Sarah Potenza was working as the part-time personal assistant of country cult favorite Elizabeth Cook when she got the call to audition for The Voice. Reality TV wasn’t exactly her thing —she was a bluesy, soul-singing rock & roller with no real regard for the glamor and glitz of primetime—but that didn’t stop Potenza from recognizing an opportunity to grow her audience beyond the borders of Nashville, her adopted hometown.
“I thought that I might be able to get on TV, gain some new fans and rock out a pretty decent Kickstarter,” she explains. “So I said, ‘Fuck it; I’ll audition,’ and then I just kept making it through, round after round.”
Potenza became a Top 20 contestant, meaning she received a good chunk of airtime during the show’s eighth season. She was The Voice‘sdark horse, gaining the support of all four judges and belting out a handful of FM radio classics —”Freebird,” “Stay With Me,” “Piece of My Heart” —for an audience that was more accustomed to pop music. She didn’t win; that honor went to Sawyer Fredericks, a mild-mannered teen who, at 16 years old, is less than half Potenza’s age. Still, Potenza never planned on making it all the way until end…and now that the show is over, she’s shifting her focus back to that promised Kickstarter campaign.
We talked with Potenza about her new album, her time on TV and what it’s like to be a songwriter in a singer’s competition.
You write your own songs. Does that give you an advantage on a show like The Voice?
To [the producers], it didn’t matter. A lot of the contestants were writers. I didn’t hear their songs, but I’m sure there were some great ones. In my opinion, though, I almost feel like it’s a detriment to be a songwriter on that show, because being a songwriter means you’d probably want to make a creative record at the end of the day, and The Voice is in the business of making records that sell. You have to show some major growth to be on the show. It has to be, ‘You’re at this point, then you grow and open up and you progress to this point, then you grow up again and get to this point.’ You need that arc. So to go out there and get on your knees and rock “Stay with Me” during your first audition…that might not give you much place to go.
Did your experience as a writer help you relate to the coaches?
Maybe. When I did “Gimme Shelter,” Meghan Trainor felt like I was screaming at her. But I knew what that song was about. I knew about Merry Clayton having the miscarriage, the Rolling Stones’ member dying of an overdose, JFK, Martin Luther King…When that song came out, people must have felt like the world wasn’t safe. I went into the performance as though I wrote the song myself, so that helped me, but I don’t think anyone cared that I wrote my own stuff.
Is it nerve-wracking to know million of people are watching your perform on their TV screens?
I didn’t think about that. In the actual studio, there’s only 500 or 1,000 people watching. It’s a good crowd, but it doesn’t feel overwhelming to go out there and perform. It’s actually the easiest part of the whole thing. What’s overwhelming is what’s riding on the whole performance: the fact that you’re trying to stay. Being a person who normally plays for an hour, it’s weird to have two minutes to show the whole range of emotions. But I liked performing on that stage.
Playing with that band must’ve been great.
They’re really awesome. They’re just a high-functioning band. If you go in there with a key change, they’er like, “Boom, we’re on it.” No one makes mistakes. But I also felt like if you had an idea, you better damn well know what you’re talking about. If you wanna change the feel from 4/4, you better know what 6/8 is. They were encouraging and sweet to me, and I think they liked me because I wanted to rock. I’d go in with a pop song, “Wasted Love,” and want to do it like we were the Black Keys. Not all of my creative ideas were the best idea for prime time TV, though.
I really wanted to do “You Are Not Alone,” that Mavis Staples/Jeff Tweedy song, but they may have seen it as too obscure for TV. Which it is, in their defense. But I didn’t want to underestimate the audience and have them only watch songs that they already knew. I wanted to go on TV and sing those lyrics: “Every tear on every face tastes the same…you are not alone.” I thought it would translate to the general public. To me, that could have been a moment where people said, “Holy shit.” When you sing a song and someone in the audience understands your lyrics —when they feel like you’ve really gotten into their lives, and they understand you on that level —it’s a mutual understanding on a level that’s spoken in a different way than words. That’s the art of what we do as songwriters. But it’s prime time NBC, and I understand that.
Did you want to win?
Because I’m 35 years old and wear a size 14, I was never gonna win it. One of my songs took second place last year at Merle Fest, but they’re not gonna put that on the radio. That’s fine with me. I just went there and sang for as long as I could, to make fans in order to make this record. I’m a songwriter who writes stuff that’s indie, soul, folk, blues…but I knew that if I went in there and told my story in an honest way and sang rock & roll and didn’t give a shit, that I was gonna go through long enough to get on TV a few times. I was such a freak compared to everyone there. If you saw my husband during the crowd shot, he looks like Duck Dynasty. He has this big, long beard. People who watched TV must have said, “Who are these people?” They got their money’s worth out of me, but I got great stuff out of it, too. I went on that TV and was a total freak, sang my ass off, told my stories and got 20,000 followers on social media out of it. I learned how to step it up, vocally.
All of this plays into the new album. What’s the story of your upcoming record?
It’s the record I moved to East Nashville to make. This record took me a decade of living to write. I would do anything to get it out there. It’s a really honest record. It’s the truth, as this one chubby, Rhode Island-borne, Italian girl sees it. Speaking my truth is the only thing that ever got me onto that show, and these songs have such a special place in my heart that I went on NBC and was on Blake Shelton’s team so I could get the means to make my record for my fans. I just want them to know that. It wasn’t about being on TV or trying to become famous. I made a conscious decision to do this so I could do this Kickstarter and go into a real studio.
For your new fans who’ve only heard you perform cover songs on TV, what does the new album sound like?
The vibe I’m going for? It’s as though Lucinda Williams wrote a bunch of songs and then Wilco played them, with Charles Bradley as the lead singer. By no means am I comparing them to me! Those sounds are just things I like that I’m combining. There are twists and turns, and the atmosphere is a character itself. It’s about the story of my life, and my story is everyone’s story: just a regular girl doing the best she can. I have a lot of manic emotions, so the dynamics go from zero to 11. There are exposed moments and these moments of quiet, calm peacefulness. I want the stories in the songs to make people relate and feel things. Just being honest, funny, touching —I want all of that. Because that’s what life is.