Songs We Love: Sarah Potenza, 'Monster'

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An empowerment anthem can be a beautiful thing, a dramatic transcending of suffering's isolating power. But what's glorious about Sarah Potenza's blistering, riff-propelled personal anthem "Monster" is that it doesn't seek to transcend the unpleasantness of her reality — the fact that she's been told countless times in countless ways that the body she inhabits is socially unacceptable. Instead, we hear a woman's fierce determination to stay present, to stare down those who would shame her, to revel in her corporeality.

The song, the title track of Potenza's new album, makes a strong statement on its own, but a new music video amplifies it tenfold. The brassy, Italian-American roots-rocker gathered a bewitching, bubbly group of every-sized women, rented a sprawling house in her bohemian East Nashville enclave and staged a fabulous pool party. There's even a pre-teen Potenza doppelgänger, who dons the blocky, white glasses that became the singer's trademark when she competed on the show The Voice and thrills at being welcomed into this circle of strong, sensual women.

Potenza has never been a reserved performer. She cut her teeth impersonating Janis Joplin and tearing through covers-stocked sets in Chicago blues clubs before giving the reality show, and its glam squads and ginned-up drama, a go. But she really stands out in the Americana scene, where she dons splashy stage costumes and, with the help of her guitarist-husband Ian Crossman, leads a revolving lineup of veteran sidemen through a repertoire that lands somewhere between earthy truth-telling and high camp.

In an interview with NPR, Potenza discussed the "Monster" video, her flamboyant performing style and her quest to get roots-music divas recognized.

This is not the sort of music video I'm used to seeing from an Americana act. I'm specifically thinking of the physicality of it, the way that you confront body image issues and celebrate bodies. Why do you think what you're doing is such an anomaly in your music scene?

Sarah Potenza: It's not even that it's considered taboo. I don't know that anybody thinks of it as song-worthy. I think that in Americana music, the subjects of songs [are] so often what we're familiar with already. There's a lot of songs about rounders and ramblers and trains and 'shine. ... And I understand that that's like rockabilly people, where they dress in vintage clothing; it's how they reflect on the world, how they see themselves existing in this world. But the music that I love and have more respect for is stuff like Hurray For the Riff Raff, "The Body Electric," things that confront actual things that people are seeing and thinking and feeling.

You seem especially conscious of what fans connect with in your songs and performances. "Monster" reminded me of how Lady Gaga used to refer to fans who deeply identified with her music as her "Little Monsters." I remember you telling me that you were going to have a young fan from your old school appear in the video, because she really identified with you and what you represent

Actually, the young woman that ended up being in the video is not the young woman that I was talking about. She couldn't come.

I put out an S.O.S. on Facebook to my fans and said, "I'm making this music video and this is what I need." I got hundreds and hundreds of responses. It was crazy. ... We had this girl, and her mom sent me this message. Her mom wanted to be in the video too, and her mom is super body-positive. ... [Her daughter] is really outgoing and she's not at all body-conscious in the ways that I was when I was a kid. It was really incredible to me, how brave and how self-aware but unashamed this girl was of who she was. She just looked so adorable and so beautiful, and she knew it.

On the subject of size, how do you feel like the reluctance to focus on bodies in the Americana scene compares with the reluctance to embrace outsized performing personas?

I definitely feel like in the Americana community it's less about my body and more about personality. I feel like in other communities, like in the mainstream pop community and the experiences I had on The Voice, it was never about my personality and it was always about my body. ...One of the reasons I'm so at odds with the [Americana] community, in a weird way, is they try to be the opposite of The Voice.

How does the fact that you're working with performing traditions like campiness and flamboyance affect the response that you're getting?

I think it's made it harder for me. Like, my voice is too flamboyant and too good and my personality is too big to be serious — and Americana is a serious art form. So because of the serious nature of how they take their art and how the lyrics are, it sometimes feels like the first time in my life when I've got that too-pretty-to-be-smart thing going on. But it's not physical beauty — t's just like my voice is good, so what could I possibly have to say? I have both my arms up in the air and I'm wearing all these feathers, so my message must be fluff because I'm presenting it in that way.

That's something that's been hard for me, because that is really, genuinely who I am as a performer. I'm somebody who worshipped Bette Midler and that kind of campy style. This woman is coming out of a clamshell, calling herself the Divine Miss M in a mermaid costume in her show, but she's an artist and she has these really serious amazing moments.

Also, I'm trying to write these real, genuine lyrics and cross them with the performing style that goes along with my personality. When I surrender to the song and let myself do what it is that I want to do without thinking about what I should do, what I naturally do is big. So that sometimes has made me feel like an outcast. That type of thing is frowned on in Americana sometimes, because they do have so many serious artists. When you have people with songs like John Prine's, he doesn't need to do s*** but stand up there in a t-shirt and jeans and sing those songs.

I found it really interesting when you put together a diva night at the Americana variety show Music City Roots and got Bonnie Bramlett and The McCrary Sisters on board. Where'd that concept come from? Did people seem to get with the idea of roots music divas?

I kind of love and hate the word "diva." I love it in the Bette Midler sense of the word, but I hate in the high maintenance sense of the word. So I guess I meant — I've always seen these shows and they're always kind of about pickin' and grinnin'. That's cool, but if this really is roots music, it's also a very American thing to be a diva and to be doing this kind of music.

Delaney & Bonnie, I mean, that is really American roots music. ... There were all these people making Beach Boys kind of music and doing the California thing. And they were like, "No. F*** all that stuff. We need to take it to the roots and do this really southern kind of rock 'n' roll."

That's where all that stuff came from. I felt like it would be cool to pay homage to that and to have a bunch of women who really throw down, who have these big voices that do get overlooked in our community.

There's been a very slow and gradual process of the McCrary Sisters gaining recognition as a performing and recording group in their own right with their own repertoire, separate from their role as go-to black gospel backing singers for all of Americana. I'm so glad to see them occupying their own space.

Me too. I totally agree with you. ... People just want to kind of use them as a tool, in a way, to add [the McCrarys'] flavor to what they're making. So it's definitely cool to see them getting recognition as doing their own thing and having their own message.

The weird thing about Americana is that it's so white. This [Americana Fest gospel showcase] that I'm planning, I had to dig to find people that weren't just white people, even speaking of myself. I'll sing my ass off, but at the end of the day, I'm just an Italian-American girl. This isn't my history, my roots, my culture. It's greatly influenced me, but I can't claim that it's mine the way that I can claim I grew up eating a dish called steak a pizzaiola...

But back to the diva thing... I just feel like other people in the community that are singers and writers can tend to think of what I do as fluff, because of my voice. So the diva [night] was like, "OK, you all want to think I'm a diva? Let's be divas. Let's do it. Let's take it to 11. I'm not going to try to pretend I'm not wearing a giant kimono made out of sequins. I'm just gonna wear it." ... The people really loved it. It was an amazing night with so many standing ovations. When Bonnie Bramlett sang "Superstar," I'm telling you I just lost it.

With this video and these shows you've put together, you're finding some bold ways of making your point.

I'm trying really hard to be fearless, and it's hard to do that when it feels like there's a lot at stake. I don't want to insult or ostracize anybody. I don't want to insult friends of mine who I know sing songs about hopping on a train or whatever. I feel like that has its place. It's an American tradition and I think it's great that people are paying homage to that. I just want a seat at the table too. And I just want there to be a seat at the table for people that have been overlooked in Americana music because they're too flashy, because that kind of flash is Americana. That's jazz. That's rock 'n' roll. That's soul. That's gospel. That's what it is. It is big.

Monster is out now on Snax.

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