Once in a while, Rhode Island will have a success story that puts the state on the map. Most of the time it has to do with music and Smithfield native and current Nashville resident Sarah Potenza is in that exclusive group. In 2015, she elevated herself from being a fixture in the local scene to wowing people with her soulful, bluesy singing on the NBC TV show The Voice. Since then she’s been touring all over along with getting acclaim from the likes of Rolling Stone and National Public Radio. People are going to have a chance to see what the fuss is all about when she performs at Chan’s in Woonsocket this Saturday night, June 15.
We had a talk ahead of the show about her experience on The Voice, a new album she has out, going back to her old high school and working on starting a clothing store.
Rob Duguay: Was it your original decision to go on The Voice? What was the process like from your point of view?
Sarah Potenza: It was totally my decision. I was living in Nashville at the time and I had actually auditioned for the show a couple times and I didn’t get past the first round. Then they called me for Season 8 after they looked to see if I had auditioned before and my information came up in their system. It was really an amazing experience and it goes to show that you can never give up. Hadn’t I gone to those auditions where I didn’t make it through, they wouldn’t have had my phone number so you just never know.
RD: For sure, cheers to you for your perseverance. That’s awesome how it went down that way.
RD: On March 8, which was also International Women’s Day, you released a new album called Road To Rome. You collaborated with a ton of female musicians while making it, so how were you able to get everyone involved?
SP: I had a really fantastic producer, her name is Jordan Brooke Hamlin. It was really incredible to work with a woman producer because along with being incredibly talented in numerous ways, we were also able to communicate on a certain wavelength. I was able to have her guide me through the process and it was cool to be involved with someone like her because often times in the music business it’s a boy’s club. It’s not on purpose but so many guys are musicians and the music business is actually 83% male. It’s not often that you come across women who work behind the scenes, you have to literally seek them out.
It’s kind of a catch-22 for women in the business because you have to have experience to get experience. Especially as a woman you have to have more experience and more credentials for the same job. That makes it harder to get experience so this really taught me a lot about the value of hiring women and going out of our way to create job opportunities for women. The women I got to work with were incredible, they’ve been part of major albums and worked with big artists. One of the best parts personally for me was reconnecting with one of my best friends from The Voice who is Tonya Boyd-Cannon, I brought her up from New Orleans and she added so much character, love, joy and her spirit to the album.
RD: There’s also a music video out for the track “Diamond” off of the album. What I’ve noticed about it is the pop sound that’s very reminiscent of what Kate Bush did in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
SP: That’s so cool you recognized that.
RD: There are also these bright colored outfits over a completely white canvas. How did you come up with the vision for the video?
SP: I just really wanted it to look modern, clean and fresh. The girls in the video are from a dance troupe based in Brooklyn called Pretty Big Movement and they’re all from New York and New Jersey. A couple years ago, I saw them on Facebook in this popular video with the lead girl talking about how she had trouble finding representation because she’s a big girl and it motivated her to start this dance troupe for big girls who dance. I thought it was so cool that she started this and did it herself. Then I made a promise to myself that next time I did a music video that I would hire these women.
When I made the album, I decided to reach out to them on social media and told them about this idea I had for a music video and that I wanted to hire them to dance in it. They called me right away told me how they think the song is so meaningful. So I had them dance in the video but the problem was that I was in Nashville and the dance troupe were in Brooklyn. In order to make it work financially was that I asked them to dance in front of a white screen and I filmed my part in front of a white screen and then we just merged the two. The white screen was the easiest option and I had them wear bright colors to capture the look that I wanted.
RD: It’s great how it came together, I really enjoyed watching it.
SP: Thanks so much.
RD: No problem. You also recently got inducted to the Music Legion Of Honor at your high school alma mater Smithfield High School.
SP: I know, isn’t that sweet?
RD: Yeah it is. Do you credit the music program there with having a big impact on you as a musician?
SP: Yeah, definitely a huge impact. When I was a kid during that time my parents got divorced during my freshman year. It was a really tough time for me and the music department was a very special place where I felt like I had something to offer that I didn’t have anywhere else in the world. It felt like I was valued and I was special and I was part of a community five days a week where I would sit in that room and sing, create music and make friends. The music teacher, Mr. Cleasby, became a mentor to me and another father figure.
We became really close and during the time when I was having a really hard time in high school, he valued my talent and made me feel good about myself. It’s not an easy thing to do when you’re a teenager. It was special to get to go back to the high school and performing in front of Mr. Cleasby and those kids. It was a wonderful moment to have and I’ll never forget it. In my mind, I’ve thought about that place so many times and to be on that stage performing it felt like I got to go back to where it all began.
RD: That’s how you had such a great relationship with the program and your professor and you got to go back and pretty much come full circle. After the show at Chan’s, what’s next for you?
SP: We’re definitely excited to be coming back to Rhode Island for the Rhythm & Roots Festival that’s happening in Charlestown, R.I. from Aug. 30 through Sept. 1. I’m also working on a couple new singles and I’m also developing this store. I’ve noticed that there’s a lack of places where you can find really cool plus-sized clothes and when I find something I like I’ll usually wear it and after a while I’ll just sell it on esty. So I’m working on starting a store with that model and I’m also working on a new live show with the new album being out.