When Nashville based singer-songwriter Sarah Potenza was five years old, thanks to her parents’ good taste, she heard Joe Cocker sing the Leonard Cohen classic “Bird on a Wire.” In a recent interview she said, “I loved the sound of his voice. It changed my life.”
During her teen years, the voices she loved and the role models she discovered at home in Rhode Island were singers like Celine Dion. However, when Potenza sang, something rougher than Celine’s smooth and elegant style came out. She was different. She was convinced she could never be a singer even though something deep in the core of her being told her to sing. Then, she heard Janis Joplin’s Greatest Hits. What she experienced in the voice of the iconic 1960s blues-rock singer seemed to fill in the missing spaces in her life. She heard her own voice, just as she did when she first heard Cocker. “Holy shit, I can do that!” she recalls. “I looked at the cover of the album and there she is with her crazy clothes and I see myself there.”
Consequently, Joplin opened the door for her to Etta James, Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Big Mama Thornton, and so many other blues and R&B legends. Potenza eventually moved to Chicago – naturally – and formed her own band, Sarah and the Tall Boys who gained a reputation for covering these best big-city blues.
Fast forward to 2015, season eight of NBC’s The Voice, a competition show for vocalists. During her blind audition, when judges had their backs turned to her, Potenza sang The Faces classic “Stay with Me.”
It was as though Janis Joplin had returned from blues heaven to perform through the 35 year-old artist. Potenza didn’t make the finals, but she did make a lasting mark on a national audience as a bright new talent, even though she had been working with her band for seven years.
Since she and her husband – musician and songwriting partner Ian – moved to Nashville a few years back, she has been a regular on Music City Roots broadcast, as well as headlining sold-out performances at Bluebird Café and appearing on The Grand Old Opry. Music City welcomed her with open arms.
And now, hot on the heels of her appearance on The Voice, Potenza has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for her debut solo album, simply titled My Turn. “When I moved to East Nashville,” she says, “I was inspired by the level of talent I saw in the musicians and songwriters around town. It made me want to stop touring for a while and just start writing.” The inspiration was so strong for her, songs just seemed to flow out. Songwriting was a new discovery for her, and she says this album has become a career-defining work.
“It is the story of my life,” she explains. “It’s about the struggle of being alive. It’s about not listening to those voices that tell you you’re too old, too fat, too ugly. We live in a day and age that doesn’t always value talent. This album is the story of being alive and real. I’ve seen in my audiences, as I’ve played live, that they understand me. These songs have really come from the bottom of my heart.”
With her primary influences being Lucinda Williams and R&B great Charles Bradley, her view of Americana music comes from artists who are great in songcraft and who are ready to engage in funk- soul-inspired music. Potenza is, without a doubt, a force of nature in today’s American music scene, with an eye toward leaping over the limitations of genre-defined boundaries into her own original music that will ultimately take no prisoners.