. How did the different environments affect your songwriting?

Potenza: Part of it was written on the Norwegian Pearl ship, part in an Airbnb in Texas, and part in Nashville. I like to have things all neat and tidy and have the tools for the job. So being home is ideal in that way, however being home is distracting in other ways. I think I do my best work when I am just forced to finish it. But I worked with an artist from Austin, and he and I used GarageBand to communicate ideas and create demos. So I learned a lot about that program. It was really fun and very different for me.

Songfacts: "Worthy" fits so perfectly within the context of the album. How did you connect with Mary Gauthier and what does the song mean to you?

Potenza: I met Mary in California at the Strawberry Music Festival. I just adore her spirit and her art. "Worthy" is just one of those songs. It came into my life and it moved the needle for me. When I heard it, I became addicted to the lyrics and I craved the way it felt to sing them.

Songfacts: Was "Diamond" inspired by the "diamond in the dirt" line in "Worthy"? How did that song come about?

Potenza: No, actually that chorus came to me out of nowhere back in 2013. At the time I didn't have context for it, so it sat in waiting. Then it just sort of found a home within those verses one day.

Songfacts: You have a talent for creating music that inspires people. What is your favorite story of how a fan has been affected by one of your songs?

Potenza: There was this one woman who wore a tank top for the first time in decades. It was really sweet to help her love herself a little more.

Songfacts: Do you keep up with The Voice? If so, who are you rooting for this season?

Potenza: I don't. Sorry. I am not really that into reality TV. RuPaul's Drag Race is sort of my one show like that.

Songfacts: Finally, why did you choose the closing track "Road to Rome" as the album title?

Potenza: It just sort of fit there. It was either the opener or the closer for me.

May 6, 2019
For more on Sarah Potenza, visit her official website

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